February 9, 2015 report
Researchers find that users do not get rid of their old technology when buying new and use more power
(Phys.org)—A trio of researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology has found that despite dramatically reduced power requirements for new electronic gadgets, the average American home consumes more power than ever—because consumers keep using the old-school technology devices, along with the new, adding to the total number of devices used. In their paper published in Environmental Science and Technology, Erinn Ryen, Callie Babbitt and Eric Williams describe how they looked at gadgets in the average American home as an ecosystem made up of electronic virtual organisms and what they found in doing so.
To find out what happens as technology marchers forward, with a never-ending stream of new product introductions for consumers to buy, the researchers scoured publicly available databases that hold consumer buying habits and trend information. They also searched for and found consumer reports and survey information data that has been harvested over the years. Putting it all together, the team created their "ecosystem" for the years 1992 to 2007, a span that saw cathode ray television sets begin to give way to those based on LCD's, among other developments.
In looking at all their data, the team found that Americans do not get rid of old gadgets just because they buy new ones—instead the old devices get moved to other locales, where they are still used. Buying a new big-screen, flat TV, for example, typically meant moving the old CRT model to the kid's room. That caused the average number of electronic devices in American homes to skyrocket from an average of four, in 1992, to thirteen in 2007. The problem with that, the researchers report, is that older CRT TVs and other devices use far more electricity than new sets based on LCDs. Also, older TV sets (and other devices) typically were not sold with energy saving features, such as timers that turned them off after a certain time period. The result is more energy use, and more strain on the environment as utilities burn more coal in attempting to keep up with the demand. The researchers found that in addition to having more devices, users tended to use them more—the advent of video games for example, has led to more time spent staring at a screen.
The researchers than went one step further, calculating how much energy would be saved if Americans replaced their legacy devices with new more efficient equipment, and found it came to a whopping 44 percent. They note that adding new features to such devices in the future could cut consumption even more—such as combining capabilities. Since it does not look like consumers are going to change their habits, it appears average consumption will not come down till the old devices fail, they conclude.
— Consumption-Weighted Life Cycle Assessment of a Consumer Electronic Product Community, Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP
A new approach for quantifying the net environmental impact of a "community" of interrelated products is demonstrated for consumer electronics owned by an average U.S. household over a 15-year period (1992–2007). This consumption-weighted life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology accounts for both product consumption (number of products per household) and impact (cumulative energy demand (MJ) and greenhouse gas emissions (MT CO2 eq) per product), analyzed using a hybrid LCA framework. Despite efficiency improvements in individual devices from 1992 to 2007, the net impact of the entire product community increased, due primarily to increasing ownership and usage. The net energy impact for the product community is significant, nearly 30% of the average gasoline use in a U.S. passenger vehicle in 2007. The analysis points to a large contribution by legacy products (cathode ray tube televisions and desktop computers), due to historically high consumption rates, although impacts are beginning to shift to smaller mobile devices. This method is also applied to evaluate prospective intervention strategies, indicating that environmental impact can be reduced by strategies such as lifespan extension or energy efficiency, but only when applied to all products owned, or by transforming consumption trends toward fewer, highly multifunctional products.
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