Tech’s little green secret

May 18, 2009

sehat3Dr. Sehat Sutardja is Chairman and CEO of Marvell Semiconductor. The opinions expressed are his own.

While the world eagerly searches for new ways to conserve energy, a 25-year old solution that instantly cuts in half the energy consumption of most modern electronic products remains largely ignored.

The Obama Administration has promised to explore all avenues to improve America’s energy conservation. The spectrum of hoped-for solutions ranges from the mundane-(automobile CAFE standards) to the magical (the long-hoped-for cold fusion). What almost all of these solutions have in common is that they are hugely expensive and will take years – maybe even generations – to implement.

Meanwhile, literally tomorrow the electronics industry could begin shipping a technology introduced in the early 80′s that now would add less than one dollar to the cost of most electronic devices – TV set, computer, set top box, BlueRay player, printer, DSL router, etc- and yet could reduce their net energy consumption in half. That technology, called PFC (power factor correction), replaces the traditional AC adapter, and “fools” the device into using electrical current more efficiently. By reducing the energy typically lost through copper wires, the power savings from PFC can be spectacular: up to 50 percent. Multiply this by the massive number of electronic devices used around the world today and the benefits become epic.

So why, in its quest to be appear fashionably green, hasn’t the consumer electronics industry rushed to voluntarily adopt power factor correction? The answer, regrettably, ranges from ignorance to indifference.

There is also the matter of legacy. When first invented, PFCs were comparatively costly to produce – estimated to about $50 in the early 80′s. That resulted in a retail price point that is just too high for most consumers. And, it goes without saying, a quarter-century ago we neither had the urgency nor the will to solve the world energy consumption problem. But the world has changed. Not only has power conservation become paramount, but Moore’s Law has had its effect into power devices as well: today, an average PFC AC adapter can be made for about $1 -or less-no more than a non-PFC AC adapter. And, for low power applications such as the billion or more cellphone battery chargers produced each year, PFC could be implemented for pennies..

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, when you consider computers, set-top boxes, video game players, flat-screen TVs, and an array of household appliances, there are more than 10 billion electronics devices worldwide that could benefit from the use of PFCs, more than 2.5 billion of them in the US alone. It is estimated that if PFCs were widely adopted in the US they would save nearly $3 billion in energy costs annually and reduce about 24 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

The failure to adopt PFCs should be an embarrassment to everyone in the electronics industry. America’s electronics companies have been singing a green tune lately, but in this case reality hasn’t matched PR. Most new generation devices consume more power than their predecessors, yet virtually no attempt is made to mitigate even this simplest form of all energy waste. The truth is that we are designing ever more sophisticated and power hungry devices . . . and then plugging them into archaic and wasteful power supplies largely unchanged since the turn of the last century.

Given that the additional one dollar cost would be gladly absorbed by today’s energy and cost-conscious consumers, why has the electronics industry been so slow to switchover? One answer is that power supply is a decidedly unsexy technology that few feature-focused consumer product manufacturers give much attention to. More to the point, companies in all industries, even technology, typically resist change until it becomes unavoidable. The hassle factor of swapping out old AC adapters and modifying production/manufacturing process — however slightly — keep companies in a state of avoidance. So what can we do?

Two things will make consumer electronics companies change their tune on PFC technology: consumer demand and government mandate. Or better yet, both. If the Obama Administration really wants immediate, cost-effective energy conservation, it should simultaneously educate American consumers on the value of PFC technology and require all products that consume more than say two watts of electricity (most cellphone battery chargers consume about five watts; so a two watt threshold will cover nearly all products) to be equipped with PFC power supplies within the next 24 months. Those two moves would slash energy consumption almost overnight (because many manufacturers could convert immediately and will see this as a competitive advantage) and create tens of thousands of new jobs in the energy efficiency industry-two stated goals of President Obama. And like most consumers, I can’t think of a better use of an extra dollar.

Dr. Sutardja and a small team of engineers have developed a power factor correction device that has not yet been productized.  It is not expected to be a mainstay in the Marvell portfolio of communications and networking products.


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