How Much Electricity Do You Waste?

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.]

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9 replies
  1. Ruhayat says:

    Kirk,

    I support your stance. I have a feeling the aggressive reaction by the commenters you mention has something to do with Mac users’ common boast of how OS X is so stable, you don’t need to switch your Macs off.

    I used to be one of those boasters. In fact, that was one boast I’d repeat every so often when trying to "sell" the Mac to a non-Mac user. And then one day I came across a similar article to yours, in which the author pointed out the simple fact that even if sleeping Macs only consume 5-10 watts, if 10 million Mac users leave their Macs in that state overnight (8 hours), then the total energy requirement every night would be equivalent to the usage in a small village.

    Enough power to light a small village. That’s every single night. That’s not even taking into consideration the environmental damage needed to provide what is, essentially, needless power needs.

    And it’s not taking into consideration that many of us have more than one device operating on standby, each of which sips a little more juice, juice that is not necessary at all.

    So today I have completely rethought my lighting system (all low-energy bulbs, localised lighting), and I make it a point to switch off all non-functioning devices. It is an inconvenience, I admit, but when you think of the wider consequence, it’s a hassle that I’m willing to endure.

    This is why I also think asking readers to think of the individual cost savings is not a viable call to action. It’s the same with cigarette smokers: if you tell them to stop smoking because then they’d have more money in their pockets, the amount actually saved would be too small to give them much pause.

    But mention how big the collective waste amounts to — a small village every night! — and the bigger picture gives you a far more urgent reason to do it.

    Reply
  2. MacBerry says:

    To be honest Kirk, I didn’t think the majority of comments were agressive.
    Some were, and unacceptably so, but most of us have learned to ignore those
    types of posts.

    What most posters DID try to point out is that the inconvenience of turning
    the router off outweighs the benefits as far as they are concerned. Of course
    we SHOULD all stop doing anything that uses energy yet is only for
    convenience, but in reality we all balance our own convenience against our
    social responsibilities. To be accused of being socially iresponsible as a result
    is a bit much I think.

    In my own case, I do what I can to save energy; low energy light bulbs, turn
    off anything I can rather than put it into standby, buy energy efficient
    products in preference to others, turn the heating down, etc etc etc. In fact I
    also run a company selling an energy efficient alternative to air conditioning.
    BUT, I do live in an afluant western economy (the UK), and don’t appologise
    for taking advantage of the benefits that offers, so long as I do that
    responsibly!

    In all honesty, I think you made a mistake in relating your poll to leaving the
    router on all night. I think if you’d asked about turning the actual computer/s
    and other hardware off, such as printers, you’d have got a much more
    simpathetic response.

    I don’t hold with the "its such a tiny energy user there’s no point" argument,
    as I agree with you that it all adds up to something huge, but do also feel that
    people shouldn’t be lambasted for using energy when they can see a real
    benefit,
    even if only a small benefit. That just gets their backs up.

    It’s a little bit like cars vs public transport. Of course we should all use public
    transport all the time, but the plain fact is that for many of us the
    inconvenience is simply too great. It’d be far more productive to argue for
    more convenient public transport (or more energy efficient routers?) than to
    harangue people for driving their cars (leaving thier routers on).

    Slightly related (you mentioned that in France 70% of your electricity is
    nuclear), I think that illustrates the problem with these types of arguments.
    20 or more years ago there was a huge resistance to nuclear energy in this
    country (while France just got on with it!), mostly for environmental reasons.
    The net result – we stuck with fossil fuels mostly, and now are paying the
    environmental and political price! The answer is never as black and white as it
    appears.

    Mark

    Reply
  3. Anonymous says:

    Kirk -

    While I can absolutely see your point, I think the main issue here is the
    laziness of humans at this time. I know I certainly count in that populus — I
    would much rather leave something running than bother shutting it off and
    restarting it next day.

    However, there are more aspects to the issue at the same time.

    My brother works evenings/nights, my dad works early mornings, I work
    mid-day and go to school and my mom is in and out all the time. This
    produces a household which uses computers/internet at all hours of the day.
    It may be far fetched to make a claim based on just this my experience, but it
    is possible that there are many more with the same position and it would not
    be at all reasonable to be constantly turning off and on the systems for
    different peoples’ usage shifts.

