Electronic Design

Diverse Power Entities Sang From The Same Page In 2006

The best news of the year for the power-electronics community is the ongoing story about cooperation among IT people, PC makers, government, utilities, and power-supply and chip makers. I owe this insight to Carl Blake, Director of Technical Marketing for International Rectifier's Discrete Products division. Once he'd mentioned it, though, it struck me that it should have started to become apparent at the Applied Power Electronics Conference (APEC) in March. It was certainly driven home at September's Digital Power Forum (DPF) and the Power Electronic Technology (PET) in October.

IT and Power Supplies

It was at APEC that I first saw Cisco, Dell, and HP approach the Power Sources Manufacturers Association (PSMA) to lay out the problems they were having with heat in the data center.

At DPF, there was a whole three-day track on data centers. Presenters in that track included server-makers, processor IDMs, power chip companies and power-supply manufacturers. One presentation in particular put things into perspective: a talk by Artesyn's Geof Potter, who noted that in the data centers, power consumption per server rack is heading toward 40 KVA. (Artesyn is now part of Emerson.) At the same time the cost of energy is on a rising curve, such that even today, the annual cost of operating each rack-mounted server exceeds the cost of the server itself, and in some new data centers, cost projections for annual energy usage exceed the cost of the actual building.

These developments have too big an impact to escape the attention of the companies that run data centers. What is happening, Potter says, is that "paying attention to energy use reduction within the server rack can have substantial payback," which is leading to equipment suppliers starting to offer value propositions that include energy savings.

(Not that everybody has gotten the word. In many companies, IT managers and facilities managers live in separate silos and some of those IT managers never get to see construction costs and utility bills. Yet there are encouraging signs.)

What can be done in the server environment? Potter noted seven ways to reduce energy consumption that are feasible today. Of those, the one I found most promising involves "virtualization." In this context, the term addresses the fact that contemporary operating systems tend to distribute processing load across all the servers available, even though a server running at 30% capacity draws as much power as one running at full capacity. Virtualization offers a way to shift processes dynamically so that servers can be shut down until needed.

Virtualization is particularly interesting from the power-supply standpoint, because it depends on digital power-supply monitoring and control, a technology that moved from "interesting" to "mainstream" in 2006. (See "A Short Guide To Making Money From Digital Power" ED Online 13657.)

Home and Business Power

Looking outside the data center, I'm going to take some information from a talk at PET to illustrate the cooperation between government and power utilities and the power electronics business. Note that this industry/government fellowship is something relatively new. As recently as 2003, when the California Energy Commission (CEC) announced its "1-Watt Standby" initiative, the industry greeted it with dismay. The Electronic Industries Association, the Consumer Electronics Association and the Telecommunications Industry Association flat out urged that the CEC "remove from consideration electronics, including battery chargers and external power supplies for minimum efficiency." Yet a year and a half later, the Power Sources Manufacturers Association (PSMA) signed on fully with the CEC efficiency efforts. That more or less convinced the rest of the industry that the CEC goals were at least attainable, and if they made power supplies cost a little more, well, "removal from consideration" was never really in the cards.

That talk at PET was presented by Chris Calwell, Ecos Consulting's Policy & Research Director. To put things in context, Calwell began by observing that however we see them as engineers, government agencies look on their programs as climate-change regulations, not energy efficiency regulations. No more is compliance a matter of retrofitting a few scrubbers or controls on smokestacks. It's now all about reducing electricity, natural gas, and gasoline consumed by all buildings, plug-in devices, and vehicles; minimizing methane releases from oil and gas wells, landfills, and sewage treatment plants; switching from fossil fuels to alternatives that minimize CO2 emissions; and capturing and sequestering CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas power plants.

Addressing those ends, one of the big power-related news stories in the past year was California's Assembly Bill 32, adopted by the legislature and signed by the Governor in September. It mandates 25% greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2020 (a return to how much the state was emitting in 1990), mandatory reporting rules and firm plans for achieving savings in each sector of the economy by 2009, and regulations specifying "maximum technologically feasible and cost effective reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2011."

Calwell said that more than 3.6 billion power supplies are now in use in the U.S., and that number goes up each year by 450 to 600 million units. External power supplies like cell phone chargers and laptop bricks are already being addressed by ENERGY STAR, state standards, and international efforts. The new initiatives focus on internal supplies in computers, set top boxes, TVs and monitors. In 2006, the ENERGY STAR program completed new efficiency specifications for printers, copiers, fax machines, scanners, and computers. These are the first ENERGY STAR specs for these products that include active mode requirements.

How significant are power supplies, really? Some 6 to 10% of all U.S. electricity use involves conversion from utility-supplied ac down to the dc levels that silicon chips need. That represents 200 to 340 billion kWh/year, for which we pay $18 to $30 billion annually. At least 3 or 4% of that is conversion loss. Those losses represents 100 to 140 billion kWh/year or $9 to $13 billion. Improved efficiency efforts aim at saving 1 to 2% of all U.S. electricity (35 to 70 billion kWh/year worth $3 to $6 billion).

Utility Subsidies

What the energy utilities are doing in the 80 PLUS program is buying-down the $5 to $10 incremental cost of energy-efficient, power factor-corrected ac-dc power supplies for desktop computers and servers. The way it works is that Ecos Consulting contracts with utilities for sponsorship and with computer manufacturers to install, sell, and track the more efficient equipment.

Utilities and other regional sponsors representing about 25% of the U.S. population and 80% of the Canadian population are already sponsoring the program or are in contract discussions. Current power-generating participants include twelve utilities in the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance; the National Grid energy suppliers in New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire; Massachusetts' NSTAR; Pacific Gas & Electric; California's Sacramento Municipal Utility District; Southern California Edison; Vermont Energy Investment Corporation; and Western Massachusetts Electric.

Where do we go from here? In his talk, Calwell noted that the Kyoto Protocol targets of reducing CO2 emissions by 10% or less are now widely seen to be insufficient to stabilize the climate. The most recent scientific estimates conclude that absolute reductions of 50 to 80% are needed prior to 2050. The kicker is that it is virtually impossible (and certainly expensive) to achieve these kinds of reductions merely by inventing new ways of generating electricity cleanly. The only strategy that is fast enough and affordable enough is to find inexpensive ways to reduce absolute electricity consumption. In that regard, Calwell cited Harvard's Dr. John Holdren, who recently said that, if global average energy efficiency continues to improve at only 1% per year, the world would need six times as much carbon-free energy in 2050 as it is producing today; but that need drops to only 1.8 times the current levels of carbon-free energy if global average energy efficiency could improve by 2% per year.

That was one of my key take-aways from this year's power conferences. There are genuine opportunities for the power electronics community simply in engineering things better.

Related Links

Digital Power Forum

Power Electronics Technology

Emerson Network Power

Ecos Consulting

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.