The latest wave of oil-price increases probably has everyone concerned, except perhaps the executives at the oil refineries and the rulers of the oil-producing countries. In the current robust economic climate, the increasing oil/gas costs may seem like a trivial expense for those of us earning a good salary. But for those who drive long commutes or live on the road, the nickels add up. Oil hikes are only part of the issue, though. Here in the U.S., residents of various states have experienced hikes in utility rates well into the double-digit range, which also is causing some hardships for those not participating in the economic boom.
We as designers have the power to help, provided that we're willing to take the longer-term view of both the economy and the investment needed. The design of energy-efficient appliances has been a loose commitment or almost a noncommitment from the system manufacturers. Plenty of additional design techniques can be applied to make systems more energy efficient.
These techniques can start with better motor control in large appliances, such as refrigerators and washing machines. Still, that's only the beginning. Today the typical home is populated with many small appliances, like TVs and VCRs, which consume some power while awaiting the click of the remote control. Even more power is brought to the equation as more appliances are added—chargers for cell phones, PDAs, games, power tools, etc.
The industry can build lower-power systems, but many times we seem to follow the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Often, consumers won't purchase what makes sense in the long term, but will purchase something based on the lowest immediate price. I suspect that it will be hard to change such attitudes, but I think that the federal or state governments could offer tax incentives. The incentives could be offered to system manufacturers to produce and offer more energy-efficient systems with no price premium, or even at lower prices than previous-generation systems. The government could also offer consumers tax incentives to trade in less-efficient products and purchase a more energy-efficient system.
Even our buildings and homes can be made more energy efficient. Plus, not every solution requires electronics technology. Better insulation, double-pane windows, and still other upgrades can considerably reduce long-term heating and cooling costs.
In addition to the focus on appliances and the home, more energy-efficient vehicles are, of course, a continual expectation. The latest hybrid gas/electric vehicles are a promising start, but only a beginning. Many older-model cars aren't just gas guzzlers. They also emit considerably more pollutants than newer models. Should we lobby to create a timetable to replace these vehicles either by either incentives or penalties?
What do you think should be done? Send your ideas to me.