(WASHINGTON) — Not many of us watch television 24 hours a day — but we might as well.
Even when people’s TVs are turned off, the set-top boxes from our cable company, telephone company or satellite provider keep on running, gobbling energy and jacking up our electric bills. The worst offenders are digital video recorders (DVRs), which are essentially always on.
On Thursday the industry announced a voluntary program to try to rein in those power-hungry devices.
“It’s really an unprecedented agreement,” said Doug Johnson, vice president of Technology for the Consumer Electronics Association. “We estimate that consumers are going to save once this agreement is fully implemented over the next five years $1.5 billion dollars annually, so it’s a significant agreement in terms of its energy savings.”
The move comes as federal regulators debate whether to impose national energy standards on the box-top sets.
Also, last year, the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, released a report citing the boxes for energy waste, estimating they consume $2 billion dollars a year in electricity when they are not in use.
NRDC Senior Scientist Noah Horowitz Thursday told ABC News, “The industry is taking some initial, modest first steps which we support, but they are not going far enough.” He said most consumers have no idea that “new DVRs typically consume as much or more energy than the 42-inch TVs that they might have connected it to.”
The industry insists that Thursday’s announcement is a “significant” move. Big cable providers, including Comcast and Time Warner, will take the first steps. They’ll send software changes to the 10 million cable boxes already in homes, to put them in a “light sleep” mode when they’re not in use. That could cut power use by 20 to 30 percent.
Under the agreement, cable companies will also develop and test “deep sleep” devices to see if they are feasible. The industry also promised that starting next year, at least 90 percent of the new boxes it buys and gives to consumers will meet tougher EPA energy savings standards.
Fifteen companies that have signed onto the agreement: Comcast, DirecTV, DISH Network, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Verizon, Charter, AT&T, Cablevision, Bright House Networks and Century Link; and the manufacturers Cisco, Motorola, EchoStar Technologies and Arris.
According to the CEA, the consumer electronics in your home today account for about 13 percent of your energy bill. The top three offenders: the TV, computer, and those set-top boxes.
The NRDC’s Horowitz said pay-TV providers need to take a page from today’s smartphones, “which sip rather than gulp power when not in use.” He said he sees today’s move as an industry attempt to head off government regulation. He said mandatory energy standards would be “the best way to ensure that these new boxes will be more efficient.”
The CEA’s Johnson disagreed, arguing that “the voluntary agreement really represents the best way to meet the government’s goal of saving energy” by protecting “innovation, competition and consumer choice.”
The industry promises to release regular reports detailing the future energy savings generated by the new agreement, something the NRDC will be keeping a close watch on.
For consumers, there’s little they can do to stop the energy drain on their own. The only way to “reduce the stand-by powers in the middle of the night is to unplug (the boxes),” said Horowitz, “and that’s not an attractive option for most consumers.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio