California Explores Gaming Power Usage

The misperception that computer gaming is conducted only at the “fringe” of society has dampened curiosity about their role in energy use.

-A Plug-Loads Game Changer: Computer Gaming Energy Efficiency without Performance Compromise

The state of California issued a 92 page long report last year exploring the electrical usage of computer gaming in the state,  prepared for the California Energy Commission by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, exploring both why video games use as much electricity as they do and how the state might plan for the future related to gaming power usage.

That electrical generation has an environmental impact is multiplied by the fact that the northern half of the state is mostly served by one of the more dysfunctional companies of the breed, Pacific Gas & Electric.  The company has gone bankrupt twice in the last two decades and has a habit of setting up situations where it ends up blacking out large swathes of the state due to its own incompetence.  Even my late grandfather used to refer to it as “Perpetual Graft & Extortion.”

Anyway, the whole report is available for download from the state as a PDF file here.  But the key graph early in the report indicates why this is even being discussed as it ranks various categories of electrical usage.

Estimate Power Use of Various Residential Activities in 2016

That is computer gaming using 4.1 terawatt-hours of electricity, which puts it ahead of the total power consumption of Cambodia, if the CIA is to be believed and I am able to do the unit conversion in my head.  Also, we appear to use about a terawatt-hour of electricity a year on hot tub pumps.  I could have guessed that I suppose.

The report opens, naturally enough, with how this number was arrived at, definitions for quite a few terms (kind of interesting), an attempt to break gamers out into discreet usage segments, and even a chart of power usage for specific titles from various gaming  genres on different platforms. Also, there is the revelation that people play a lot of games online.

For the purposes of this report the computer gaming energy use category includes:

…desktop and laptop computers, consoles, and media streaming devices and associated displays, local network equipment, and speakers, as well as associated network and data-center energy.

If I wanted to nitpick, I would go straight to asking how data-center power usage figures into  residential plug-load numbers, but nobody is going to listen to me and I suppose as long as we’re only referencing data centers within the state then I ought to let it slide.  Even the report admits that the whole thing is complicated to address.

Then there is the matter of what we should do about it.  As I like to put it, the “So what?” part of the report that attempts to move it from trivia to some suggested form of action.  As the report points out, there has not been a lot of focus on energy consumption in this area, dubious EnergyStar ratings and efficiency measurements for computer power supplies (the 80 Plus program) being about the sum total of the efforts.

The possible suggestions include expanding power/efficiency ratings for components to having a system of ratings for games that indicate the energy use effects that they might have, along with some possible ways to incentivize players to use less power.

Then there are some forecasts of power consumption going forward involving various scenarios from the status quo maintained to VR takes off to consoles explode well beyond current popularity.

This report is mostly an interesting read, an attempt by some people serious about their jobs to quantify, explore, and explain a complex situation that defies easy measure.

Much of the information in the study is based on earlier studies which are available online from Greening the Beast and which go into more depth in places:

In the end you and I pay the electrical bill, so it makes some sense to be at least somewhat aware of the impact game, setting, and hardware choices might have on your monthly statement.

18 thoughts on “California Explores Gaming Power Usage

  1. Jacob

    So… what is Miscellaneous? I tried to find an explanation in the PDF, but it wasn’t clear. And the Excel sheet linked in the PDF gives a 404 error. Looking at the categories, I am mystified at what could be using that amount of power.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Jacob – Yeah, I got that as well, along with a note that the state is “reorganizing” the site, which I think is the default language for them not caring.

    But yes, when you look at all the things they do specifically list out, like furnace fans, hot tub pumps, and color TVs you are left wondering what the hell else is there? It can’t be cordless phones, doorbells, alarm clocks, and iPhone chargers eating up all that power, can it? Are the holiday decorations and the Christmas tree pulling that much? Are they counting the electricity required to run the electric meter on the side of the house?

    Then again, I am not entirely convinced that we should put a lot of stock in the numbers they have listed either. Miscellaneous is probably “We don’t know, it could be things already on the list, but we can’t tell really.”


  3. Gnomenecro

    I was looking at Alienware systems last fall and noticed an asterisk that said that the desktop system I was viewing was not available for shipping to California. I figured it must have been due to some sort of state law related to its power supply rating and this pretty much backs up that theory.

    Maybe I should get my wife to turn off her 3-box setup overnight and see if the electric bill goes down. :)


  4. MagiWasTaken

    The Hot Tub Pump and the Pool Pump really got me there. “Miscellaneous” is something luxorious, I assumed…. and then there’s the pumps.
    And since Lighting is included in the graphs as a seperate point, I don’t think that Miscellaneous accounts for christmas lights and decorations and whatnot. Very interesting.
    As for gaming setups and all of that, I guess we could use power-saving-mode or sleep-mode more often instead of just leaving the PC on, or just turn it off and turn it on again if we have to leave the computer for a bit. I used to leave my laptop on, all the time, as I was working on stuff during the day and watching a show during the night (and I’d fall asleep during the night during the show, naturally). And then there’s also WIFI-routers, monitors and other screens that are plugged into the socket but aren’t necessarily being used while I’m not at home. Turning those things off more often, definitely would help in a sense. I usually turn off my stuff whenever I leave the flat for more than a day but don’t necessarily turn of the router when I’m going to university, for instance.
    There’re small things that could help but it kind of seems like this study is also trying to shame videogaming by putting consoles, pc gaming, and other sorts of media into one category and pointing the finger at “us”.
    “…desktop and laptop computers, consoles, and media streaming devices and associated displays, local network equipment, and speakers, as well as associated network and data-center energy.” is considered “computer gaming” but “Clothes Drying”, “Clothes Washing”, and “Hot Water Clothes Washing”, as well as “Dishwashing” and “Hot Water Dishwashing” are put in separately so that they don’t look like as much, compared to “computer gaming” which also consists of “network, datacenter energy” and all the different gaming-devices.


