Flashy New Plasma TVs Could Be Energy Gluttons

“We like gadgets and gizmos,” said Derrick Fong, chief executive officer of the swiftly growing local restaurant chain. “We’re visual.”

A few years ago, mounting 13 televisions in a restaurant would have been unthinkable. The brackets needed and the sets themselves were too bulky, heavy and unsightly.

With the rise of flat-screen technology, slender, lightweight sets that can be mounted on the wall like art are proliferating. They’re appearing in private homes and public places, and they’re big, bigger and bigger still.

At the current rate of growth, TV sets will outnumber people in the United States by 2010, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which released a study on televisions earlier this year.

The environmental advocacy group turned its attention to television not to lament the hours Americans spend watching, but because of a little-known fact about the new-style sets: They guzzle energy.

The guzzling happens in a variety of ways. First, there are simply more TVs. Those in public places such as restaurants and sports bars are on continuously during business hours – or, in the case of Taro’s by Mikuni, even when the place isn’t open.

Second, the larger the screen, the more electricity a television consumes. The flat-screen designs continue to grow in size, expanding beyond 60 inches.

Finally, some of the new technologies, such as plasma screens, tend to be energy-intensive. The council’s study found that a plasma screen may consume two to three times as much power as a similarly sized old-fashioned cathode-ray tube.

TVs are the vanguard of a category of electrical devices that energy regulators used to lump together under “miscellaneous.” Miscellaneous is everything in a house apart from lighting and big appliances such as furnaces and air conditioners, refrigerators, hot-water heaters, washers, dryers and dishwashers.

Not long ago, the miscellaneous stuff was considered too trivial to merit attention by energy watchers. That’s no longer true.

The consumer electronics share of the miscellaneous category is soaring. Citing U.S. Department of Energy figures, Andrew Fanara, an efficiency guru at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said consumer electronics account for 13 percent of household energy use today, compared with 5 percent in 1980.

The Energy Department projects the share will reach 18 percent by 2015, eclipsing lighting as a major source of electricity use in the home.

It’s not just TVs. Gary Fernstrom, an energy-efficiency engineer at Pacific Gas & Electric, walked around his Bay Area house a couple of years ago counting the gizmos that drew electricity all day long. He found 40.

There was the garage door opener. The automatic sprinkler controller. The illuminated doorbell. The telephone answering machine. The cell-phone charger. The computer and printer. The TV system with VCR and DVD players and stereo receiver.

“I could go on and on,” Fernstrom said.

Chances are, the number of gadgets in the hands of consumers will increase this holiday season, as in holiday seasons past.

“Consumer electronics are the No. 1 gift item,” said Denise Durrett, a communications specialist for the EPA Energy Star program. Energy Star is a labeling program that identifies energy-efficient products on the market.

Noah Horowitz, project manager and editor of the council’s television study, said Energy Star could make a difference in how much electricity tomorrow’s TVs consume if it changed the way it measures their energy demand.

That’s because the existing standard is based upon energy use in the “standby” mode, when the television is off. However, there’s no such thing as “off” any more, unless the set is unplugged. A modern set is ever alert, ready to receive a signal from a remote control telling it to spring to life.

The “standby” standard was adopted because of the assumption that most televisions are on standby for longer hours than they’re in “active” mode.

Fanara, EPA team leader for Energy Star, said government and industry folks are trying to develop a new standard that can apply to the assorted technologies out there now. The existing standard, he acknowledged, “was fine at one time, but it’s probably woefully behind now.”

Plasma TVs, in particular, use widely different levels of energy in active mode, depending on the intensity of the picture. “If you’re watching a soap opera, that type of video feed uses less power than a NASCAR race,” Fanara said. “It’s a lot more colorful, with a lot more movement.”

The NRDC study found that in general, liquid-crystal display (LCD) and digital light projection (DLP) technologies were more comparable in energy use to the old-fashioned cathode ray tube televisions than plasma.

PG&E’s Fernstrom said utilities aren’t likely to endorse one technology over another.

“That should be free choice,” he said. “But electricity is expensive, and some of the big-screen TVs use significantly more electricity than others. … We view this as an educational opportunity.”

Differences in technologies aside, Fernstrom finds the allure of big flat-screen TVs undeniable. “They are really cool,” he said. “I’d love to have one.”

Fong said the Mikuni in Roseville was the first in the Sacramento region to install a flat-screen television. That was 1999, when the retail price of a 50-inch plasma was $26,000.

Today, the same-size plasma goes for $10,000 or less, said Mike Yee, Mikuni’s information technology guy.

The newest Mikuni – Taro’s by Mikuni set to open this week in Market Square at Arden Fair mall – has four 50-inch screens in its collection of 13 televisions.

If big TVs use a lot of energy, Fong doesn’t notice: “We have refrigerators going, we have lights going, we have so much going, it’s hard for us to really tell.”

Television makers, however, can tell. Mark Sharp, director of energy-efficiency initiatives at Panasonic, said inefficient televisions wear out faster.

“Generally speaking, lower energy consumption is associated with less heat, and components in the design last longer,” Sharp said. “There are a lot of good reasons to make them more efficient.”

Panasonic, which describes itself as the world leader in plasma television sales, this year introduced an energy-efficient line in Japan, where, Sharp said, consumers value efficiency more than American shoppers.

Sharp said the new models are about 35 percent more efficient than last year’s models, and are comparable in electricity consumption to 9-year-old conventional TVs. Nine years, he explained, is the typical length of time that people hang onto their televisions. So, he said, “That’s a roughly equivalent swap.”

Horowitz at NRDC said he hopes other manufacturers will follow Panasonic’s example. Given the rapid adoption of the new-style televisions, he said, there’s no time to lose.

“We feel we’ve got a very narrow window to make these devices more efficient,” he said. “If we don’t, we’re looking at 10-plus years of energy hogs sitting in people’s homes unnecessarily.”

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