Green Electronics in an Age of Endless Innovation

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Global smartphone sales reached 1 billion in 2013 and 1.2 billion in 2014. By comparison, television sales may fall to below 200 million this year. There are profound trends in the works in the IT industry as our gadgets become increasingly mobile and sophisticated, with users demanding huge energy efficiency gains.

“The more mobility you want to have, the longer-lasting energy storage systems you have to install, and this is definitely a little behind in innovation compared to IT and semiconductor developments,” Constantin Herrmann, principal sustainability consultant for Thinkstep, told TriplePundit. “The batteries are far behind the speed of the innovation cycle. The IT industry is hard at work on this to make better, more efficient power systems to ensure longer mobility and independence of the user.”

The IT industry is scrambling to meet consumer demand, which in turn pushes the energy efficiency of our gadgets. Enormous strides have been made, which are fueled by the market.

“We have seen higher density of data per power usage, and CPUs have dramatically lower consumption per action,” Hermann said. “Market demand continues increase functional requirement which runs in opposition to the efficiency curve. There is a huge efficiency increase, but the counter effect is that people consume more and more of these things. It’s called the rebound effect.”

This brings up the question: When will these enormous leaps in technology and efficiency dramatically reduce our energy consumption? As the capabilities and opportunities that technology have to offer seem like an endless frontier, the market demands more.

This does put a natural pressure on the IT industry to constantly innovate to be more energy efficient, as greater mobility requires increased energy efficiency. Batteries are not able to provide all that we want them to with today’s technology, requiring energy efficiency innovation.

smartphoneThe issues around energy efficiency in the IT industry are changing, as our use of gadgets shifts. Vampire power from standby use was a big issue and a focus of green innovation, as many corded electronics continuously use wattage when plugged into a power outlet just to have the ability to use a remote control or be in standby mode. Although big strides were made to minimize this, the issues in energy efficiency are shifting as technology gets increasingly mobile. The way technology functions is shifting on certain devices, with electronics not always being on, off or in standby mode.

“You cannot even quantify vampire power in a smartphone, for example,” Hermann told us. “Is it standby, idle, in use or running apps?”

Beyond consumer demand fueling green innovation in the electronics industry, government regulation can certainly play a role. Some regulations have gone into effect that may have addressed one particular issue, but didn’t take a big-picture view on issues. If one material is banned in electronics, for example, it is important to first determine if there are safer and viable substitutes. Ideally regulations will be based on a collaborative process that takes a broad triple-bottom line look at issues with multiple stakeholders involved.

“A great example of a multi-stakeholder approach is the use of energy-efficient bulbs in electronics, which are based on the technology in fluorescent lamps, but smaller,” Hermann explained. “These lamps use mercury. The question was, then, how using mercury compares to reducing energy consumption of light bulbs for the market, the environment and the consumer. There was a need to investigate this first with a lifecycle approach, and that brought together all the stakeholders (OEMs, the NGOs, analytics from a lifecycle analysis, additional investigations, and government regulators) to answer what is economically stable, best for the consumer, and the environment. This shows what is necessary today to have good regulations to reduce energy and education for consumer with an easy-to-understand label showing a rating.”

The EU Energy Label clearly demonstrates to consumers how a specific product ranks against others, assisting in informed purchasing choices. As technology gets more and more advanced and environmental issues are increasingly complex, it is important to help consumers navigate issues and make informed decisions without needing to do in depth research.

Ultimately, technology is in our lives to provide a service and fulfill a need. We don’t want the washing machine. We just want to have clean clothes. Hermann suggested that consumer-friendly information would also be helpful in making optimum purchasing decisions that could result in energy savings.

“If you go into an electronics store, and you want to buy something, you probably have a product in mind. At the end of the day, you should have a need in mind. Currently, if you just go into a shop with a need in mind, you probably won‘t find the right product. There needs to be more information and education about what a product can provide and what it provides beyond your needs so you don’t unknowingly consume more power than you need.”

Image credits: 1) Flickr/r. nial bradshaw 2) Flickr/Japanexperterna.se

Sarah Lozanova is a green copywriter and communications professional specializing in renewable energy and clean technology. She is a consultant for Sustainable Solutions Group and a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Home Power, Earth911, and Green Builder. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine.