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Semiconductors and the world's energy crisis

Posted: 18 Jan 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:smart grids? solar power? renewable energy sources?

An unstoppable force meeting an immovable object is a good metaphor for one of the most important issues facing the world. The "unstoppable force" is the increasing worldwide demand for energy. The "immovable object" is the world's diminishing fossil-fuel reserves and the growing acceptance that burning these fuels is causing climate changes that will have profoundly negative effects on future generations.

Worldwide demand for electrical energy is increasing and it looks like it'll increase for the foreseeable future. Exxon Mobil (Outlook 2010), predicts that by 2030 global electricity demand will be 50 percent higher than today's demand. Even if we found new reserves of fossils fuels, we would not be able to continue burning them because of their contribution to global warming. Unstoppable force meets immovable object.

The current electricity scenario has its roots in the early 20th century when oil was cheap and apparently inexhaustible and nobody imagined that human activity could affect the climate. Today, we know that this scenario is unsustainable and we need to address this situation urgently.

Given the scale and complexity of the challenge, everyone must contribute to the solution. We believe the semiconductor industry can make the "unstoppable" force less unstoppable while making the "immovable" object more movable.

The dramatic increase in the number of people around the world using power and the number of power-hungry devices we use calls for a big change in the world's approach to electrical power. It may be unreasonable to expect to reduce the world's demand for electricity but we must aim to put the brakes on the rate of increase; to make the "unstoppable force" a bit less unstoppable.

Two paths offer hope. The first approach is to reduce the power each product consumes and to make the generation and distribution of electrical energy more efficient, while the second is to change consumers' energy-consumption patterns. Semiconductor technology can contribute to both.

In all of our electric and electronic products technologies, circuits and systems have been developed by focusing on "price vs performance." Now, the time has come to also consider power consumption. In fact the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects increased efficiency in end-use products will be the most important contributor to the reduction of global energy-related CO2 emissions and better power efficiency could account for more than half of total savings by the end of the next decade.

There are several ways in which the energy consumption of end-use equipment can be reduced. One is via technology evolution. Today, replacing previous-generation transistors with state-of-the-art devices would contribute to saving 4 to 5TWh/yr in power-supply applications, assuming shipments of 2Bu/yr. This is the equivalent, each year, to the energy produced by two 500MW nuclear power plants.

Even more important is the adoption of "smart systems," which combine multiple functions such as sensors, digital processing, connectivity and actuators. The effectiveness of this approach has already been proven in domestic appliances where the availability of powerful, low-cost microcontrollers, has enabled the traditional power-wasteful universal motor to be gradually replaced by the much more efficient brushless motor. These brushless motors are typically 30 percent more energy efficient than the motors they replace and, if all universal motors were replaced by brushless motors, this could yield a saving of up to 50TWh by 2020.


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