Power Electronics CEOs Discuss Energy Efficiency

Oct. 1, 2007
Power Electronics Technology asked CEOs from the industry to weigh in on government mandates, global warming, alternative energy and more as they consider how new power technologies can alter the course of the future.

Power Electronics Technology: Which approach do you support as a means for implementing energy-efficiency requirements: voluntary programs, like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or mandatory compliance, like the California Energy Commission. How effective will they be?

Patrizio Vinciarelli: Efficiency mandates are an excellent way to encourage customers to leave behind old, inefficient technology. Regarding differences in standards, the toughest standard should be met to provide the maximum potential market for new products. A balance of “carrot and stick” approaches would be most effective.

Jack Radgowski: In order for our country to truly become more energy efficient, the government would have to impose certain mandates, which should be realistic and equitable. It would be prudent if the government involved industry for its input while the mandates were being formulated.

Neither voluntary nor strict mandatory compliance programs work in the best interest of all. The best chance for success would be either a reasonable compliance program or a voluntary program with realistic incentives, or a combination of both.

Edward Rensing: The Department of Energy's investments need to enhance energy efficiency and productivity; bring clean, reliable and affordable energy technologies to the marketplace; and make a difference in the everyday lives of Americans by enhancing their energy choices. At Renco Electronics, we comply with all local and federal environmental standards, recycle all reusable materials, have eliminated the use of leaded solder and comply with the European RoHS manufacturing standards.

The United States consumes much more energy than it can produce domestically. Ensuring that this imbalance does not undermine our economy, standard of living or national security is the fundamental energy challenge facing the United States. We fully support renewable energy sources and improved energy efficiency in all sectors of the economy.

John East: Sure, everyone is talking about reducing energy usage across the power continuum with the goal of helping to protect the environment. Because energy efficiency is a political issue, governmental energy-efficiency mandates pose a challenging situation. Stringent mandates from politicians and government bodies risk the alienation of voters. Therefore, many of the mandates and voluntary programs require small, gradual improvements over an extended period of time. In addition, ineffective legal frameworks and the lack of consensus among different municipalities, states and regions are also a challenge to the success of these measures.

The White House says that energy efficiency will “take time to fully resolve.” Following an April 2007 Supreme Court ruling, the White House directed members of this administration to carefully consider public input, available technology, and the benefits and costs before reaching any decisions.

More specifically, the White House has directed the EPA, and U.S. Departments of Energy, Transportation and Agriculture to focus on cutting U.S. gasoline consumption by 20% over the next 10 years, the “Twenty in Ten” goal. This plan sets a fuel standard that requires the equivalent of 35 billion gallons of renewable and other alternative fuels in 2017, displacing just 15% of the projected annual gasoline usage. Based on the framework, the additional 5% reduction will come from reforming average fuel economy for cars and light trucks.

Philosophically, it seems to me that we can't get to where we need to be if our major weapon is the government dictating to corporations. The biggest users of energy are individuals. If we could get to a point where every household averaged 25 miles per gallon with their automobiles and had their own solar power, the overall savings would be far, far more than we'll be able to achieve with today's legislation. Unfortunately, politicians are loath to approach it from this direction because legislation, which takes money out of the voters' pockets, will surely cost the authors votes.

PET: There are a lot of skeptics in the engineering community when it comes to Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth. What is your perspective on global warming?

East: The truth is that I look around me and I see the proliferation of electronics in our society. Yesterday, we used pen and paper to interact, inform and communicate. Today, we use electronic devices. Unfortunately, the generation of the electricity required to power electronic systems contributes to a surprisingly high proportion of the greenhouse gasses (GHGs) associated with global warming — a real and serious issue.

According to a United Nations' report issued in May 2007, the average global temperature will rise by as much as 11°F by the turn of the century, even with a strategic program aimed at minimizing this rise. As an engineer, this makes sense to me and causes me a great deal of alarm. On what basis are the skeptics skeptical? Can we not agree that we have a problem and instead argue about the degree of the problem?

Vinciarelli: Technology to reduce global dependency on fossil fuels has been there. Leadership is needed to make it happen. Nuclear, solar and other relatively clean sources could supply power over long distances through efficient dc grids. Pure electric vehicles, such as Tesla's Roadster (I'm on the waiting list for an early production model), promise higher efficiency and greater respect for the environment.

Rensing: Electric companies need to understand the concerns about climate change and its effect on society. The electric companies should work to reduce their GHG emissions and the carbon intensity of electric power production.

As the public debate over U.S. policy to address climate change intensifies, Congress and the policy makers need to consider whether federal action or legislation is needed to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHG emissions that trigger climate change.

No matter what path America chooses to address, a successful reduction in GHGs will require an aggressive and sustained commitment by the electric power industry and policy makers to the development and deployment of a wide range of technology options over many decades.

Radgowski: If success is to be achieved, the causes of global warming must be addressed by all nations, especially our own, where about 50% of our energy is derived from the burning of coal, a huge contributor to global warming. It is imperative that all nations and industries work together to reverse the trend of defiling the atmosphere.

