The one energy efficiency report to read

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By Elisa Wood

May 14, 2009

Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, raised a lot of eyebrows recently when he suggested that the US may no longer need to build conventional power plants – that efficiency and renewable energy might meet our needs.

He has since clarified his position, saying much will depend on how we think about energy, its use in the system, and market response.

Still, critics say he overestimates green technologies. Are they right? Reading over the most recent report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy gives one pause about underestimating technology.

We know that semiconductors have given us computers, cell phones, the Internet – they’ve changed the way we live and work. But often semiconductors are thought of as the source of energy gluttony. We are all plugged in much more than we were 20 years ago.

Steve Nadel, ACEEE director, calls this “the high tech energy paradox,” in his introduction to the report. “Analysts tend to pay more attention to the energy-consuming characteristics of semiconductor devices than to their broader, economy-wide, energy-saving capacity.”

Turns out that in making life easier for us, semiconductors also have been taking a lot of strain off our power system. ACEEE looked at how we might have accomplished tasks without the semi-conductor and found it would have taken a lot more energy.

“Computers and servers show us that it can be easier to make decisions, and that it is easier to move electrons than it is to physically move people and goods,” says the report.

In fact, technologies that use semiconductors saved us 775 billion kWh in 2006 alone. Without semiconductors we would have used 20 percent more power that year. Or put more strikingly, had it not been for semiconductors, we would have built 184 additional, large power plants.

The report goes on to extrapolate that the semiconductor industry is likely to lead to even greater savings in the future.

Semiconductors could support an economy in 2020 that is 35 percent larger than today, but uses seven percent less electricity. By 2030 the economy could be 70 percent larger and use 11 percent less power. What does this mean in practical terms? About $1.7 billion in electricity savings, a lot less carbon dioxide and many more jobs, says the report.

Such startling projections make Wellinghoff’s statement seem less dramatic.

Here I’m in danger of sounding like a sales pitch on the jacket of a paperback. But if you read only one energy efficiency report this year, make it this one: “Semiconductor Technologies: the Potential to Revolutionize U.S. Energy Productivity. It is an eye opener.

Visit Elisa Wood at and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.