Smart Energy Use

Why utilities should still pay attention to vampire load

Over the past few decades, many technologies have made strides in reducing the amount of energy used when in standby mode. Standby power is electricity used by appliances and equipment while they are switched off or not performing their primary function. Also called vampire or phantom load, this seemingly minor issue has accounted for as much as 10 percent of residential energy use. The culprits include electronics such as televisions, video game consoles, and computers, and appliances such as clothes washers and dryers.

Over time, as technology has improved, the amount of energy used by these items when not in use has come down, but vampire load continues to account for as much as 5 to 10 percent of residential customers’ energy use.

Our devices might use less power, but we’re using more electronic devices. While the latest Residential Energy Consumption Survey by the Energy Information Administration shows that the average number of TVs per U.S. household is declining, the number of smartphones, computers, laptops, tablets, and streaming media devices is on the rise. According to the Pew Research Center, the typical American household has five of these devices.

In 2015, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Stanford Sustainable Systems Lab calculated that the average U.S. household spends about $165 per year powering inactive devices.

Due to tightened standards and improved products, commercial buildings have made significant efficiency gains in the past few decades. According to the EIA, from 2003 to 2012, commercial buildings nearly halved the amount of electricity used for lighting, and reduced the amount of energy used for space heating by more than a quarter. At the same time, the amount of electricity these buildings use to power computers and other office equipment, to cook and store food, and for other purposes significantly increased. These devices are not getting unplugged or shut off when not in use.

Although energy efficient technologies may have reduced how much standby power devices use, the trend toward smart technologies means that more devices are staying plugged in and ready to perform their primary function in connection with other applications or automated settings. In short, while the devices may use less standby power, they are less likely to be in standby mode. Thus, in this highly connected world, it might be difficult to convince customers to unplug.

As our customers increasingly look to utilities to be trusted energy advisors, we cannot overlook the role of vampire load.

Outside of energy audits that show customers exactly which items are using the most standby power, utilities can address vampire loads by educating customers about where they might be wasting energy and providing practical tips for reducing standby power.

When doing this outreach, utilities should consider what is economically feasible for customers. Many customers can’t afford new energy efficient appliances, but they may be able to get power strips to easily shut off devices such as TVs when they are not in use. 

Why is this important? Because for public power, every kilowatt-hour used is paid for by the community in one way or another, and cost matters. Helping our customers to reduce their use by 5 or 10 percent may only reduce the customer’s bill by a small amount. Yet, this reduction – even if only from a fraction of customers – can help offset the need to purchase power from higher cost generators or delay investments in new generation, which helps keeps the rates affordable for all customers.