Gaming computers offer huge, untapped energy savings potential

August 31, 2015, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Berkeley Lab scientist Evan Mills found that gaming computers offer a potential estimated savings of $18 billion per year globally by 2020. Credit: Berkeley Lab

In the world of computer gaming, bragging rights are accorded to those who can boast of blazing-fast graphics cards, the most powerful processors, the highest-resolution monitors, and the coolest decorative lighting. They are not bestowed upon those crowing about the energy efficiency of their system. If they were, gaming computers worldwide might well be consuming billions of dollars less in electricity use annually, with no loss in performance, according to new research from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

In the first study of its kind, Berkeley Lab researcher Evan Mills co-authored an investigation of the aggregate global use of personal computers designed for gaming—including taking direct measurements using industry benchmarking tools—and found that gamers can achieve of more than 75 percent by changing some settings and swapping out some components, while also improving reliability and performance.

This corresponds to a potential estimated savings of $18 billion per year globally by 2020, or 120 terawatt hours (TWh), which is equivalent to 40 Rosenfelds, or 40 standard 500-megawatt power plants that will not have to be built. The results have been published in the journal, Energy Efficiency, in a paper titled, "Taming the energy use of gaming computers."

"It's remarkable that there's such a huge overlooked source of energy use right under our noses," Mills said. "The energy community has been looking at ordinary personal computers and consoles for a long time, but this variant, the gaming computer, is a very different animal."

Gaming computers represent only 2.5 percent of the global installed (PC) base but account for 20 percent of the energy use. Mills calculated that a typical gaming computer uses 1,400 kilowatt-hours per year, or six times more energy than a typical PC and 10 times more than a gaming console.

"Your average gaming computer is like three refrigerators," he said. "When we use a computer to look at our email or tend our Facebook pages, the processor isn't working hard at all. But when you're gaming, the processor is screaming. Plus, the power draw at that peak load is much higher and the amount of time spent in that mode is much greater than on a standard PC."

What's more, it's a fast growing market segment, as console sales wane and the number of gaming enthusiasts skyrocket. Mills estimated that gaming computers consumed 75 TWh of electricity globally in 2012, or $10 billion, and projects that will double by 2020 given current sales rates and without efficiency improvements. "There are 1 billion people around the world who are gaming now," he said. "And it's a really diverse demographic. There are a lot of women; the median age is 31. And the popularity of these giant desktop gaming computers is growing fast."

Good news for consumers

The good news, he says, is that there is ample opportunity—for consumers, manufacturers, policymakers—to save energy. On the regulatory side, displays and power supplies are the only components that have energy ratings today, and those ratings are voluntary. Additional ratings for motherboards, hard drives, peripherals, and other parts are "an opportunity area," Mills said. The gaming software itself can also be designed to use energy more efficiently.

Consumers lack ready access to information that can help them to make efficient upgrades. The study measured and charted the performance versus nameplate (or rated) power consumption of many popular components. One problem the authors found was an immense variation in the nameplate power; for example, graphics processors ranged from 60 to 500 watts. Their computing performance varied considerably as well, by as much as five-fold. And there was little correlation between the two, meaning some units that were highest in performance had lower power consumption.

The researchers also built five gaming computers with progressively more efficient component configurations, then followed industry protocols for benchmarking performance while measuring energy use. They were able to achieve a 50 percent reduction in energy use while performance remained essentially unchanged. Additional energy savings were achieved through operational settings to certain components, yielding total savings of more than 75 percent.

"The huge bottom line here is that gamers don't have to sacrifice performance to save energy," Mills said. "You can have your cake and eat it too. In fact, the efficient systems run cooler and quieter, both of which are desirable attributes among gamers."

Greening the Beast

Mills has analyzed everything from the impact of climate change on the insurance industry to energy use in African villages, modern buildings, and data centers. This latest study was sparked when his son, Nathaniel Mills, started getting into computer gaming. Like one-third of all gamers, they decided to build a custom system, individually choosing the graphics card, motherboard, memory, hard drive, and other components to maximize gaming performance. The father-son team conducted the research and co-authored the article.

Looking for power ratings before purchasing their parts, Mills quickly realized, "we're building a power plant here!" Together they decided to measure and study the energy use. One indicator they looked at was their energy bill. Previously their monthly bill had gone down significantly after swapping in a large number of LED light bulbs. "Then the gaming started, and all those savings evaporated," Mills said.

Despite all the energy savings, Nathaniel Mills has decided to drop gaming and instead has helped his father develop and run a website,, that they hope will start the conversation in the gaming community.

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Aug 31, 2015
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3 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2015
1400 Kwh @.07cents (my local rate) is 98.00 a year. They are talking about a 50% reduction from that.

So a savings of 49.00 a year. It will start to add up in 5-8 years, however gaming computers have a high turnover.

What are the costs of implementing these changes?
4.3 / 5 (4) Aug 31, 2015
One problem the authors found was an immense variation in the nameplate power; for example, graphics processors ranged from 60 to 500 watts.

