Standby power: how significant a problem is it?

David Aaronovitch, in an interesting, if somewhat rambling article on global warming, presents readers with the following challenge:

“Here’s a test though. What do readers think would be the reaction of public and opinion-formers to the following: a law to ban the production of electronic equipment with standby buttons? Stolid acceptance of the sense of such a measure? Left lobe wins – pass the Bill. Outrage at such an intrusion into our right never to get closer than five yards to our TVs? Right lobe triumphs. Don’t bother.”

This is a nice rhetorical device that David uses, but it’s really not such a significant issue, and a few facts and figures are in order to illustrate the problem.

In the US, with its 300m population, electricity consumption in standby mode is around 5% of the total. In some European countries it is as high as 10%, but the situation is improving as a result of engineering advances and voluntary regulation.

The American and European authorities have since the late 1990s negotiated agreements on power consumption with manufacturers of electrical goods, and have also implemented the Energy Star labelling system. Unless these measures fail to have their desired effect – and there is no evidence that they will fail – then we will have no need of bans on standby power buttons.

The engineering is in the use of switched-mode power supplies in new electrical devices, rather than less efficient linear power supplies. Standby mode will remain an unnecessary drain on energy resources, but still relatively minor. Well, minor enough that doing anything about it is simply not worth the political hassle. Government will instead look for savings in other areas, hidden from public view, and with no personal liberty implications.

This is a simple engineering issue, not a complicated political one.

That said, I would like to see manufacturers removing standby power from their devices where it isn’t absolutely necessary. For example, devices that require small amounts of data to be retained when not in use could employ flash memory technology, the price of which is falling rapidly. With current read/write times, flash memory is not yet suitable for storing a computer’s RAM contents, but the technology is included already in task-oriented microelectronic devices such as PDAs, and its use could easily be extended.

A useful source of information is the Standby Power project based at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US.