It would be most beneficial if industry was given incentives to produce more power with less energy. In the words of Dr. Paul MacCready (who just passed away on Aug. 27, 2007, at the age of 81), an inventor and strong advocate of energy conservation and founder of AeroVironment, “We make strange devices that do more with less.”

Over the next five years, generated by market forces and ongoing pressures to reverse the global-warming trend, people will witness great strides in energy reduction in lighting, transportation and heating/cooling. As a necessity, the world will learn to do more with less. Al Gore didn't receive my vote, but he had some good ideas on this subject and others. His strong push for green is getting attention, but not as much as it should.

PET: What are some of the technologies that your company is working on to improve energy efficiency? What do you see on the horizon in terms of new technologies?

Radgowski: Central Semiconductor's challenge has always been to continuously bring new and redesigned products to market that result in an increase in efficiency. Our customers and potential customers find that this is exactly what they want — smaller, lighter, faster and more efficient (in addition to cheaper).

An important efficiency concept is our company's drive to increase power per unit of PCB area and also power per unit of weight. Looking ahead, we see a continuation of reductions in chip size/package size and associated increases in efficiency.

Our company is consumed with the continuous project of upgrading the performance of our devices in order to make them lighter, smaller and faster, while at the same time, making them more power efficient by reducing thermal resistance, leakage, forward-voltage drop, saturation voltage and drain-to-source resistance, as applicable.

Vinciarelli: Since the company's founding, Vicor has been at the forefront of new converter topologies and power-distribution architectures. Factorized Power Architecture (FPA) and V•I Chip power components are the latest example. With efficiencies of up to 97% and power density of up to 1100 W/in3, V•I Chips offer unprecedented efficiency and flexibility to power-system architects. As an example, an FPA-configured data center has one-third less power-conversion loss than traditional methods, saving $380,000 in running costs, 1700 barrels of oil and 1800 tons of CO2 per year. Research and development continues on the next generations of V•I Chips for even higher efficiency and power density.

As a company, Vicor is listed on green Wall Street mutual funds, emphasizing our commitment to energy efficiency.

East: Designers of portable battery-powered equipment are faced with a daunting challenge: an insatiable consumer demand for smaller, cheaper, feature-rich portable devices with longer battery lives, lower cost and short time to market. The longer the battery life, the lower the cost of ownership for consumers. If the battery life of a smart phone is good for six hours, and if lithium-ion batteries typically support 300 to 500 recharge cycles before a costly battery replacement is required, would not these devices be even more attractive if the battery life was extended beyond six hours to weeks or months?

Programmable logic solutions, particularly those based on SRAM technology, have provided the shortened time to market, but with inherently high static power consumption. In fact, some of today's “low-power” field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and complex programmable logic devices draw upwards of 30 mA, which is often an order of magnitude or two higher than typical battery-operated applications can tolerate.

SRAM-based devices also experience power surges at startup that can cause battery drain or possible system-initialization failures. Compounding the issue further, each process node shrink means additional static power consumption for transistor-heavy, SRAM-based FPGAs. This is due to worsening problems like quantum tunneling and sub-threshold leakage, which create real challenges for devices targeted to portable applications. The power problem becomes further confused when considering new SRAM-based solutions that utilize flash technology to program the chip's SRAM architecture. Though marketed as flash-based devices, these solutions must add additional circuitry to the already power-hungry SRAM FPGA fabric.

Because nonvolatile flash-based FPGAs do not use millions of power-hungry SRAM configuration bit cells, they have significantly lower static power than SRAM-based solutions, making them ideal for low-power applications. In fact, some available flash-based FPGAs have been designed expressly for low-power applications. With static power as low as 5 µW, these FPGAs deliver more complexity and features with more than 200 times less static power than competitive FPGA offerings and deliver more than 10 times the battery life of the current leading PLDs in portable applications.

Compared with today's low-power, best-of-breed SRAM-based FPGAs, Actel's flash-based IGLOO FPGAs deliver between 100 and 1000 times improvement in power consumption. The two to three orders of magnitude lower static power consumption can translate into weeks and months of standby battery life. For designers of battery-operated portable applications, other advantages of flash-based devices include flexible power-saving modes with rapid recovery to operation, low dynamic power consumption and clock management.

PET: Motor controls, lighting, transportation and IT infrastructure (data centers) are viewed as areas where new power technologies can have a great impact on national and global energy consumption. In which of these areas will energy-efficient power electronics have the greatest impact in terms of total energy savings in the next five years?

East: Motor control is certainly one area where we can demonstrate immediate improvement. Today, electric motors are used in nearly everything — from elevators to home appliances. In 2005, of the approximately 4055 billion kWh of electrical power consumed in the United States, more than 50% of this power was used in electric motors — roughly 2000 billion kWh. This staggering figure is simply a result of inefficient motors that waste a substantial amount of the power they consume.