    Also, I do often receive calls at night, and I know that many of my friends do
    also. So if our phone runs through VOIP, it is necessary to have the modems
    and routers blazing.

    Next up, there is a large community of back-end scientists (or assistants at
    least) who donate their computers at night to network processing. You can
    download from many institutions or organizations programs that will
    download a project, say for example a simulated protien fold, and process
    through the night as part of a collective network of independent CPU’s. This
    has proved in many cases to be very valuable, and performs the job of
    voluntary collective information processing, each person giving by
    preference, and not by taxes, as they wish. This method is often used to
    process simulations for cures on such diseases as cancer and AIDS.

    I must admit that I am both among the lazy and the skeptical and am very
    stubborn. I prefer to leave my computer running at night for various
    purposes, including at times the pleasure of avoiding boot sequences. I
    realize my point of view may appear snobbish and perhaps unreasonable, but
    I believe that my preference is mine to choose. That said, I welcome
    suggestions, requests, comments and fascinating/educational posts such as
    yours above – I believe that these things are essential to human growth and
    cooperation, and I think that making flaming comments and rude remarks
    against such posts is unacceptable and imbecilic. Disagreements should be
    made in a proper and professional manner, and if they are not, they must be
    disregarded.

    But here is my final note: whenever one makes a comment or suggestion he
    or she believes will better this place for everyone, he/she must also take into
    consideration that such comments and suggestions will always draw
    some negativity, occasionally from those of us who attempt to think
    rationally, and always from those who refuse to consider anything except
    their own point of view. It seemed to me that I read some hurt and a great
    deal of justification in your post here. I exhort you to continue to attempt to
    better this world, as I see you wish to do, but I also submit that you may want
    to consider carefully what is commented back to you, and if necessary,
    discard it as unreasonable and move on without an emotional response of
    justification. Every good writer and smart thinker must deal with the masses
    of idiots that surround them, but they need not bow to the call of justification
    from those who wish only to tear down others.

    Reply
    • Kirk says:

      In some cases, you don’t need justification. As you say, odd hours, late night
      phone calls, etc.; that’s a valid reason to leave it on. Just as, in the thread on
      Mac OS X Hints, one guy pointed out that if he didn’t have a truck, he couldn’t
      haul bricks (his job); no one’s suggesting that people haul bricks on their
      backs, or that businesses or people with different needs than average change
      the way they do things.

      The point was, though, that for many people it is possible to turn off routers
      and other devices. (I didn’t mention printers, but they can use much more
      than routers in standby mode; I didn’t even go into actual computers, and lots
      of people don’t bother to power them down.)

      Kirk

      Reply
  4. Vincent Gable says:

    Kirk,

    You said: "Well, this isn’t based on emotion and propaganda."
    I’m sorry but for that not to be true, you need to disprove it by providing hard figures for exactly what you are talking about — individual router power usage. Not for other devices. Articles in French don’t count; sorry but not enough readers can understand them. Exactly how many watts/night does an individual’s a router use? Without that specific fact, a good discussion is not possible.

    There is a proverb: small bargains break the bank.

    If you got up 2 minutes earlier every day, you would have one "extra day" per year (12 more waking hours). Two minutes of sleep won’t make that big of a deal, right? So why don’t we do this all the time? Because at some point we have to draw a line, otherwise we would keep staying up another 2 minutes, and never get any sleep. Each decision to trade two minutes for one day sounds rational, but it isn’t. That’s because you can’t weight cumulative gain (one extra day) against individual cost ("only two minutes").

    And that’s basically why your suggestion isn’t as reasonable as it may sound to you. The fact is, it doesn’t save an individual that much money. But it is trouble for them, and it does mean that they don’t have 24/7 internet access, and it does mean that they couldn’t get an important voip call late at night if they needed to. Enough "little things" add up to "a lot of things" — and that’s more then most people are willing to do. If you could get someone to do one little thing differently every day, would it be turning off a router, or do you think there is something else that could make a bigger difference?

    I think paying 29 Euros each year to have always-on internet access is reasonable. In this day and age there are enough hotspots in metropolitan areas that you could just take your laptop to one whenever you needed to go online, and never have to pay. (This I can say from experience). The reason people pay for internet access at home is so they can have the convenience of always-on internet. Asking them to shut it off is asking them to give up exactly what they are paying for.

