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.


5 thoughts on “Efficiency debate: The pros and cons of consumer electronics”

  1. I’d have to say the first thing that occurs to me is, if the IEA expects ICT/consumer electronics’ power needs to double in ten years and triple in twenty, it’s probably almost solely because they are expecting the sheer volume of those devices to proliferate, probably in non-First World markets like China, India or Africa. In that kind of market situation I can’t help but wonder exactly how much difference a reasonably achievable increase in efficiency can actually make — suppose you could reasonably achieve 10% efficiency gains on the electronics over that period; is it really so much better to have to build only 207 new nuclear reactors rather than 230 (230 – 23)?

    And it should be remembered that in practice, in the market, efficiency gains don’t result in actual reductions in energy use as often as one might expect; end users have a strong and demonstrated tendency simply to use the more efficient product more often or for longer periods (like the more fuel-efficient car, people don’t spend less on gas or use less gas, they simply go farther for what they already spend and consume).

    Efficiency is definitely a worthwhile goal, but I think it has its own curve of diminishing returns in terms of practical achievement vs. investment of effort and development. Concentrating on things like entertainment/ICT technology at the end of the distribution trees, rather than on the power plants at their source, seems like a bit of a red herring to me. Solve the big problems first.

  2. In some cases, as you make things more efficient, the good old Jevons paradox comes into play. For example, cell phones were not attractive to the masses until they were small enough and had a long-enough standby time that they were very convenient. To do this, we needed smaller, more efficient batteries, and very efficient software and processing hardware. We built it, and now more and more people are getting their own personal phones when one in the home would have sufficed. They are leaking power all day long waiting for a phone call, their AC adapters leak power, and they must be charged regularly. And efficiency led to an overall increase in consumption.

    You can imagine the same thing with cars, I think. There is a certain segment in society — and it might be large in developing countries with huge populations — that can’t afford today’s cars and the fuel required to operate them. But if you cut the cost of the car in half and the cost of the fuel bill in half, it might open up a whole new market… and there’s no guarantee that many of the existing users would convert to the new vehicle.

    It seems like we will find a way to use up the fuel supply, one way or another. If one use becomes more efficient, it lowers demand and therefore price, and a new application that was previously too expensive comes along to stand in its stead.

  3. To add… those “efficiency savings” arguments can be a bit like the ones about computer piracy, where piracy represents some massive amount of revenue loss. The truth is, many people who pirate would not have bought the software under any circumstance and use it just because they can.

    Efficiency creates new avenues of consumption as well as reducing the power used by existing consumption (and this is delayed, especially if the efficiencies are in something as durable as a refrigerator, furnace, automobile, or washer/dryer).

    In the case of efficiency, where electricity is concerned, except for a few special-case appliances like dryers and stoves for which most houses have special outlets, we are limited by the power output of a standard 120V, 15A electrical outlet. As soon as “efficiency” allows something to be plugged into such an outlet, you create a whole new market. What if efficiency had not allowed us to plug window AC units into a standard outlet?

    And you can say the same for most common power sources — the ability to be powered by a couple of AA batteries, for example, or to run from a car’s power supply. Both require improved efficiency to make it possible.

  4. It would probably be fair to say that if your goal is an overall absolute reduction in amount of energy used, efficiency improvements will probably not help much. If your goal is to minimize the inevitable increase in the amount of energy used, however, efficiency is a valuable element in one’s plan.

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