Article | October 06, 2021

Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in U.S. Homes in 2020

Doug Johnson

2020 Pandemic Living - Powered by Consumer Technology 

When life as we knew it ground to a screeching halt in early 2020 as the worldwide pandemic was declared, Americans turned to consumer tech products, as ever, to stay informed, connected, and entertained. We tuned in for broadcast COVID updates, joined colleagues for virtual meetings, moved learning online, had virtual appointments with doctors, employed robot vacuums to assist with cleaning up the perpetual mess in our quarantine abodes, and decompressed day upon countless day by binge-watching another Netflix series. You name it and you likely relied on an electronic device for it. Pandemic life in 2020 was powered by consumer electronics. 

Let’s quantify that. In CTA’s most recent study titled Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in U.S. Homes in 2020, the fifth of its kind since 2006, the authors at Fraunhofer USA found that the estimated total number of consumer electronics devices in homes today is 400 million more than a decade ago, yet less total energy is used to power them all – 17 TWh less energy to be exact – evidence of the industry’s commitment to energy efficiency. Naturally, the 2020 study is the first of its kind to examine consumer tech product energy usage during a global pandemic, but we can see that in addition to providing comfort, productivity, information, and more, consumer tech products remained an energy bargain to boot.   

The 2020 data reveals that powering tech devices cost on average about $191 per U.S. household last year – a steal when you pause to reflect on what 2020 would have been like without home electronics and how many voids tech filled. America’s consumer tech product energy use last year was, not surprisingly, up 24% from 2017. Specifically, the study estimates 3.3 billion tech devices consumed approximately 176 TWh in 2020, equal to some 12% of the total residential sector and 4.5% of total US electricity consumption.  The research found that the spike in energy usage appears to have been driven by a big jump in product use during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even at a product level, the average annual cost in electricity to operate consumer tech is a relative bargain: about $9 a year for a laptop computer, about $24 a year for a TV, and about $3 a year for a smart speaker.

Prior to 2020, total energy used by consumer tech products had been declining, as seen in the 2013 and 2017 studies – demonstrating that these devices are becoming more and more energy efficient even as the number of devices increased. Industry efforts to make technology products more energy efficient, including initiatives targeting television set-top boxes and internet equipment, have saved consumers billions in energy costs and avoided millions in CO2 emissions.

The energy use study confirms widespread anecdotal evidence that Americans viewed TV as a pandemic salve. Daily TV usage was 5.8 hours in 2020, nearly 50% higher than in 2017. If not for the major boost in usage, annual energy consumption estimates likely would have remained relatively stable. 

With non-essential travel out of the question during 2020, in-person dining and other mainstay amusements canceled, and the isolation of stay-at-home orders, tech companies did what tech does best – innovate. Empowered with additional tech products and services, businesses and organizations offered virtual tours and travel experiences to afford homebound Americans a bit of escapism. Businesses deployed contactless payment systems, hospitals used telehealth systems to sustain primary care, school districts pivoted to online learning, and so on. 

Innovation like this is a hallmark of the consumer tech industry. It is because the industry is marked by such a fluid marketplace and enjoys rapid consumer product adoption that CTA routinely re-examines energy usage to inform and lead initiatives related to energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. Indeed, the 2020 usage study covered products not even around or prevalent for previous iterations – digital media streaming devices, smart home security cameras, robot vacuums, virtual reality headsets, and smart speakers – making a direct, apples-to-apples comparison to earlier usage studies challenging. 

Also, let us not forget that the use of consumer tech can help us save energy and reduce carbon emissions in other areas of life – home energy management and teleworking, for example. As the country continues to dig out of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the many related work and lifestyle adaptations will likely stick with us. Many people have discovered and enjoyed new ways to receive goods and services, entertain themselves, access medical care, and stay in touch with their communities, family and friends. Time will tell what reverts and what stays in place, but what is certain is that the consumer tech industry will continue to innovate, empowering us to live and adapt to whatever lies ahead.  

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Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in U.S. Homes in 2020