Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


December 24, 2007

Why the iPhone (actually) Matters

Ok, I’m just an iPhone fanboy. This post is entirely off-topic — it has nothing to do with the environment, energy, conservation, or any of that. I should hate the iPhone. But wait. I love the iPhone, and thus, must rationalize my purchase, as I have done in the past with my TV, TiVo, and laptop computer.

Stick with me. Going a bit out on a limb, I believe the iPhone embodies something that gives me (some) hope that us humans will manage to think ourselves out of our global warming issues in three ways, because:

  • It is small
  • It uses very few resources
  • Its design is brilliant and groundbreaking

The iPhone is small

The iPhone fits in your hand. It is mechanically simple — only five moving moving parts. I don’t think it contains that much bad stuff (yes, there’s a battery and some solder), especially if compared to almost any larger electronic device. It is well constructed, and I hope relatively durable. I have one of the early iPods, and it is still going, even after a few drops on hard surfaces. Small means fewer resources consumed, and lower transportation costs. The packaging is reasonable.

Being small doesn’t make a cell phone that special, but it is a small device that does a lot more than a phone.

The iPhone uses few resources

I have already mentioned the resources needed to manufacture and deliver the iPhone, but it is also very light on energy consumption over its lifetime. Based on my highly scientific observations, the transformer used to convert home A/C electrical current to low voltage direct current needed to charge the battery is of the type that does not consume electricity when not being used, and only a little when it is. I have written about “vampire transformers“, and you can tell if you have one of these energy suckers just by putting your hand on it while plugged in — if it’s warm to the touch, its the kind that sucks a small current continuously. The Apple chargers appear to be the type that use “switching power transformers“, a simple digital circuit that not only switches off when not being used, thus drawing current only when needed instead of 24 hours per day. It is also smaller than normal “brick” transformers, and uses less resources to make (no copper wire windings).

The iPhone’s design is brilliant and groundbreaking

And this is where I am cheered. The iPhone is really a computer, an iPod, an email program, a reasonable camera, a clock and contact manager, personal calendar, and a web browser that is useful despite the small screen. Oh, and it happens to be a very functional phone. But more than the “Frankenstein” smart-phones of the recent past (Blackberry, Trio), the iPhone actually integrates the various features in smart ways. Any phone number displayed in an email, web page, map, or of course contacts can be dialed just by touching it. Simple, obvious? Yes, but it just seems to work everywhere you would hope. Same thing with URLs; touch and they open in a web browser. The photos it takes can be sent to anyone on your contact list with a couple simple steps. Touch a contact to call. Find a location with the map, and the location’s phone number and address is available. The phone can use the AT&T data network, but knows if there’s a faster wireless network available, and just switches to whichever is available. It syncs and charges with my computer’s calendar, address book, music and photos. The physical and computer interface design is integrated, simple, intuitive, effective, and in more than a few cases, delightful.

(The authors of Cradle to Cradle, a book on sustainability discuss the notion that good, sustainable design is often characterized by being aesthetically pleasing. It’s not happenstance.)

But is the design groundbreaking? I say yes … kind of. And it’s the “kind of” part that is most encouraging. Yes, the iPhone does something that no other device can do. Owners of other smart phones may disagree, but I am not quibbling about the addition of some frilly feature. What Apple has done is design a single thing that isn’t just a phone with other features, it is a new kind of thing that provides usable features. And because this new thing works beautifully it is useful.

The iPhone has synthesized elements that have been around for years in a way that is clever enough to be useful. We can do the same thing when faced with a more substantial problem.

How the iPhone (actually) Mattters

I hope (and believe) there is an equally elegant solution to our various energy related issues. Hydrogen, ethanol, carbon sequestration and various other complicated, not yet cooked, or senseless pieces of the puzzle require too many moving parts of our infrastructure to offer a significant and currently viable solution. I hope (and believe) that the immediate solution to our woes already exists in a useful form.

We need brilliant design and vision that sees something common to create a miracle of simplicity. This is what we need to solve the problem.

(Having said that, it’s slightly daunting to think that it took at least 15 years for the pieces of the technical puzzle of the iPhone to come together, and then be realized into a functional product. While cool, the iPhone is many orders of magnitude less complicated that even our simple energy solutions.)

What We Have Already

We have some of the pieces, at least, to solve some of the technical problems. We have invested years into developing several solar technologies, but compared to our investments in other things (you know, oil companies, oil wars, agriculture, etc.) we have put hardly any mental or capital investment into making solar go from “edge” to “center”. Solar has many elements that make it ideal, in particular can be deployed in tiny or huge increments, and is based on a resource that is effectively infinite. Wind is a kind of solar energy (the sun makes heat that makes the wind blow), and is similar. Both solar and wind could supply all of our energy needs, but that’s not the point. What makes them important is that they are present and usable now.

