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Phantom energy and power vampires

Can you count the wall warts in your house or apartment?
Do you know how many phantom energy consumers haunt your halls?
Are you aware of the power vampires lurking in your basement?

Say What?

If you’re not already familiar with these terms, you’ll likely hear them in 2008. Due to rising energy costs and an increased concern for environmental sustainability, people are starting to pay more attention to the energy consumption of computers and electronics.

Wall warts are the bulky power adapters that come with many electronics, especially cell phones, and often annoyingly cover more than one outlet when plugged in. The heat they give off when you leave them plugged in is the product of inefficiency; some electricity is converted to heat before it can get to the device.

Phantom energy consumers and power vampires are electric appliances and electronics that continue to leech electricity from outlets even when they’re turned off. Many devices drop into a low-power standby mode where they continue to draw electricity for digital clocks, remote control receivers, and other conveniences. In the average American home, 25% of the electricity for electronics is used while they’re in this standby mode.

So What?

The American lifestyle wouldn't be possible without the use of computers and electronics in business and the home. These devices have increased office productivity, enhanced entertainment media, and enabled global commerce. There are two unfortunate consequences, however, to the use of electronics. First, electricity must be purchased by businesses and individuals from a power generation company. Second, the generation of electricity has an overall negative effect on the environment.

The electricity entering the American home or business comes from a central power generating facility through a series of power lines. For residential consumers, this convenient delivery of electricity carries a price of about 10.94 cents per kilowatt hour (a unit equal to the consumption of 1000 watts for 1 hour). The prices for the commercial, industrial, and transportation consumers are somewhat lower, but the average US price is up from last year, as tends to be the case. The cost of electricity is one that Americans must fit into the family budget and the business’s bottom line.

In addition to the financial cost of electricity, there’s an ecological cost as well. Over 70% of the electricity generated in the US comes from burning fossil fuels, a process which contributes to acid rain, global climate change, and air pollution (40% of carbon dioxide emissions in the US are due to electricity generation). The American electric industry is moving toward using renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, biomass, biofuel, and geothermal. However, these less environmentally damaging sources currently provide less than 10% of all energy sources in the US.

Why Should You Care?

When you walk past an empty room and see a light bulb on, you probably turn it off and save yourself the cost of unnecessarily powering it. Yet you likely walk past dozens of electronics at home and work each day that are wasting electricity. Computers (which can use up to half as much electricity as a refrigerator), are often left on for hours when no one is using them. Televisions and radios are allowed to fill rooms with light and sound when there’s no audience. This waste of electricity inflates energy bills with a cost no home or business finds welcome.

It’s easy to see when a light bulb or TV is on, but wasted electricity isn’t always so obvious. Consider power adapters, or chargers. These devices convert the alternating current from the wall outlet to the direct current that electronics use, but are woefully inefficient. In the US, there are about five power adapters per person, and together they account for about six percent of America’s electric expenditure. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that adapters that are just 35% more energy efficient could save the country 5 billion kilowatt hours of energy per year, with the side-effect of keeping over 4 million tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (the same amount as is contributed by 800,000 cars).

What Are Others Doing?

The problem of energy-wasting electronics plagues businesses as well as consumers. Companies in the power hungry information technology (IT) industry especially bear the financial strain of rising energy costs, and may feel socially responsible to promote a healthier planet. In 2007, many IT companies publicly addressed the problems of energy inefficiency by starting programs and forming organizations.
  • IBM launched Project Big Green, an effort to deliver better performance per watt to save businesses money and reduce their carbon footprint. Since the electricity for a computer can cost 50 cents for every dollar spent on its hardware, the savings can add up quickly.
  • The Climate Savers Computing Initiative, whose goal is to save energy and reduce greenhouse gases, wants to reduce the power consumption of computers by 50% by 2010. This would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 54 million tons each year, an amount equivalent to the emissions of 11 million cars. Since desktop computers waste more than half of their electricity and servers waste 30-40%, the organization aims to leverage better power-management technology.
    Members: Dell, Google, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), AMD, eBay, the EPA, and the World Wildlife Fund.
  • The Green Grid is a consortium of companies dedicated to energy efficient data centers and information delivery. Its goal is to reduce IT electricity consumption to benefit businesses and the environment.
    Members: AMD, Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft.
What Can You Do?

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a major international corporation to reduce your electricity bill or protect the environment. Whether you want to lower your electric bill to save some green, or reduce your environmental footprint to be more green, there are several things you can do. In fact, the same changes that save you money also reduce the damage to nature, so you can affect both at the same time.
  • When you buy computers, electric appliances, and electronics, look for the Energy Star logo. These products have met energy efficiency standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy.
  • Set your computer to turn off the monitor (not just turn on the screensaver) and go into standby after a short idle time. Turn the computer off completely when you’re not using it.
  • Invest in rechargeable batteries. Although they are more expensive than disposable alkaline batteries, they save you the cost of new batteries each time you recharge them. As an added bonus, you’re keeping the empty disposables out of the landfill.
  • Unplug electronics when you don’t need to use them. If you plug several devices into a power strip, you can turn them all off by turning off the power strip.
  • Unplug power chargers when they’re not charging anything. They continue to draw power even when the devices they charge aren’t connected.
Whether your main concern is for your personal net worth or the good of the Earth, you can make a difference in reducing electricity consumption. It’s as simple as purchasing energy-efficient electronics and using them responsibly. By making the right decisions in your home or workplace, you can save both your money and the environment.


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