Another Way Cable Companies Are Ripping You Off, According to Steven Chu

[Updated with comments from cable industry spokesman]
Steven Chu was "crushed" when his successor's Energy Department agreed in December to voluntary energy-efficiency standards for pay-TV set-top boxes, Chu said at the University of Chicago Thursday night.
The Energy Department estimates the voluntary standards will save Americans more than $1 billion, but Chu says the boxes, which are always on, needlessly consume about $12 billion worth of electricity each year—equivalent to the output of ten nuclear power plants or all the coal plants in Ohio.
"I was crushed. Because I was telling the manufacturers that you can really turn it off, really dead off," he told about 150 people at the university's Quadrangle Club.
The boxes would just require some inexpensive memory and cheap clocks—crystal oscillators like those used in digital watches—to remind them to download programming data in the middle of the night, according to Chu. They could otherwise be powered down.
"I was telling them you can do this, and you can get it from 30 watts down to one to three watts. Come on, guys."
Pay-TV providers, including cable, satellite and telephone companies, resisted Chu's idea because it would require them to install new equipment, he said, when they prefer to reuse the less efficient components of old set-top boxes.
They don't care that existing components waste electricity, he said, "because they're not paying for the electricity."
"There was a lot of pressure from industry, and then industry tried to snowball a lot of people who don't know about electronics, and they did it."
Those people presumably include Chu's successor at energy, Ernest Moniz, and Senator Diane Feinstein, both of whom praised the deal in a government press release. Other signatories to the agreement include the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.
The Pay-TV industry was represented by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
NCTA vice president Brian Dietz disputes Chu's $12 billion estimate of the electricity wasted by set-top boxes.
"Chu’s comment about energy usage is way off," he told me via email. "The current industry estimate in the Voluntary Agreement is about $3.5 billion annually. The VA is intended to effect a $1 billion reduction in energy use, almost a 1/3 reduction of current estimates."
But Chu and Dietz agree that the potential savings is significant.
"The unprecedented set-top box energy efficiency agreement will significantly reduce energy usage in 90 million American homes and has been strongly endorsed by the U.S. Department of Energy, Members of Congress and energy efficiency advocates," Dietz said.
"Considering the tens of millions of set-top boxes that have and will be used in the pay TV marketplace, re-deploying set-top boxes reduces waste and benefits the environment. The pay TV and consumer electronics industries are proud of the significant progress we’ve made to improve energy efficiency and will continue to explore ways that we can find additional savings.”
Under the non-regulatory agreement, industry has promised to gradually improve set-top box efficiency by 10 to 45 percent (depending on box type) by 2017. According to Chu, set-top boxes are a case in which regulation could do more good.
Winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics, Steven Chu was secretary of energy from 2009-2013. His appearance at Chicago was sponsored by the university's new Institute of Politics, which is headed by alumnus and Obama strategist David Axelrod.

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