    Finally, you used loaded judgmental language, so I’m not surprised that some of the replies were flames. "I thought how much power that wastes…" Who are you to say it is a waste? Rob obviously get something out of it.
    "I feel that these people are aggressive in their attitude of entitlement"
    That kind of tone rubs people the wrong way. I don’t feel that you are in a position to pass judgment on my lifestyle. Especially when you do not provide hard figures to back up your case.

    Reply
    • Kirk says:

      I’ll just reply to one part of your comment. "Articles in French don’t count." Okay,
      you may not be able to read French, but there’s a table of how much different
      routers use, and you could figure that out. And I linked to another table showing
      how many _terawatt hours_ are wasted in different countries by standby devices.

      As for "waste", why is wasting electricity any different than, say, wasting water?
      Would you leave your faucet dripping all day?

      Kirk

      Reply
      • Vincent Gable says:

        I didn’t see the table, because it is on page 2 of the article, and I stopped trying to read after the first page. Looking at it now, I’m still not sure I understand it. Those devices all look like TVs to me (they all have a remote).

        As I said, what I would like to know is how much power an individual router uses per hour. An _estimate_ of national power-consumption for _all_ standby devices just doesn’t tell me if turning off my router is worth it.

        I did find this article
        http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-6475_7-6400401-2.html
        It compares power-consumption of different AV equipment. A wireless router is listed as needing 7 watts (I assume per hour). Page 2 of the article has a large table of power-usage for different TVs. The difference in standby power usage is amazing. From 0.71 watts to over 50 watts! I guess there might be a lot of variation in how much power wireless routers use as well. I hope the 7 watts per hour figure is accurate, but I don’t know if it is.

        7 watts per hour is much less then standard lightbulbs use (about 60 to 120 watts). Leaving a router on all night (8 hours) uses less then half as much power as my overhead lamp uses in half an hour. I can see with my overhead lamp off during the day, but it’s uncomfortably dark (building design flaw), so I leave it on. And I don’t consider that wasteful because I get something out of it.

        I also get something out of having 24/7 internet access without having to wait for a router to boot up. I don’t think it’s automatically a "waste" if the computer or router is on while a person isn’t in front of the screen. The whole point of a computer is for it to do something instead of a person.

        I agree that both water and electricity are a resource. But I think there is a difference between consumption and waste.

        Speaking of water, I wonder how many people take "navy showers". The water savings are huge (1 estimate 15,000 US gallons per year per person), but they are less comfortable.

        Reply
        • pejoka says:

          Just a couple of comments:

          1. Good topic. One must always use tolerance in reading blogs and
          responses, and try not to get offended too easily. It really helps maintain
          focus on the important issues rather than getting distracted or angry, and
          polarized.

          2. Watts are units of power. Watt-hours are units of energy, that is, power
          used for a given amount of time. It is incorrect to say "Watts per hour"
          because power is an "instantaneous" quantity. The problem is often that
          people say power but mean energy, e.g. "It takes a lot of power to run a
          gadget". Well, if the gadget uses 100 W, it uses ten times more energy than a
          10 W device, per hour. But if you only use the 100 W device for one hour,
          and leave the 10 W device on overnight (say 10 hours), the energy use is the
          same.

          OK, two more comments:

          Leaving devices on all the time can really add up energy usage, but if a 7 W
          modem has trouble reconnecting to the ISP every time it may not be worth
          turning it off. If it is no trouble, why not turn it off? I try to get everyone to
          turn off lights when they leave the room too.

          I try to imagine myself in a post-modern world, where I had to generate all of
          the electrical power I use. At about 500 W max pedal power, I’d have to put
          in a lot of time on the bicycle-powered generator to satisfy my energy
          appetite for refrigeration, lighting, heating, not to mention computing!
          Darn right I’d be using solar and wind energy, even if
          they were only partially able to meet my needs.

          Reply
  5. Paul says:

    I don’t really think that wasting electricity is bad. I leave all of my lights, tv, radio, and computer on all the time. I can afford to be wasteful so why worry about saving.

    Reply

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