Mexico city

Mexico, like a number of countries before it – including the UK, US and Lebanon – is doing away with the analogue infrastructure that transmits its television broadcasts and going digital. It’s an initiative that brings a raft of benefits, including higher resolution transmissions and the ability to piggyback other services such as broadband onto the infrastructure, but it is complex.

First of all, the technology that underpins nationwide transmission must be established so that digital signals can be sent and received. Secondly, its people must be able to continue watching after the switch from analogue to digital. In both the UK, where the process ran from 2007 to 2012, and the US, where it is scheduled to be completed on 1 September 2015, the government opted to subsidise converter boxes in their millions so that existing sets in people’s homes could cater for the change.

For the people of Mexico, the government has gone much further and decided to buy 14 million of its low income citizens a brand new digital TV. The decision, which has been criticised on counts of industrial corruption to favour the set manufacturer and accused of being a waste of taxpayer money, is on the face of it a far more expensive route to take – with even the cheapest digital television bought on a national scale coming in more costly than converter boxes.

Switching over to more efficient appliances

But look a little deeper and take account of a complex collection of factors such as how much it pays out in electricity subsidies and the money that can be made from recycling out-of-date sets and it may well be both cheaper in the long term and far more energy efficient.

With support from the Super-Efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment Initiative (SEAD), the Mexican Government’s National Commission for Energy Efficiency and Ministry of Communications and Transport crunched the numbers on whether or not it would be better to buy people new TVs or update their existing ones.

Making use of Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory’s Energy Efficiency Revenue Analysis tool, the government calculated that the conversion route would increase consumption by 21% over the next seven years whereas giving away LED LCD sets and taking away the old ones would reduce consumption by up to 82% with a lowest estimate of 68%.

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The overall consequence for the government was calculated to be a net saving of $2.3bn over the seven-year period. Its balance sheet would of course feature an unprecedented increase in spending on home entertainment systems, but according to the data that would be more than outweighed by a reduction in what it would need to pay out in electricity subsidies as a result of the improved efficiency of more advanced and efficient televisions.

In the conclusion of the original study behind the initiative, which also identified significant savings could be delivered by replacing air conditioning systems and fridges with more efficient models, the authors wrote: "In the case of LED-LCD TVs, the full incremental cost of models that are 36% more efficient than baseline LED-LCD TVs could be financed with just half of the savings from avoided subsidies."

Of course, sound as it may be in theory, achieving the savings will require a monumental exercise in efficient government programme delivery, with the new TVs efficiently delivered and the old ones efficiently collected and recycled. Recent reports on this, suggesting mass handouts with little logistical integrity and examples of people holding back their old sets to go from a one to two TV household, suggest that the benefits are unlikely to be up at the extreme best-case level.

Scaling up the incentive for less intensive equipment

However, even if such success fails to materialise over the next seven years, the initiative still stands as an exciting exercise in public policy. On the micro level, product manufacturers and utility companies have increased efforts to educate consumers on the opportunity to make more efficient purchases pay for themselves, but with as yet uninspiring results.

One of the major factors believed to be behind this is that on an individual scale, the savings benefit fails to incentivise the effort. Indeed in one study where participants were presented with the financial savings they had made through more energy-efficient behaviour – less time in the shower, more time turning off the lights – it was found to be a disincentive.

Taken out of the hands of individuals and into the remit of a competent government that offers scale in both purchasing and savings – before such things as reduced emissions are even considered – the potential motivation and benefits increase exponentially.

From TVs to radiators to kettles, there is a vast array of everyday appliances sapping electricity out of grids across the world. It’s about time the governments operating them look more closely at what is most cost-effective when all factors are accounted for.