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Study: Greedy Gadgets Suck Global Resources
Study: Greedy Gadgets Suck Global Resources

By Mark Long
May 14, 2009 1:41PM

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Your iPod may be helping to kill the environment. The International Energy Agency found that consumer gear accounts for 15 percent of household electricity consumption, and the total is rapidly rising. The good news: With energy-efficient technology and global policies, we can mitigate the effects on climate change and the environment.

A new study from the International Energy Agency predicts that by 2030, the energy demands of gadgets globally will collectively drain an amount of electricity equivalent to the total power consumption of two of the world's largest developed countries.

According to the intergovernmental organization, consumer gear currently accounts for 15 percent of household electricity consumption, and its share of the total is rapidly rising. Without new policies, noted IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka, the energy consumed by high-tech gear will double by 2022 and increase threefold by 2030.

"This increase up to 1700 TWh is equivalent to the current combined total residential electricity consumption of the United States and Japan," Tanaka said. "It would also cost households around the world $200 billion in electricity bills and require the addition of approximately 280 gigawatts of new generating capacity between now and 2030."

New Policies Required

The good news is that higher-efficiency technologies are already available that could cut this demand in half, Tanaka noted. "Many mobile devices are already far more efficient in their use of power than other devices which run off a main electricity supply. Because extending the battery life of a mobile device is a selling point, manufacturers place an emphasis on designing products which require very little power."

However, Tanaka believes that little will be accomplished in the area of world energy consumption reductions without government intervention. "Without new policies, the projected energy demand from information and communications technologies and consumer electronics will undermine our energy security and climate change mitigation," Tanaka said.

Government intervention is needed because consumers currently are not well informed about the problem and have little personal economic incentive to reduce gadget power consumption when their individual use is so small, Tanaka noted. Moreover, the entire gadget supply chain is currently geared toward delivering products with the lowest possible up-front cost, which often makes low energy consumption a secondary design and marketing priority.

The Improvement Opportunity

The new IEA study notes that the share of electricity currently consumed by refrigerators, freezers, clothes washers and other larger household appliances has actually declined of late due to the positive impact of energy-efficiency programs. On the downside, the growing popularity of electronic gear is acting to eat up the savings.

The IEA, which has 28 member countries, notes that there are nearly two billion television sets already in use, with an average of over 1.3 sets in each home having access to electricity. The ongoing shift to digital TV will only exacerbate the problem as consumers attach digital adapter boxes to their home-entertainment systems, adding to their existing energy budgets.

Though some power savings can be realized through better equipment and components, the largest improvement opportunity will come from making hardware and software work together more effectively to ensure that energy is used only when, and to the extent, needed, Tanaka observed. Moreover, there's no time like the present to get started.

Mobile phones and laptops are good examples of just what can be achieved when people realize that energy consumption really matters. "Where no such commercial drivers exist, governments must step in to ensure that we make the most of every energy efficiency opportunity," Tanaka said.

Up to 30 percent energy savings are possible right now for no additional lifetime costs, Tanaka said. Moreover, up to 50 percent energy savings are available using current technologies at small cost, and that figure may actually be a zero net cost if avoided carbon cost is considered.

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