Low-Power Design Has a High-Power Payoff

The New York Times ran a story this morning that speaks directly to engineers involved in low-power design: Plugged-In Age Feeds a Hunger for Electricity. The message and the challenge are clear:

“Electricity use from power-hungry gadgets is rising fast all over the world… Americans now have about 25 consumer electronic products in every household, compared with just three in 1980. Worldwide, consumer electronics now represent 15 percent of household power demand, and that is expected to triple over the next two decades. To satisfy the demand from gadgets will require building the equivalent of 560 coal-fired power plants, or 230 nuclear plants… Most energy experts see only one solution: mandatory efficiency rules specifying how much power devices may use.”

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, gaming consoles alone–which kids like mine often leave on all the time so they can pick up where they left off–now use about the same amount of electricity each year as San Diego, the ninth-largest city in the country.

This is both reprehensible and indefensible. It’s also completely unnecessary. Low-power design, when scaled to hundreds of millions of devices, amounts to green engineering. Designing a more power-efficient wall wart or game console is not rocket science. First you have to wake up to the fact that it’s important to do so–then just do it.

Raising awareness of the social (“green”) implications of power-efficient design and providing the tools to help implement such products is the whole mission of Low-Power Design. The Times article makes it clear why going down this path is so important.

Note to CEA: Get Over It

Since the consumer electronics industry hasn’t seen the importance of energy-efficient design, government regulation is the obvious card to play. Since 1990, when the Energy Star standards for appliances went into effect, refrigerators are 45% more efficient on average and washing machines as much as 70%. Scaled to the national level this has precluded the need for hundreds of nuclear or coal-fired power plants.

Appliance Effiency Gains

Appliance Effiency Gains

In 1987 Congress gave the Energy Department the power to set efficiency standards for televisions, which aren’t covered by Energy Star. With the advent of large, flat-panel displays, televisions can now consume more energy than refrigerators, making them Tier 1 energy hogs. Still manufacturers–aggressively lead by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)–have fought every attempt to increase energy efficiency in consumer electronics (CE) products. According to Douglas Johnson, the senior director of technology policy at CEA, “Mandatory limits, such as we see in California, threaten to raise prices for consumers and reduce consumer choice.”

Baloney. If I have to pay $100 more for a flat-screen TV that draws half as much power, my total cost of ownership drops dramatically; the payback time depends on your utility rates, but with the average household watching five hours of TV daily, the payback will take place in a matter of months, after which my new TV is putting money in my pocket each month. That’s the sort of choice consumers want and the CEA is fighting to avoid. It’s time to get past “Just Say No!”

It’s also time to get on with the real work of low-power, energy-efficient “green” design. Over to you on that note.

About John Donovan

Writer, editor, Dad
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