Soaring electricity use by new electronic devices imperils climate change efforts

BRUSSELS -- Efforts by countries worldwide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy security are in trouble if nothing is done to check the energy gobbled by both information and communication technologies and consumer electronics.

This warning came in a report published yesterday in Paris by the International Energy Agency. The study warns that energy used by computers and consumer electronics will not only double by 2022, but increase threefold by 2030.

IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka said in a press release accompanying the report that the increase was equivalent to the current combined total residential electricity consumption of the United States and Japan.

"It would also cost households around the world USD 200 billion in electricity bills and require the addition of approximately 280 Gigawatts (GW) of new generating capacity between now and 2030," he added. The report is called "Gadgets and Gigawatts: Policies for Energy Efficient Electronics."

The International Energy Agency says one solution is for governments to "urgently implement policies to make electronic devices such as televisions, laptops and mobile phones more energy-efficient." The Paris-based IEA is an autonomous body set up within the framework of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and mandated to implement an international energy program.

The IEA's publication makes a global assessment of changing patterns in residential electricity consumption over the past decade and reviews the extent to which government policies have been effective in creating markets for more energy-efficient appliances. It pinpoints new opportunities for creating smarter, more energy-efficient homes.

A billion PCs and 2 billion television sets in use

The study found that the number of people using personal computers will exceed 1 billion over the next seven months and notes that nearly 2 billion television sets are already in use worldwide, averaging more than 1.3 sets in each home with access to electricity. The agency also projects that the world will count more than 3.5 billion mobile phone subscribers by 2010.


The researchers observe that, although none of the electronic devices included in their study (except televisions) actually consumes huge amounts of energy individually, all have become so common in households that, taken together, they now account for a sizable amount of household energy consumption.

"In fact, if you compare how much electricity is used by the most common electronic devices with traditional large appliances, you'll find that actually the electronic gadgets use more -- not in every house, but in many households in OECD countries," the report states, adding: "Not only is this surprising, but it is the major reason why residential electricity consumption is increasing in most countries."

The authors found that electricity consumption by small electrical and electronic devices has shot up more rapidly than that of any other type of appliance over the past five years, in both OECD and non-OECD countries.

They hold computers, related equipment and consumer electronics responsible for close to 15 percent of total residential electricity consumption today, a share similar to that of other major appliance categories such as water heating or refrigeration. However, they add, the growth has been faster, about 7 percent per year since 1990.

Other equipment defined in the IEA study, in addition to televisions, desktop computers and laptops, is DVD players and recorders, modems, printers, set-top boxes, portable telephones, answering machines, game consoles, audio equipment, clocks, battery chargers, mobile phones and children's games.

Using more juice than water heaters and refrigerators by 2020

According to the IEA, even with improvements foreseen in energy efficiency, consumption by electronics in the residential sector is set to increase by 250 percent by 2030. "The share of electricity consumption by these appliances is therefore increasing to the extent that they will most likely comprise the largest end-use category in many countries before 2020, unless effective steps are taken."

"These estimates suggest that total residential electricity consumption will increase more than many previous forecasts, and therefore pose a serious challenge to all governments with policy ambitions to increase energy security and economic development, and to mitigate climate change," states the report.

Residential electricity consumption has been on the rise in all regions of the globe at an average of 3.4 percent a year since 1990. In European industrialized nations, it grew by 1.9 percent yearly between 1990 and 2006. One-quarter of this growth resulted from increases in population; per capita electricity consumption grew by 1.4 percent over the same period.

According to the IEA, there is every indication that the next wave of technological development will require even more power.

The authors of the study claim that opportunities for savings abound. According to the report, electricity consumption from residential information and communications technologies and consumer electronic devices could be cut by more than half by choosing the best available technology, as well as processes that are currently available.

"Many mobile devices are already far more efficient in their use of power than other devices which run off a main electricity supply," explained Tanaka. "Because extending the battery life of a mobile device is a selling point, manufacturers place an emphasis on designing products which require very little power. This example shows us what can be achieved. Where no such commercial drivers exist, governments must step in to ensure that we make the most of every energy efficiency opportunity."

The EIA believes that, although some of these savings can be achieved through better equipment and components, the largest improvement opportunity must come from making hardware and software work together more effectively to ensure that energy "is only used when, and to the extent needed."

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