Digital TV energy spike could be higher than government predicts

October marks the start of the UK’s switch from analogue to digital television services. Despite concerns that this will lead to rising energy consumption, little has been done to mitigate the predicted environmental effects that are likely to be more significant than initially expected.

Whitehaven on the west coast of Cumbria is not the most likely place one would expect to mark a digital revolution. But on 17 October this year it will be the first to be switched to digital-only television services. By 2012 the UK will be completely digital.

Concerns about increased power consumption as a result of the switchover are not new. While digital transmission is more efficient than analogue, digital appliances consume more energy.

The then Department for Trade and Industry’s 2005 regulatory impact assessment estimated that a typical household’s power consumption will rise by 0.3 kilowatt hours a day as digital television equipment replaces analogue versions, leading to an overall increase in domestic energy consumption of 966-2,816 GWh.

The government is pursuing several options to mitigate the expected demand. Its Market Transformation Programme recently consulted on options to reduce the energy consumption of digital television equipment (ENDS Report 390, pp 30-33 ). The Environment Department (DEFRA) is also pursuing a retailer initiative to encourage the removal from sale of the most inefficient products (ENDS Report 378, p 22 ).

Work is also ongoing under the energy-using products Directive, with preparatory studies for televisions, power suppliers, simple set-top boxes and standby modes in progress. A further study for complex set-top boxes is expected to be launched later this year.

But timing on delivery for these policy interventions remains uncertain.

The EU’s voluntary code of conduct on digital TV systems therefore remains the main tool being used to drive energy efficiency. Last year, then Environment Minister Elliot Morley wrote to retailers and service providers urging them to sign up to the code (ENDS Report 373, p 22 ). None responded. The code has only eight signatories: BSkyB, Matsushita Electric, Nokia, Pace Micro, Philips, Pioneer, Sony and Swisscom.

Even among signatories, compliance with the code’s performance criteria has been patchy. Only 57% of stand-alone set-top boxes complied with the code during 2006 and overall energy consumption of individual boxes actually increased during the year.

There is therefore a real possibility that the government’s energy consumption estimates will be exceeded as technology outpaces policy intervention.

The DTI’s figures did not take into account conversion of recording equipment. They also failed to take into account the popularity of larger, more energy-intensive plasma and flat-screen televisions and high definition sets (HD), which consumers are turning to as they replace analogue sets.

On average, according to major set-top box supplier Pace Micro, an HD satellite receiver demands twice the energy of a basic satellite box. Add to this the functionality of recording, and energy requirements increase again.

In its most recent environmental report, Pace Micro reported that energy consumption per set-top box increased by a staggering 66% during 2005/06 compared to the previous year. The company failed to meet its target for 2006/07 to ensure that at least 75% of set-top boxes supplied outside the US market were compliant with the EU’s code of conduct. It has set the same target for 2007/08.

The findings beg the question of whether it is too late to address the digital energy issue. When all television sets in the UK are taken into account, 49% have yet to be converted to digital. Yet figures published by Ofcom in April suggest that many households have already converted their main televisions. By April 2007, 80% of homes could receive digital television on their main set, some 20.4 million homes.

The Energy Saving Trust’s trade partner manager Richard Bawden thought savings could still be achieved, pointing to some six million homes left to convert – along with around 40 million secondary televisions and an estimated 15-20 million recording devices.

Some firms are responding positively. Sky, which accounts for a third of all digital viewers, in March this year introduced the world’s first ‘auto standby’ feature on its Sky+ and HD boxes. These save up to 50% of energy by automatically switching to standby mode overnight if no use is detected. It has a target to reduce the electricity used by its set-top boxes to a maximum of three watts by 2010.

Television manufacturers are also starting to bring more efficient sets to market, although performance is variable. The Energy Saving Trust lists over 217 integrated digital televisions made by 11 manufacturers that meet its energy-saving recommended criteria.

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