Space & Innovation

Why You Should Always Unplug Your Electronics

Your microwave clock might not use *that* much power, but add it to your plugged in tv, computer, DVR, etc.? That's a lot of wasted energy.

New research out of California suggests our civilization really needs to unplug, quite literally.

A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) uncovered some startling numbers on how much power our idle electronics take up. In a sampling of northern California households, 23 percent of all residential energy consumption came from electronic devices that were plugged in, but not being used.

These devices -- your microwave, your TV, your fully-charged-but-still-plugged-in laptop -- may only be consuming small amounts of electricity. The problem is they're drawing off that energy 24 hours a day. It adds up. Amy Shira Teitel does the math in today's DNews dispatch.

The numbers really are bananas: In the NRDC survey, the average home has 65 (!) devices consuming electricity around the clock. Sure, this is tech-drunk northern California, but still. Roughly a quarter of the energy being used comes from devices that are not being used at all, or that residents think have been turned off. A big part of the problem, the study found, is that any device physically plugged into an outlet is drawing a nominal amount of power, regardless of whether it's being used.

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By extrapolating the results of the California study to a national scale, the researchers stumbled upon the really freaky numbers: If the entire U.S. is using energy in the manner of northern Californians, it means we're consuming an extra 64 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. That's more than the equivalent annual power consumption of Alabama and Arizona combined. If we were to construct a dedicated power grid just for our idle devices, we'd need 50 large (500-megawatt) power stations working full time.

These idle devices are costing a lot of people a lot of money. The average homeowner is spending an extra $165 a year on utilities, which translates to $19 billion a year for the nation. The environmental impact is also significant. The energy going into our idle devices is putting millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year.

Researchers have studied this kind of thing before, but the new numbers represent a big jump in energy consumption. Part of the reason is that many traditionally mechanical devices -- washers, dryers, refrigerators -- now have electronic displays or other digital elements. What can we do about the problem? Well, the research paper has an entire section dedicated to that. You can read it here. But the upshot is simple enough: We need to get in the habit of physically unplugging devices that we're not actively using.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

The Natural Resources Defense Council: Home Idle Load: Devices Wasting Huge Amounts of Electricity When Not in Active Use

The Economist: Pulling the plug on standby power

The Telegraph: The devices quietly running up your energy bills

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