on the topic of data claims at face value

what if i told you 43.2% of all statistics were made up? ok, that was totally fetched from the air so let me make it up to you… it’s really 61.3%. better?

the fine folks at the national resources defense council (nrdc) have recently published a report on electricity consumed by video game consoles. now before i go further let me clear the air (pun intended): when it comes to data analytics, i’m agnostic and i’ve seen all sides of the aisle cherry-pick numbers. so today, i’m not going to show you how the sausage is made, but rather how it smells.

the report it seems was funded by the epa and claims the following:

NRDC’s analysis shows that collectively these new consoles will use roughly 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually in the United States alone, enough electricity for all of Houston’s homes, once all previous-generation consoles in use have been replaced by these newer ones. Although the new consoles have incorporated some energy-saving design features, including better power scaling (drawing less power when doing less work) and transitioning automatically to a lower-power state after an extended period of user inactivity, more improvements remain achievable and necessary.

not a bad exec summary really. while game consoles, imho, don’t rank up there with 90% of the country’s problems, a good study on their consumption metrics is a handy piece of information to have. i included the results of a similar study over two years ago in a talk i once gave to college students and they related to it well. so let’s take a look at four of this study’s claims and see how our analytics stacked up:

  1. annual electricity consumption = 10-11 billion kilowatt hours per year
  2. equivalent to the output of 4 large power plants (at 500 megawatts each)
  3. [costs] $1 billion in annual electricity bills
  4. as much electricity as all of the households in the city of houston (4th largest city in the u.s.)


hmmm. let’s break these down.


#1 – annual electricity consumption = 10-11 billion kilowatt hours per year

10-11 billion is a lot and the difference between the high-end and low-end is significant. the report does a good job of explaining the nrdc’s test methodology so i’m going to take this one at face value for the moment while offering up some comparative numbers…


according to the u.s. energy information administration (eia), as of june 2013 and based on 2011 data, clothes washers consumed 10 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. if we adopt the low-end claim of console consumption, we now have a game-console :: clothes-washer comparison. each consumed the same amount of electricity and, therefore, account for the same 2011 percentage of estimated u.s. residential electricity consumption by end-use.

so 3 years have passed since this data was compiled and the nrdc report was commissioned. Xbox and PSn existed then as did others. it’s possible that in 2011, the other uses category, at 22%, included those consoles’ usage. so while the console::washer comparison may seem lopsided, given the limitations of our data sets versus reasonably-constructed test approach… I’m on board for now.


#2 – equivalent to the output of 4 large power plants (at 500 megawatts each)

here’s an important distinction i remind people of all the time:  energy vs. power. they are two different things. based on #1, our consumption is 10 billion kWh of energy – or 10,000,000 megawatt hours (MWh). a power plant has a capacity that’s rated in megawatts (MW) of power. power does not become energy until its moved. if those 4 plants (4 x 500 = 2000) run continuously for a year, they would produce 17,532,000 MWh of load-serving energy.

17,532,000 – 10,000,000 = 7,532,000.

the nrdc claim is overstated by 7,532,000 MWh per year. a more accurate claim would be to say… given #1, it would require four 286MW plants to run continuously for a year under minimal outage circumstances. that doesn’t sound nearly as sexy.


#3 – $1 billion in annual electricity bills

i’m on board with this one too. my analytics spreadsheet below has all my steps but let me quicken the pace… based on 2012 eia data sets:

  • average retail u.s. electricity price = $118.80 per MWh
  • average u.s. consumption = 11 MWh per year
  • average u.s. electricity bill = $1,287.36 per year
  • number of u.s. customers = 126,832,343
  • annual electricity total = $163,278,885,084.48
  • what percent is the claim of total electricity bills? with reasonable rounding, turns out to be 1% again


#4 – as much electricity as all of the households in the city of houston (4th largest city in the u.s.)

this one was a bit tricky b/c data sets for individual cities is rarely available. i had decided that if i ran into a wall, i’d check to see if houston really was the 4th largest and leave it at that! i’m kidding. again, the complete steps are in the spreadsheet but here are the numbers:

  • number of houston homes = 782,643
  • average houston energy price = $132.56 per MWh
  • average houston bill = $1,436.37 per year
  • total houston bills = $1,124,166,491.20 per year
  • difference between total houston bills and nrdc claim #3 = $124,166,491.20
  • equivalent number of houston homes = 86,445 overstated

86445 is somewhere between Newton, Massachusetts and San Marcos, California in terms of population (not homes). it’s also the zip code for Willow Beach, AZ. just sayin.


so what’s the take away here? i think it’s this… accept what is printed/stated with cautious and skeptical optimism. if it doesn’t pass the sniff test, check it out and call it out. but do yourself and others a favor, if you do call it out, cite your references so others can join in the dialog. if you simply call bs without backing up your counter claim, you’re only adding to the noise.

note: I had a brief email chat with the fine gentleman responsible for the nrdc report. i think he and they produced an admirable report that certainly furthers the cause of power consumption awareness. they didn’t use the data sets i used; they maintain an internal process/calculator for generating their numbers.

all files below come from their respective sources and have not been modified other than to insert the source url where applicable. spreadsheets are macro-free, code-free, free-free, and i provided links/references to all the source data i used to construct. enjoy.

NRDC Report

EIA Data Sets

City of Houston

My Analysis



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