Electronic Design

Power Conservation: Are We Just Squeaking By?

Earlier this year, I raised the issue of energy conservation and what consumers and the industry could do to reduce energy consumption. California and a number of other states faced considerable energy shortages this summer, due to a combination of events—generation plants down because of repairs and maintenance, little or no new plant generating capacity, and large increases in electricity demands. The result: a lack of enough electrical power to get through the peak usage periods, which caused rolling blackouts and brownouts.

Many of you responded with messages of agreement, additional suggestions on how we could all help to minimize power consumption, and a lot of finger-pointing as to who is responsible for the power "crisis" we presently face.

However, the industry's overall reaction has become more ho-hum rather than building up any noticeable momentum toward developing solutions. Moderate weather this summer took the pressure off of California, but August heat waves on the East Coast have reminded us about the fragility of our power-distribution infrastructure.

Several utility companies have started serious rebate programs that are sparking significant numbers of consumers to replace energy-hungry appliances. Record numbers of refrigerators, dishwashers, and air conditioners are being replaced with newer versions that cut energy consumption by 25% to 50%. Some programs were so successful that stores have run out of qualifying appliances. As a result, the power suppliers running the rebate programs now face huge backlogs of rebates to pay.

But companies and consumers can do much more. For example, companies that build devices that operate via remote control could design systems with much lower standby power levels. This would serve to reduce a few hundred milliwatts to just one or two milliwatts. Although it may seem trivial, multiply that by the number of remotely controlled systems in a typical home—a few TVs, one or two VCRs, a DVD player, a garage-door controller—and there could be a 10- to 20-W or larger savings per home for no more than a few pennies worth of circuitry in the appliances.

As designers, perhaps we should take on some challenge or responsibility as well. Do we pay enough attention to saving power when we craft our latest system or design that next silicon single-chip solution? I think we could do better in our silicon or system designs with minimal cost impact.

But is the choice up to you, or do you have to fight tooth and nail to get such benefits carried over into the final design? Rather than address the issue as a component cost adder, do the executives see power-saving designs as a benefit and a good selling point, or does upper management need even more education on the payback of energy-efficient design? How enlightened is your organization?

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