How much does UHD TV really cost? Another $1 billion a year according to the NRDC

NRDC infographic
Neal Romanek
Interview
April 14th 2016 at 10:59AM : By Neal Romanek

According to a report by the California-based Natural Resources Defense Council, UHD TV’s could cost Americans an additional $1billion a year in energy consumption – or close to an additional 8 Terrawatt hours

Few would argue that energy consumption is one of the most pressing issues of our time - whether it's keeping energy costs under control and under budget or the pressing global need to end the catastrophic consumption of fossil fuels.

According to a report by the California-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), UHD TV’s could cost Americans an additional $1billion a year in energy consumption – or close to an additional 8 Terrawatt hours. We spoke with Noah Horowitz, the author of the report, on the hidden cost of the brave new world of broadcast.

Noah Horowitz, NRDC

 

What is the Natural Resources Defense Council?

NRDC is a US-based environmental NGO. I am the Director of NRDC’s Center for Energy Efficiency Standards. Our group works to reduce the energy use of buildings and the equipment inside them through voluntary programs (energy labels, consumer education, rebates/tax credits, bulk procurement, design competitions, etc.) and mandatory policies (minimum energy efficiency standards) at the state or national level. As power plants are often the largest source of CO2 emissions in many countries, anything we can do to reduce electricity use helps us prevent climate change.

One of the Center’s main areas of focus has been consumer electronics. We did the first ever comprehensive study on the energy use of flat screen TVs back in 2005 when little to no information was publicly available on the energy use of new digital TVs.

Our work served as an effective call to action to the industry and policy makers to update the test method for measuring TV on mode power use so that it could be used for digital TVs. The old method used static test bars, which would not capture the energy used to process and display moving digital content. We also worked to add on mode power levels to the ENERGY STAR labelling program and to require energy use labels to be displayed on new TVs and websites. We also helped promote rebate programs for the more efficient models on the market, and set minimum energy efficiency standards for new TVs sold in California and other jurisdictions. The California standards paved the way for the labelling and MEPS set in the European Union.

The limited testing we did with native HDR content showed a 30% increase in power use compared to the 4K version of the same movie

What prompted your look at UHD and its impact on the energy consumption?

We closely track industry trends and new features with an eye towards their impact they might have on energy use and operating costs. One way we do this is to closely monitor product introductions and communications that emerge from the Consumer Electronics Show. In January 2015, the industry was heavily promoting the latest TVs generically referred to as Ultra High Definition or 4K TV.

Once again there was virtually no information on the energy use of these new TVs. As such we hired an expert consulting firm, Ecos Research, to do testing for us of a cross section of new UHD TV models that were introduced in 2015. We tested the energy use of UHD TVs playing current content (high definition or HD) and also 4K content. Then we tested the energy use of the new emerging format called high dynamic range (HDR), and also measured the standby power use and resume times of internet connected TVs, also called Smart TVs.

We also did some modelling on the potential incremental energy use and carbon emissions that would occur if the industry transitions to UHD TVs for all TVs over 36 inches.

A good environmental development is the industry’s evolution from using linear fluorescent lamps in the back of the TV to LED backlights. The fluorescent lamps contained mercury whereas LEDs do not.

Did this year’s CES raise any flags about the energy impact of new consumer technologies?

The industry is shifting its promotion and focus from simply higher resolution to TVs that can play back high dynamic range content. TVs capable of displaying HDR content will use a lot more energy as the images are brighter. The CES show seemed to be an arms race as to who had the TV with the brightest picture. This has a real energy impact.

The limited testing we did with native HDR content showed a 30% increase in power use compared to the 4K version of the same movie. As things are in their infancy, now is the time for the industry to also focus on bringing down the energy use of HDR-ready TVs. The first step is to update the clips that are used during testing. The current version is in HD and does not contain HDR images, and as a result will grossly under-report real world power use when viewing HDR content.

The other trend at CES was simply how big the TVs on display were. Throughout the huge convention hall I was hard pressed to find TVs less than 50 inches on display. And in general, the bigger the TV the higher the energy use, all things being equal.

In addition, it appears that HDR will be a much more compelling feature for consumers than straight up 4K TV. While 4K TV offers greater resolution, the improved picture is only slightly noticeable to most consumers and requires one to be fairly close to the TV and for the TV to be a really big one. HDR content on the other hand is more of a ‘killer app’ which will drive new TV sales, as the pictures are brighter and produce a wider more vivid set of colours.

The CES show seemed to be an arms race as to who had the TV with the brightest picture. This has a real energy impact

What energy impact do you think other video technologies are having?

Much of the equipment in the TV ecosystem, including the TV and the pay TV set top box will need to be capable of processing/displaying the latest content, like 4K. As 4K TV programming contains four times more information than conventional HD, the files will be larger and bigger pipes and processors will be needed. As such, the data transfer capabilities will need to be greater, meaning more powerful servers and routers in the future too. This has an energy and environmental impact that has not been quantified throughout the system – from the Netflix server, to your home, within your home, and inside your TV. (You can download the NRDC report on data centres here).

A few years ago, we did a report on cable and satellite set top box energy use. One of the common themes with this equipment is the unnecessarily high amounts of power some of these devices use when they are NOT in use. When we did our study, set top boxes in the US consumed an alarming $3 billion per year in electricity use, with $2 billion of that due to the power used when the devices was turned off. Things are starting to get better in the US as the industry is a lot more focused on making their boxes more energy efficient.

And once again, information on the set top box energy use was not readily accessible by consumers until we did our report and successfully advocated for it to made public. Without this information, consumers – and many businesses - have no way of knowing which is the superior model from an energy efficiency and lower operating cost point of view or alternately which is the energy hog that they might want to avoid.

Download the full NRDC report at: http://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/uhd-tv-energy-use-report.pdf

 

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 print magazine of TV Technology Europe.