Adding electronic control can dramatically improve efficiency, but the high cost of control and power electronics has been a barrier to its implementation. With technology improvements in semiconductor processes and integration, mixed-signal solutions are emerging as an important alternative for motor-control implementation. These highly integrated, flexible platforms offer the bulk of the resources needed for motor control on a single low-cost device.

Using programmable platforms in lieu of fixed logic gives designers the flexibility to implement the most efficient design for their application, and the ability to use the same device across a broad range of motor applications. Other benefits make mixed-signal PSCs attractive, including lowered cost due to fewer components, eased manufacturing, increased motor reliability and efficiency.

PET: Not counting your own company, would you say that U.S. power-component and power-system companies are the leaders in developing energy-saving products and technologies? Or is leadership coming from abroad?

Radgowski: Typically, leaders and innovators comprise a relatively small group. In the United States, energy savings is spearheaded by several power-component companies. It is felt that a lot of progress in energy-savings technology is being made abroad, by the extensive use of solar cell and windmill power generation.

East: I don't have the sense that the United States is leading the charge regarding energy efficiency and reduced power consumption. In the United States, the national average for participation in renewable energy programs is only 1%.

Under European Union and domestic rules, utilities can charge higher rates for alternative energy through government-mandated prices, which reward companies for building carbon-friendly power plants. Such subsidies have helped Europe build up this industry by providing financial incentives to companies that invest in new technologies. In August 2007, Business Week claimed Europe's emphasis on wind power has put it ahead of other regions in the race towards green power.

As another example, China has created a team led by Premier Wen Jiabao to fulfill its energy-conservation and pollution-cutting tasks outlined by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council in its Energy Revolution global study. The Premier and his team have set an aggressive goal of cutting energy consumption by 20% and pollution emissions by 10% by 2010.

Additionally, China is becoming more ambitious about the development of wind energy and solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. China has set a target that by 2020, 16% of the country's primary energy will come from renewable sources. To achieve that and other measures, China plans to develop 300 GW of hydropower, 30 GW of wind power and 1.8 GW of solar PV. According to the energy-revolution scenario, China has the potential as well as the capacity to develop 118 GW of wind power and 25 GW of solar PV power by 2020.

PET: What is the time frame for alternative energy? And what are the best choices? Aren't we just hiding the problem? When do we get to a point with any of this alternative energy stuff — solar cells, windmills, dams and reactors — that the energy they save over their useful life is greater than the energy it took to produce them?

East: The time for alternative energy is now. Bill Gates has invested in ethanol fuel technologies. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, have offered funds for solar-power research. Although some call the investment in solar panels a “drastic measure,” solar energy is a breakeven economically. Unfortunately, hardly anyone invests in this, despite the fact that science points to significant changes that will occur if we don't deviate from our current path.

Personally, I've taken what could be seen as an unpopular position of backing nuclear energy. Although environmentalists and many others have been strongly opposed to nuclear energy for a long time, it's interesting to note that they, along with President Bush and presidential candidates from both parties, are beginning to tout nuclear energy as a remedy for the dependence on oil and a solution to global warming. Certainly, it is not without its problems — safety, national security, higher transmission costs, accidents, and waste cleanup and storage — but its potentials are huge.

All in all, my view is that if 25 years ago we had continued to engineer the problems of nuclear energy instead of ceasing nuclear efforts and doubling up on fossil-fuel-based power generation, the world would be far better off today. Again, we can't sit back and wait. We have to take personal responsibility.

Rensing: The time frame to develop alternative energy is here. Technologically advanced societies have become increasingly dependant on external energy sources for transportation, manufacturing and the delivery of energy services. This energy allows people to live in otherwise unfavorable climate conditions through the use of heating ventilation and/or air conditioning. As levels of human comfort are increased, so is the dependence on external energy sources. Wise energy use, therefore, embodies the idea of balancing human comfort with reasonable energy consumption.

The best choice for alternative energy: A combination of solar, wind, hydroelectric, biomass and biofuels.

Solar power imparts no fuel cost, is completely renewable and releases no water or air pollution. On the down side, solar electricity, at the moment, is more expensive than grid electricity.

Wind power produces no water or air pollution, does not contribute to global warming and is a renewable source of energy. On the other hand, wind power can be unpredictable in some areas, and as wind speeds decrease, less electricity would be created.

Biomass fuels like vegetable oils, sugarcane and corn are abundant on earth and are generally renewable. In theory, we will never run out of the organic waste products, because we are continually producing them. Since CO2 is first taken out of the atmosphere to make the fuel, and then put back after it is burned in the engine, there is no net increase in CO2.

On the down side, direct combustion without emissions filtering can lead to air pollution similar to fossil fuels. Producing liquid fuels from biomass is generally less cost effective than producing from petroleum. Current production methods would require enormous amounts of land to replace gasoline and diesel. With our current technology it is infeasible for biofuels to completely replace petroleum.

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