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Video game consoles cost Americans $400 million in energy costs a year — when we aren't even using them

A group of men play XBox One games at the Game Developers Conference 2014 in San Francisco, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. The conference will run from March 17-21 at San Francisco's Moscone Center. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

If your energy bill has been out of control lately, it might be time to rethink the way you use your video game console.

A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the latest generation game consoles could cost Americans up to $1 billion annually in utility bills — $400 million of which is due to energy wasted while the machines aren’t even being used.

The NRDC analyzed energy consumption of the three most popular game consoles — Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PlayStation 4, and Nintendo’s Wii U — and found that if every household were to replace their old consoles with the new models, they would consume nearly 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.

When so many of our household appliances -- from our light bulbs to our washing machines — seem to only get more energy efficient — why is it that game manufacturers are heading in the opposite direction?

Part of the reason is that these consoles aren’t just being used for marathon video game sessions anymore. They also double as streaming devices, becoming the kind of household appliance that is constantly “plugged in” even when not in use.

“We think it’s fair that [manufacturers] provide higher performance graphics and processing speed that they would need more power, but the biggest issue we have is that nearly half of that energy is spent in standby mode,” says Pierre Delforge, NRDC director of high-tech energy efficiency.

Energy hogs

The Xbox One and PS4 actually consume two to three times more energy per year than their predecessors, due to inefficient energy use while in standby mode.

The average Xbox One user will spend up to $180 on energy costs over the lifetime of the console, compared to the $50 its predecessor, the Xbox 360, cost. The PS4 would cost an extra $135 in utility charges over its lifetime, three times as much as the PS3, which cost $50. The Wii U was the only console that didn’t increase energy consumption. It costs users about the same as Nintendo’s previous model, the Wii, at around $30.

Nearly half the energy spent to power an Xbox One is used while it’s on standby. It would make sense to turn the whole thing off, but newer features like TV control and voice command only work when it’s on standby -- and that can use up to 72 watts of extra energy per day.

The PS4 features handy USB ports that can be used to charge controllers, but the ports draw energy even when they aren’t being used.

On a daily basis, the Xbox 360 draws 15 watts and the PS4 draws 8 watts of electricity when not in use. It may not seem like much, both machines consume as much energy annually as a desktop computer and twice as much energy as a 42-inch television, Delforge says.  

Another issue with today’s consoles is that just because they can stream movies and TV shows doesn’t mean they do it efficiently.  

The PS4 and XBox One require 30 to 45 times the amount of energy to stream a movie than streaming devices like the Apple TV or Google Chromecast. For example, it takes 90 watts of electricity to stream a movie on the PS4. The Apple TV can do the same thing for less than 2 watts, according to the NRDC.

What you can do to cut energy costs

There are a couple of steps consumers can take to lower the energy consumption of game consoles at home.

1. When you get a new console, don’t stick with the default settings. They are almost always set up to consume the most energy, Delforge says.

2. Enable the “Auto Power Down” feature, which allows the machine to turn off if you’ve left it idle for a specified amount of time. You can also achieve this by disabling the “Standby mode.”

3. If you have a designated video streaming device like an Apple TV or Roku, use it instead of defaulting to your gaming console.

Find Mandi Woodruff on Twitter.

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