Little Devices, Big Challenges

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, CA, July 12, 2012 -- Large appliances like refrigerators, washing machines, clothes dryers and freezers have always guzzled the lion’s share of residential electricity. These days, however, they have stiff competition in the form of much smaller devices, as the audience at this week’s SURF-IT summer seminar series learned.

G.P. Li, Calit2 Irvine director and SURF-IT faculty mentor, explained that advances in system-level integration on microelectronic memory chips are creating a new generation of electronic devices that are multiplying in the marketplace and biting off a bigger and bigger piece of the energy pie. Consumers are snatching up cell phones, laptops, tablets, music players, cameras, gaming units and set-top boxes, which are cheaper, faster, smaller and higher-functioning than their predecessors.

Advances in the microelectronics industry have led to a proliferation of electronic devices. CalPlug seeks solutions to their burgeoning energy usage.

In the 1960s, Li told the audience, an IBM mainframe computer had millions of wires and cost a couple of million dollars.  “Today, your laptop is 1,000 times more powerful and [the chips] cost just a few dollars to produce,” he said.

Known in energy parlance as plug-load devices, four billion of these electronic gadgets are in consumers’ hands and homes, and that number will continue to proliferate. Improvements in the microelectronics industry have led to devices that consume far less power than ever before but their ubiquity means they siphon off a lot of electricity.
The U.S. Department of Energy projects that plug-load energy consumption will continue to increase while other appliance sectors’ usage remains flat. “Everyone has their own personal plug load devices,” Li said. “Right now they consume about 10 percent of total energy usage but by 2030, it’s projected to be 25-35 percent. That adds up to a lot of energy.”

The industry faces added challenges from the devices’ AC-to-DC energy conversion process, which has only a 90 percent efficiency rate, as well as a phenomenon known as vampire power, which means even when the devices are switched off, they consume energy while they are plugged into a socket.

Additionally, a growing demand for home healthcare solutions puts additional pressure on plug loads. “Healthcare reform will lead to more managed care options, and people will handle their healthcare from home instead of going to the doctor’s office,” said Li. “In order to guarantee the same quality of care we have to find solutions.”

Creating energy-efficient solutions to this growing demand is the focus of the California Plug Load Research Center (CalPlug), which opened last year in the Calit2 Building. Funded by the California Energy Commission, it brings together researchers, utility companies, government agencies, manufacturers and vendors.

The center takes a “holistic” approach, said Li, incorporating not only engineering innovation but market and behavioral research, organizational coordination and consumer education. “Electricity is not tangible. You can’t touch it. So how do you provide this information to consumers?” he asked. “You have to educate them to encourage them to make changes that will save energy.”

Li, who serves as the center’s interim director, believes the answer lies in collaboration. By coordinating efforts among utilities, agencies and businesses, CalPlug seeks to enact changes in product manufacturing as well as encourage new incentives, policies and standards. “We are working with many faculty within UCI, as well as opening the doors to new partnerships,” he summarized.