Maybe you feel you waste too much time on video games, but it's your wallet you should be worried about. Two years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) commissioned a study on video game consoles that found they are now among the biggest household power users. If left on all the time, some systems can consume as much energy each year as two new refrigerators. If gaming consoles had better power-management features built in, the study’s authors estimated we could cut our consumption of electricity by about 11 billion kilowatt-hours per year, for a savings greater than $1 billion annually. (Those numbers are based on the assumption that 50 percent of video game consoles are not turned off after use.) Since the study was published, the NRDC has worked with Microsoft, which makes the Xbox 360, and Sony, maker of the PlayStation 3, to cut energy waste. Noah Horowitz, an NRDC senior scientist who was involved in the study, gave us an update.

Simple Steps: Have the game manufacturers made any changes so far?
Noah Horowitz: We've been working with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, and they’ve included a couple of temporary fixes to address our major concern, which was the amount of energy wasted if the consoles stay on when they’re not in use. After our report came out, Sony issued a software update that allows its device to automatically power down the consoles after extended periods of inactivity. While this was a good first step, there are still a few key problems, the biggest of which is that users need to go into the menu and turn these energy-saving features on.

A few other automatic power-down issues exist. In the case of the Xbox 360, the feature takes way too long before it kicks in; the box needs to sit there for a full six hours before it goes into standby. In the case of the PlayStation 3, it can potentially shut down during movie playback, so people might disable it. The companies put these things together kind of quickly and didn't really integrate them with the rest of the software.

We are hopeful that the industry will take another look at this and that future offerings will do a much better job of ensuring that these devices use just a trickle of power when not in use. That way, the device will consume 1 to 2 watts when not in use, rather than the 100-plus watts that the Xbox 360 and PS3 continue to consume if left on.

Are there other changes you would still like to see?

Our other big concern is the amount of power these devices use when playing a movie. For example, the PS3 includes a BluRay DVD player. Unfortunately, movie playback on the PS3 uses four to five times as much power as that of a stand-alone BluRay player. Based on conversations we’ve had with the industry, it doesn’t look like we can expect any big changes here in the future. 

The study mentioned ways in which consumers can use their game consoles more efficiently. Do you have any new tips along those lines?

The biggest thing folks can do is simply make sure their game console is off when they are not using it. People have no idea that the device will continue to consume almost full power when they leave it on, even though they are not using it. Another option is to go into the operating menu and make sure the auto power-down feature is enabled. While the industry has not yet gotten this right, it’s worth pursuing, especially if you think family members or a roommate will forget to turn off the game console after using it. There’s a how-to on our Web site.

What about Nintendo’s Wii?

The Wii uses a fraction of the power that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 use. To be fair, the Wii is a completely different device and does not offer the same high-end graphics or movie playback capabilities. There do seem to be some potential issues about Wii units that are hooked up to the Internet. These models apparently continue to use almost full power even when the device is in standby mode. 


A lot of people play computer games. What about their power consumption?

There's a new EnergyStar computer spec that includes video game consoles. That's something we've been working on closely with EnergyStar, and we think the spec is a first step in the right direction. [Note: Energy Star’s computer specifications took effect July 1. The EPA is now considering recommendations for its video game console requirements, which should take effect in July 2010.]

We again want to point out that the biggest energy saving is in getting consoles into standby mode when not in use. There are no published data on the percentage of devices that are left on overnight. From anecdotal interviews we have found that many users simply forget to turn off the console when they turn off the TV, or they deliberately leave it on because they are afraid of losing their place in the game. There are no published data on this, so we assumed a simple 50 percent of the units are left on. Key portions of the proposed EnergyStar spec will require that new models be shipped with the auto power-down feature enabled and will no longer require users to “opt in.”

How are the game manufacturers responding to this issue of energy efficiency?

There are really two key players here — pun intended. First of all, the game makers themselves, the Electronic Arts of the world, are working with us to make sure it’s much easier to save your place in all new games. This should dramatically increase the amount of users who turn off their video game consoles at night. The console manufacturers — Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo — are making incremental improvements in their devices and are slowly bringing the power use down. We are guardedly optimistic that their next generation of devices will be designed with minimizing energy use as a core requirement. Otherwise, we’ll see yet another spike in energy use as they introduce new features on these devices. 

NRDC is studying how TVs consume power now. Do you have an update on that project?

NRDC did the first-ever in-depth study on how much energy is consumed by the new flat-panel TVs. We have since been working on many fronts to accelerate the introduction of new TV models that use 30 to 50 percent less power than today’s models. California recently published drafts of TV efficiency standards that will save the state just under $1 billion per year and eliminate the need for a large, 500-megawatt power plant.

This article was reprinted with permission from SimpleSteps.org.