Congress May Force New Energy Hogs on American Consumers: Digital Television Adaptors Could Be Big Energy Users

November 14, 2005

Media Contact(s):

Wendy Koch, 202-507-4753, Senior Director, Marketing & Communications

Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Congress is now considering legislation to set a final date for the transition to digital TV broadcasting. As part of this transition, millions of consumers will need to purchase digital television adaptors to receive the digital signals and translate the signals into a format that can be used by their existing analog TVs. However, under a proposal under consideration in the House of Representatives, each of these converters will use as much energy as two typical TVs, costing a household with two of these converters an additional $25/year in electricity and costing the U.S. economy more than $2 billion over the estimated five-year life of these converters. Manufacturers and some members of Congress are resisting proposals to cost-effectively reduce energy use and operating costs by about two-thirds.

Budget legislation approved by the Senate and now pending before the House of Representatives would set a date in 2009 after which all broadcast television signals—free, over-the-air TV programming—must be transmitted digitally. The analog spectrum now used by broadcasters will be auctioned off for use by emergency services and the private sector. The digital TV format will allow for improved picture quality and a number of enhancements to traditional information and entertainment services.

As a result of the mandatory transition, an estimated 40 million adaptors will be needed in the U.S. by 2009. Many of the affected consumers will be low-income households that cannot afford to buy new digital-ready TVs or subscribe to cable or satellite TV services. Given the number of households that will be affected, Congress has proposed a federal subsidy to offset the cost of the adaptors as part of the current legislation on the digital transition.

The introduction of digital television adaptors, an entirely new product, will add to national energy consumption at a time when the nation is facing rising energy costs. In a typical household with two TV sets, analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE—a nonprofit research organization) shows that adaptor energy consumption will equal the energy used by two TVs and consume more than half the electricity used by a new refrigerator. "Electricity use by consumer electronics is growing steadily and digital television adaptors have much higher electricity use than most electronic products," said Steven Nadel, ACEEE's Executive Director. According to ACEEE, cost-effective, energy-efficient designs could cut adaptor energy use by two-thirds. "Digital television adaptors will all be purchased within a year of the conversion to digital broadcasting, so we need to get the rules right before these products are produced. Once sales begin, it will be too late to make any changes," Nadel continued.

California and New York recognized the importance of establishing efficiency requirements by passing minimum-efficiency standards for DTAs. In contrast, a proposal introduced by Congresswoman Mary Bono (R-CA) and approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee would, according to ACEEE, set a meaningless efficiency requirement that would yield no energy savings while overriding stricter state standards, including standards enacted in California and now being developed in New York.

"Efficiency standards on electronic products are an important part of California's efforts to keep energy demand and energy supply in balance," stated Arthur Rosenfeld, a Commissioner with the California Energy Commission (CEC), the state agency that sets California's energy standards. California set energy efficiency standards on digital television adaptors in 2004, but manufacturers claim these standards are too strict. Rosenfeld agreed the standards should probably be modified and said the CEC plans to open a proceeding on this issue in January. "We hope the manufacturers will participate in our proceeding instead of asking Congress to intervene on this highly technical issue," Rosenfeld concluded.

New York State adopted legislation this summer directing state agencies to develop efficiency standards for digital television adaptors and other equipment. "Efficiency standards are an important part of New York's energy policy and we will oppose efforts to override our standards with a less stringent federal specification," stated Peter Smith, President of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a state agency. "We plan to work closely with California when we set our standard, as it makes sense for the two states to have identical requirements," he concluded.

The Bono provision would set a power use ceiling for when DTAs are turned off that, according to ACEEE, most products on the world market can already meet, while ignoring energy use when the box is on, and without any provision that the box automatically turn off when not in use. ACEEE says that this last item is important since homeowners will rarely turn these boxes off, as the only indication that the box is on is generally a small red indicator light.

Supporters of the Bono amendment argue that the adaptors need to be as inexpensive as possible, in order to make them affordable to low-income households. Opponents of the Bono amendment argue that low-income households care about both purchase and operating costs. ACEEE estimates that a family with two televisions will spend about $233 to purchase inefficient adaptors and operate them for five years. The organization estimates that efficient adaptors will cost $72 less to purchase and operate, considering an increased product retail price of about $6 per adaptor and $84 in lifetime operating cost savings. "The higher purchase cost will be returned to consumers in energy savings in less than one year. After that, consumers receive about four years of free energy savings," noted Jennifer Amann, a Senior Associate with ACEEE.

The Bono proposal is being promoted by a group of adaptor manufacturers, led by Radio Shack (based in Texas) but also including Thompson (a French company), LG (Korean), and Zoran (based in California). Most digital television adaptors sold in the U.S. are likely to be produced in China under contract to these and other firms. In addition to ACEEE and the states of California and New York, other opponents of the Bono amendment include the Alliance to Save Energy (a nonprofit education organization), the Natural Resources Defense Council (an environmental group), and several California electric utilities. Many electronics companies, as well as the Consumer Electronics Association (the industry trade organization), are not taking a stand on the Bono amendment.

"Congress can minimize the impact of the transition on consumers and our energy infrastructure by setting energy efficiency specifications for all adaptors eligible for the federal subsidy. In order to capture the most savings, Congress should establish maximum levels for active mode and standby mode power consumption and a requirement for an automatic power-down function so the adaptor goes into standby mode after a prolonged period of inactivity," stated Amann. She also noted that her organization would not object to Congress delegating a decision on technical details to a federal agency such as the EPA, which is now working on an ENERGY STAR specification for this equipment.

ACEEE estimates that nationwide, use of efficient adaptors will reduce U.S. electricity use by about 19 billion kWh of electricity over the estimated five-year life of these products, reducing consumer electricity bills by about $1.7 billion. The electricity savings would be enough to power 1.6 million typical American homes for a year.

"The federal government is pushing the conversion to digital broadcasting and will reap billions of dollars by auctioning off the spectrum now used for analog broadcasts. While the government is planning to subsidize the cost of the required adaptors, it needs to pay attention to energy use, as adaptor energy costs will be more than the initial purchase price," ACEEE's Nadel concluded.

A data sheet comparing the energy use of various household products, including digital television adaptors, can be found at http://aceee.org/buildings/resappl_type/index.htm.