The environmental cost of standby mode: why leaving our devices on idle is no better than leaving them on

The issue of standby power is significant, given the many millions of consoles that are, at any given time, plugged in but unused

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 28: A detailed view of a PS4 controller as players practice during day one of the 2019 ePremier League Finals at Gfinity Arena on March 28, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
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Our domestic electronic devices use an increasing amount of power. About 25 per cent of global electricity consumption is residential: heating or cooling homes, refrigeration, freezing, washing and drying – and that's before we begin to consider the wealth of gadgetry that's slowly becoming vital to the way we live.

But while these gadgets consume power when they're being used, they also eat it up when they're idle. The cost of standby mode, when devices wait to be turned on or woken up, has long been a cause for concern among environmental campaigners and at the end of last month, the chief executive of Sony Interactive Entertainment, Jim Ryan, made a statement to address the criticism levelled at Sony's PlayStation 4 games console.

He pledged that Sony's next console would allow users to "suspend gameplay" and only draw an estimated 0.5 watts of power. "If only one million users enable this feature, it would save the equivalent of the average electricity use of 1,000 US homes," he said.

His statement was part of a an initiative by the UN in partnership with the videogame industry, called Playing for the Planet Alliance. A variety of pledges, from Google promising to include "green nudges" within gameplay to Ubisoft sourcing materials from eco-friendly factories, were revealed at its launch.

But the comparatively mundane problem of standby power is significant, given the many millions of consoles that are, at any given time, plugged in but unused. Both PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox have been criticised for the power they draw while doing nothing, gauged at 8.5W and 12W, respectively. In 2014, it was estimated that American gamers were collectively spending $400 million (Dh1.5 billion) a year to power their consoles in standby mode.

Here's why going idle is a problem

Awareness of the problem of standby power began to grow at about the turn of the century, when the International Energy Agency launched the One Watt Initiative, the aim of which was to ensure that all new gadgets drew less than 1W of power on standby by 2010.

This problem has always been one of small numbers that become alarming when they're multiplied. In 2007, the agency estimated that standby power was responsible for about 1 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions – about 33 per cent of the amount produced by global air travel. For their part, consumers have been paying anywhere between 10 and 15 per cent of their electricity bills for gadgets to merely display a digital clock, update software or prepare themselves for when they are next used. The One Watt Initiative was broadly successful, in that the standby power of most new devices is down to less than 0.5W. But many power guzzlers still remain, thanks to loopholes in regulations introduced as a consequence of the initiative.

"Where standby power regulations exist, they often allow a much higher value for products with network connectivity," says Noah Horowitz, a director at the US Natural Resources Defence Council. "Cable and satellite set-top boxes draw near full power levels even when the user is neither watching nor recording a show. In the US alone, they consume roughly a billion dollars a year worth of electricity each year when in standby mode."

The list of culprits is long, and includes modems, networking equipment, 24/7 LED lights, amplifiers, printers and copiers. "The total energy use of all the installed devices can really add up when you account for the billions of devices out there, coupled with the 20-plus hours a day most of them spend in standby mode," says Horowitz.

Why we chose to go idle rather than just turn off 

What's preventing us from simply turning them off? What value does standby mode have, such that manufacturers enable it and we choose to use it? The answer, unsurprisingly, is human impatience. We don't like waiting for gadgets to boot up; we like them to be ready to do our bidding. We want them to to be fully charged, ready to go and having fully anticipated our needs since we last used them. Again, games consoles provide a good example. A 2015 report into the Xbox found that listening for the "Xbox on" command, which wakes the unit while in standby, was responsible for drawing 12.5W of standby power. It was possible to disable this in the console's "energy saving" settings, but the wording on the screen listed two consequences of using this less power-hungry standby mode – "slower start-up time" and "get interrupted for updates". Saving power was equated with inconvenience.

We need to make sure manufacturers put sufficient time and effort into designing their products so that they perform well and use as little energy as possible, both as stand-alone products and when connected to others.

The growing use of voice control and virtual assistants has caused otherwise energy-efficient devices to adopt bad habits, the NRDC says. They found that linking Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant to a TV, to turn it on using a simple voice command, could raise the power consumption from less than 1W to more than 20W. "We need to make sure manufacturers put sufficient time and effort into designing their products so that they perform well and use as little energy as possible, both as stand-alone products and when connected to others," says Horowitz.

This kind of connectivity is crucial to the smooth operation of the so-called Internet of Things, in which all devices quietly talk to each other to create the optimum environment for the people living within it. But there is a cost of all those gadgets becoming data driven and the agency estimates that network-related standby energy use could grow by 20 per cent per year in the next five years.

The environmental cost of smart technology and AI is usually discussed with reference to the colossal data centres that are housed in buildings as big as 93,000 square metres and are predicted to be responsible for 20 per cent of global energy consumption by 2025. But the cost of powering our devices simply to be alert, while small in comparison, is still "staggeringly high", Horowitz says. Switching devices off or enabling energy saving settings could, he says, save billions from a nation's annual utility bill and millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Modern technology may be magically convenient, but there are hidden costs that are very real.