i3 | November 22, 2021

Policy Sustainable Tech

Laura Ambrosio
sustainable tech

Pandemic Living, Powered by Consumer Technology

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in 2020, Americans turned to consumer tech products to stay informed, connected and entertained.

In CTA’s recent study titled Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in U.S. Homes in 2020, the authors at Fraunhofer USA found the estimated 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. This highlights the industry’s commitment to energy efficiency. The 2020 study is the first to examine consumer tech product energy usage during a global pandemic, but in addition to providing comfort, productivity and information, consumer tech products also remain an energy bargain. 

Energy Consumption of CT in Homes

CTA commissioned the study to quantify the electricity consumption of consumer electronics (CE) in U.S. households. Devices analyzed include traditional consumer electronics, such as televisions and computers, as well as newer connected devices such as smart speakers.

Powering tech devices cost on average about $191 per U.S. household last year — a bargain when you reflect on the many voids tech filled. America’s consumer tech product energy use last year was up 24% from 2017. Specifically, the study estimates 3.3 billion tech devices consumed about 176 TWh in 2020, equal to some 12% of the residential sector and 4.5% of total electricity consumption. The spike in energy usage was driven by a big jump in product use during the pandemic. However, even at a product level, the average annual cost in electricity to operate consumer tech is 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 these devices are more energy efficient even as the number of devices has increased. Industry efforts to make tech 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 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 and school districts pivoted to online learning.

The average annual cost in electricity to operate consumer tech is about $9 a year for a laptop computer, about $24 a year for a TV, and about $3 a year for a smart speaker.

Innovation in Tech

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 around or prevalent for previous iterations — digital media streaming devices, smart home security cameras, robot vacuums, virtual reality headsets, and smart speakers — making an apples-to-apples comparison to earlier usage studies challenging.

Also, the use of consumer tech saves energy and reduces carbon emissions in other areas of life like home energy management and teleworking. As the country digs out from the pandemic, people have discovered 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 which practices stay in place, but the industry will continue to innovate, empowering us to adapt to whatever lies ahead.

i3 magazine November/December 2021 cover

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