Saturday, November 04, 2006

Saved by technology?

Claims that technology may provide the solution to climate change is subject to considerable ridicule. Yet without technology, the prospects of significantly reducing greenhouse gases and not killing the economy at the same time are remote. Fortunately, scientists and entrepreneurs are ignoring the naysayers and working to develop new and existing technologies to reduce the carbon imprint of our lifestyles.

For example, LEDs hold considerable promise in reducing future energy consumption:

Light-emitting diodes will become economically attractive as replacements for conventional lightbulbs in about two years, a shift that could pave the way for massive electricity conservation, according to a researcher.

Right now, consumers and businesses can buy a light-emitting diode, or LED, that provides about the same level of illumination as an energy-hogging conventional 60-watt lightbulb, Steven DenBaars, a professor of material science at the University of California Santa Barbara, said at the SEMI NanoForum, taking place here this week. A principal advantage of the LED: It lasts about 100,000 hours, far longer than the conventional filament bulb.

Unfortunately, the LEDs that can perform this task cost about $60, he said. (Prices vary on the Internet.) But prices have been declining by 50 percent a year, so two years from now the same LED should cost around $20.

"At $20 the payback in energy occurs in about a year," DenBaars said. The rapid return on investment will occur in places such as stores and warehouses, where the light is on through much of the day. A year after that, LEDs will be even more economical for more places as costs continue to decline.

Approximately 22 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States goes toward lighting, according to the U.S. Department of Energy

To make matters worse, traditional lightbulbs are incredibly inefficient. Only about 5 percent of the energy that goes into them turns into light. The majority gets dissipated as heat.

If 25 percent of the lightbulbs in the U.S. were converted to LEDs putting out 150 lumens per watt (higher than the commercial standard now), the U.S. as a whole could save $115 billion in utility costs, cumulatively, by 2025, said DenBaars, and it would alleviate the need to build 133 new coal-burning power stations.

In a similar vein, Amory Lovins has argued that by lightweighting our automobiles and switching to biofuels to run them, we could cut our oil consumption for automobile transportation to zero by 2040.

Closer to home, residential and commercial developers are working with firms such as Clean Energy Developments to tap growing consumer demand for clean energy systems. Technologies such as geothermal exchange can reduce a property's heating and cooling costs to a small fraction of traditional methods.

Taken singly, the impact of any of these methods alone is minimal. But cumulatively, it adds up.

Many promising technologies such as carbon sequestration in oil and gas, afforestation, and biomass-based energy are also being pursued. Our cause is certainly not hopeless, whether it is to reduce carbon or to wean ourselves from Middle-East oil. Ten years from now, we may even consider Kyoto to have been excessively unambitious. It won't happen overnight, but given sufficient time, the problems are not insurmountable. Scepticism about human ingenuity is understandable, but we may yet be saved by technology.