Both wind and solar have the tremendous advantage of being comparably simple and deployable. A single solar array on a rooftop, or a larger one in sunny ground can both be integrated into our existing power grid with relatively little overhead. Neither is cost-effective … at today’s energy prices. And the government subsidy is compared to the subsidies oil companies, farmers, and car drivers get (remind me why roads are essentially free?), but this should not deter us. Investment in these and other means of collecting and using energy will certainly pave the way for technical innovations, and the economy of scale that will make them cost effective. Oh, and pretty much regardless of whom you ask, the price of oil is not expected to fall.

Yet wind, solar and other alternative energies shows up as a tiny sliver in the pie graph of our consumption. They are frequently dismissed as “unrealistic”, but I think that’s only because people are looking for single, “silver bullet” solutions. We can change this, with leadership. I am sick of hearing people dismiss these technologies as “fringe”. No, they cannot solve the problem overnight. But if not economically viable, wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and other zero-emissions alternative energy sources are in a stage of development that can be widely deployed. Making them economically viable may require a jump-start in the form of some leadership.

Transitional Technologies

We have hybrid technology. Ok, I am not saying the Prius is the solution to everything, but it does something brilliant: it exemplifies a pathway that accepts what we have now and finds a way to begin to embrace new solutions as they become more and more practical. The brilliance of the hybrid vehicle is the introduction of an engine that can accept power from multiple sources: gas as a primary fuel, and electricity generated from energy otherwise wasted. The key is that it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition; it’s a migration path.

For instance, Toyota is expected to introduce plug-in hybrids soon. The plug-in car plugs into a regular electrical outlet and charges a new larger battery that is capable of running the car for a reasonable commute without the use of gasoline. Longer trips just use gas as current hybrids do today. But the electricity in your garage comes from coal fired electric plants, right? For now, yes, but as demand for electricity grows other sources become more viable.

Now add the two: solar and hybrids. Solar panels on the roof of a garage can do some of the work of charging up that battery. They might even do it all some days. And they might do even more: when the solar is not charging the car, it can be used for other electrical needs.

Hybrids are just one example of a bridge technology. Environmental control systems for buildings are another. Compact Fluorescent bulbs are another. Water saving shower heads, toilets, and faucets are others. They are feasible and perhaps even groundbreaking because they find a way to utilize out existing infrastructure while making a significant step towards a more efficient use of resources.

These changes are evolutionary, just like the iPhone. The pieces are coming to be there, and a few key innovations, combined with the acceptance that we will not solve the whole problem at once can encourage solutions that, like hybrid cars, can demonstrate their value now, and grow in function over time. (Yes, I have accepted the fact that my iPhone will be outmoded by something cooler, better and even more amazing in a year or two).

One of the hugest sources of energy we have … today

It would be remiss of me to mention a resource we already have. It is not technology (but can be facilitated with technology). It is not groundbreaking. It was not designed. It is not evolutionary. But it is not regressive.

It is nothing. The absence of. The refraining from consumption. The not buying, the not eating, the not turning on of all those things we have now, or buying more of the things we don’t need. (This, in a post about why I bought the iPhone!). The transfer of valuing “things” to valuing … value. It’s quality, not quantity. And good things come in small packages. The best things don’t come in packages at all.

We can conserve, we can reduce, and we can simply think about what we can stop doing … and still be happy. I am not even suggesting (in this post) that people give up their houses, their big cars, or other things that consume more energy than they should.

I am suggesting instead that we all spend a moment to think. Being aware of consumption, of what uses energy is an important step we can all make. I can say with absolute certainty, there are changes almost every American could make with little or no cost, and little or no inconvenience, that would reduce consumption significantly.

And we could make these changes in a matter of weeks, if we wanted to.

It is the brilliance of humanity that is either our salvation or downfall — we can still choose

The iPhone brings together a lot of things that worked, and made something truly new that worked together. This is brilliance, and somewhere close to the soul of humanity. The hybrid brings together things that work and can be incrementally improved. This has been the workhorse of human innovation. Conservation and awareness are the characteristics of survivors, and (if you believe in evolution) this is the one that after billions of years (or 2000 if you don’t believe in evolution) has enabled us to still be around.

Let’s innovate, improve and conserve so we can be around for another 50 years or so.

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