Noah Horowitz, Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Energy Efficiency, San Francisco, CA

Under a historic agreement announced recently, the electricity used by the more than 230 million set-top boxes installed in America’s homes by your cable, satellite, or telephone company will be slashed by 10 to 45 percent, depending on the model, and save consumers a whopping $1 billion annually. The signatories include NRDC and other energy efficiency advocacy groups, along with companies in the pay-TV industry that include such household names as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DIRECTV, AT&T, and Motorola.

The agreement caps a year of negotiations between the pay-TV industry and efficiency advocates and is great news for consumers and the environment because it will save three power plants’ worth of electricity – and 5 million metric tons of carbon pollution that contributes to climate change -- every year by 2017.

And beginning January 1, America’s 90 million pay-TV subscribers for the first time will be able to easily find out how much electricity their set-top box uses and be ensured a wide range of more efficient models to choose from in the future.

How Did We Get Here? 

NRDC and its consultant Ecova published an indepth study in 2011 of the energy consumption of set-top boxes and found these devices consumed at least $3 billion worth of electricity annually, much of it when the box is turned “off” and the user is neither watching nor recording a show. Consumers have little choice regarding the set-top box placed in their home because the service provider owns the box and decides which one to install. As a result, the pay-TV providers until recently paid little attention to how much energy the boxes wasted because they weren’t paying the electric bills. But NRDC’s extensive advocacy attracted wide media attention, including on the front page of the New York Times, which generated interest by policymakers including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and the Department of Energy. Since then the industry has been hard at work and has made substantial improvements to their devices. 

Given their renewed focus on energy efficiency, industry reached out to NRDC and other efficiency advocates last year to discuss a potential agreement where the service providers would make several commitments, most notably to procure more energy efficient boxes in the future. After a yearlong negotiation, we got to “yes” and the service providers, box manufacturers, and advocates signed today’s agreement. This is a great development and the details are provided below.

What commitments is industry making?

Future Purchases – At least 90% of the boxes purchased annually by the service providers will meet maximum allowable energy use limits. The levels vary based on the set-top box’s features. For example, Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) have higher allowances than a basic box. Beginning in 2014, 90 percent of the boxes the service providers purchase will meet the energy use levels in the Environmental Protection Agency’ s ENERGY STAR® Version 3.0 specification. By 2017, 90 percent of the purchases must meet a more stringent set of negotiated energy levels called Tier 2, which represent savings of 10 to 45%, depending on the type of model, compared to a 2012 baseline. 

Getting Cable Boxes to Sleep – The cable industry committed to installing a light sleep function in their DVRs, which will save around 5 to 7 watts of power by spinning down the hard drive and related features when the user is not watching or recording a show. Longer term, the cable industry will develop prototype boxes that will offer “deep sleep” and consume much lower levels of power when not in use. The prototypes will be field tested in 2014 and deployed in the future if the testing is successful.

Satellite to Provide Energy Efficient  Whole Home Solutions – The satellite companies, Dish Network and DIRECTV committed to make available energy efficient whole home DVRs that are connected to the main TV and can provide both live and recorded programming to all the household’s televisions.  As a result, second and third TVs will only require a much lower energy-consuming “thin client” box, instead of a DVR or standard receiver box. We are optimistic that cable will offer similar systems in the future.

 

Energy Use Disclosures – It’s very difficult for today’s consumers to find out how much energy their set-top box uses or for prospective customers to make an informed decision when shopping for service. Beginning in 2014, the service providers will post on their websites readily accessible information on the energy use of each of the new set-top boxes they offer customers. This means that for the first time, consumers will be able to identify the more efficient models, and just as importantly those that consume much higher amounts of energy.  We hope increased availability of this information will lead to healthy competition between service providers, who will then demand more efficient designs from suppliers.

In addition, the agreement’s Steering Committee, which NRDC is a voting member of, will publish an annual report that lists all new models and their energy use, as well as an updated annual estimate of national set-top box energy consumption. That way everyone can track how well the voluntary agreement is working and how national set-top box energy use is changing each year.  

Field Verification – Every year an independent firm will test set-top boxes in 100 homes to ensure they are performing as promised regarding energy use. The results will be included in the public annual report.

Why a voluntary agreement for set-top boxes and how will it work?

Set-top boxes represent an unusual market. Their energy use depends upon three factors: a) the design of the box, b) how the service provider deploys it (for example, do they disable selected energy-savings features prior to installation?), and c) the software at the service provider’s end. Given that these devices are essentially part of a system, and the fact that a small group of companies control the purchase of all the boxes sold nationwide, efficiency advocates such as NRDC, the Appliance Standards Awareness Project,  and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) believed faster progress could be made through a meaningful voluntary agreement with the industry than through minimum efficiency regulations set by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) or state agencies like the California Energy Commission (CEC). 

The efficiency advocates have voting seats on the agreement’s Steering Committee and can closely monitor the progress being made. If industry fails to meet its commitments, we will ask the federal and state agencies to restart their proceedings to develop efficiency requirements for these products. Here I’d like to also note that  DOE and CEC have a 30-plus-years track record of setting mandatory energy efficiency standards that have saved consumers hundreds of billions of dollars, and mandatory standards continue to be the most effective way to lock in energy savings for almost all other product categories.

Today’s voluntary agreement is an important first step to reducing national set-top box energy use. We hope it will not only translate to near-term savings, but the next-generation boxes and their associated new features will be designed to be efficient from the start -- and not erode much of the hard-earned energy savings that this agreement is designed to deliver.