The nameplate power rating of components such as GPUs are completely imaginary at the top end of the range.

A modern graphics card in a PCI-e 3.0 slot can draw 75 Watts through the motherboard slot, 150 Watts through the external 8-pin cable, and another 75 Watts through an extra 6-pin cable for a total of 300 Watts. In reality, few graphics cards exceed 200 Watts and the typical mid-range best bang for the buck gaming cards won't exceed 150 Watts.

And that's TDP, which is a theoretical maximum if you somehow managed to power up every circuit on the GPU and board simultaneously.

The reason for the "500W" figures is that they're simply pulled out of a hat. It's a suggestion of how big a power supply your machine should have, under the risk that you might have some ping-pong chinese PSU.
5 / 5 (3) Aug 31, 2015
There is good reason to build a more efficient gaming computer: Because if you can turn off the sections you don't need, you can power up other sections and run them harder --without making significantly more heat. Heat is the limiting factor.

So the notion that nobody is interested in building a more efficient GPU is silly. Of course they're looking to build a more efficient GPU.

However, the gains of efficiency are then exploited by software that uses the new performance to a greater extent. It is a never-ending process.

Those who lament how much power these things use need to take a deep breath and realize that were it not for people who demand better performance like this, the stuff they're using now wouldn't be nearly as efficient or high performing.
4.5 / 5 (2) Aug 31, 2015
It seems to me that when gamers get a cpu/gpu that is cooler (thus more energy efficient) they tend to take advantage of that by overclocking it as much as possible - thereby losing the power savings.
4.5 / 5 (2) Aug 31, 2015
Have we tried to make the number look so big by adding all the watts? lol I can see the heat being a slight problem when ones lives in a hot place where the AC must be turned on but as for me I love my gaming computers, they help to warm up the house, a double purpose (entertain+heating).
5 / 5 (2) Sep 01, 2015
.... were it not for people who demand better performance like this, the stuff they're using now wouldn't be nearly as efficient or high performing.

Excellent point.

But the real issue here is the mentality of the 'green movement', and liberal progressive generally. Please understand this ....

If the energy use of gaming-computers and even the software, is a valid issue within the context of collectivism,... as a social concern,... to the extent of invoking "policymakers",... by which is meant government coercion and regulatory force,.... then ask yourself what else must then logically rise to the same level of collectivist concern requiring government force,.... your thermostat setting,.... how far you drive,... then what about your health and what you eat,... how much energy could be saved in reducing consumption generally....

It does not take a rocket scientist to see where that dangerous mentality leads taken to its logical conclusion.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 01, 2015
... it is what at core a liberal-progressive is,.... mine social statistics via studies of the above kind, to 'optimize' society through social engineering. People fall for it and get bogged-down in the particular point because, 'hey it's science and it's factual, can't argue with that'.

If you don't like were such studies would logically lead in the hands of the 'policymakers', then the study in question is pointless. Maintaining a free society is simply expensive. Humans innovate best with profit-motive, not government regulation and coercion.

The greatest threat to personal liberty is the liberal-progressive and their army of statisticians.
not rated yet Sep 01, 2015
It seems to me that when gamers get a cpu/gpu that is cooler (thus more energy efficient) they tend to take advantage of that by overclocking it as much as possible - thereby losing the power savings.

True. The point of such a rig is not to have a "good enough" system but an "as good as possible" system. I don't see a power saving rig from manufacturer X being much of a selling point when when manufacturer Y boasts better benchmarks.

in a hot place where the AC must be turned on but as for me I love my gaming computers, they help to warm up the house, a double purpose (entertain+heating).

In the winter they may save you some heating. In the summer they will cost you because you run your AC more. The two should balance each other somewhat (this would merit a study of its own).

not rated yet Sep 01, 2015
.... (this would merit a study of its own).

For what purpose?
not rated yet Sep 01, 2015
For what purpose?

To see whether there is actually a net energy savings to be had or not (i.e. wether the 'heating effect' actually lowers your other energy consumption or whether that is just an illusory effect).
not rated yet Sep 02, 2015
Eikka: "The reason for the "500W" figures is that they're simply pulled out of a hat." The article actually says "ranged from 60 to 500 watts". Some gamers run twin graphics cards, and I'm guessing those that do tend to use higher-end cards. So 500 watts isn't at all unreasonable. Well, it is, but not in the context of the article.
not rated yet Sep 06, 2015
A major energy waster is all the cheap, lazy, bad coding done by "A list" game publishers.

They do have some economic incentive to optimize their code; fewer PCs can run a game if the code is inefficient than could run it with more optimization, thus optimizing code means a larger market.

However, the trend overall is towards extremely rushed projects releasing increasingly sloppy and power hungry code.

It sounds a bit bonkers, but perhaps there actually should be some kind of "Energy Star" tax credit for game publishers who make a game that tests out to be efficiently programmed.
not rated yet Sep 06, 2015
A modern gaming PC sucking up 400W is the equivalent of a supercomputer 15 years ago sucking 1MW - be grateful

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