Powering down

Technology is popularly billed as nature’s most ruthless and unrelenting antagonist. It scars the landscape, pollutes the air and poisons the oceans. The nationwide growth in consumer electronics, which last year used about 18tWh — equivalent to the annual output from five power stations — is significantly responsible. Also, this figure looks set to increase in proportion to consumers’ appetite for energy-hungry, digital technology.

The Department for the Environment estimates the country’s domestic electricity consumption could rise to 31 terawatt hours by 2010, largely due to the rise in the number of bigger-screened TVs, and a corresponding demand for set-top boxes, which could number 50 million by 2012.

Energy guzzlers

Initially, concern seems to have focused on demand for plasma screens, which can consume up to four times as much electricity as models with the old cathode-ray tube. But the issue is much broader than the energy inefficiency of one particular kind of product. Energy-guzzling plasma screens are fast becoming yesterday’s news; savvier consumers are quickly replacing them with the more efficient LCD TV, with its longer lifetime and higher resolution picture.

However, while the plasma’s diminished presence in the next generation of digital homes makes it an overstated threat, it will still have a lingering environmental significance. The flat panel TV (initially using plasma technology), which could be hung on a kitchen wall as easily as it could be mounted on top of a living room cabinet, revolutionised how many TVs it was viable, and acceptable, to display. As a result, modern households typically sport several TVs in locations where the old cathode-ray would have appeared cumbersome.

This trend is unlikely to die. Which is why it is important to consider, not just the efficiency of individual products, but the collective energy burden imposed by the number of these products in the household.

If plasmas — and a general reduction in the size and price of consumer electronics — have helped to broaden the domestic digital diet, then portability and greater connectivity is certain to augment it. Mobile phones have replaced the single family landline telephone, and laptops, the single family PC; set-top boxes have become a natural adjunct of digital TVs while MP3 players and music streaming systems are just two outcomes of being able to digitally download and distribute audio-visual content.

In other words, our hunger for domestic electronic technology is almost certain to intensify rather than diminish. The solution, however, lies not necessarily in forsaking or limiting the amount of technology we use but in developing new technologies further.

The rationale underpinning this conviction stems from an observation made by Pasquale Pistorio, STMicroelectronics’ former chief executive. He noted that, contrary to popular belief, the antagonism between technology and nature is not unavoidable, and it is short-sighted of modern corporations (and environmentalists) to have cast it as such.

There no inherent contradiction between preserving the environment and pursuing technology; the two have long been closely aligned, for a simple, hard-headed business reason. Since energy waste costs the business and consumer alike, it is economic to be efficient — in the contemporary nomenclature, to be environmental.

Sudden growth

This is why we, as a manufacturer, intend to turn STMicroelectronics into a ‘zero-equivalent carbon dioxide emission company’, by 2010 and why we, as a competitive business, continue to design and develop products that help reduce the consumption of energy.

The sudden growth in the nation’s environmental conscience has doubtless moved the chip industry’s concern with efficiency far beyond a traditional focus on finance. Now, we must not only satisfy (and exceed) consumers’ technological expectations; we must assure them that any advance in technology is also a victory for the environment.

Phil Morris is managing director of STMicroelectronics (R&D).