Design for energy efficiency: cause with an effect

During his opening keynote for the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) in April, Al Gore appealed to the engineers in the audience: “Embedded systems can be the most powerful solution to this [climate change] crisis.”

He’s right. Intelligent industrial embedded systems hold the key to improving energy usage – not only to help the environment (important), but also to improve the outlook for your firm and your job (really important).

First movers aren’t always guaranteed a win in the market, but last movers are pretty much guaranteed to die trying. While debating moral imperatives and the accuracy of scientific data might be entertaining, bickering about what happens when your firm is late to market with energy-saving solutions is not pleasant. Ignore the lessons of a generation ago and the signs of an emerging opportunity at your own financial risk.

Calls for energy conservation began during the oil crisis in the late 1970s. Many purport that crisis was artificial because we didn’t run out of oil as projected. But I pumped gas for a living at the time and can tell you people believed it was a crisis – in the form of long lines and high prices.

Fifteen years after the EPA’s ENERGY STAR program was formally started in 1992, it’s now strongly established, and you’d be idiotic to attempt going to market without it in many product categories. Marketing effects and social change don’t happen overnight, but they can have a major impact after a generation or two.

The idiot light went on for me while roaming the floor at ESC. I had heard the techno-speak, but hadn’t connected the dots. Bob Heile, executive director of the ZigBee Alliance, flipped one switch when he remarked, “Five states – California, Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Connecticut – are already energy negative or are going to be in the next 18 months.” Steve Nguyen of Echelon flipped another, stating that “Seventy percent of all electricity consumed in the U.S. is used by commercial buildings, and 70 percent of that amount is used by lighting and heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems.”

Building power plants isn’t the answer for lots of reasons, and you have to put politics and environmental concerns aside for a second to understand why. We’re not out of power across the board, but we need a touch more peaking capacity during hours of critical usage on hot days or a touch less demand during those hours.

Enter ZigBee, LonWorks, and Pyxos (see Echelon’s article on page XYZ), INSTEON, Z-Wave, powerline communication, and similar communication technologies, plus microcontroller and system-on-chip technology. The real goal isn’t to sell smart light switches or thermostats managed from a cool remote control, or to read power meters remotely instead of via drive-by, or to reduce power in a motor. Those are all important enablers, but that’s all they are – just enablers.

The goal is for utility suppliers to reach over a network into your building and slightly tweak your energy usage. In exchange for that access, you get a discount on utility rates and save on usage. If an artificial light dims during full ambient daylight, will anyone notice? If temperatures go up two degrees between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., is it that big a deal? This is “little-bang” change on lots of enabled devices across the grid. Echelon is walking the talk – they cut usage by 30 percent through implementing LonWorks on 1,100 devices in their corporate headquarters building without disturbing occupants.

I’m a stone-cold, steely-eyed capitalist mercenary, but I’ll help the Earth if it helps me financially. I’ve downsized from a 1997 4WD Tahoe to a 2007 Saturn VUE Green Line – not to reduce my carbon footprint, but to escape maintenance bills and the specter of $4-per-gallon gas. The finances made it compelling to switch.

When buzz and financial compulsion for consumers meet, the real opportunity in Design for Energy (DfE) becomes clear. California and Ontario, Canada have advanced metering initiatives in place, and utilities like Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, and San Diego Gas & Electric Company are moving toward smarter buildings designs, many with LonWorks. CenterPoint Energy, Itron, and IBM are pushing to quickly get meters (like the one from Itron and Cannon Technologies on this issue’s cover) on ZigBee. The economics are shifting, money is waiting to be made, and the DfE “show” is already in progress.

As much as most of us dislike change, there really is no security in sitting still, and DfE has opportunity written all over it. For moral or monetary reasons, DfE makes sense. Whatever your reasons, e-mail me your thoughts at