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

in energy

Leaking Electricity Overseas

Standby power in appliances (also known as leaking electricity) was the topic at a recent workshop sponsored by the International Energy Agency in Paris, France. Representatives from more than 15 governments, many firms, and other experts gathered to learn more about standby power and the opportunities to reduce it. This was the first meeting convened specifically to address the subject.

The strongest conclusion reached at the meeting was that standby power is truly an international problem. The United States is often criticized in such meetings for being a disproportionately large consumer of electricity, but European homes have standby power use nearly as high as ours, and use in Japanese homes might even be higher. Appliances with standby power range from the ordinary--such as TVs, VCRs, and cordless phones--to the unique, such as the French minitel system (the predecessor to the Internet), the Japanese rice cooker, and the Swedish TV cable splitter. Put together, leaking electricity may be responsible for as much as 1% of global CO2 emissions.

Good Ideas and Gadgets At the workshop, several companies demonstrated new technologies to reduce standby losses. More efficient power supplies are a sure winner (millions of them are already being shipped). These new power supplies, such as those designed by Power Integrations, can cut no-load losses from 1 to 5 watts to about 0.25 watt.

Motorola described a combined hardware/software solution to the problem. A German company, DIK, presented a clever device that will completely switch off existing TVs, VCRs, and fax machines. Even though DIK's little gadgets are cheap, they are really cost-effective only when applied to a device with high standby losses (because the present value of a 1W savings in electricity bills over its lifetime is only about $4). Still, such a presentation shows that people are beginning to think about how to reduce standby losses in both new and existing equipment.

Finding a Definition Everybody at the workshop agreed to disagree on the definition of standby power. The problem is that many new appliances have four, five, or as many as ten separate power modes--all of which could be considered standby power. Some participants wanted the concept to be defined in terms of function; that is, the power consumed by an appliance while it is not performing its primary purpose.

Others wanted standby power defined in terms of the mode that consumes the least amount of power while the appliance is still plugged in. Both approaches have advantages and drawbacks. In the end, there appeared to be convergence toward a two-tier definition. Standby power for simple devices could be defined by minimum power consumption, while power for complicated appliances would be defined by function. In any event, everybody agreed that internationally consistent definitions and test procedures were vital and should be pursued.

The workshop also demonstrated the importance and popularity of voluntary government/manufacturer partnerships to reduce energy use. Energy Star--a concept pioneered by the EPA in 1993--was constantly cited as a model strategy to reduce standby power in major appliances. Indeed, Energy Star has become an international trendsetter and is now being copied by several other countries.

--Alan Meier



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