Think your computer’s off? Your electric bill doesn’t lie.
Originally published Oct. 7, 2007
in the Los Angeles Times
Read it here
Have you recently awoken in the dead of night to find a greenish blue haze swirling around your home even though you turned off all the lights before going to bed?
If you have, its not the ghost of aunt Betsy returned to haunt you. Most likely it is the rapidly increasing plethora of tiny Light Emitting Diodes featured on modern electronic appliances, many of which indicate the machine is in “standby mode.” In fact, it’s probably been years since you really turned “off” your television, or for that matter, your desktop computer.Most modern electronics come equipped with something called “standby mode” or “sleep mode.” First widely seen on televisions and desktop computers, it was introduced to avoid the time-consuming wait when the machine first started.
We’ve all spent dozens of hours cumulatively waiting after we push the start button on a computer for it to read and load all the programming code necessary to get to the starting point. In the era of vacuum tubes, it took televisions several minutes before the picture became visible.
With standby mode, the machine is not really turned off. It goes into a state of reduced activity that requires only minimal power consumption. The advantage is that it starts up almost instantly when the switch is turned on.
The down side is that millions of machines running all day every day – even at vastly reduced power consumption levels – adds up to huge amounts of wasted energy. With oil at record highs above $80 per barrel, and the climate under threat from excessive consumption of fossil fuels, this is neither smart no desirable.
But the proliferation of standby mode and the unblinking LEDs seems unstoppable. A brand new razor with its own docking stand that automatically cleans it when it ‘decides’ it’s necessary, features not one but three LEDs. Two are green, one blue. “Keep it plugged in,” say the instructions, so it is instantly fully charged, clean and ready for use whenever needed.
Office equipment is displaying the same trend. Count the little lights on your desk at home. A recently purchased DSL modem has six green LEDs, five of which are always on. A copier/fax/printer (which must be always on to receive faxes at any time) has two green ones. The monitor has a blue one. There’s a green LED on each of the computer’s speakers, a red one on the radio dial. And that’s not counting the green clocks on the microwave and coffeemaker.
Not surprisingly, some are becoming concerned at this trend.
In June 2005, the British Environment Minister Elliot Morley, responding to an MP’s question, revealed that electrical equipment in sleep mode used roughly 7 kilowatt hours of energy and emitted around 800,000 tons of carbon per year. That’s just for the 60 million or so Britons. Multiply by at least five for the U.S., although we are notoriously more fond of our electronic gadgets than most.
Do an inventory in your home and you will be shocked.
“They’re the little red-eyed monsters that silently suck up energy, leaching electricity via vampire fangs gripping power sockets,” wrote Steve Dow in the Sydney Morning Herald on Sept. 12.
Dow had a consultant check his home where just a TV, DVD player, stereo, computer, modem, wireless router and microwave were left in standby mode.
He was astonished by the result. “Bypassing stand-by or sleep mode and switching appliances off at the power point, where practical, would cut our power use by 10 per cent,” he wrote.
Due to years of increasing environmental awareness — and perhaps in part to the 2001 rolling blackouts we experienced — California actually leads the nation with the lowest energy consumption per capita of 7, 032 kilowatt hours, according to the California Energy Commission. This still amounted to 254 gigawatt hours in 2005, the latest year for which consumption is reported on its Web site.
A 10 percent reduction would be almost the same as the total amount of electricity consumed in 2005 by S. Dakota, Vermont, Alaska and Rhode Island combined, according the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE has also estimated that by 2010 the portion of each utility customer’s monthly bill consumed by appliances in standby mode will reach 20 percent.
Just in time, you may think, an entrepreneurial firm announced Sept. 12 the launch of a new product called the GreenSwitch. According to PC magazine, “flipping one ‘master switch,’ installed near the front door, wirelessly controls designated light switches, power outlets, and thermostats throughout the house.” Bye-bye to standby mode.
Ideas like this may save us from some of the most deleterious effects of climate change and higher energy costs. But convincing many of the need for a tradeoff between convenience and conservation is a much harder sell.
Next time you awaken in the middle of the night, check around to see if you are bathed in an eerie greenish blue hue. And remember, those innocent looking, sometimes blinking pretty little monsters are sucking the money out of your wallet as you sleep. Sweet dreams.