How Will the Digital Television Transition Impact the Environment?

analog tv antenna photo

"Sunset for Analog," by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr.

Dear Pablo: What will be the environmental impact of the digital television transition? I haven't been able to find any numbers on the increased electricity use from the digital converter boxes. Last Friday at midnight, television stations across the United States turned off their analog signals in favor of a digital signal. More than 12 million U.S. households that depend on an Over-the-Air (OTA) signal are affected by the switch, and must either upgrade to digital television sets or get a DTV converter box. While I would guess that TreeHugger's core demographic either doesn't have television or subscribes to cable programming (so they can watch Planet Green of course!) it is still interesting to ponder the environmental impact of the DTV transition.

DTV Converter Boxes: What's the environmental deal?
Whether people decide to get a new digital television or get a DTV converter box there is definitely a need for new electronic components. Since the DTV transition affects only the U.S., chances are that many converter boxes are not ROHS compliant. ROHS, or the European Reduction of Hazardous Substances directive, requires the elimination of substances such as lead and mercury in electronics imported into the European Union member states. Unfortunately, the U.S. has no similar laws, so many electronics still contain lead-based solder, mercury, cadmium, and brominated fire retardants. Not only does manufacturing electronics with these substances result in toxic waste, effluent, and toxic emissions but the eventual disposal of these electronics adds to the growing problem of e-waste.

Households that choose to replace their television sets will be adding e-waste to the system but, unless they switch to a much larger flat screen TV, the new television will probably be more energy efficient than the old one. The rest of households will have to pick up a digital converter box. According to, more than 30 million converter box coupons have been redeemed. Each of these contains plastic, a circuit board, PVC-insulated wires, and, of course, a power supply.

It is actually the power supply that concerns me the most. Not only has the DTV transition introduced tens of millions of new electronic devices that require resources to make, but each of these 30 million boxes will also draw a small amount of suck phantom power even when not in use--at least analog TVs turn all the way off when you power down.

DTV converter boxes: What is the energy consumption?
But let's get to the numbers of all this: Let's assume that each unit uses 1 Watt, even when it is "off," 24 hours each day. Each year such a device would use 8.76 killowatt-hours (kWh). In total, those 30 million converter boxes in the U.S. will use about 263 million kWh per year. The greenhouse gas emissions from all of this electricity use could be more than 250,000 metric tons. Compared to the 6 billion tons of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2007 it's just a drop in the bucket. Still, I don't think we can afford adding even such a relatively small amount.

What do you think? Is it just the cost of progress?

More on the DTV transition and Phantom Power
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Phantom Power
Ask Pablo is a weekly column that aims to answer your pressing eco-quandries. Want to ask Pablo a question? Simply email Pablo(at)treehugger(dot)com. Wondering why Pablo's qualified to answer? As the Vice President of Greenhouse Gas Management at ClimateCHECK, he helps major corporations measure and manage their greenhouse gas emissions.

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