Editorial: The Next Big Thing

March 02, 2006
March/April 2006
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2006 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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        I am sometimes asked what I believe will be the next new use of energy or the next big efficiency measure. I made a couple of lucky calls in the past few years—so lucky that I have been virtually tarred with the word “standby” on my forehead— but I’m still willing to stick out my neck and speculate.
        The next big thing in residential energy use will probably be not a product, but a mode. It will be the energy used by electrical devices in a mode when they are not quite on and not quite off. These will be devices hooked to a network, waiting for a signal to start doing what consumers actually bought them to do:washing clothes, printing, filtering a pool, recording a video program, logging in, and so on. Sometimes this is called “sleep,” “ready,” “waiting,” or simply (and contradictorily) “awake” mode. Since most devices spend most of their lives doing nothing, the energy consumption—even at the greatly reduced power level—is large. But isn’t this just standby power again? No, these awake modes usually represent a level of activity (and operating sophistication) above standby. A while ago I dubbed this collection of awake modes: “lopomos,” which was simply a contraction of “LOw POwer Modes,” but this name rolled uncomfortably off the tongue and never gained acceptance. Sadly, the energy test procedures for many of these devices ignore energy used in the low-power modes, so we won’t be able to track the rise in energy consumption except through extensive monitoring. We won’t know that it’s huge until it’s too late to do anything about it.
        If I had to choose a product for the next big use of energy, I would say the shower toilet.This toilet offers a heated seat plus an upward spray of warm water, followed by a drying breeze to pamper our bottoms. Old people love them and almost all Japanese homes and hotel rooms are already equipped with them. Korea is close behind. Sure we make jokes about them, but I’m thinking of buying one for my father.
        The next big energy efficiency product? I would say the heat pump water heater. Every year some energy expert is obliged to claim that heat pump water heaters are just around the corner—I’m the sucker this year— but I do think the stars are finally aligned in the heat pump water heater’s favor. The technology gets better each year, and the economics become more convincing. And where else are you going to find a single conservation measure that could save over 1,500 kWh per year in nearly 40% of U.S. homes? Energy Star almost endorsed them a few years ago but backed off because it felt the technology wasn’t quite ready. I say that if Energy Star announces a specification that will take effect two years in the future, manufacturers will deliver (though they may be Japanese manufacturers).
        There should also be a category for the next big maybe—that is, appliances whose energy future I just don’t know. The prize here would certainly be won by flat-screened displays. Future energy use is a question mark because their efficiencies could go in two directions—LCD versus plasma technologies. At the same time, hours of operation could greatly increase if flat-screen real estate proliferates and the screens are no longer linked to specific TVs or computers; indeed, flat displays may even become a new form of illumination. I will be watching this one carefully.
        So those are my predictions. Do you agree? What did I overlook? I welcome your comments. In the meantime, however, I urge you to focus on saving energy in the devices that exist today.
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