  5. Tessa - Narratess

    I specifically went with an all green power supplier (we don’t use gas, just electricity) and we managed to reduce our overall power usage fot the past two years. We’re conscious about it and not just because we’re gamers. I don’t think this report is a valuable source for any kind of discussion though. You’re poking enough holes as it is and I’m sure other researchers with more knowledge can do even more.


  6. SynCaine

    Could other be all the small stuff that gets plugged into an outlet? So phone/battery chargers, small appliances, the roomba, stuff like that? I could see all of that adding up. Just walk around your house and count the number of outlets that have something plugged in, I’d bet most people would be surprised by the amount.

    Are solar panels popular in CA? We have them on our house in MA, and most days they cover 90%+ of our usage. Would easily be 100%+ if power companies hadn’t lobbied for a stupid law that caps the number of panels you can have to your ‘average usage’, rather than just how many of the things you could fit on your roof. We would also be pretty close to 100% if we had one of those home batteries Tesla sells now, but that $15k or so price tag…


  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    For people getting worked up about the chart, that is not the sum total of the report. As I said in the post, the report is 92 pages long. The chart is on page 11 and is there pretty much just to establish that video gaming is popular and does lead to an amount of power draw worth taking note of.

    It just happens to be the one chart… and there are many charts and graphs… that stands alone pretty well without a couple of paragraphs of context. Also, it is a bit of an attention grabber.

    Also, I can see the number of times people clicked on the link to go read the report. I’m guessing that in this comment thread only Jacob and I have bothered given that it has gotten exactly one click since the post went live.

    @SynCaine – Solar is pretty popular out here. It is sunny California. Our house is perfectly positioned for solar panels, having a long south-facing area. However, my monthly utility bill isn’t large enough to make it worth the cost. We have new-ish and efficient appliances and LED lighting in most rooms. The biggest draws are probably my computer and the color TV. (BTW, I thought the most amusing part of that chart was the call out of “Color TV,” like we’re in an era when B&W TVs might still be a thing.) The gas part of the bill, which covers water heating, clothes drying, and heating is as much or more than electricity most months. We don’t have a pool or a hot tub, so no related pumping goes on.

    When my wife talks about getting air conditioning though, I tell her we’ll need solar panels first.


  8. SynCaine

    Solar panels are free from Tesla, or at least were back when the company was Solar City.

    They own the panels, so they do all the install and any maintenance (including damage to the roof due to having panels), and the power that is produced is sold to you at about half the cost of your utility company.

    Assuming the free thing is still in place, I don’t see why anyone who could get panels wouldn’t, its literally free money.


  9. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – My wife is in real estate and the contracts for these deals can encumber your property, making it more difficult to sell. Or so I am told. I am also suspicious of anything out of Tesla that sounds too good. I can easily imagine them jacking up the prices to cover short falls elsewhere. So I don’t see it as free money so much as an incentive to get entangled with a company whose financials do not justify their market valuation. But I live in Silicon Valley and have been suspicious since Netscape went public when its business was primarily free web browsers. (We were supposed to pay for Navigator eventually, but I never did.)


  10. SynCaine

    I heard the same fear mongering back before we had panels on our first house. 3 house later its never been an issue, either in selling or with Tesla to install or manage. Meanwhile we have been paying half the normal rate for electricity this entire time.

    Its free money.

    Tesla makes money because they still get to sell you the sun shining on your house.


  11. SynCaine

    Tesla isn’t the only option around here, so guessing in your area there are other companies doing a similar program. We have always had central air, so our bills are likely a lot higher than what you have. How you live without central ac is another discussion.


  12. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – One of the underrated features of Silicon Valley is the weather. We have mild winters and warm summers without much humidity, and heat without humidity is barely heat at all. You go stand in the shade and you cool off. I’ve been in 80 degree weather in Houston or Orlando or New Orleans (or even LA) that was unbearable compared to a 95 degree day here. And don’t get me started on the year I had to work MacWorld Boston in August.


  13. Onwuka

    Whatever you’re opinion of Tesla, it’s leadership generally, or it’s other products, the powerwall is fantastic and well worth the money if you can swing it and have PV panels to charge them. Our utility is one of the most expensive (currently $0.43/kWh) and least reliable in the country, so our incentive to go solar is much higher than most. We’ve been 100% solar powered with powerwalls for several years now and it’s more reliable, higher quality electricity than our utility can deliver. It’s like plugging in to a high quality grid for 1/4 the kWh price of our shitty local grid.

    As good as they are, newer technologies are going to obsolete them in the very near future. Liquid metal batteries that don’t require rare earth metals and cost a fraction of lithium ion will probably be widely available before our powerwalls reach the end of their design life cycle.


  14. Ula

    @TAGN I was too appalled to read their lousy excuse for a report.

    New homes in California are required to have solar at the moment, I believe. Our newer house came with a solar panel, though not a huge one, which would have been an upcharge. PG&E makes the billing too confusing to really know how much it’s saving us (in my opinion). They bill some kind of anticipated average each month then have a true-up at the end of the year.


  15. splatus

    So, what would the alternative to computer gaming be? Watching TV, driving to a bar, eating imported food? At least in colder climates, the electricity used to run the PC also heats the house. How about the energy required to build dedicated gaming PCs?

    I think we need to get back to VT320s and allow those only in libraries that can be reached by public transport. Greta would be proud


  16. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    Also, as an additional perspective, if you added world-wide Bitcoin mining to that graph current estimates would put the the length of the bar for that at 3-5x that of the miscellaneous bar. That free money eats a lot of electricity.


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