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Cool gadgets to help save energy

Eliminating the energy consumed by appliances on standby would nearly equal, in emissions savings, the elimination of all airline flights. A new generation of meters calculate our carbon footprint.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that phantom consumption, the electric expense generated by chargers and apparatuses in standby mode, produces 1% of world CO2 emissions. So that this figure can be understood in perspective, world air travel contributes to less than 3% of the global emissions of carbon dioxide.

The increase in the use and consumption of cellular phones, laptop computers, air conditioning units, portable video game consoles and desktop computers, and so many other devices, just adds to the unnecessary expenditure caused by poor appliance design, which allows for “phantom power” to be one of the greatest concrete causes of CO2 emissions.

Applying a better industrial design and introducing stricter regulations on standby consumption won’t put an end to this phenomenon without consciousness raising. Institutions, such as the IEA, warn of an increase in the number of electronic and data processing devices. More chargers permanently plugged in implies a permanent increase in electricity consumption. Industry insiders call these chargers without power-off switches “wall warts”.

According to a 2006 Economist article (“Pulling the plug on standby power”), “a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food” because while the cooking function consumes more than 100 times more power, the device is in standby more than 99% of the time.

What are the solutions to fight this growing consumption of phantom power? For the time being, there don’t seem to be any viable alternatives to consciousness raising, although some companies see a market in an anxiety increasingly more important among users: how to control home energy expenditure?

The other face of information technologies

Technological literacy is one of the objectives of the European Union since establishing the Lisbon agenda (which, on the other hand, will be difficult to comply with), which aims to situate the EU alongside the U.S. in information technologies. The most positive side of technological advance is wealth generation, increased efficiency for some jobs or increased productivity.

What do information technologies have to do with energy consumption? Using more electronic and data processing appliances implies a multiplying of the number of transformers and electric chargers for the batteries of the devices.

According the scientist Alan Meier, the energy wasted by devices and chargers that continue consuming despite not being utilized constitutes 10% of the energy expense of homes.

A French study situates the consumption of appliances on standby at 7% of the total expense, while other studies elevate this figure to 13%.

The consumption wasted simply by devices in standby costs European households 50 euros per year. Americans spend 3 billion dollars every year to pay the bill of equipment on standby.

Given the unstoppable growth of subscriptions to cellular phone services, broadband Internet lines and electronic and data processing appliances, this situation will just get worse, if there is not a drastic change in the industrial design of these apparatuses and in user conscientiousness.

In countries like Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Norway, there are more mobile phones than inhabitants. About half of all Western Europeans have Internet connection, and this percentage is surpassed in North America, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

In just the United States, phantom power consumes 3 billion dollars annually worth of energy. According to a 1998 study by scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, this is equal to about 5% of the country’s total home energy consumption. While that percentage has since been revised up by the same researchers, just the 5% figure is equal to the electricity produced by 18 typical power stations.

Times of low voltage

There are increasingly more appliances that include a small external or internal converter supplying a small voltage (between 6 and 24 volts) to maintain secondary functions (clock, powered remote control). They are devices that demand a permanent diet, even when the appliance is not in operation. This standby phenomenon is present in homes worldwide, even the humblest: technologies like mobile phone networks have arrived at even the most remote villages of the most disadvantaged countries.

Both the European Union and the United States promote the use of efficient electrical appliances and electronic and data processing machines, through labeling systems (Energy Star in the United States, Canada and Australia, European energy labels, TCO certification for office equipment), and international initiatives that promote efficient energy use, both in homes and in offices and industry.

The One Watt Initiative is a proposal by the IEA, to reduce by 2010 the phantom power drawn by all electrical appliances to one watt. It’s a symbolic figure, but it would cause dramatic savings in energy consumed worldwide without using appliances any less.

The Green Electronics Council has developed EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), an environmental labeling program in which 26 of the world’s largest computer manufacturers participate, that tries “to help purchasers in the public and private sectors evaluate, compare and select desktop computers, notebooks and monitors based on their environmental attributes”.

Initiatives such as Energy Star and EPEAT aim to offer an environmental distinction to manufacturers and, at simultaneously, to cut electricity consumption.

Controlling the energy that we use (waste?)

Information technologies require the use of computers, cellular phones and other devices, which are added to the traditional electrical appliances to increase the energy expense per inhabitant and home.

For this reason the debate on improving the energy efficiency in homes through simple measures such as the control of phantom power generates interest not only among the most socially aware citizens, but among businesses.

Companies like the British start-up Do It Yourself Kyoto (DIY Kyoto), believe that there is a market for intelligent appliances that explain to users how much energy is spent at any moment, which devices are responsible and which forgotten places of the house form part of the problem.

