Dumb ways smart devices waste energy

With ever-more household objects wirelessly connecting to the internet, electricity consumption by networked devices is spiralling out of control. What happened to the smart devices that were supposed to save energy? Cathal O’Connell reports.

A new report shows that smart fridges and other connected devices can waste a lot of energy on wireless network chatter. – David Becker/Getty Images

Ever been told you should turn off your idling computer? It’s time to listen.

According to a July report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) idle network-enabled devices are each year costing consumers $80 billion and belching 400 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Examining a range of internet-connected devices the report – More Data, Less Energy ­– found that two thirds of the electricity used is burned while in “standby” mode. With the number of connected devices set to balloon from today’s 14 billion to 50 billion by 2020 this wastage could skyrocket. “Energy efficiency has up to now not been part of the equation, but it needs to be,” says Vida Rozite, the lead author of the report.

Equipped with everything from refrigerators that order milk to coffeepots that gurgle as soon as you rouse, some homes are definitely starting to feel like they belong in the futuristic cartoon series The Jetsons. But apart from the decadence, smart devices – especially those that turn off heating and lighting as soon as rooms are vacated – were supposed to save us energy.

The problem, Rozite explains, is the off switch. “Off is typically not off any more,” she says. To do their jobs these new smart-devices have to maintain contact with the network at all times. Inefficient networks don’t let their devices sleep. For example, your cable TV set-top box has to keep a channel open 24/7 in case you phone in an instruction to record a program. But in most networked machines maintaining that connection wastefully keeps the whole device powered up, even when in standby mode.

A smartphone on standby can maintain a network connection
while nibbling a tiny 0.5 milliwatts of power.

Some internet-connected TVs, for example, draw 30 watts of power when used and 25 watts in standby. On a device-by-device basis the effect is small. An energy guzzling set-top box might set you back an extra twenty dollars per year on your electricity bill. But the cumulative wastage is enormous. In 2013 the combined waste of the 14 billion internet-connected devices was greater than the entire electricity usage of Canada, the 7th highest electricity-consuming nation in the world.

And yet the technology to fix the problem already exists, says Rozite. Take smartphones, for example. A smartphone on standby can maintain a network connection while nibbling a tiny 0.5 milliwatts of power. Its trick is to keep power flowing only through the circuitry crucial for maintaining the connection, powering down the rest of the phone until an incoming message or call is received. The cost of adding similar smartphone-style energy efficiency to connected household objects would be small. By employing this technology the world could have shut down 133 mid-sized coal-fired power plants last year, saving on all of their associated pollution and carbon emissions.

According to Rozite the inaction boils down to economics. In contrast to smartphones, where battery-life is a major selling point, a more efficient network connection is not going to drive sales for a games console. “Because of this lack of market demand there is a strong case for regulation to make sure that the products on the market do not waste electricity.”

Meanwhile consumers are not entirely helpless. The first thing to do when buying a new TV or smart-gadget is to check whether it is possible to turn it off. “Some products are still sold without off switches!” she says. You can also check for energy-saving features as products are often shipped with these settings disabled. Another simple step is to unplug devices when you know you will not need them, such as overnight or when going away for the weekend.

Nobody really wants to live like the Jetsons. They inhabited a city in the sky because ground level was too polluted.

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