CES 2011: What Does Energy Efficiency Mean for Electronics Innovation?


Photos via Jaymi Heimbuch

Appliances and gadgets have become an increasingly significant portion of our electricity bills. As pointed out during a panel on energy efficiency at CES, the portion has gone up from 8% in the 1990s to 41% for homes, and from 2% to 26% for businesses. That's a substantial jump, and it means that energy efficiency is a more important topic than ever. Noah Horowitz, Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council, David Katzmaier, Senior Editor, CNET, and Brian Markwalter, Vice President, Research & Standards, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), sat on the panel and discussed some of the issues revolving around efficiency, including smart homes and the role of consumer purchasing decisions on the energy grid.
Managing Energy Use

When discussing different approaches to managing energy use, from smart plugs consumers can start using today, to chips that could be inserted into chargers for devices by manufacturers to increase efficiency, to the integrated smart home of the future as shown off by GE, Katzmaier noted that as consumers, we're more likely to invest in a whole-picture technology like a smart home rather than individual products that have to each be managed.

Katzmaier's sentiment was echoed by Horowitz, who stated, "Intelligent dashboards are a ripe technology." Indeed this seems to be the case as we've seen a rise in start-ups finding solutions for helping homeowners and business managers monitor and minimize their energy use. This interconnectivity of a whole home, the panelists noted, is where real energy efficiency will begin. However, Horowitz also noted that products still have to be efficient in the first place. He pointed out that televisions are about 50% more efficient than they were just a few years ago, but the stuff we attach to them, like cable boxes and gaming devices are not. Energy efficiency with these devices have to get a whole lot better, and that's in the manufacturers' hands, not the homeowners'.

What's Holding Back Smart Homes?

Another stumbling block for connected homes, as Markwalter pointed out, is that while the pieces seem to be getting perfected, the integration of those pieces into a working whole is still a long way off. Overall, we seem to have all the components for a smart home attached to a smart grid, we just need a way (or the confidence) to link them all together. As Katzmaier pointed out, retrofitting older homes with the new technologies can pose significant problems. And finally there are issues such as the lack of dominance from a single Home Area Network protocol -- There's ZigBee, ZWave and several others, none of which are necessarily clear leaders. Markwalter stated, "There probably won't be, and shouldn't be, just one protocol." But making several function successfully will be an issue.

Have We Reached The End of the Line on Energy Efficiency?

Panel moderator Martin LaMonica asked another question that seems to be running just under the surface of energy efficiency discussions -- have we tapped out on energy efficiency on devices? Have we reached the best we can do and now we have to focus on whole house approaches?

Markwalter felt that we'll never reach the limit of efficiency improvements, but that we'll probably move more toward working through systems issues and figuring out what consumers want most, rather than continuing to improve the same products over and over again.

Katzmaier agreed, saying that while TVs are much improved, there are devices that have a long way to go, and gaming consoles are a prime example. He noted that leaving consoles on for just a few hours can be a huge energy draw, and manufacturers could be working on how to address efficiency issues, such as automatically reducing power use when a game is paused, without inconvenience to the user for managing their own efficiency.

Getting Consumer to Buy In to Energy Efficiency

LaMonica asked the panel about a disconcerting trend in consumer purchases -- few people seem to be buying into energy efficiency when they're out choosing products.

Katzmaier noted that efficiency for TVs doesn't come up often at the consumer level. "Getting people to be thrilled about advances in technologies is more about getting people to think about efficiency at a whole home level," he stated.

When someone saves $20 a year on electricity with a TV model that costs $200 more, they aren't going to see the financial benefits. At least not yet. As Horowitz pointed out, manufacturers don't pay the costs to run the device. They pay the cost to make the device, and if making it more energy efficient means a more expensive manufacturing process and without consumers really caring, they aren't too excited about making that change. So the big savings for consumers comes not from individual purchases but from a whole house approach to monitoring and managing energy use. The vast majority of homeowners don't have this in place yet, so the savings on individual products is still low on the priority list.

Despite energy efficiency improvements in devices, our energy consumption continues to climb because we simply are buying more and more gadgets. My question is if a move to having a connected home, will we decrease our consumption of new electronics because we see the impact on our energy bill of having and additional dvice plugged into the wall? A girl can dream.

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Tags: CES | Consumerism | Electronics | Energy Efficiency | Gadgets

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