Technology to the Rescue?

By Norwood Long

This week, we continue our series on reducing energy consumption by exploring technology and electricity use.

My telephone and internet service now come from EC Fiber, a consortium of rural towns in Vermont. What has that to do with sustainable energy practices? Well, basically it means that a network supported by a lot of buildings and maintenance people has been replaced by one with equipment located at the customer, a much smaller and less energy intensive operation requiring fewer people. I have the same services as before—actually, better telephone quality and faster internet than before—with fewer buildings requiring heat and light, and fewer people to maintain those buildings.

The evolution from copper to fiber causes, however, only a small ripple in energy usage compared with the migration from fixed telephones to mobile, and voice to image. We live in a technological age, with high bandwidth services everywhere, on cellular networks, CATV networks, the internet, broadcast networks, private communication networks, and more.

Growth in these new and expanded services increases the number of electricity using devices used for communication. At the same time, greater efficiencies in the technology used by these systems has reduced their electrical requirements, just as CFLs and LEDs reduce the amount of electricity used for lighting. The same increase in efficiency has been achieved in other sectors, such as appliances, refrigeration and heating.

The net result is that, although in the 30 years from 1975 to 2005 the amount of electricity consumed by end users in the US increased by over 2.6% per year, in the past 10 years it has held nearly constant at roughly 3900 billion kilowatt hours per year:

norwood chart

While giving technology credit for the energy saving is tempting, it should be pointed out that the no-growth period roughly coincides with the recent recession. Still, anyone who remembers the vacuum tube era will have no trouble agreeing that transistorized devices are cool, in more ways than one.

So let’s give a hand for the techies who are helping make the planet cooler. But let’s also give them a helping hand—it’s everybody’s job to save energy.

Do Just One Thing: Look at your lightbulbs and appliances—time to move to LEDs and Energy Star appliances?

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