This article was originally published in the May/June 1999 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online May/June 1999


Reducing Leaking Electricity to a Trickle

It isn't often that I have an opportunity to editorialize on my own research activities, but leaking electricity gives me an opening.

I have been investigating standby power losses for several years. Two colleagues--Steve Greenberg (also Home Energy's technical editor) and Leo Rainer--and I wrote our first paper on the subject in 1992. At about the same time, a Swedish researcher, Eje Sandberg, was measuring standby losses of televisions and published a paper in which he introduced the term leaking electricity--the literal translation of the Swedish word for standby losses--which I think is an apt term to use when referring to the general topic.

The measurements we did--plus those taken by others, such as Danny Parker at the Florida Solar Energy Center--led to the realization that leaking electricity was not a minor energy use. Indeed, leaking electricity appears to represent up to 5% of a typical U.S. home's total electricity use. (See Video Networks--A Surprising Energy Drain, p. 12) Measurements taken in Japan by Hidetoshi Nakagami and Chiharu Murakoshi revealed that leaking electricity comprises a shocking 10%­15% of the electricity use in Japanese homes.

Shortly after that, I began to examine ways to reduce standby losses. On August 20, 1997, I was in a meeting with Balu Balakrishnan, vice president of technology at Power Integrations (PI); Dan Werthimer, an astronomer; and Wolfgang Huber, an engineering student from Munich. Balu showed us PI's new power supply and described the next generation, which would be even more efficient. As we talked, we began to appreciate the huge savings that would result as new power supplies replaced existing, inefficient ones. Somewhere in the middle of this meeting, I had two insights. First, I realized that, with more efficient power supplies, huge reductions in standby losses were possible. Second, since the electronic circuitry for most appliances typically consumes only milliwatts, the standby load for virtually all electronics could be cut to the same maximum level: I chose 1 watt. Out of that realization emerged my idea for the 1-Watt Plan.

The 1-Watt Plan had the added virtue of being an efficient solution to a problem I had just been wrestling with for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (see Audio/Visual Goes 1-Watt, HE Nov/Dec '98, p. 7). The EPA had asked us to advise them on what were the technically feasible levels of standby losses for their Energy Star TV/VCR program. One of the sticking points was whether TVs and VCRs with such new features as electronic programming guides should be allowed special, higher standby power levels. The answer was simple: With improved power supplies, all TVs and VCRs could attain the same standby level, and that level should be 1 watt. This proposal shortly evolved into a 1-watt target for all appliances. A few weeks later, I immodestly extended it to the whole world by calling it a Global 1-Watt Plan.

This plan has had some failures and some successes. I couldn't persuade Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to restrict the words off and power to switches that cut standby losses to below 1 watt. I wasn't able to convince the Japanese to introduce a proposal at the Kyoto Climate Change conference to support my Global 1-Watt Plan. However, the EPA negotiated an excellent agreement with TV/VCR manufacturers. True, it wasn't 1 watt, but the potential was there. For the next group of consumer electronics, the EPA cut a Solomon-like deal, letting manufacturers begin with a higher level and then ratchet down to 1 watt in 2002. And across the Capitol mall, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began the laborious process of changing test procedures to capture standby losses.

Across the Atlantic, the Swiss and the Dutch were particularly active in developing programs similar in approach to Energy Star that would combat the leaking electricity problem. I introduced the 1-Watt Plan to Europe at a conference in Florence, Italy, in November 1997. It was well received, and the idea quickly spread beyond that forum. By early 1999, the German, Danish, Swiss, and Dutch governments informally endorsed the 1-watt target.

Across the Pacific, Hidetoshi Nakagami began exerting a strong influence on Japanese appliance manufacturers to strive toward the 1-watt target. His efforts began bearing fruit in 1998, when the first wave of low-standby TVs appeared. There is informal agreement in Japan that many other appliances will be redesigned to comply with a 1-watt level.

This progress is truly remarkable, because there are no government regulations affecting standby losses. There are also no commonly accepted definitions of standby losses, and no agreement as to what 1 watt of standby power consumption actually means (see Leaking Electricity Overseas, p. 7). But I don't see the lack of hard definitions as a major stumbling block. Instead, I foresee the 1-watt target gradually evolving to represent a general goal of major reductions in standby losses rather than being a hard target that every appliance must meet.

The overwhelming majority of appliances can achieve 1 watt with only modest modifications. But there is an important group of devices--most of them in the information technologies sector--that have complex operations. In those appliances, the definition of standby is often murky, and their standby levels will probably need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. I personally hope that the general movement toward reducing leaking electricity won't be paralyzed by the need to hammer out agreements on a small percentage of appliances.



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