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Technology-based Reductions in Energy Consumption Touted

January 23, 2008


Technology is a wonderful thing, but as my recent post about the Japanese trying to develop robots to replace an aging workforce highlighted, you can’t easily take humans out of the equation [Demographics and Robots]. Politicians in the U.S., like those in Japan in counting on technology to solve problems, rather than risking the ire of voters by asking them to change their lifestyles. The case in point is energy consumption. Stephen Mufson, writing in the Washington Post, writes about how the Energy Bill passed by Congress and signed by the President in December will change the products consumers buy in the future [“Power Switch,” 20 January 2008].

“From light bulbs to clothes washers, the energy law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in December will change many of the appliances in the average American home. The incandescent light bulb, invented two centuries ago and perfected and popularized by Thomas Edison in the late 1800s, will become a thing of the past by the middle of the next decade. The look of the future? The curvaceous compact fluorescent bulbs that recently have become popular and other bulbs featuring light-emitting diodes or other advanced technologies. The energy law will also bring about important but less noticeable changes in the way clothes washers, dishwashers, boilers and dehumidifiers use energy and water. The goal is to reduce U.S. electricity use, a major source of greenhouse gases that scientists say contribute to global climate change.”

Environmentalists will argue that technology is fine, but, if you really want to make a dent in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the air, you have to get to change their consumption practices. In an election year, however, that is not a popular position to take. One of the debates currently underway in Congress is whether to support the construction of new coal-fired power plants. The U.S. is flush with coal. So those looking at energy independence must seriously consider those reserves. The problem, of course, is that coal-fired plants are some of the worst offenders when it comes to emitting greenhouse gases.

“Half of the nation’s electricity generation comes from coal-fired plants, which emit carbon dioxide. Moreover, if households cut electricity used for lighting and appliances, it could become easier to introduce electric cars, which could cut oil use without creating the need for a massive, new electricity-generating investment. Five to 10 percent of residential electricity goes into lighting, making it a prime target for policymakers searching for energy savings.”

Changing the type of light bulbs consumers use turns out to be a big deal.

“If every American household replaced just one incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb, the country would conserve enough energy to light 3 million homes and save more than $600 million annually. It would be as if 800,000 cars were taken off the road, according to a Web site maintained by the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Cutting down the amount of electricity used for light bulbs makes economic sense for homeowners, too, though most consumers are reluctant to make the switch. ‘These bulbs will be more expensive, but for a light bulb that you have on a couple of hours a day, the electricity is more expensive than the bulb,’ said Lowell Ungar, a senior analyst at the Alliance to Save Energy. ‘It will pay back in a few months.’ Compact fluorescent bulbs can screw into existing sockets, and they last many times longer than traditional lights. Homeowners’ reluctance prompted lawmakers to illuminate the path forward. The new energy law says that in 2012, any bulb emitting the amount of light a 100-watt bulb does today must use only 72 watts. In 2014, 40-, 60- and 75-watt bulbs will have to cut energy consumption by similar percentages. In 2020, the required energy savings become even more stringent, limiting electricity usage to about a quarter of today’s incandescent bulbs.”

These kinds of goals are good for stimulating innovation. Although fluorescent bulbs provide an interim answer, they are probably not the final answer because they introduce their own environmental problems.

“General Electric says it has come up with a more efficient incandescent bulb that would meet the intermediate standards to take effect in the next decade, but it hasn’t begun selling it. … Unlike incandescent bulbs, compact fluorescent bulbs contain no filament. They are gas-filled tubes with an electronic ballast. When turned on, an electric current flows through the gas, which emits ultraviolet light. That excites a white phosphor coating, which produces visible light. The tubes are twisted so their shape resembles an incandescent bulb. There are drawbacks, however. The bulbs can fade before burning out. And because the bulbs contain mercury, homeowners must be careful if one breaks.”

One promising technology is light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

“They are made more like semiconductors than light bulbs. For now they’re too expensive, but costs are coming down. Unlike compact fluorescent bulbs, LEDs don’t contain any hazardous materials, [Charlie Jerabek, chief executive of Osram Sylvania] said. What’s more, LEDs use half as much energy as compact fluorescent bulbs.”

If you want to learn more about LEDs and the man who helped develop them, Michael Schrage recommends reading Bob Johnstone’s book Brilliant [“Humbling the Ambitious,” Strategy + Business, Winter 2007].

“Johnstone does a brilliant job of describing how well and how persistently an unsung Japanese scientist, Shuji Nakamura, played the innovation game in the electronics industry. You’ve likely never heard of Nakamura, but this engineer was able to solve technical problems that had stumped top electronics firms for more than two decades; he created, for example, the last piece of technology needed to manufacture solid-state white lights known as light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. In his own way, Nakamura’s discovery may prove as high-impact as those of high-tech entrepreneurs such as Intel’s Bob Noyce or Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin.”

In another article about energy saving technologies, Doug Struck writes about all those appliances consumers kept plugged in drawing power, even though they think they are “off” [“A Big Drop In Emissions Is Possible With Today’s Technology,” Washington Post, 21 January 2008].

