Earth Hour 2010: Feels good, but how about tackling ‘vampire power’?

This year’s Earth Hour was observed around the globe this weekend. On Saturday 27 March 2010, millions of businesses and households switched off some or most night lights from 8:30 to 9:30 pm local time.

An estimated one billion people, along with thousands of cities and hundreds of globally famous monuments, switched off their lights according to the organisers, WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature). I couldn’t participate personally, as I was flying through that night from Amsterdam to Singapore.

Originating in Australia in 2007, Earth Hour has become a global event held on the last Saturday of March every year. It asks households and businesses everywhere to voluntarily turn off their non-essential lights and other electrical appliances for one hour (60 minutes) as a way to raise awareness on the need to act on climate change.

For sure, Earth Hour is mostly symbolic – we can’t save enough electricity in just an hour to make any dent in our planetary energy consumption. But it reminds us of the need to conserve energy whenever and wherever we can — and reinforces the fact that the climate crisis is very closely linked to how we generate and use energy.

Indeed, night lights are one of the most visible indicators of energy use. In my writing and talks, I keep using this composite NASA image of the Earth at night shows, energy use is also proportionate to the level of economic activity and social development. Asia accounts for a good deal of the world’s lights at night.

Earth at night - NASA composite image

There is a better way to involve everyone, everywhere in an on-going way to save significant amounts of electricity: tackle the growing concern about Standby power.

A large number of electronic and electrical products — from TVs and microwave ovens to air-conditioners — cannot be switched off completely without being unplugged. These consume power 24 hours a day, often without the knowledge of the consumer. This is called ‘standby power’, also known variously as vampire power, vampire draw, phantom load, or leaking electricity. (These vampires draw electricity!).

Standing by, costing us -- and warming the planet...

A very common “electricity vampire” is a power adapter which has no power-off switch. Some such devices offer remote controls and digital clock features to the user, while other devices, such as power adapters for laptop computers and other electronic devices, consume power without offering any features.

Another example is the typical microwave oven. Over its lifespan, it consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food. Yes, heating food requires more than 100 times as much power as running the clock, but then, most microwave ovens stand idle —in “standby” mode – more than 99% of the time.

It’s the cumulative effect that matters here. The wasted standby power (vampire energy loss) of an individual household is typically very small, but the sum of all such devices within the household becomes significant. When we add up millions of such households, it suddenly becomes a whopping number.

Here’s a short video made by Good Magazine, in association with Nigel Holmes, explaining everything about standby power:

In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that standby power accounts for 1% of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions. For context, all the world’s air travel contributes around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. But airlines, airports and flights have drawn much more attention – and considerable flak – than this widely distributed energy leakage happening right under most of our roofs…

Standby power consumed by different devices - courtesy Geeks Are Sexy website

Industrialised countries are now more aware of this situation. “An individual product draws relatively little standby power (see here for examples), but a typical American home has forty products constantly drawing power. Together these amount to almost 10% of residential electricity use,” says an entire website dedicated to this topicby the US government’s top-ranked Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

Across the Atlantic, the British Government’s 2006 Energy Review found that standby modes on electronic devices account for 8% of all British domestic power consumption.

A similar study in France in 2000 found that standby power accounted for 7% of total residential consumption. Further studies have since come to similar conclusions in other developed countries, including the Netherlands, Australia and Japan. Some estimates put the proportion of consumption due to standby power as high as 13%.

In helpful tips to consumers on saving electricity, the US Department of Energy says: “Many appliances continue to draw a small amount of power when they are switched off. These ‘phantom’ loads occur in most appliances that use electricity, such as VCRs, televisions, stereos, computers and kitchen appliances. These phantom loads can be avoided by unplugging the appliance or using a power strip and using the switch on the power strip to cut all power to the appliance.”

It also advises consumers to unplug battery chargers when the batteries are fully charged or the chargers are not in use. Technical solutions to the problem of standby power exist in the form of a new generation of power transformers that use only 100 milliwatts in standby mode and thus can reduce standby consumption by up to 90%. Another solution is the ‘smart’ electronic switch that cuts power when there is no load and restores it immediately when required.

LBNL also offers advice on how to reduce standby power consumption in our households and offices.

Standby power is receiving more attention at the supply end too, with manufacturers and regulators getting into the act. The One Watt Initiative is an energy saving proposal by the IEA to reduce standby power use in all appliances to just one watt.

The initiative, launched in 1999, aimed to ensure that by 2010 all new appliances sold in the world only use one watt of electricity in their standby mode. The IEA estimates that this can help reduce CO2 emissions by 50 million tons in the OECD countries alone by 2010 — the equivalent to removing 18 million cars from the roads.

IEA fact sheet on reducing standby power

IEA/OECD policy paper (2001): Things that go blip in the night: Standby power and how to limit it

Related June 2008 blog post: Broadcasters and climate change: Turn off your lights, but not your minds!