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Power alarm over home electronics

Globe and Mail Update

OTTAWA — Turn off, tune out and unplug.

That's the advice from the federal government and the International Energy Agency, as they raise the alarm about rising electricity consumption – and resulting greenhouse gas emissions – from the global boom in home electronics.

In a report yesterday, the Paris-based IEA urged governments around the world to quickly adopt new standards that would make electronic devices such as televisions, laptops and game consoles more energy efficient.

Canada is already among the leaders in appliance and electronic standards with its EnerGuide and Energy Star programs that publish the names of the most energy-efficient brands and force appliance manufacturers to post their power-use ratings.

Now, Ottawa is moving to regulate a more insidious source of energy leakage – the standby power mode that consumes power even when gadgets are not in use.

All those PlayStations that are hooked up in the family rooms of the nation are notorious energy vampires. So, too, are the chargers that are needed to keep juiced the iPods, cellphones, laptops and cordless phones that are staples of modern living.

Televisions consume power when they are off, and game consoles and computer monitors have a significant energy appetite when they are left “on” but are in sleep mode.

All told, between 5 and 10 per cent of electricity used in the average Canadian home is consumed by appliances and home electronics while the devices are on standby, Natural Resources Canada estimates. In some cases, the gadget actually needs to be unplugged to cut the power use.

Ottawa now plans to force the industry to reduce the standby power needs of a wide range of appliances and home electronics – first issuing regulations by 2010 to meet California standards which are the toughest in the United States, and then regulating a one-watt standby mode in 2013.

Power usage of electronics on standby currently ranges from five watts to 25.

In its report yesterday, the International Energy Agency said the boom in electronics threatens to undermine efforts to reduce residential power demand and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Despite anticipated improvements in the efficiency of electronic devices, these savings are likely to be overshadowed by the rising demand for technology” in both the rich world and developing countries, IEA president Nobuo Tanaka said in a release.

Over the next seven months, the number of people using a personal computer will pass the one billion mark, while there are more than two billion televisions sets worldwide, an average of 1.3 sets per household that has electricity.

Residential power demand is soaring with the proliferation of MP3 players, home video games, set-top boxes, wireless routers, portable phones and flat-screen, high-definition digital televisions. In the typical rich-world household, electricity demand from consumer electronics now far exceeds the amount of power used by appliances like fridges and dishwashers.

Last year, the world spent $80-billion (U.S.) on electricity to power these household electronics, and that is expected to grow to $200-billion by 2030. To meet the demand would require the output of 200 new power plants, and would double greenhouse gas emissions to one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

The IEA – the Paris-based energy watchdog for the developed world – is urging governments to pass new energy-efficiency standards that will force manufacturers to include extra-low-power modes when gadgets are not in use, improve the operating efficiency of electronic devices, and to encourage their citizens to use residential power more wisely.

In fact, huge gains have been made in the energy efficiency of traditional appliances like fridges and washers and dryers, and the agency says similar efforts need to be made in the home electronics field.

Paul Waide, a senior policy adviser at the agency, says the digital revolution is transforming home electronics into ubiquitous, multipurpose appliances. Some refrigerators now come with televisions in the door, while TVs are now high-definition computer monitors that can also be used to listen to radio.

He said consumers should shut down their gadgets when not in use and unplug the growing number of battery chargers needed for cordless phones, cellphones, iPods and laptops when finished charging.

And they should listen to the radio on an actual radio, rather than an energy-hogging television or computer.

The IEA estimates the electricity demand for television usage will rise by 5 per cent a year.

The agency says that power demand could be reduced by 30 per cent from levels now expected in 2030 with the use of existing technologies and by more than 50 per cent at a small cost.

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