How to suck less energy

SAN JOSE, Calif. — We all love our gadgets — and love having more and more of them — but technophilia has a downside: Running all those gadgets takes energy.

A lot of it.

As consumers have stocked their homes with big-screen TVs, computers, cell phones and increasing numbers of other consumer electronics and tech products in recent years, those products have been sucking up more and more power. Consumers not only have more gadgets but, in many cases, the new tech products use more power than comparable ones used in the past.

"We're consuming more electricity per home because of all these additional devices," said Bernadette Del Chiaro, who works on clean energy issues for Environment California, a non-profit environmental advocacy group. "They use way more electricity than you think."

For individual consumers, that means higher electric bills. For society as a whole, it means increased generation of greenhouse gases.

Fortunately, energy experts say, there are some easy, relatively painless steps you can take to curb your energy consumption. And new technology either already on store shelves or coming online soon should help consumers cut their consumption even more, they say.

The amount of energy consumed by gadgets is rising rapidly at a time when consumption by other appliances, such as refrigerators and air-conditioning units, has fallen markedly. In 2001, the average U.S. household used about 778 kilowatt-hours per year — about 7 percent of total electricity use — to power tech gadgets, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That was up from about 633 kilowatt-hours per year — or 6 percent of total home electricity use — in 1997.

Part of the increase reflects the proliferation of devices. DVRs, MP3 players and wireless routers have gone from exotic to commonplace over the past 10 years. Cell phones have grown in popularity. And many consumers have gone from having one PC at home to two or three.

Many consumers might regard the energy used by these devices as a fair trade for the benefits they offer. But much of the energy is consumed when the devices aren't being used. Power plugs that remain plugged in even when disconnected from a cell phone still suck down electricity.

Some devices use almost as much power when turned off as when they are on. When you turn off a cable set-top box or a DVR, you're often just turning off the LED light, noted Michael Kanellos, a senior analyst with Greentech Media, a research firm.

"You're saving almost no power," he said.

With recent spikes in energy prices, growing concern about global warming and prodding from regulators and advocates, the electronics industry has increasingly focused on efficiency issues, analysts say. Many devices now use less power in standby mode than they did before, for instance.

"We've seen very significant improvements in the amount of power (computers) are drawing," noted Steve Kleynhans, an analyst with Gartner, an industry research firm.

And more improvements are on the way. Replacing the fluorescent backlights in LCD TVs and computer monitors with LEDs promises to make those products more efficient. New power strips already on store shelves will shut off power completely when they sense that the devices attached to them are not in active use.

But there's much that consumers can do, too, including shutting off devices when they aren't in use, adjusting settings on devices so they consume less power and shopping for gadgets with the government's "Energy Star" rating, which identifies the most efficient products on the market in a particular category.