Power-hungry gadgets endanger energy efficiency gains
May 15, 2009
The International Energy Agency is a multinational group that tracks global energy use and makes projections of how current trends are likely to influence future supply and demand. Its latest report, released on Wednesday, is entitled Gadgets and Gigawatts. Not surprisingly, it focuses on consumer products, but it tells two very different tales. For appliances like dishwashers and refrigerators, energy use has been plunging in part due to government efficiency incentives, and that plunge has been accompanied by dropping prices. For electronic gadgets, in contrast, nothing is being done, and the growth in the electrical demand they’re generating will put severe strain on future power supplies if business as usual continues.
From the IEA’s perspective, a single issue underlies the dynamics in both markets: the price difference between efficient and power-hungry items is often small, and electricity is pretty cheap. As such, individual consumers don’t have much incentive to pick an efficient device. Society as a whole, however, has a large range of reasons to prefer that its members pick efficient items, as it’s easier and cheaper to supply less power, there are less pollution results, finite fuel sources last longer, etc.
As a result, governments tend to drive efficiency improvements through programs like incentives to manufacturers, minimum performance requirements, and programs like Energy Star, which provide information that consumers find easy to digest. These programs are often portrayed as anticonsumer by trade groups, since efficient devices are assumed to be more expensive, but the IAE doesn’t buy that at all. Prices for all major appliances have been dropping at the same time their energy use drops, and the reports analysis finds no relationship between price drops and efficiency gains across different classes of appliances.
Switching focus to electronics, from gadgets to computers and monitors, the same issues apply. Unless consumers are building their own data center, small differences in efficiency don’t register on their electric bills, so they go for more powerful (and generally more power-hungry) items. Smaller gadgets are often battery-powered, so efficiency does start to matter to consumers there, but that doesn’t help as much as it might. In part, this is because consumers are demanding ever-more powerful gadgets, and battery tech is improving to feed those needs. The other problem is that these devices are often charged by horribly inefficient power converters.
The net result is that consumer electronics and telecommunication devices already account for an estimated 15 percent of all residential electricity consumption already. But the growth is expected to be large, with power use doubling by 202, and tripling by 2030. To provide a sense of scale, the 2030 figure would be 1,700 Terawatt hours, which is equal to the current residential consumption in the US and Japan combined. Even if we assumed we could find a source of that sort of power, there are clearly going to be issues involved with building the generating and distribution infrastructure needed to get it to the end-users.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way, according to the IAE. Simply performing a lifecycle cost analysis on these products, which includes the power they use once they’re in the hands of consumers, would help identify the features that offend the worse in terms of energy use. According to the IAE, this would cause an immediate drop in energy use, and cut the future increase in half. Adopting current best practices would also cause an immediate drop, but future rises would be so slow that it would take until 2030 to simply get back to current levels of use.
The challenge, in the view of the report’s authors, is that most of differences in terms of components that make for a more efficient device are tiny in isolation; it’s only when large numbers of the final product are considered that significant energy savings become apparent. The other issue is that, for most of these devices, software plays a very important role in ensuring that the components operate at their maximal energy efficiency. For example, there’s a Sony TV that had a miniscule power draw when idle, but only spent 15 percent of its time idling because of a software glitch.
Again, the direct incentives that would lead consumers to pick an efficient device, manufacturers to choose the hardware components that creates one, and software makers to leverage that hardware, are all tiny, and unlikely to drive the necessary changes. So, the IAE recommends adoption of the sorts of policies that drove efficiency changes in larger appliances. In addition, the report recommends that software be considered in these policies, so that devices ship with energy saving features engaged by default and some sort of disincentive is provided when attempts are made to change them.
Because of the complexities involved, this seems like a far more challenging project than, say, ensuring that the average refrigerator is more energy efficient. Still, if the projected growth in energy use is anything like the IAE is suggesting, there’s going to be a powerful incentive to solve them.
This post has been written by John Timmer on May 14, 2009 9:50 PM couresy of arstechnica.com.