Your home is an energy hog — here’s how to put it on a diet

Like all diets, getting your house to stop greedily gobbling up power is easier said than done, but researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have a prescription. Just by rethinking video games, TVs and the multitude of devices quietly sucking up household power, your house — every house — could drop some serious kilowatts.

“A newly constructed house in California has at least 20 devices constantly drawing power before anybody even moves in,” said Berkeley Lab senior scientist Alan Meier.

In fact, much of the power we use is invisible to us. A refrigerator is hulking and always on — an obvious power drain. But more and more, the power we use comes from the many small devices plugged into the wall, consuming power even when they’re on standby or fully charged.

Right now, at least 25 percent of electricity use in California buildings comes from plugged-in devices, a percentage that is growing every year.

“Consumers are purchasing more items for their homes that plug in, and the electrical grid has to support the energy they use,” said California Energy Commission Chairman Robert B. Weisenmiller. “The goal is to reduce power consumption but still have all the features consumers love and rely on.”

With funding from the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) Program, created to support development of clean energy technologies, Berkeley Lab has launched three new projects to help curb home energy waste with the potential to save $2 billion every year in energy costs in California alone.

“These miscellaneous uses of energy are the fastest growing fraction of energy consumption in most developed and many developing countries,” Meier said. “Any progress in reducing their energy use will have an impact on energy consumption and carbon emissions throughout the world.”

The gaming drain

Gaming computers alone accounted for about $10 billion in power costs globally in 2012, according to Berkeley Lab engineer Evan Mills. Without improvements, that amount is expected to double by 2020 at the pace the sector is growing.

“There are 1 billion people around the world who are gaming now,” said Mills. “And the popularity of these giant desktop gaming computers is growing fast.”

Mills clued into the issue when his son started getting into computer gaming. Father and son decided to build their own system, as roughly one-third of gamers do. But unlike your average gamer, Mills looked at the power ratings for the graphics card and other parts they were buying.

His energy bill vividly told the story in dollars and cents. His monthly bill had recently gone down significantly after changing to LED light bulbs around the house.

“Then the gaming started, and all those savings evaporated,” Mills said.

“Your average gaming computer is like three refrigerators,” said Mills. “When we use a computer to look at our email or tend our Facebook pages, the processor isn’t working hard at all. But when you’re gaming, the processor is screaming.”

And gaming isn’t just casual computer use: If you’re a gamer — or if you live with one — you know very well that gaming can easily eat up hour upon hour of energy-draining time.

Mills sees several ways to solve the puzzle. Changes in regulations could make a sizable dent in the power drain. Currently, only displays and power supplies have energy ratings, and even those are voluntary. There’s also opportunity in the gaming software itself, which can be designed to use energy more efficiently.

“The huge bottom line here is that gamers don’t have to sacrifice performance to save energy,” Mills said. “You can have your cake and eat it too. In fact, the efficient systems run cooler and quieter, both of which are desirable attributes among gamers.”

Berkeley Lab researchers are developing a standard benchmarking protocol since none exists at present, and will work with software and hardware makers to demonstrate specific energy-saving measures. Mills estimates that the project can achieve energy savings of $500 million annually, the equivalent of 1 million tons of CO2 emissions each year.

The itemized home

One of the biggest hurdles to saving energy in the home is knowledge: we simply don’t know which devices are consuming the most energy. We can see a total on our power bills, but there’s no way to point the finger at specific appliances and then take action.

“More and more devices, not just electronics, can communicate. In the not-too-distant future, most new appliances will have network connectivity,” said Berkeley Lab researcher Bruce Nordman. “As long as they can communicate, they might as well keep track of how much energy they’re using over time, and whenever they’re asked, report that information.”

Many of our devices are connected, but right now they don’t all speak a common language — or speak at all about their energy use. Nordman and his team are working to create just such a language and develop open source software to receive and process data from diverse devices spread through a building.

“The idea is it can really help people understand what’s going on in their buildings and know where energy is going and use that information to replace or fix devices, or change how they are used,” Nordman said. “It’s sort of like getting an itemized grocery receipt instead of just a total.”

Standby for better power supplies

Off doesn’t really mean "off." For most devices, off is actually “standby,” and is still using some electricity even when you’re not using it. Why? Power supplies continue converting the AC power of the American electrical grid to the DC power used by most of our devices, many lights and displays still function, sensors run in anticipation of signals — our devices sit at the ready for us to use them again.

Berkeley Lab’s Alan Meier and Rich Brown are leading a project to change the power balance with our electronic devices. To reach the goal of developing a “zero-standby” power supply, Meier and Brown are taking multiple approaches. Some devices, such as routers, network extenders, and sensors, which are proliferating rapidly in number, can be powered by batteries or solar energy. For other devices, a smarter approach is to develop low-energy DC versions, which can reduce costs and improve reliability.

Meier estimates the technologies developed under this program could save California 5.1 TWh per year, enough to power over 700,000 California homes for a year, and representing a cost savings of around $700 million. Every drop in power use is a further step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“These innovations will also enable more California buildings to achieve zero net energy or near-zero net energy use, resulting in lower carbon emissions,” said Meier.