As opposed to traditional electricity meters, DIY Kyoto’s Wattson- as well as other metering devices like the Kill-a-Watt, Tendril, Owl, PowerCost Monitor, Home Joule, Onzo and EUM2000 (all discussed in detail below)- report not only on the amount of energy consumed, but they offer other types of measurement (kilowatts per hour, cost per hour or kilograms of CO2 emissions per hour), and they try to explain in an intelligible way the relationship between half-full washing machines and those transformers left permanently plugged-in in the home.

Average energy cost of the appliances that generate phantom power:

  • Television set, turned off, but in state of “on remote”: 300 Wh/Day (watt hour per day).
  • Video: 260 Wh/Day.
  • Microwave oven with clock: 160 Wh/Day.
  • Chargers for small apparatuses (cellular phone, iPod, electric razor): 200 Wh/Day.
  • Stereo system with remote control: 160 Wh/Day.
  • Digital water kettle: 250 Wh/Day.
  • Domestic alarm: 160 Wh/Day.
  • Telephone with power cord: 240 Wh/Day.
  • Fax or printer not functioning, but turned on: 240 Wh/Day.

None of these electronic appliances include a small digital electricity meter to explain to the user how much energy is wasted for the “innocent” oversight of leaving chargers and electronic apparatuses plugged-in during all of their useful life. It will be difficult to count on advances of this type in the short-term.

In addition to the lack of meters integrated into devices is the lack of user knowledge regarding conventional meters, which only offer a detailed summary of the general home consumption, and its only objective is administrative: to deliver information to the electric company to determine our bills. The greater the consumption, the greater the amount paid by the user.

Given this, in spite of campaigns for energy efficiency by these companies, the contradiction still exists: shareholder earnings are related to energy consumption. The greater the consumption (worse for the environment), the greater are profits (better for owners and shareholders of energy businesses).

Greater information = greater consciousness raising on the personal ecological track

What would happen to phantom power, however, if users new at every moment how much energy one of their appliances was using? In an article on the new devices that help calculate how much energy we consume, The Economist (Power plays), offers clues.

The article references a Nissan study that shows that when drivers are provided fuel-efficiency gages- dashboard displays showing continuous fuel efficiency- in their cars, fuel consumption drops by an average of 10%.

These dashboard displays of fuel efficiency- available in hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius- encourage more efficient driving since drivers are now instantly, and visually, aware of the effects on fuel economy of their actions, such as acceleration, speeding, smooth driving, etc.

The Economist poses the question: “what if you did the same thing to homes?” It just so happens that there are now several commercially-available energy calculating devices that can inform us of how much energy we use at any given moment, therefore, helping to make us more aware of and, therefore, more respectful of electricity consumption. The prize for users: knowing how much pollution they have avoided with their actions, besides the savings on their electric bill.

Smart electricity meters have arrived

Currently, electricity consumed at home is good considered by the user to be universal, ubiquitous and only loosely related to greenhouse gases. Electricity meters are difficult to understand and many consumers don’t even know where they are located, especially when they are located in common spaces amongst neighbors so that companies have easier access for reading.

Many businesses believe that this lack of knowledge and meters designed to be controlled by the energy companies, offers a business opportunity: why not create a device that controls and explains in a simple way how much energy is spent at home and, more importantly, how much energy is spent by every device or every zone of the home?

A new generation of hardware and software, capable of exchanging information between different appliances and even with the Internet, are on the market to help consumers control unnecessary energy expenditures and to improve efficiency. They are called “smart electricity meters”, one more electronic appliance, this one to help calculate electricity consumption at home.

Several companies are selling or working on devices that control energy use of home appliances. Besides controlling consumption, some intelligent meters monitor the generation of renewable energies, for homes with solar panels or the like.

These devices would allow the user to know the exact savings of simple changes of habit, and how they are translated into lower CO2 emissions or economic savings:

  • Disconnect, the television set, video appliances, video game consoles, and other devices before leaving the home; especially when going on holidays.
  • Use power strips for groups of appliances so they can be completed turned off with one switch. They can be arranged around groups of devices (television set and peripherals; computer and peripherals; etc).
  • Don’t leave transformers/chargers plugged-in when are not being used.
  • Buy low consuming models.

Devices and services that measure and control energy expenditure:

