How Much Electricity Do You Waste?

10/05/2007

It all started with a simple hint on Mac OS X Hints, where I have been serving as guest editor this week. A submission offered a solution for using Apple’s Mail program to send auto-reply messages to people telling them that you are on vacation. My comment to the hint was the following:

“My first thought was this: do people really leave their Macs on when they are on vacation, just to send auto-reply messages telling people they are on vacation. [...] I thought how much power that wastes…”

So, discussing the with site editor, Rob Griffiths, we thought it would be interesting to run a poll about how many people turn off their Internet access (cable/DSL box and router), and when. As of this writing, 67% never turn these devices off, and 22% only turn them off when going on vacation. People who turn them off every night, like me, are only 5.5%, though 2.5% turn them off whenever they leave the house.

In addition to the surprising results, I got flamed by some of the site’s visitors. In the comment thread about the poll, I was accused of presenting “just a feel-good comment”, called “pretentious”, and one poster was offended by the “blanket insinuation that I am wasteful and uncaring”. Another classified me with “people who make decisions based on emotion and propaganda”. Well, this isn’t based on emotion and propaganda. First, these devices use electricity. Electricity, in the US at least, is mostly created from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels pollute, and cause the United States to be dependent on the Middle East. Granted, I live in France, where 70% of electricity comes from nuclear reactors, and a good amount of the rest from hydroelectric plants, but this is still electricity that could be saved. Some posters claim that the cost is negligible; sure, for each person it may be. But add up the tens of millions of people who have broadband and you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars of energy expenditures per year.

If you read French, you might want to check out this article. A French consumer magazine did tests with the boxes that French ISPs provide (many of these are for ADSL, VoIP and TV). They can use half as much as a recent refrigerator/freezer, which is running 24/7, and cost from EUR 16 to EUR 29 a year in electricity. They estimate that these devices use 1.5 billion KWh per year; turning them off at night would save one third of that amount. Also, here is a table showing estimated standby energy use in a number of countries; the totals can be surprising.)

Granted, some of the irate posters pointed out that they are running servers; obviously, they are in a different situation than average users. Others point out that they have VoIP; so do I. But I won’t be getting any calls after midnight, so I don’t worry about it. But others seem proud that they leave their computers on all the time, along with other peripherals (some printers can use as much power on standby as routers, if not more).

I feel that these people are aggressive in their attitude of entitlement; as if they can use all the energy they want: who cares about the overall effect that has on others. Are these the same people who drive gas-guzzling SUVs?

Every little bit helps. If it’s not about pollution and oil-dependance, then think of the one or two hundred dollars extra this costs each year; money you could use for something else. Is it really that hard to turn off a few devices when you don’t need them? Is it that important to have everything available on demand, and not have to make a bit of effort? I use extension cords with switches to turn mine off: one for my network devices, one for my printer and its AirPort Express, and another for the TV, hard disk record and satellite box. None of these cause any difficulty in my life to turn them off. Am I that different from the majority?

[Note: of course there are other ways to save energy: turn off air-conditioning, turn down the heat, walk instead of drive, etc. But the question here was very limited, so raising those issues is simply a way of avoiding a specific issue, and a place where savings are in no way painful or disruptive.]