As heat wave causes utility bills to climb, think small to cut costs

Tips from conservationists

CHARLOTTE -- Home air conditioners are energy hogs, but it's the little sources of power running quietly behind the scenes that can also pile up over time, adding to costs and demand.

It's cell phone chargers left plugged in, DVD clocks running day and night. Televisions, cable boxes, digital video recorders -- any device with an internal computer chip that allows a display clock or remote control to work.

As Duke Energy's residential customers brace for what could be their highest monthly bills ever, conservationists and utilities say unplugging electronics that drain power even in the off position is an often overlooked way to save electricity.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California estimates the power wasted from home electronics equals burning a 60-watt bulb year-round. Among the worst offenders: idle cable boxes.

And there's a reason your cell phone charger feels warm when it's plugged in to a socket but not charging anything: It's using energy.

Charlotte's record heat last week spurred unprecedented power demand for Duke as consumers cranked air conditioning -- a home's biggest summer power expense. Duke opted to cut power for short stretches to business customers in a voluntary program.

The heat wave comes as Duke seeks permission to build large-scale coal and nuclear power plants it says it needs to meet growing demand. The Charlotte-based utility says it adds tens of thousands of new customers a year.

To be sure, homes are getting larger and more expensive to cool. But it's the digital age driving increased residential demand now and into the future, says the Edison Electric Institute, which represents the industry.

Even as big appliances -- washers, dryers, refrigerators -- grow more efficient, computers and plasma TVs are pumping up household power demand.

The Edison group predicts total household consumption will jump 11 percent by 2030, driven by "appliance-related consumption, reflecting the use of computers and other digital technologies," says an institute report called "Electricity 101."

The federal Energy Information Administration projects electricity consumption to grow 3.5 percent annually for TVs and computer equipment through 2025, to more than double the level of consumption in 2003.

Those internal chips that keep your microwave or DVD clock on all night are part of the power surge. Some conservationists call them energy vampires because they suck power.

Experts disagree about how much power is wasted:

The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab estimated a range of 5 percent to 10 percent of a home's power, costing Americans more than $5 billion a year. For an average N.C. home, that's roughly $50 to $100 a year.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates standby power waste from home electronics is less than 3 percent of a home's energy budget, excluding microwaves and other kitchen appliances, said spokeswoman Kristina Taylor Duggan.