October is Energy Awareness Month, so on this final day of the month, let’s pause a moment and consider energy and electronics. Here are five issues related to electronics and energy consumption that you may not have considered before, and some resources for further information on each.
1. Vampire Devices
It is Halloween, after all, so let’s talk about vampires. Vampire devices are those that draw power even when they’re turned off. This is known as standby power, and can sometimes be important for functionality (e.g. in the case of a clock display or timer in something like your DVR), but sometimes is simply wasted energy that results from leaving a power adapter or device plugged in. According to ENERGY Star, “The average U.S. household spends $100 per year to power devices while they are off (or in standby mode). On a national basis, standby power accounts for more than 100 billion kilowatt hours of annual U.S. electricity consumption and more than $10 billion in annual energy costs.” Scary!
- The ENERGY Star web site will help you choose devices that use the least amount of power in standby mode, and also teach you how to enable power management settings on devices like desktop computers so they save power when not in use.
- Tim Fitzpatrick of PG&E has written a nice guide to the “Top 10 Vampire Appliances” and provides some tips for slaying them. For example, did you know that advanced power strips have different plugs for different types of devices, and that their use has helped households achieve energy savings of nearly 50%?
- Check out my previous post on game consoles and energy efficiency.
2. Browsers & Batteries
Did you know that the life of your laptop battery could be affected by something as seemingly innocuous as your choice of Internet browser? Check out my previous post on this issue, which includes some tips for addressing it.
3. Energy Use–Now in 3D
The popularity and availability of 3D printing is exploding. There are many aspects of 3D printing that we really need to consider in terms of sustainability; I plan to write a blog post about these in the near future. For now let’s focus on the impacts of 3D printing in terms of energy consumption. In 2008, researchers at Loughborough University in the UK found that 3D printers that use heat or a laser to melt plastic consumed up to 100 times more electrical energy than traditional mass manufacturing to make an object of the same weight. And 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, using metal can be a different story altogether from printing with plastic. MIT’s Environmentally Benign Manufacturing Laboratory, headed by Tim Gutowski, has found that industrial printers that deposit and fuse metal power with high-energy beams (direct metal laser sintering) use hundreds of times the electricity per unit of metal than traditional manufacturing methods such as casting or machining. So if you’re just printing out a plastic squirrel for a science project at school, maybe 3D printing is fine, but mass production of say, little metal squirrel game pieces, might be best accomplished with traditional methods.
4. Powering the Internet of Things
Everyone seems to be talking about the “Internet of Things” and how it will revolutionize our culture. The idea is basically to have Internet capability built into virtually all everyday devices to improve your efficiency, make certain aspects of life more convenient and safe, etc. Examples might include wearable technology, smartphone apps that let you monitor and control conditions at your home while you’re out, structures that monitor environmental quality, and cars that drive or park for you. But how do we provide power for all of these constantly connected devices?
- For low-power wearables, the idea of energy harvesting, or capturing energy from body heat, motion, or ambient light, could provide as answer, as explained in this PC World article (which also includes Gartner’s staggering prediction that there will be 26 billion Internet connected devices by 2020). See also this article from AXIOM on energy harvesting.
- Another possibility is to do away with batteries entirely. The Charlotte-based company Psikick, suggests doing this via subthreshold processing, or harvesting energy leakage from transistors that have a supply voltage below a certain threshold. Read more about the concept in this recent article from Forbes
5. Embodied Energy
Embodied energy is all the energy that goes into the production of a product or service, and electronic devices have quite the embodied energy load. In fact many sources indicate that more energy is used in the production of electronics devices than in the use for their entire average lifespan. That’s why minimizing the number of devices you use, choosing to repair devices instead of replacing them, and buying used or refurbished devices are all important.
- See my post on 5 Source Reduction Tips for Electronics Consumers for more information and advice.
- Low-tech Magazine provides this nice overview on the energy footprint of digital devices.
- Check out this ACEEE publication, What We Know and Don’t Know about Embodied Energy and Greenhouse Gases for Electronics, Appliances, and Light Bulbs.