Tonight, children (and adults) will celebrate Halloween by flooding out into their neighborhoods to offer tricks and ask for treats from their neighbors. In preparation for this event many of these people will garb themselves in costumes, both sweet and scary. But, while you might look at the streets for monsters tomorrow night, you probably don’t need to look much further than your own living room. Residential “vampires” – devices that use standby power - are responsible for between 5 and 10 percent of residential electricity use in the United States. And, at $4 billion per year, these power consumers are (arguably) no small matter.

When you leave your home in the morning, you probably remembered to turn off your TV and grab their cell phone from its charger. But chances are that you did not unplug the TV or the charger itself from the wall, instead leaving these devices to continue to demand energy throughout the day. According to the U.S. Department of Energy standby (or “vampire”) power is responsible for 5 to 10 percent of residential electric bills in the United States, costing consumers approximately $4 billion per year.

According to some, vampire loads are too small of an energy consumer to matter much. As Cambridge University Professor David MacKay put it in his 2009 video “How Many Lightbulbs?,” standby power barely registers compared to the scale of daily household energy use (see 0:33 - 0:46 and 1:47 to 1:57 of the video below to hear Professor MacKay's thoughts on vampire loads).

But, others argue that this wedge of the energy consumption pie could be one of the simplest to reduce. And, according to a Green Blog post in the New York Times just before last year’s Halloween celebration, new developments in nanotechnology could revolutionize the very device that is responsible for the slow bleeding away of power – the transistor. I.B.M, in partnership with several European companies, is looking to redesign the transistors found in many of our consumer electronics.

If their plan is successful…

“…[we could have] cellphone batteries that last 10 times longer than today’s models, and computers and other devices that use virtually no power when in stand-by mode”

This would be quite an accomplishment, both from a consumer standpoint (imagine, no more mid-day cell phone charging) and from an energy efficiency point-of-view. Eliminating 5-10% of residential electricity consumption could translate into large economic savings, through not only smaller electric bills in the short-term, but also by reducing the need for new power plants in the long-term.

Photo Credit:

  1. Graphic of vampire smiley by PhilWolff and used under this Creative Commons license.
  2. Photo of plug in wall socket by Rennett Stowe and used under this Creative Commons license.

[I originally posted about IMB's work on transistor design last October on my personal blog, Global Energy Matters].