Our Internet-Connected Gadgets Are Wasting $80 Billion in Electricity a Year

It takes 133 coal-fired power plants to keep the world’s 14 billion networked devices online.

(Photo: Flickr)

Jul 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hannah Hoag reports on the environment, global health, science, and science policy for Nature, Discover, Wired, and others.

Your Internet-connected devices are electricity-sucking zombies.

Not long ago, electric gadgets and appliances drew power only when switched on. But today’s devices often rest in standby or sleep mode and may continue to perform background functions. For some, up to 80 percent of the machine’s energy consumption is from maintaining a network connection, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.

These energy hogs waste $80 billion in electricity per year worldwide. “It’s the equivalent of 133 mid-sized, coal-burning power plants, each producing 500 megawatts of power,” said Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA’s executive director.

Globally, there are 14 billion network-connected devices—everything from modems and printers to gaming consoles and thermostats—drawing zombie power all the time. They consume electricity to establish and maintain connections, download software updates, and keep their hard drives spinning, even when they’re “off.”

Altogether, connected devices consume more than 600 terawatt hours annually. As much as two-thirds of that energy—the equivalent of the combined annual electricity consumption of the U.K. and Norway—is wasted, the report states.

As the range and number of these network-connected devices expand, global electricity demand is expected to grow exponentially.

“The proliferation of these networked devices has had many benefits to the world, but the cost is too high,” said van der Hoeven. “They’re leading to more costly power stations and more costly distribution infrastructure than we need—and more greenhouse gases are being emitted.”

Blame the Internet of Things—the trend of connecting previously isolated appliances like your washing machine or refrigerator to electronic networks. For instance, home owners are installing more and more security systems, thermostats, appliances, and televisions that they can control via the Internet. You can now prompt your washing machine to start up so that the cycle is finished when you return home from work. Or use your smartphone to switch on a Wi-Fi–connected kettle to boil water for your morning tea.

Manufacturers of these smart home appliances tout efficiency as an advantage over their dumb counterparts since they can be signaled to run when electricity demand is lower or to conserve energy by automatically lowering a home’s temperature when the occupants are away.

Still, these networked devices have become the single biggest energy consumer in the average American household after air conditioning. The amount of electricity gobbled up by digital devices jumped more than fivefold in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013, according to the Consumer Federation of America. That adds up to an average of $120 per year for each household.

“All this electricity consumption of these digital devices snuck up on us, and it’s very, very big,” said Mark Cooper, the Consumer Federation of America’s director of research.

Ever more devices are coming online. The average U.S. home will host 16 networked devices by 2015 and as many as 50 by 2022, according to the report. “Electricity demand for network-connected devices is the fastest growing part of overall electricity demand,” van der Hoeven said.

The energy demand for connected devices is expected to grow at a rapid pace in developing and emerging economies.

So what can you do?

For one thing, unplug your modems and set-top television boxes when you go on vacation. The Swiss government estimates doing so in that country would save enough energy to power 40,000 homes. And if you’re out of the house all day, shut down your computer so it doesn’t constantly ping your home Wi-Fi network.

Using today’s technology, manufacturers could cut electronic gadgets’ electricity consumption by 65 percent, according to the IEA. For instance, it recommends making smart networks even smarter to detect when a connected device is powered down so the network doesn’t unnecessarily wake up the gadget or send it messages.

“Solutions exist,” said Didier Houssin, the IEA’s director of sustainable energy policy and technology. “They are not being implemented because there is a lack of market demand.”