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Set-Top Box Energy Use to Shrink Another 20%

Progress results from a collaboration between pay-TV services and environmental groups

The more than 225 million set-top boxes in the U.S. consume near full levels of power even when the user is not watching or recording a show.
Image Credit: David Precious / Flickr

The amount of energy consumed by the set-top boxes used to access pay TV in our homes is due to go down another 20% due to new commitments made by leading service providers such as Comcast, AT&T, and Dish Network.

This progress is the result of a unique collaboration between the pay-TV service providers and leading environmental groups like the Natural Resource Defense Council that was signed in 2013 and just extended this week. To date, it has reduced national annual set-top box energy use by $1 billion and more savings are on the way as the older models are replaced by new, more efficient ones.

Why Is set-top box energy use trending downward?

There are more than 225 million set-top boxes located in U.S. households and they have a typical lifetime of around five years. These boxes enable customers to access pay TV from their cable, satellite, or telephone company. Because these boxes continue to consume near full levels of power even when the user is not watching or recording a show, the energy and environmental impacts of their usage really add up. Back in 2012, America’s households were paying more than $4 billion in energy costs to operate these devices and powering them produced 24 million tons of climate-change pollution annually.

After extensive negotiations between two leading energy efficiency advocacy groups (NRDC and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE), and the pay-TV industry (the service providers and the leading set-top box manufacturers), a joint “Voluntary Agreement for Ongoing Improvement to the Energy Efficiency of Set-Top Boxes,” or VA for short, was signed in 2013. The core element was an industry commitment to procure more energy efficient set-top boxes. Additionally, the service providers have invested in new architectures whereby a single digital video recorder (DVR) is connected to the main television and a much lower-energy-consuming box called a thin client is installed on the other TVs in the home instead of additional DVRs.

The VA has been extremely effective and has already saved consumers $2.1 billion and avoided almost 12 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through 2016. The national energy savings, expressed in Terawatt hours (TWh), continue to grow as the older, less-efficient models are replaced with new ones, adding up to a four-year total of 16.8 terawatt hours.

More savings are coming

This month the initial VA was extended for another four years, and once the next tier of the agreement is in full effect, national set-top box energy use will be almost 40% lower than in 2012, saving four large, 500-megawatt, coal-burning power plants’ worth of electricity every year. That’s equal to the amount of electricity consumed each year by all the households in Chicago. Because of the agreement, annual U.S. consumer savings will grow to $1.6 billion in energy costs by 2025.

Another great development is the industry’s drive towards “apps” whereby the user can access both live and recorded programming directly on their new smart TV without a set-top box. This has the potential to drive down national energy use and related carbon emissions even further. Consumers win by getting rid of their set-top box and the related clutter, and will save $25 to $50 per year on their electric bills, depending on the type and age of the set-top box or boxes in their home. The service providers benefit from not having to stock and service millions of set-top boxes and also avoid having to send all those service trucks to install them in our homes.

What can consumers do?

Although customers almost always obtain their set-top box from their service provider, via a rental fee or via a bundled monthly service, they do have energy-saving options when signing up as a new customer or renewing a contract before the apps are available. These include:

Get rid of old DVRs: Older DVRs consumed a lot of power and the new ones are a lot more energy-efficient. If you have two older DVRs, they would consume as much energy per year as a new medium-sized refrigerator. You can turn in the old DVRs and request a new whole-home DVR for your main TV and a “thin client” box for your second and third TVs. The thin client receives content from the new DVR and only uses a small fraction of the annual energy.

Install an app and ditch the box: In the near future, many of the service providers will offer you the option of installing an app on your TV that allows you to simply click on it to directly access live and recorded content on your new smart TV without the need for a set-top box. It will be just as easy as clicking on the Netflix app on your TV or mobile device. With this new digital platform, you can stream shows and have the ability to store your recordings, like the latest Golden State Warriors basketball game or episode of Sesame Street, in the cloud for future viewing. Check periodically with your service provider to learn when this option will be available in your area.

If you have an older smart TV, you might not be able to download the new app once it becomes available. In this case, you can purchase a small, low-power device such as Apple TV or one of the offerings from Roku, Google (Chromecast), or Amazon (Fire TV) and use it to access the apps. These boxes or thumb drive-sized sticks use a lot less energy than a DVR or regular set-top box, and somewhat less than a thin client.

In all of these scenarios, however, you will still need the gateway box that includes the modem and router for receiving and moving content around your home.

Why a voluntary agreement?

The set-top box market is unique because rather than buying a box, consumers get the one that the installer has on the truck. The service providers are the actual purchasers, and prior to the VA, they did not pay much attention to the boxes’ energy consumption because they weren’t paying the electric bills. Due to this unique situation and massive savings opportunity, we agreed to collaborate with the industry via a voluntary agreement. For other products, NRDC remains fully supportive of minimum energy efficiency standards set by the U.S. Department of Energy or state agencies like the California Energy Commission.

National efficiency standards exist for over 60 product categories, and they are on track to provide consumers and businesses with cumulative net savings of more than $2 trillion by 2035. In fact, a typical U.S. household saves about $500 on energy bills every year thanks to efficiency standards.

Noah Horowitz is senior scientist and director of the Center for Energy Efficiency Standards, at the Natural Resources Defense Council. This post originally appeared at the NRDC Expert Blog.


  1. syadasti | | #1

    STB Are Obsolete
    STB are obsolete but thanks to the current administration they've eliminated that plan to protect the cable companies profit on STB. We're wasting energy so they can profit/serve themselves instead of their customers - no value is created.

    Cablecards failed for the same reason and these days it's technically possible to do everything via an app rather than an extra power wasting physical device.

  2. calum_wilde | | #2

    Just cut cable all together.
    Just cut cable all together. There's so many ways to get the content that are more convenient and cheaper.

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