Click to see four popular TV models' energy use compared.
Click to see four popular TV models' energy use compared. Kirk Radish/NPR
Flat screen televisions deliver dazzling pictures, but they also consume huge amounts of electricity. Some big TV sets can use more electricity than a refrigerator, even ones that meet the government's newly revised "Energy Star" efficiency standard.
If you're shopping for a new dishwasher, you can read that yellow "energy guide" label to figure out how much electricity it'll consume. No such luck if you're shopping for a new wide-screen TV. While certain TVs do have the Energy Star efficiency sticker, some experts say even that has been misleading.
"Energy Star was woefully behind on TVs. In order to earn the Energy Star label, it only dealt with how much power did the TV consume when it was off," says Noah Horowitz of the Natural Resource Defense Council.
New Energy Star Ratings
Now, for the first time, the Energy Star ratings measure the power that TVs use while they're actually on. But an Energy Star listing alone doesn't mean the TV uses less power. It only indicates that the TV is relatively efficient — within its class.
For example, when measured with a wattmeter, the high-end Pioneer Elite, a 50-inch plasma TV, idles at about 390 watts. That's like turning on 30 compact fluorescent light bulbs all at once. And if you assume that the set will be on for five hours a day, the set consumes a lot more electricity than a typical refrigerator. When the TV is in a slightly dimmer, energy-saving mode, it only uses 300 watts, which matches its Energy Star listing.
Still, your friendly neighborhood coal-burning power plant would emit a half-ton of carbon dioxide every year to keep this one TV on for five hours a day — and that's in energy-saving mode.
For comparison, the 32-inch LCD in its brightest setting pulled about 115 watts. That's the equivalent of about two incandescent light bulbs or nine or 10 compact fluorescent lights.
In part, this TV consumes less because it is smaller, but it also has an LCD screen — technology that is typically more efficient than a plasma screen, like the first set tested.
That's encouraging news to Horowitz, who has been documenting a discouraging trend about TVs. He says not only are people buying bigger and bigger TVs, but also the TVs are using more power, and people are watching more than ever.
"It's almost like we've been dealt a losing trifecta ticket there. If all new TVs are made more efficiently, we can easily cut our nation's electric bill by more than a billion dollars, and in terms of environment, we can help prevent more than a million tons of CO2 per year," Horowitz says.
Power-Hungry TV Trappings
In many homes, the TV comes with a series of accoutrements, Horowitz says. For example, TiVo, in order to function properly, must be left on all day and night.
"It's a great product, but it's a disaster from an energy-efficiency point of view," Horowitz says. "It uses as much energy as a new dishwasher."
Another big drain on energy is video-game consoles. They are like "souped-up computers" and draw about a 100 watts, Horowitz says.
"Many people leave those on 24 hours a day. They'll turn off their TV but forget to hit the on/off button on the game console," he says. "If you leave that thing on all the time, you'll spend about $100 a year in electricity."
The new Energy Star rating system is the first step toward helping consumers make smarter choices about the TVs they buy, Horowitz says. But he's still waiting for the government to follow through on a new law that requires yellow Energy Guide stickers on every set, so people can easily compare when they shop. He says those yellow stickers are caught up in red tape at the U.S. Department of Energy.