A digital screen on a bus stop advertising Black Friday deals for sim cards.

The electricity use of Digital Billboards

This blog updates an Adblock Bristol post from 2019 which calculated the electricity usage of digital outdoor advertising screens. This new blog uses updated figures for power and energy usage and links to more recent wider research.

The outdoor advertising industry is installing a huge number of digital screens in British towns and cities. These bright screens are highly profitable for advertisers as they typically run around six ads per minute compared to having a static advert on a traditional paper billboard. 

Digital ad screens (aka digital out of home aka DOOH) come in all shapes and sizes but they all share one thing in common – they require a huge amount of energy to run. 

As Europe enters an energy crisis, governments in Germany, Austria, France and Spain have mandated that digital ad screens should be switched off at night to save energy. Adfree Cities is petitioning for the same in the UK.

So how much energy do DOOH screens actually use?

Large digital billboards

The following information was gathered from a 2021 planning application to install a 6.4 m x 3.1 m digital billboard in South Bristol, with a screen of nearly 20 square metres.

JCDecaux applied for permission to install this Daktronics unit. Below is a snapshot of the technical specification submitted, which details the maximum power requirements of the unit as being between 4752 watts (typical) and 15840 watts (maximum).

A screenshot of technical specs of a digital ad screen.
Technical specs for the large digita ad screen (right).
A photo of a digital billboard screen, which is blank.
A large digital screen on Bath Road, Bristol.

Multiplying the power (wattage) by 24 hours a day and 365 days a year we see that one year of operation at the typical level would use 41,627kWh of electricity.

That’s more than 11 average UK households.  

The maximum potential electricity consumed by this development – if it was running for a full year at maximum output – would be 138,758kWh… more than enough to power 36 homes! 

(These figures are calculated using industry numbers for powering the screens. That doesn’t include other energy costs associated with ad screens, such as their data servers, environmental sensors or cooling mechanisms.)

A ‘Digital Six Sheet’ advertising screen

In January 2021, a Guardian article used Freedom of Information requests and data from JCDecaux to calculate energy usage for double-sided six sheet (1.2m x 1.8m) digital screens in Manchester, including average energy use.

Their calculation was as follows:

  • Average daily power use of one double-sided six sheet sized screen = 31.51kWh
  • Over one year = 11501kWh 
  • Average UK home electricity consumption (2021) = 3898kWh
  • 11501kWh divided by 3898kWh = 3 UK homes

Wider environmental costs

It might be argued that digital screens represent an environmental benefit by reducing paper use and removing the need for someone to physically travel to the site every couple of weeks to install a new billboard. 

However, modern paper production and recycling makes paper highly sustainable, whilst the materials used in digital screens are often either non-recyclable or not recycled and can even be toxic. 

The environmental cost of construction, including the steel, glass and rare minerals used in the electronics, is also substantial. 

Moreover, whilst LED bulbs – used in digital screens – are individually more energy efficient than traditional light bulbs – used to illuminate static billboards – the sheer number of LEDs used in a digital screen (in the tens of thousands) far outweighs the efficiency saving

Of course, we would like to see fewer adverts overall, both the digital and paper varieties. Advertising itself contributes massively to our collective CO2 emissions, promotes unhealthy products and damages people’s mental health and wellbeing.

A large digital screen.
A digital billboard in Bristol. The energy usage of such a large screen has yet to be calculated.

A Growing Problem

And the number of DOOH screens is going up and up all the time. 

Market research from the US suggests that numbers of DOOH screens increased by 43% between 2017-2020, with an annual compound growth rate of 8.94%

Ad company Clear Channel estimates there are 30,000 DOOH panels in the UK. This number covers everything from billboards to bus stops to small window displays. 

This means that any supposed efficiency savings are far outweighed by the growth in the sheer number of screens. 

Finally, there is the climate cost caused by the uptick in sales of products generated by advertising. A 2022 report by an organisation of advertising insiders, Purpose Disruptors, found that advertising adds 208 million tonnes of CO2 to the UK’s emissions every year and is responsible for adding 32% to the carbon footprint of every person in the UK. 

This marks a 11% increase in advertised emissions since 2019. Clearly the sector is going in the wrong direction. 

What you can do today

Adfree Cities has lots of actions you can take to reduce the presence of corporate advertising in public space.

  • Local authorities often own large advertising estates, especially bus stop adverts. Learn how to lobby your council to introduce an ethical advertising policy that limits ads for things like junk food, alcohol, gambling, pay-day loans and high carbon products.
  • Stopping new ads being installed can be slow but is also massively effective and sends a clear message to advertising companies that they are not welcome on our streets. Find out more about objecting to planning applications here.
  • Fighting ads is more fun together! Click here to find your nearest Adblock group. Can’t find one? Start your own and we’ll support you every step of the way.

Technical Appendix

To find the daily energy consumption of a screen:
(Wattage × Hours Used Per Day) x 1000 = Daily Kilowatt-hour (kWh) consumption

To find the annual energy consumption:
Daily kWh consumption × number of days used per year = annual energy consumption

Average UK home electricity usage taken from data collected by Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy:

2021 = 3898kWh
2020 = 3954kWh
2019 = 3768kWh

Calculations for Irish households

Average Irish home electricity usage is 4,200kWh taken from data collected by the Commission for Energy Regulation (2017)

Large digital ad screen uses 41,627 kWH per year. Divide that by 4,200kWh = 9.91 average Irish households

A ‘Digital Six Sheet’ screen uses 11501kWh per year. Divide that by 4,200kWh = 2.74 average Irish homes

Further Reading

Is the climate cost of digital advertising too high to justify?
The Drum, July 2022 https://www.thedrum.com/news/2022/07/15/the-climate-cost-digital-billboards-too-high-justify 

Manchester electronic ad boards each use electricity of three households,
The Guardian, January 2022

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