Digital Frames Have Environmental Cost

The cost of a digital frame has dropped below $20 and sales are picking up. But this could be bad news for the environment. If each U.S. family had one frame around the house, the country would need five new power plants to keep pace with the new demand for electricity.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. And now, All Tech Considered.

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NORRIS: And today, one of the potential downsides of all the gadgetry in our lives - the amount of electricity we're using. And as are most Mondays, we're joined from Austin by our tech expert, Omar Gallaga. Welcome, Omar.

OMAR GALLAGA: Hi, Michele. Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Now, I've been thinking about all of this technology that we have in our lives - our cell phone chargers and our video game devices and our computers and, oh my goodness, all this really adds up when it comes to consuming electricity.

GALLAGA: Right. And some of the devices that we didn't use to have require power all the time. If you have a DVR in your house, that's on all the time recording constantly. So, if you're anything like me, you've got the cell phones, you've got - that need charging, you've got video game consoles - these are always plugged in, laptops, iPods. I'm sure your house has quite a few of these, as well.

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NORRIS: Yeah, I'm actually counting all this up as we're talking about this. Yeah, and every floor we seem to have all kinds of gadgets. Well, for today's conversation, we're going to focus on one particular gadget - the digital picture frame. We're going to hear about this from NPR's Tamara Keith. Here's her story.

TAMARA KEITH: The digital photo frame on Kate Prophet's(ph) kitchen counter glows as it cycles through one adorable picture after another of her two young children.

Ms. KATE PROPHET: We really love it and just being able to see pictures of everything that we've done, you know, time at the beach and time with family and that type of thing.

KEITH: It was a Christmas present from her mom. It holds more than 50 pictures and all it needs to operate is a wall plug.

Ms. PROPHET: It uses energy like everything else, right - we have. So, even when our lights are out, our frame is going.

KEITH: Frames are constantly on in an increasing number of households. By the end of this year, Steve Koenig with the Consumer Electronics Association, predicts more than 20 million of them will have been sold in the U.S.

Mr. STEVE KOENIG (Consumer Electronics Association): With the direction that digital photography has taken, it will not be long before virtually every house that owns a digital camera owns some kind of a display that is dedicated towards displaying nothing but digital images.

KEITH: And if every household in America plugged in one digital frame, five additional 250 megawatt power plants would be needed. That's the analysis of the Electric Power Research Institute, a non-profit study group. Arshad Mansoor is Vice President of the Institute.

Mr. ARSHAD MANSOOR (Vice President, Electric Power Research Institute): You know, the first picture frame is $100, three years later it's $40, and five years from now it will be $10 and we all will have one or more in our homes and our offices.

KEITH: He says it's not just digital photo frames, taken together, so-called small loads will be the fastest growing sector of household energy use in the coming 20 to 30 years.

Mr. MANSOOR: In 1975, we had an average of one to two things that were plugged in. And now we have more than 25 in any given house. And depending on how many other stuffs you have - in my house I think I've got 50. With the cell phones, and everybody has a cell phone and a game console and a lot of things that are plugged in.

KEITH: Mansoor even has a digital frame. He believes innovation and increased efficiency will solve this problem, perhaps with some regulatory nudging like there was on refrigerators and air-conditions. Doug Johnson isn't convinced regulation is the way to go. He's senior director of technology policy for the Consumer Electronics Association. And he also isn't convinced that digital photo frames are hurting the environment.

Mr. DOUG JOHNSON (Senior Director, Consumer Electronics Association): I think you've to keep in mind that it's not just about numbers or products out there, it's really about how they're being used. What ways are they being used that could actually reduce your environmental impact?

KEITH: For instance, someone with a digital photo frame may not get their pictures printed saving gas and paper.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Tamara Keith.

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