Painting The World Brown

The trend toward more energy-efficient devices may not be any greener than the old approach.

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The wave of portable devices being sold these days are far more energy-efficient than in the past, and viewed in isolation they constitute a major step forward in the push toward a greener world.

The problem is that while people are buying these new devices in record numbers, they’re actually consuming more energy than in the past. That may explain why the number of complaints about smart phone battery life is on the rise. In fact, these complaints are almost ubiquitous these days, largely because smart phones have replaced basic phones.

While it’s true that users can do more with a smart phone than a regular phone—they can text with ease, search, stream videos, add GPS devices—all of that requires additional energy, not less energy. The chips inside are more efficient, but they’re also doing more. And while tablets and the latest generation of laptops are significantly better on battery life than previous versions, they’re also being used longer and often in addition to existing desktops and laptops.

The world is certainly going more mobile. It’s more connected than ever before. And it’s consuming and generating more information at a faster rate and with more consistency. But all of that takes power. And no matter how efficient the devices, the sheer volume of them, coupled with a rising amount of information to process, will take more energy.

There are two ways to reverse this trend. One, of course, is to cut back on usage, which is unlikely to happen. The floodgates are open, and information will continue flowing in all directions, even if much of it is useless, misleading, or just plain wrong. Conservationists have been warning of impending danger since at least 1306, when the first known air-pollution restriction was enacted in London.

The second path is to figure out better ways of providing energy for these devices, and work is underway in this area through a slew of efforts into renewable energy sources and energy scavenging. We’ve figured out how to create these devices. Increasingly, we’re figuring out even better ways to regulate their usage. The next step is to figure out better ways to power them up. This is where the real effort needs to be for our wildly escalating consumptive habits to continue.


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