  • Wattson (covered in faircompanies; mentioned in The Economist) : a device with an attractive and minimalist design that monitors the energy consumption of the entire house or of individual appliances. A great work of industrial design, this mechanism shows the relative level of energy consumed in a way both simple and easy to understand: when consumption is low, the device turns blue, while runaway consumption makes the DIY turn, literally, red. (Note: I want to test it at home. I believe that the baby is going to understand it). The Guardian considers it one of the 10 must-have devices, and qualifies it as “a cousin of the iPod” to control energy expense. DIY studies show that its use is translated into a savings from 3% to 15% of a home’s total energy expenses. It is sold in the United Kingdom (in fall of 2008 it will arrive to the United States) for £125 ($245, standard version) or £350 (limited edition). It calculates expenditures at every single moment and wirelessly, and samples the energy bill in pounds sterling, euros or dollars. At every moment, both the economic, and energetic, expenses are apparent.
  • Kill-a-Watt (Wikipedia entry): as opposed to the Wattson, which tries to raise awareness of specific energy expenditures at every moment using even colorful warning, the different models of the Kill-a-Watt, manufactured by the firm P3 International, are focused on showing overall energy consumption. Less attractive; equally effective. It shows information in kilowatt-hours, voltage (volts), current (amps), watts and frequency (hertz).
  • Tendril: the firm defines itself as “the first software company to provide a modular, integrated suite of software and hardware products that links energy companies to consumers to better understand and manage consumption.”
  • The Owl (mentioned in The Economist): calculates economic expense, energy expenditure and even the quantity of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere for £34.95 pounds ($69). Its design is perhaps not as contemporary as the Wattson, but its simple liquid crystal interface provides all the necessary information to monitor at every single moment the energy expenditures of a house in its entirety. It is composed of a sensor that is connected to the fuse box, a transmitter of the energy reading and, finally, a small monitor with the LCD screen. One can walk around the house disconnecting appliances that you might have forgotten were plugged in: the difference in the electricity reading is instantaneous on The Owl monitor, which is the size of a remote control.
  • PowerCost Monitor (covered in TreeHugger): a Canadian device similar to The Owl and Kill-to-Watt; it incorporates a sensor, that should be connected to the fuse box, and a monitor to perform detailed monitoring of electricity consumption. The PowerCost has been designed to detect phantom power and to minimize electricity expenses less directly controlled by the user.
  • Home Joule (covered in TreeHugger): as opposed to other smart meters, or devices to control energy expenses, the small Home Joule has been designed to receive real-time information from the electric company, local time and consumption. As with the Wattson, the screen of this much smaller device changes color when consumption is especially high.
  • Onzo (covered in TreeHugger and Computing): offers information on what is spent real-time; wirelessly exchanges information with the computer, where the consumption of the user is compared with others; is a device designed to allow for software updates; recycled material is used for its production; operates without the need of a battery (it is not yet another electrical appliance to measure the expenditures of other appliances).
  • EUM 2000 (mentioned in MetaEfficient and TreeHugger): designed for the American market (offers measurements of consumption for the entire home in KWh and dollars, if the user configures the price of energy in his area). Not too attractive and at a price higher than similar alternatives ($200).

The British government has suggested giving away to every household in the United Kingdom devices similar to the Wattson (our coverage of the device, from early 2007). There are, however, those opposed to the initiative. Energywatch, a UK energy watchdog group, is critical of energy monitoring device giveaways.

Energywatch warns that these measuring instruments do not read the consumption of gas and, despite effecting short-term change in user behavior, it could be treated more as a passing fad than that of a new technology capable of dramatically changing energy consumption in homes worldwide.

We will see what happens in the next couple of years with these devices, designed so that the user is the one who monitor their consumption at any given moment.

Will users be capable of drastically reducing energy consumption at home?

Resources on the Internet:

  • An energy consumption calculator.
  • One Watt Initiative (for the promotion of energy efficiency and the reduction of phantom power).
  • Conversion of kilowatt-hours (kWh) into other units.
  • Software: LocalCooling (a management tool for the energy consumed by the computer; developed by Uniblue Labs, it allows users to optimize the energy consumption of any computer with a Microsoft Windows operating system); and SusiClimate (application for Mac OS X that calculates in real-time the CO2 emissions generated by the computer in use).
  • OpenEco: a website with energy consumption resources that is defined as “a global on-line community that provides free, easy-to-use tools to help participants assess, track, and compare energy performance, share proven best practices to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and encourage sustainable innovation.”
  • Guide to sustainable data processing from the University of Boulder, Colorado (United States).
  • Energy Labels for European electrical appliances: guide in Consumer.
  • Search for Energy Star products.
  • Reliant Energy: a Texan firm that has installed monitors with remote access in homes in Houston and Dallas, which allow the company to reduce the electricity supply to air conditioning units, water heaters and pool motors when consumption is considered excessive.

Advice from The Owl to dramatically reduce home energy consumption:

  • Buy a device to measure the consumption to every single moment (when all is said and done, The Owl is one of these devices).
  • Change incandescent lamps to low consuming light bulbs and use timers when possible.
  • Turn off completely- at the wall socket- television sets, video players, video game consoles and other apparatuses when not in use.
  • Disconnect the cellphone chargers when not in use.
  • Use clotheslines to dry clothes, instead of a dryer.
  • Fill washing machines and dishwashers to the limit for each cycle.
  • Wash clothes with cold water (clothes will also last longer).
  • Boil only the amount of water needed when making tea, coffee, etc.
  • When changing electrical appliances, make sure to buy efficient models.