How engineers can stop climate change in its tracks
In December 2015, after two decades of negotiations, 195 countries adopted a historic, legally binding agreement on climate change. The primary goal of the so-called Paris agreement is to hold the increase in global average temperature “to well below 2°C,” and “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
The agreement still needs to be approved by the individual governments of the countries involved. But, once at least 55 nations — representing, between them, at least 55 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions — have signed on, the pact can go into effect.
Speaking of the agreement, Jeffery Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said, “ The politicians have done their job, now it’s up to the engineers.”
It’s up to electrical engineers in particular, because it is the generation of electricity that is primarily responsible for greenhouse gases, accounting for about 30% of the U.S. total. Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity have increased by about 12% since 1990 as electricity demand has grown and fossil fuels have remained the dominant source for generation, according to the EPA.
To tackle this problem, engineers need to keep two things in mind.
First: The US wastes over 60% of the energy it generates. Thus, using energy more efficiently is the most direct way to lower overall energy use, which, in turn, would allow us to use fewer fossil fuels.
Second: Focus on the biggest consumers of electrical energy, because they are also the biggest culprits on wastage. These are the “low hanging fruit” for efficiency gains.
- Residential and commercial buildings accounted for about 40% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And within households appliances and electronics soak up 31 percent of household consumption. Since that number will continue to grow, it’s a good target to focus on.
- Another juicy target for efficiency gains is datacenters, which consumed an amount of electricity sufficient to power every household in New York City twice over. This amount is projected to double in about eight years. Datacenters today are generally recognized as being strikingly inefficient.
Engineers need to reimagine power management, starting with the humble power supply. And, they need to collaborate on bringing promising new semiconductor materials and technologies into mainstream usage.
“Digital power” and “smart power” are two frontiers in power management that have a lot of room for exploration. Digital power is simply defined as digital control of power supply functions, which allows greater flexibility, precision, programmability and control communications, all of which can translate to greater efficiency at the system level. Smart power is a collective term for monitoring, connectivity and control. Its goal is to provide energy when and where it is needed, from a multiplicity of sources.
Power supply design is one of the most daunting areas of modern electronics, since it melds several disciplines: Hard core analog circuit design, material science, mechanical and RF engineering, safety and EMI. But precisely because of its complexity, it is a topic that yields much through ingenuity. Sometimes, simple tweaks to a topology can result in breakthrough products.
On the materials front, wide-bandgap semiconductors such as silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN) possess superior material properties that enable device operation at higher temperatures and voltages with faster switching speeds — resulting in smaller, more reliable, and more efficient systems with higher levels of control, flexibility, and performance. According to the DOE, “GaN‐on‐Si power devices, in particular, are a disruptive technology that offers unique opportunities to cost‐ effectively integrate enhanced control capabilities into the grid.”
Also on the materials front is the technology of high-density photonics, which could be deployed to dramatic effect in datacenters where efficiency gains are limited by the metal interconnects between devices.
But, while new materials are exciting, their wide adoption requires advances in high‐volume manufacturing, new packaging designs and well-designed reliability and performance test standards. All of these are potential areas for engineers to collaborate. One researcher’s call, “Let’s GaN together reliably,” to collaborate on reliability standards for GaN is but one small step in the right direction. Many more such proposals would be welcome.
It’s time for EEs to take the initiative on climate change