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Streaming vs. Disc: Not Quite An Eco Slam Dunk

23 Jun, 2014 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Conventional wisdom suggests clicking a button to buy or rent a movie on a connected television, computer or mobile device would be ecologically superior to doing the same via packaged media.

After all, the energy required replicating, packaging and distributing a DVD, coupled with the C02 carbon emissions produced driving to purchase a disc should dwarf any digital channel, right?

Not so fast.

A new study conducted by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Northwestern University (underwritten in part by Google), qualifies some of the ecological advantages of digital distribution over DVD, and gives pause to assigning digital with a halo just yet.

In the detailed May 28 report, “The Energy and Greenhouse-Gas Implications of Internet Video Streaming in the U.S.,” researchers Arman Shehabi, Ben Walker and Eric Masanet found that when factoring in the energy required to distribute and receive high-speed data channels (i.e. cable, telecom, HDTVs, set-top boxes, tablets, PCs, etc.), streaming video can actually exceed the energy required to distribute DVD and Blu-ray Disc – the latter including by-mail and brick-and-mortar rentals and purchases.

The report said 90% of the total energy costs associated with streaming video involved consumer electronics devices on the receiving end, in addition to distribution networks into homes.

“End-user devices [connected disc players, game consoles, lap tops and PCs with disc drives] are responsible for the majority of energy use with both video streaming and DVD viewing,” read the report.

The Energy Requirements of Home Entertainment

Citing 2011 consumer data on packaged media and digital rental distribution (from The NPD Group), researchers found 42% of consumers rented a disc through a store or kiosk, while 25% streamed video through Netflix, 20% rented by-mail via Netflix, and 13% streamed through alternative sources such as Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu Plus.

Total U.S. video consumption in 2011 (including sellthrough) required an estimated 192 petajoules (PJ) of primary energy and contributed to 10.5 billion kilograms (kg.) of CO2 emissions. In fact, if all packaged media that year was transferred to streaming, an estimated savings of 30 PJ and 1.9 billion kg. of C02 emissions would be realized – enough energy to power 200,000 U.S. homes for a year, according to the report.

But that savings isn’t being realized as the energy costs to deliver high definition data increase, say the researchers. Video files are typically sent across a network infrastructure, reaching a consumer’s home via router and/or set-top box to the viewing device – intersections that consume energy.

The report found that streaming video could save as much as 4.1 megajoules (MJ) and 29 kilograms (kg) in C02 emissions per hour compared to DVD when using more energy-efficient game consoles, connected Blu-ray players and set-top boxes.

“Much of the energy savings estimated in shifting to video streaming comes from precipitating a turnover in end-user devices to newer more efficient alternatives [away from less efficient DVD players],” the authors wrote.

Energy of a Disc Transaction

Consumers in 2011 watched discs an estimated 90% of the time on a TV connected to a disc player or game console, compared to 10% on a lap top or PC with a disc drive, according to the report.

A typical disc (DVD or Blu-ray) weighs 0.63 oz. requiring 1.35 MJ of energy to replicate and creating 48.8 kg CO2 emissions. The plastic case weighs 3 oz., requiring 0.18 MJ and generating 8.8 kg CO2 emissions. The paper sleeve weighs 0.1 oz., requiring 0.13 MJ and generating 6.3 kg CO2 emissions.

The average disc travelled more than 1,100 miles from manufacturing facility to retail shelf, while the average by-mail disc purchase/rental travelled 130 miles (round trip) from distribution center to end-user’s mailbox. Yet, the manufacturing and shipping of discs represented just 1-2% of packaged media primary energy costs, excluding consumer transportation costs.

A consumer’s commute to buy a movie underscores much of the ecological costs involving packaged media. The average consumer in 2011 traveled more than 10 miles round trip to purchase a disc; yet just 1.7 miles to rent a disc via kiosk at the local supermarket. The mileage nearly doubled to 3.3 miles when frequenting less conspicuous video stores.

While streaming can be more energy efficient than driving to a retail store to buy or rent a disc, improved travel (more energy-efficient cars), and closer proximity to rental kiosks undermine in part some of those digital efficiencies, according to the authors.

Digital’s Burgeoning Energy Demands

Streaming video consumption via PC, TV and mobile devices occurs  20%, 77% and 3%, respectively, according to the report. Internet-connected TVs accounted for just 6% of the video streaming consumption compared to more than 50% via game consoles and 21% through streaming media players.

And, as video data streams in increasingly higher resolution, including ultra-HD 4K, the energy required to distribute the streams as well as view it exceeds the energy requirements of viewing packaged media, including Blu-ray. Household penetration of DVD players may be around 95%, with cable set-top boxes in about 100 million homes. But many of those devices are early editions, which use more energy and have higher CO2 emissions due in part to their idle energy demands, among other issues.

“Increases in data transmission to support more complex video content can drastically increase total video streaming energy use beyond that of DVD viewing,” the report said.

The study also found that Netflix in ultra-HD requires about 6 megabits per second streaming speed, compared to 20 Mbps for Blu-ray. While researchers assumed parity between digital and physical video resolution, they concluded that energy transmission improvements in ultra-HD and 3D streaming would include more eco-friendly data compression technology.

Indeed, new editions of Apple TV, Roku and related streaming set-top devices along with lower-energy HDTVs portend the possibility of more energy-efficient video streaming, according to the report.

“Results from this study indicate that designers and policy makers should focus on the efficiency of end-user devices and network transmission energy to curb future increases in energy use from the proliferation of video streaming,” the authors wrote.

CE Industry Touts Low Energy Devices

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy partnered in 1992 to create the Energy Star platform, a voluntary program adopted by consumer electronics manufacturers to help market more efficient products to consumers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

CE manufacturers now regularly hype a product meeting or exceeding Energy Star requirements. A Star rating means the device meets minimum EPA guidelines for energy efficiency and typically use about 40% less energy than non-rated devices.

Manufacturers also affix yellow “Energy Guide” labels on devices designed to give consumers an idea how much it will cost in electricity to operate.

A home equipped with TVs, a Blu-ray player, a compact audio system, and a home-theatre-in-a-box that have the Energy Star, can save more than $200 over the life of the products, according to EnergyStar.gov. If each TV, DVD player, and home theatre system purchased in the U.S. in 2014 earned the Energy Star, they would prevent more than 2.2 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually – equal to the emissions from more than 200,000 cars.

Meanwhile, Philips June 23 announced the inclusion of new sensors on select monitors that automatically adjust screen brightness depending if someone is in the room. The company said the sensors can reduce energy consumption by as much as 80%.

“The displays’ intuitive human sensors do the work for you so you don’t have to consciously close down your computer when you step away. Plus, you’re not only you cutting energy costs, you’re also extending the life of the monitor,” Chris Brown, TPV global product marketing, said in a statement.


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