If you've checked your monthly electricity bill and been surprised at how much it is, you may have more to blame than an overly cold winter. Researchers at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) analyzed electric bills for California and other U.S. households and concluded that digital devices are driving bills higher.
Look around your home. How many things are plugged into a wall outlet, sucking up kilowatts? If you find you must use power strips at many outlets to accommodate all your devices, you can begin to appreciate the demand.
It's not just computers and big screen TVs, but monitors, notebooks, game consoles, routers and other devices that seem to be proliferating. All need electricity to do their jobs. But is it over-the-top demand?
“Digital devices are energy guzzlers sapping consumer pocketbooks,” said Mark Cooper, CFA’s Director of Research and author of the report. “Improving the energy efficiency of household digital devices by a third or more would save consumers a lot of money because the reduction in electricity bills would be much larger than the increase in the upfront cost of putting more new more energy efficient technologies in the devices.”
There's already a program in place to encourage that. Since 1992 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has administered the Energy Star program, setting efficiency standards and sponsoring research. While many manufacturers have embraced Energy Star, its standards are voluntary.
Energy Star has made refrigerators, stoves and other large appliances more efficient than they might otherwise be, but these appliances aren't proliferating in the average home at the rapid rate digital devices are, and the latter's toll is adding up.
The CFA researchers found that between 2000 and 2013, digital devices increased their killowatt consumption by 500% in the U.S. They estimate the average U.S. household now consumes 800 killowatt hours (kWh) per year.
Putting that in perspective, CFA says digital devices consume half as much electricity as your air conditioner and two-thirds of what your refrigerator uses. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that electricity use by digital devices is highest in California, where computer and Internet usage is highest.
The consumer electronics industry takes issue with the suggestion that their products are running up Americans' electric bills. Earlier this month Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro complained of “conflicting and costly” energy efficiency requirements adopted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico, saying they are what are really costing consumers.
“Specifically, the mishmash of Canadian, Mexican and U.S. energy efficiency policies is confusing and costly for businesses and could force consumers to pay higher prices,” Shapiro said in a statement.
As for higher electricity bills for consumers, electricity rates have jumped in recent months, due in part to a spike in natural gas prices. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), average U.S. electric bills have been in decline since 2010. But the EIA says the ratio of annual peak-hour electric demand to average hourly demand has been rising over the last 20 years, with the increase especially noticeable in New England.
For its part, CFA maintains that substantial, cost-effective improvements in the energy efficiency of consumer digital devices can be achieved through strong performance standards. And considering many of these devices didn't exist 20 years ago, it's reasonable to assume that the average home will have even more yet-to-be-invented digital devices in the years to come.