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Outlet Overload

Do the TVs, DVD players, and game consoles in your home outnumber the stockings above your fireplace this holiday season? Do the winking, blinking, red and green LED lights on rechargers give your rooms a festive look all year long? Will you have to unplug something to make room for a string of Christmas lights?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re a typical American. If you answered yes to all three questions, you’re part of a huge 21st-century trend.

A recent survey conducted by E Source, an independent company specializing in research about electric utility issues, confirmed what a lot of folks already guessed: electronic plug loads are the fastest-growing category of household energy use in the United States.

Electronic “plug loads”are soaring in the home
“Plug load” is a catchall term for all kinds of devices that operate with electricity from outlets, everything from the coffeepot in the kitchen to the hair dryer in the bathroom and the iron in the laundry room.

This study focused on just the part of the plug load that involves electronics—the things that entertain, inform, and help people communicate. The report found that three electronic devices—plasma TVs, digital video recorders, and desktop computers—use the most electricity per plug.

And it turns out that many households don’t have just a single item in a particular category. The E Source study found:

• One in 25 households has three or more liquid crystal display (LCD) TVs.

• More than one in 10 households have three or more computers.

• One in five households has three or more cell phones.

Plug in all the other popular electronic devices in use today—digital cameras, music players, and game systems, just to name a few—and the number of outlets and kilowatts needed to keep them all working is astonishing. The E Source study says plug loads for electronics now account for 15 to 20 percent of residential electricity use each year.

Predicting how much electricity people want and when they want it is a full-time job for electric utilities. They must match the amount of electricity generated to the amount of electricity used every minute—and look far into the future to know when to begin building new power plants that can generate additional electricity to meet rising demand.

Utilities ask a lot of questions. Will more or fewer people live in a certain geographic area? Will economic activities grow, slow down, or stay about the same? Getting the answers right to each question helps utilities provide a reliable supply of electricity year after year.

People and plugs: tips for smarter energy use
Now there’s a new question to ask: how will plug loads for electronics affect demand for electricity in the future? The E Source study found that electronic plug loads vary according to the number and ages of the people within a household, income levels, and from region to region.

By the year 2030, electronic plug loads could rise to 29 percent of all household energy use.

The E Source report’s predictions have utility companies trying to figure out the best way to help consumers understand the impact of their increasingly “plugged in” lifestyles. And they want to encourage people to use their electronics in ways that don’t waste electricity.

Right now a lot of folks resist turning off or unplugging electronic devices when they’re not using them, even though they know it would lower their energy use. Many people just don’t want to take the time and effort to reset the controls when powering their devices on again.

If more consumers get in the habit of using the low-energy “sleep” or “standby” settings available on many items today, that could help lower demand for electricity. If manufacturers redesign equipment so that unplugging an electronic device does not cause a complete loss of memory, that would help, too.

In the meantime, a new kind of “smart” power strip makes it easier to manage electricity use for several devices. When the strip is in “power off” mode, no electricity goes to the items plugged in to certain outlets in the strip, but other outlets in the strip continue to provide electricity for the items that need to remain on in standby mode.

Do you unplug battery chargers when you’re not using them? Have you set your computer system’s “sleep” mode controls to save energy? Do you use power strips to shut down items when you don’t need them?

If you answered yes to these questions, then you’re helping set another new trend—a future of much smarter electricity use.

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