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The Energy Vampire Under Your Tree
Sony and Microsoft’s new high-flying game consoles suck up a whole lot of electricity.

This is a big Christmas for gamers. Last month, both Sony and Microsoft released new versions of their premiere video game consoles, complete with better graphics, new features, and amped-up processors. But all that firepower comes with a cost—both systems will likely consume significantly more energy than their predecessors.

How do we know? Well, some super sleuths at the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) have locked themselves away in a dark room (or something like that) to study the new consoles. I know, it sounds rough—playing the latest and greatest video games all day long in the name of protecting the environment—but NRDC had another mission besides just killing zombies.

There are more than 100 million game consoles in use right now in the United States. Even if the companies were to make the new systems 25 percent more energy efficient over the next few years (something that often happens over the life of a gaming system, as manufacturers build in upgrades), widescale adoption of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 would still result in an enormous boost in energy consumption, according to NRDC senior scientist Noah Horowitz.

“[T]he new consoles’ higher performance and new features result in up to three times higher annual energy consumption than [the most recent version of] their predecessors,” Horowitz writes. If every gamer went out and upgraded to the latest systems (even assuming 25 percent improved efficiency), the new consoles would still consume the equivalent of four large power plants operating round the clock—or more than it takes to power all the homes in Houston for a year—and add up to $1 billion annually in electricity bills.

To scale back, NRDC recommends that electronics makers commit to reducing the amount of energy consumed when their gaming consoles are being used to stream Internet content and watch movies. (Translation for non-gamers: next-gen systems are about media consumption as much as they are about playing games.) There’s also a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the systems’ standby modes.

The average Xbox One user will burn nearly half of the system’s total energy consumption on something called “Connected Standby,” a feature that keeps the console alert enough to power up whenever someone says, “Xbox on.” Cool in theory, perhaps, but not if that standby mode sucks up more electricity per year on average than a 50-inch TV, which is what the NRDC experts found.

Horowitz acknowleges that the new systems do include significant hardware improvements designed to decrease electricity use, including energy efficient multi-core chips and advanced sleep modes. Without those upgrades, the new consoles would be even worse electricity hogs than they already are. But NRDC believes there’s still plenty of room for Microsoft and Sony to improve.

Users, too. In an age when everything from education to exercising to coffee buying is being gamified, maybe it’s time to build energy efficiency straight into the game-playing experience. Perhaps a special badge or bonus points for shutting off the console and lowering your monthly power bill? Energy vampires, beware.

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image of Jason Bittel
OnEarth news blogger Jason Bittel contributes to Slate and serves up science for picky eaters on his website, Bittel Me This. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two tiny wolves. (Note: wolves may be Pomeranians.) MORE STORIES ➔