“You can flip off your widescreen TV with the remote control. Power down your computer to standby. Unplug your cellphone from its charger. But as you leave the room, the ‘wall warts’ — those small boxes plugged into the wall sockets that power your electronics — stare with glowing diode eyes in accusation: You are still using power. In homes and offices everywhere, the power drained by idle electronics adds up to what Andy Williams says is a substantial waste. Williams is vice president of a company called On Semiconductor. Using more efficient components and design, his company and others make devices that sharply cut the energy appetite of the ‘wall warts,’ both on standby and in use. He sees this as a key path to the future that will cut energy use and help curb global warming by ingenious use of technology. ‘We’re talking about the exact same principle as replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones,’ he said from Phoenix. ‘If our products were built into all consumer electronics — computers, flat-screen TVs, cellphones — we could save 800 million pounds of carbon emissions.’ His is a vision that dances enticingly in contrast to the doomsday predictions of runaway global warming and the oppressive remedies to fix it. Believers say technology will save us, creating a cleaner, cheaper, less-polluting society that will not require such burdensome changes in how we live.”

Again, the appeal of this approach is that technologist are saying let me do for you what you are unwilling to do for yourself. I have to admit that going around the house unplugging the “wall warts” isn’t something that anyone I know actually does. In such cases, technology can play a large role in helping reduce consumption.

“‘I believe with technology pretty much available today or in the very near short term, if we could move those fully into the market, we could get a 30 to 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases,’ said Dana Christensen, associate director of engineering sciences at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a government-supported research center that studies this question, among others. The caveat is crucial: if the technology is put to use. That is not as easy as it sounds. And no matter how enthusiastically better technology is adopted, it wouldn’t fix the whole problem by itself. But it could go a long way toward the solution, experts say. Technological societies are constantly striving to create ways of doing things more efficiently. Advances in efficiency in the past 30 years have led carbon emissions to grow only half as fast as the world’s economy, according to Robert Socolow, a Princeton University engineer. But those savings have been offset by the rise in population and consumption. Still, the potential for energy savings through bright ideas, clever engineering and new inventions is impressive.”

Struck goes on to list a number of technologies that were showcased in Toronto, Canada, last year a “Green Living Show.”

“One company makes old tires into impermeable and energy-efficient roofs for homes. Another demonstrates an invention that duplicates a pen’s movements over the Internet — signing papers remotely without a trip. On a broader scale, the mundane trappings of our modern life are becoming more efficient. Household appliances, including the thirstiest of them, furnaces and air-conditioners, have steadily diminished their energy consumption in the past three decades. Today’s new kitchen refrigerators, for example, use 70 percent less power than those made in the 1970s. More than one-third of all energy used in the United States goes to heat, cool and power buildings. A little more than half of that is for homes; the rest, for commercial buildings. All can be made to use less power. Buildings can be made with efficient materials such as old-fashioned straw covered with stucco or new-fashioned polystyrene boards, instead of plywood; with insulation that doubles the energy-savings rating properties; with heat-exchange systems and fewer leaks; with windows that reject heat and admit light; and with designs that make the most of the sun’s energy.”

All this sounds great, so why aren’t we making greater strides in reducing consumption and gas emissions? Struck explains:

“If the technology exists, what, then, is the problem? The cost of replacing anything, from a power plant to a coffee maker, is the first hurdle. Even if the logic of long-term savings makes it an economical move, individuals and companies often have no money for the initial replacement cost. In construction, for example, when a builder is trying to make a product that can sell for a lower price and a higher profit, he or she has little incentive to use expensive, energy-efficient techniques and materials. Even if all new buildings were constructed efficiently, it would take 50 to 75 years or more to substantially replace the existing stock. Unless owners are encouraged — or required — to retrofit their buildings with energy-saving materials, the gains from existing and future technology advances will be slow.”

That brings us full circle back to the Congress and its Energy bill. In some cases, the use of energy efficient technologies is going to have to been mandated. The result will be a growing “green economy” sector, which should produce new jobs, foster new innovations, and improve the quality of the environment. Sridhar Pappu reports that Democratic presidential candidates are calling for an increase in “green-collar” workers [“Politicians Power Up With ‘Green-Collar’ Workers,” Washington Post, 23 January 2007].

“When Hal Jordan, the fictional playboy test pilot, was given a power ring from a dying spaceman, thus making him the Green Lantern of Sector 2814 (Earth), he joined an elite military institution called the Green Lantern Corps — a group dedicated to preserving order in the universe while sporting distinctive green attire. Now, thanks largely to Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and others, they’ve been joined by a new emerald power: the ‘green-collar’ worker. ‘We need to make sure that we start jump-starting the jobs in this country again,’ Clinton said during Monday’s Democratic presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. ‘That’s why I want to put money into clean-energy jobs, green-collar jobs.’ Later, when speaking of his plans of an economic stimulus during his presidency, Edwards said what he had ‘proposed for green-collar jobs will create jobs within 30 or so days, so we will have an immediate impact on the economy and stimulate the economy.’ This wasn’t the first time either Clinton or Edwards has touted such jobs.”

An increasing number of green jobs will undoubtedly be created. On the other side, companies that can’t cope with the change will go out of business and some jobs will be lost. A switch to green jobs may require retraining for some workers. In the long run, the right investments in the long run could help the U.S. and global economies. There is growing interest in going green and that, I suspect, is a good thing.

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