Networked Gadgets Waste 400 Terawatt-Hours of Energy Every Year

Photo: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

Your Xbox wastes a lot of energy—energy that could power the entire United Kingdom. Well, it's not just your Xbox, but your Xbox and my printer and your friend's television and 14 billion other networked electronic devices around the world. All told, those devices use an astonishing amount of energy, and in fact they waste a huge amount of it—enough to power the U.K. and then some. This is, obviously, not just a giant drain on our energy supplies but just as giant an opportunity to save.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released a new report on just how much power all those networked devices use, and how much they should be using. The results are amazing: network-enabled devices in homes and offices around the world consumed 616 terawatt-hours in 2013, and 65 percent of that (400 TWh) could have been saved simply by using technology that exists today. That's equivalent not only to the consumption of any number of large countries, but also to more than 100 mid-sized coal power plants and all their emissions.

“The proliferation of connected devices brings many benefits to the world, but right now the cost is far higher than it should be,” said IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven in a press release. “Consumers are losing money in the form of wasted energy, which is leading to more costly power stations and more distribution infrastructure being built than we would otherwise need—not to mention all the extra greenhouse gases that are being emitted." The price tag is pretty stunning as well: about US $80 billion every year wasted on inefficient tech. By 2020, that number is slated to balloon toward $120 billion and as many as 50 billion individual devices.

The bulk of the wasted energy comes when devices, from game consoles and televisions to newer networked items like refrigerators and other appliances, sit idle in standby mode. While in that mode they often spend energy to maintain a network connection, rather than actually going to "sleep" and using very little. 

There are easy and often cheap technical fixes to this issue available today. In general, "design and operation of communication protocols, networks, and software are the main routes for improving energy efficiency," the report notes. Power scaling solutions that match power draw in relation to work being performed minute by minute could also help, as could simple ways to prompt devices to actually power down as low as possible when not performing a device's primary network function.

Changing this problem, though technologically not complicated, is a challenge because of a lack of policy incentive. The IEA report calls for a number of measures that could help, including minimum performance requirements, labeling schemes, and consumer awareness campaigns. The European Union and South Korea in particular are already hard at work on fixing the waste problem, hopefully with others to follow suit.

"It need not be this way," Van der Hoeven said. "If we adopt best available technologies we can minimize the cost of meeting demand as the use and benefits of connected devices grows.”

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