Efficiency debate: The pros and cons of consumer electronics
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy issued a report yesterday touting the role that semiconductor-based technologies have played in making the U.S. economy more efficient. At the same time, the International Energy Agency issued its own report calling on governments around the world to be more aggressive with efficiency standards for ICT and consumer electronics, which are expected to demand twice as much power by 2022 and three times as much by 2030 — creating a need for another 280 gigawatts of power generation (i.e. like adding another Japan to the world, or more than 230 nuclear reactors). “This will jeopardize efforts to increase energy security and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases,” according to an IEA news brief.
I’ve got a story on it here in the Toronto Star.
It appears the American efficiency council was aware that the IEA report was coming and intent on countering its conclusions, or at least defending the role that semiconductor-based technologies have played in improving efficiency throughout the larger economy. The council claims that such technologies have *avoided* the need for 184 power plants since 1976 and, using 2006 as a reference point, saved consumers and businesses $69-billion on their electricity bills. More than that, the technologies have prevented 479 million megatons of CO2-equivalent emissions — that is, they’re responsible for a “20 per cent cut in electric utility industry emissions linked to climate change.” Going forward, it estimates a further $1.3 trillion (yes, trillion) in savings between now and 2030. “Despite the immediate growth in electricity demands to power the growing number of devices and technologies, semiconductors have enabled a surprisingly larger energy productivity benefit in that same period,” argues John Laitner, the council’s director of economic and social analysis.
So who’s right? Well, both.
Certainly computers and networking gear have contributed substantially to economic efficiency, but can the same argument be said for iPods and cellphones with digital cameras and other unnecessary features built into them? Do we really need four televisions, three computers, two DVD players and digital picture frames that use remote controls in every home? Fact is many of the consumer electronics, if not most, contribute nothing to productivity but exist merely to entertain and make life more convenient, and in most cases slightly so. This is what the IEA is talking about, and while it implicitly recognizes such a market is important and not going away, it makes a good argument: If we’re going to become more gadget-obsessed we have an obligation to make these devices as energy-efficient as possible.