Energy-Efficiency Electronics Hardware a «Bridge Fuel» to the Future

By Jody Singleton
March 2011

The Author is president/CEO of at Advantage Electronic Product Development, Inc., and writes technology articles related to design, development and manufacture of electronics systems. The firm takes special interest the field of green technology and energy efficiency. → See also:

Demand for energy continues to be a major topic around the world. Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar or hydro power are increasingly being utilized to provide for that demand. Many States have even recently passed laws raising the minimum renewable usage cap that utility companies must implement into their overall supply. But ... we still require escalating amounts of energy for agriculture, industry, and to heat our homes and offices. Emerging as a "bridge fuel" to clean energy and renewable resources, the power electronics industry is poised to span that gap with hardware solutions needed to build intelligent power systems.

The Obama administration plans to spend billions of dollars on power conservation and sustainable energy projects as part of a $787 billion stimulus package which is has focused on energy efficiency. Andrew Fanara, of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program has famously said. "Energy efficiency is the bridge fuel we must build on and must invest in" he stresses ‘Energy efficiency is the cheapest, cleanest, fastest way to act.”

In part, the administration’s strategy is to use improved energy efficiency as a method of buying time to invest in and explore emerging and clean energy options. With initiatives like the smart power grid gaining traction, the power electronics hardware that makes it all work and its new designs aimed at increasing energy efficiency will be at the core of the plan.

Already, there is huge demand for power efficiency by consumers found an industry survey. And, consumers are willingly paying a premium for electronic hardware that delivers energy efficiency. This trend anticipates a growing number of electronic hardware devices will be utilized, which lowers costs and drives improved energy efficiency. Measured in dollars per watt this high volume of hardware deployment forecasts the efficiency for power electronics may drop to as low as 12 cents per watt by 2013.

The focal point of "smart power" systems and a national smart energy grid has clearly been on the hardware side of the equation. To be successful, in the not to distant future, engineers will also make use of the intelligence provided by software so that the hardware components communicate most effectively to accomplish maximum reduction of power consumption. The know-how exists now for this integrated software, but it is still far from widespread.

Power Profiling is a valuable energy-efficiency tool that granularly identifies the power consumed specifically by HVAC, appliances, networks, lighting etc. and communicates this information to users. A user profile is developed by use of proprietary algorithms that calculate information regarding a structure’s overall usage, and several data points such as the time of day and its energy consumption history.

The purpose of power profiling is to enable users to know exactly what activities or systems are consuming the most power, including how much, and how that consumption is affected by actions they take. Most HVAC and appliances are not yet enabled so numerous hardware metering devices are used throughout the structure, at least an adequate number to demonstrate to the user what the largest power users are and how to limit consumption.

Home Area Networks (HAN) are increasingly communicating with utilities in addition to the traditional media centers and computers. Both utilities and consumer electronics companies are offering and assortment of hardware solutions with methods of pre-programming and remotely controlling home systems such as water usage, heating & cooling, and appliances. With the arrival of “smart” appliances and new wireless network protocols designed specifically for energy-efficiency, many of these hardware solutions communicate to users and utilities over one or more wireless systems.

Hardware using these wireless protocols can all be controlled from a single point building management system, or a homeowner’s computer. Even though these technologies are still on the leading edge, trends indicates they are very near to wide-scale adoption, enabling buildings to connect to smart grid applications that exponentially increase energy-efficiency.

Advances in alternative energy sources have provided greener ways of producing electricity and the burgeoning energy-efficiency industry is providing a plethora of energy saving hardware devices to help users re-tool. We can reduce energy consumption with these advances and make strides toward energy independence. Consider what T. Boone Pickens says “In additional to putting our security in the hands of potentially unfriendly and unstable foreign nations, we spent $475 billion on foreign oil in 2008 alone. That’s money taken out of our economy and sent to foreign nations, and it will continue to drain the life from our economy for as long as we fail to stop the bleeding.

Projected over the next 10 years the cost will be $10 trillion - it will be the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.’

By investing in renewable energy and conservation, we can create millions of new jobs. Developing new alternative energies while utilizing natural gas for transportation and energy generation; securing our economy by reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and keeping more money at home to pay for the whole thing.’

Moving forward with renewables is a must, but it is also a documented fact that this increased capacity will not be enough to meet upcoming demands and provide energy independence. The tremendous strides being made in energy efficiency technologies are to help stem the tide, bridging the gap.

Cash and Energy Savings Using Wireless Sensor Networks

Industries everywhere are finding ways to save not only on energy and its costs but through the use of wireless networks and in numerous other ways too.

According to Oak Ridge National Laboratories, through the use of wireless sensor networks, savings on energy for motors used in industrial processes could improve efficiency by 20%, resulting in significant cost savings. Wayne Manges said: “With electric motor-driven systems accounting for nearly one-fourth of all electricity consumption in the United States, the potential for savings is huge.”

The Department of Energy’s Industrial Technologies Program works with US industry to improve environmental performance and energy efficiency. The ITP is distributing 15 million to support R&D specifically to improve energy efficiency in industrial processes. Already a number of new wireless sensor products are being developed together with the Department of Energy.

Cost savings with wireless systems are recognized in multiple areas including materials and labor where the cost of running wire in plants ranges between $155 and $3,700 per foot. The typical payback for wired systems is 24 months and less than a quarter of that for a wireless equivalent, only six months. Add in the on-going energy savings and the return on investment decision is very clear.

In a large number of industries, companies are recasting their product lines to implement wireless technologies. “We can’t think of any segment of the industry that isn’t going to be impacted by this,” states Honeywell’s CTO Dan Shiflin.

Wireless sensor networks of all varieties are exploding into our world. There is a massive amount of research & development, from academia to start-ups, pushing to create proverbial “better-faster-cheaper” products. A growing number of products are based on an emerging specification “ZigBee”. A majority of utility companies that have settled on a standard have identified ZigBee as their preference due in main to its inherent security capabilities. Real-time data from wireless sensors networks will enable companies to achieve greater productivity and efficiency by continually improving their processes.

Named BP International’s first Director of Technology & Sensory Networks, for the oil company’s Technology Office, Ken Douglas said “You don’t ask people ‘How would you use ZigBee?’ Because they don’t know, but if you ask them: ‘How would you use information that you can now access for the first time?’ They have to think about it for a bit, but then the ideas just starting pouring out.”

In addition to the benefits of ZigBee’s security layers, the mesh network is highly reliable, flexible and can connect a variety of sensors simultaneously including protocols such as OPC, Modbus and HART.

Companies whose product objectives include reducing costs or waste, more reliable equipment management; improved physical asset control or greater situational awareness should investigate the variety of capabilities wireless sensor systems can provide. In addition to the potential savings in energy, there are likely many additional cash benefits to be found.

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