'Vampire Energy' Is Sucking the Life Out of Our Planet

Until recently, I thought vampires—creatures of the night that suck the life from their victims—existed only in the fictional realms of literature and TV. That's until I learned about a real-life scenario draining both our wallets and the planet : vampire energy.

Vampire energy, also called standby power or phantom loads, is power certain electronics and electrical appliances consume even after they are placed in standby mode or switched off. Devices without clocks and dashboards, such as lamps and toasters, do not consume vampire energy. But many “smart” products do; for these devices, energy use comes mainly from adaptors converting AC into DC and circuits that continue to be energized even when a device is “off.”We also have an abundance of appliances with internal thermostats working around the clock to maintain specific temperatures. Water coolers are one of the biggest culprits. In the past, we’d grab a glass of water from the faucet and throw in some ice. Today, the water cooler is always running (and the water cooler market in the United States has swelled to nearly a billion dollars). These appliances are frequently set at around +3.1°C/37.6℉ for cold and +94°C/201.2℉ for hot water. Both ends of the spectrum require a significant amount of energy.

Although estimates vary, vampire energy consumption can account for as much as 40 percent of a building’s energy use and associated monthly electricity bill. These figures seemed staggering to me, so I conducted a test. Because it’s not enough to turn things off, I went around and unplugged everything in my house that is not in regular use, including electric heaters, multiple candle warmers, and several abandoned surge protectors and charge stations, among various other household appliances.

My electricity bill dropped by $38 the next month and $30 the month after, shaving about a third off what I typically paid. While that is impressive, my tiny home is just a blip on the map. Studies from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have found that more than 100 billion kilowatt-hours are wasted every year because of vampire energy, “costing American consumers over $19 billion—about $165 per US household on average—and 50 large (500-megawatt) power plants’ worth of electricity.”But vampire energy is not just a money suck; it’s killing our planet. Electricity is often generated through the combustion of hydrocarbons like oil, gas, and coal, which release significant amounts of carbon dioxide. According to a study conducted by Earthday, 100 billion kilowatt-hours of vampire energy produce nearly 80 million tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions from about 15 million cars. This accounts for around 1 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions.

And while residential waste plays a role, industrial vampire energy consumption is a much bigger contributor to those emissions. In addition to industry-specific appliances, industrial vampire energy culprits include the vending machines, water coolers, and photocopiers lurking around every corner in commercial buildings, warehouses, and other facilities. We don’t really know how often people use these machines, but they still consume energy 24/7. They also take up space that is needed for proper ventilation of a building; buildings are more energy-efficient when they have less stuff in them.