The phantom load menace

City of Chico challenges residents to cut ever-increasing energy use

Plug-in power became the primary energy drain in American homes in 2009.

Plug-in power became the primary energy drain in American homes in 2009.

Photo illustration by Sandy Peters

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Log on to and find the “watt submission form” to log your energy savings. Also, like the Chico Sustainability Facebook page for regular updates from the city.

Since the formation of the Sustainability Task Force in 2007, the city of Chico has tracked significant decreases in the community’s use of fuel and natural gas. What hasn’t gone down is energy consumption. In fact, though the city’s population has increased by 10 percent in the past decade, energy usage has grown by 20 percent.

“Chico isn’t bad compared to other cities; it’s normal—and that’s the real problem,” said task force chair Mark Stemen, a Chico State geology professor and board member for watchdog group Butte Environmental Council.

The Sustainability Task Force was formed as part of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, and one of its primary duties is the implementation of the city’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases to 25 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. To that end, the task force has helped the city develop bicycling, solar power and other infrastructure, community gardens and more. This month, through a partnership with North Valley Energy Watch, the Chico Chamber of Commerce and CN&R, the task force launched the Million Watt Challenge, a community outreach and education campaign to cut energy usage.

During a recent interview, Stemen explained the upsurge in local energy use is on par with national averages, even though that may seem counter-intuitive in an era of clean energy advancements, stricter regulations and green-tech everything. One of the primary reasons energy consumption continues to outpace population growth, he said, hits closer to home than most people realize.

“It’s not our hard-wired use anymore, because we have building codes that require greater efficiency, and energy-saving furnaces and other large appliances,” he said. “Now, it’s our plug load—we’re a plugged-in society but we don’t think about the energy strain of everything we plug in.

“It’s not something we see, like lights where you can flip a switch, so most of us don’t think about the fact that all of those power tranfusers and plug-in devices are using electricity even when they’re not on,” he said, adding the phenomenon is commonly referred to as “phantom load.”

Stemen cited microwaves and DVD players as prime examples, noting digital clocks and indicator lights that remain on during standby and sleep modes account for far more energy use during those devices’ lifetimes than that spent using them for their intended purposes.

In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which gathers data for the federal Department of Energy (DOE), reported that plug-in power had superseded residential heating and cooling as the largest energy drain in the average American home by 2009.

More recently, The New York Times reported last year that findings from the Natural Resources Defense Council (based on surveys of energy use in Northern California and research by the DOE’s Berkeley lab) indicated roughly 50 devices in the average home are always drawing power, and that a quarter of all residential energy consumption is used by idle devices. That translates to more than $19 billion in electricity bills nationwide each year, and accounts for the power generated by 50 large energy plants and about 37 percent of carbon dioxide emissions—a primary culprit in climate change.

Bryce Goldstein is spearheading the city of Chico’s Million Watt Challenge, an effort to draw back local energy use.

Photo by Ken Smith

In addition to charging devices commonly left plugged in, other aspects of phantom load energy usage include a modern obsession with gadgets requiring regular recharging and the prevalence of “cloud” and other Internet-based “smart” technology, Stemen said.

“The phone you hold in your hand might not be using that much electricity, but a lot of people don’t consider how that phone is using the cloud for everything it’s doing,” Stemen said. “There’s huge energy generation going on for all these massive computers and systems your phone is connected to and constantly transferring information from. A tough thing is, the way the technology is set up, you can’t unplug things like your TV, because it needs to stay plugged in and powered on to get updates it needs to function properly.”

Stemen says increased energy use is a major problem for the city and Chico State, and quipped that faculty and freshmen are the biggest offenders, stating that research done by his students revealed an average of 19 plug-in devices in dorm rooms at the school. “And faculty is probably just as bad—we love our plug-in devices, too,” he said.

Asked what people can do regarding phantom load drain, Stemen said unplugging devices as often as possible is a start. But, he added, “The most important thing we can do as individuals is to stop thinking like individuals and focus on things we can do collectively.”

The Million Watt Challenge is one such collective effort. Among the folks driving the program is Bryce Goldstein, who came to Chico last year as part of a CivicSpark fellowship. CivicSpark is an AmeriCorps program that places its fellows in towns across California, where they are charged with taking action to combat climate change (some also specialize in water issues). The local challenge aims to save the titular amount of energy in Chico in 2017.

“I got together with the Sustainability Task Force to brainstorm easy, tangible and affordable ways to save energy as a community, and figured that LED lighting was a good focus, though we also didn’t want to limit it strictly to LED lighting,” she said.

Goldstein appears regularly at Saturday’s Chico Certified Farmers’ Market and the Thursday Night Market to meet people, educate them about energy efficiency and hand out prizes like LED lights, power strips, foam weather stripping, water faucet aerators, seeds and gardening gloves.

She noted the city of Chico—with help from PG&E—has already given the community a boost to reach the goal by recently retrofitting nearly 5,000 street lights with LED bulbs.

Goldstein, who graduated from Humboldt State University last year with an environmental science degree, said she was determined to focus the challenge on positive change and adaptation.

“A lot of efforts to address climate change are very doom and gloom, and basically focus on telling people, ‘If you don’t save electricity, we’re all going to die,’ or something like that. I also think a lot of people my age feel like, with the damage already done by older generations and with [national] leaders setting more damaging policies, then what does it matter if they turn off a power strip? They’ve been educated about climate change their whole life but don’t know what they can do to make a difference.

“The focus in the challenge is doing something positive to make the community a better place. It may be too late to get things back to the way they used to be, but at least we can learn to adapt.”