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TV-watching couch potatoes have outsized energy footprint

When it comes to TV use energy, calling one household ‘average’ can be misleading. Evert F. Baumgardner - National Archives and Records Administration.

It is alluringly easy to use averages, but when most of a group is far from average, they can lead us astray. This is no less true in the area of energy consumption.

Consider for example the ubiquitous yellow labels in U.S. appliance stores that show the annual utility bill from using the device. This number reflects an “average” U.S. consumer. But there’s a problem with treating all consumers as average consumers when it comes to creating incentives for energy efficiency.

EnergyGuide labels, done by the Federal Trade Commission, are designed to give consumers an idea of operating costs. FTC, Author provided

In a study, my colleagues and I found that heavy TV watchers – those who spend many of their waking hours in front of a TV – have an outsized impact on energy use. This finding has big implications for how consumers choose appliances and how utilities design programs to encourage consumers to use less energy.

Eight hours a day

To examine differences in television watching and energy use, Ashok Sekar, Roger Chen and I at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology drew on the publicly available American Time Use Survey. This is an annual effort of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics querying around 10,000 people every year on their daily schedule of activities. We pulled out all activities involving watching television and video, and grouped the U.S. population according to their watching patterns.

The results were, to us, shocking. The differences are enormous. Dividing the population into heavy, light and in-between groups:

  • The heavy watchers group is 14 percent of the population and watches television 7.7 hours day
  • The light watchers are 54 percent of the population and watches 1.1 hours a day
  • The in-between group is 33 percent of the population and watches 3.5 hours.

This wide variety in television use has huge implications for decisions about how to manage the energy use. The heavy watching group accounts for 34 percent of all the electricity consumed to power televisions, a disproportionate amount. Their watching also peaks from 2-8 p.m., times when utilities work hardest to supply enough power to meet the overall demand. The light watchers group, meanwhile, has almost four times more people, but uses far less energy, at only 26 percent of the total.

Is the energy use of television watching important? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, televisions account for seven percent of national electricity purchases. Effectively managing television energy use can thus make a difference in the country’s overall energy consumption.

How can people have the time to watch 7.7 hours a day? Analyzing the demographics, not surprisingly, most of the heavy watchers are retired or otherwise not in the labor force. Yet one cannot pull out a single demographic to explain the heavy watchers, since they are a mix of people from different demographic groups.

Slimmed-down TVs

What’s the solution if society would like to lower the amount of electricity for TVs? Follow the advice of the Willy Wonka’s Ooompa Loompas and watch less TV?

While a few might go along, asking people to change their behavior, especially with regards to something they obviously enjoy, isn’t likely to gather a huge following. Instead, much of the problem can be mitigated using better technology. Flat panel televisions use far less energy than the old cathode ray tube (CRT) type. Newer flat panel screens use even less energy when lit with light emitting diodes instead of miniature fluorescent tubes.

Newer flat screen TVs, particularly those with LED lights, are far more efficient than older TVs. johnjkehoe_photography/flickr, CC BY

Heavy TV watchers gain far more benefits from new efficient televisions than the rest of the population. A heavy watcher buying an efficient television will typically save about US$20 per year on electricity bills, more if switching from a CRT.

While not a huge sum, it is a nice incentive over and above the better quality that a newer television offers. The electricity savings for a heavy watcher reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 190 pounds per year, roughly equivalent to owning a car with 1 mpg better mileage. In contrast, the savings for the most numerous light-watching group are one-seventh of this.

Tailored efficiency

While the discussion thus far has been about televisions, the ramifications are far-ranging.

There are also huge differences between how much people drive cars, cool and heat their homes, and so on. These differences in energy usage lead to differences in the benefits from owning better technology, whether it’s a hybrid car or an efficient furnace.

More personalized information can thus a big part of the solution. Rather than making a decision based on an average consumer who isn’t you, the wonders of information technology can be used to provide customized information on how you and the environment would benefit from different technology choices.

One example of a simple solution would be a car mileage sticker with a table of fuel savings based on annual miles driven. Getting fancier, there could be an “app for it” guiding energy savings based on a few personal data inputs.

Another part of the solution could be more customized incentives.

In many states, utilities are tasked by regulators to offer energy efficiency programs, such as rebates for efficient appliances. One route could be to increase the amount of incentive for heavy users. While using differential incentives has practical potential, some could object that rewarding the heavy users isn’t fair. Another tack is that utilities could spend more effort making the heavy users aware of incentive programs.

Regardless, we should recognize that not all energy consumers are created equal. We should stop behaving as if they are.

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