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Nov 232010
 

By Bill Sullivan

If you are looking at the big picture, the Samsung UN55C8000 delivers 55 inches of view. Image: Samsung

If visions of a new computer, an upgraded cell phone or a flat screen TV are dominating your thoughts these days, you don’t necessarily have to feel guilty about it. No one will confuse adding 50 inches of viewing pleasure with planting a tree when it comes to carbon footprint, but bringing that shiny new toy into your home may not be quite the environmental faux pas it used to be.

From design to operation to disposal, electronics are getting a little more eco-friendly. That’s a good thing, too, since we seem to be incorporating more and more of them into our daily lives. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, a typical American household features 24 electronic devices, from clock radios to DVDs and Blu-Ray players to computers and TVs.

That can be 24 energy-sucking environmental time bombs…or, with a little research and careful shopping, something a bit less taxing on the power grid and the planet in general.

One way to try to lessen your impact is to look for the Energy Star label. That designation assures that any electronics you are considering are verifiably more energy efficient than others on the market.

Yet another good source is the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT. Products certified by EPEAT meet standards set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in a variety of areas, including choice of materials, design for end of life, life cycle extension, energy conservation, end of life management and packaging.

Of course, everyone is claiming to be some kind of “green” these days. How can the average consumer avoid “greenwashing” and make good choices?

In addition to Energy Star and EPEAT, consider advocacy sites such as Greenzer. You can look up a wide range of electronic items and find their “Greenzer Score,” which combines information from Energy Star, EPEAT and other sources Greenzer considers relevant to the product in question.

With all of that mind, here are a few things to look for:

TVs

Image: energystar.gov

Sorting out the relative merits of various makes, models and sizes is about to get a lot easier: That familiar yellow EnergyGuide label seen on home appliances will soon be attached to televisions in stores. TVs manufactured after May 10, 2011 will be required to carry the designation, which currently is used for dishwashers, refrigerators and the like. Consumers will be able to get an estimate of the cost to power a TV for a year and how those costs compare to other similar units.

Until then, you’ll need to do a little more of the homework on your own.

Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are more efficient than plasma, but many true video aficionados find the picture quality lacking. OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) promises better picture quality with higher efficiency, but the technology is in its early stages.

If you want to go big with an LED, the Vizio VF552XVT (a 55-inch screen for about $1,650) and Samsung UN55C8000 (also 55 inches, but more pricey at about $2,900) may be solid options.

Prefer plasma? Panasonic’s Viera TC-P54Z1 offers a 54-inch screen in for under $2,000, and Samsung’s PN50B850 delivers a 50-inch screen for about $2,100.

In terms of testing and comparing sets currently on the market, the industrious folks at CNET have done much of the heavy lifting. Click here to find out what’s available and what kind of impact that new set is likely to have on both your carbon footprint and monthly electric bill.

Computers

China-based Lenovo has carved out a niche in the “green” computing game by becoming one of the first manufacturers to make that commitment part of their corporate mission statement. Lenovo’s ThinkPad laptops ($400-$1,300) contain 85% recycled plastic content, while ThinkVision LCD Monitors ($230 and up) combine 65% post-consumer recycled plastic with 20% post-industrial content.

Lenovo ThinkPad L412. Image: Lenovo

In addition, Lenovo products have earned the Energy Star 5.0 rating, meaning you can expect to trim as much as 60 percent off energy usage. ThinkStation workstations (450-$1,300) deliver an 86% or higher increase in power supply efficiency as measured by EPEAT.

Lenovo’s ThinkCentre ($500 and up) line earned EPEAT’s top ratings among desktops, while the ThinkPad series shared the top spots among notebooks with Toshiba’s Portege ($899-$3,499) and Tecra ($839-$1,349) models.

A bit closer to home, Dell recently was named the greenest company in America by Newsweek. The magazine recognized the Texas-based manufacturer for focusing on sustainability in supply chain and operations and diverting 484 million pounds of recycled materials from landfills since 2006.

According to Dell, its OptiPlex ($539 and up) business computers come with energy management features that have saved an estimated $5 billion in energy costs over the past four years. Also, if you purchase a Dell Inspiron Mini 10 ($499.99 and up) or a Dell Streak tablet ($549), each comes in a bamboo package that can be composted for easy disposal.

Cell Phones

Want to be a little greener while texting your friends or checking your Facebook page? There are a few options to consider.

Samsung Blue Earth. Image: Samsung

The first “green” phone from a U.S. carrier was the Motorola Renew W233 ($13-$34.99) for T-Mobile. It’s pretty basic, but call quality is good and the battery doesn’t drain quickly. Plastic parts are made from recycled batteries, and the ink on the user manual is soy-based.

You’ll have to unlock the Samsung Blue Earth ($259 and up) to use a U.S. carrier, but it may be worth it. Blue Earth features solar panels on its rear face that help charge the battery.

The Sony Ericsson Naite ($119.99 to $139.99) is made from recycled plastic and is power-efficient in standby mode. It also includes a charger compliant with the Energy Star 5.0 standards.

If you are not necessarily looking for a big-ticket item this year, but you’d still like something cool, here are some other ideas that combine fun with peace of mind:

  • Wind-Up/Solar Radio: Kaito’s design operates on any of four power sources – wind-up, solar, batteries or plug-in electric. Twelve hours of sun charges the NI-MH batteries sufficiently to produce 6-8 hours of playing time. Good for camping or for those pesky natural disasters. List price: $49.95.
  • Crank flashlights: We all make sure to check the batteries in our emergency kits, right? (Uh, sure…) With the Electrilite Crank Flashlight, a dead battery is no problem. Light is generated when you crank the handle, and the device doubles as a cell phone charger for most phones. About a minute of winding produces 30 minutes of light. $19.95
  • HYmini Wind Charger: A handheld, universal charger/adapter harnesses renewable wind and solar power or conventional wall plug power to recharge cell phones, MP3 players, iPods, digital cameras, etc. $74.98
  • Boogie Board Paperless LCD Writing Tablet: Make lists, take down notes, or just doodle without wasting paper or ink. Write with the included stylus or even a fingernail. The device uses no power until you erase, and the sealed internal battery is good for about 50,000 erasures. Tablet is only 1/8” thick. $39.95
Nov 232010
 

Chevy's new Volt makes an appearance at the State Fair of Texas. Photo: greenrightnow.com

By Bill Sullivan

Imagine an array of wind turbines in West Texas, whirring away, generating electricity to be transmitted to Frisco and other points in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Imagine that clean, green power surging into your home. Then, imagine your new, state-of-the-art electric car plugged into a 240-volt outlet in your garage, charging that clean-running, environmentally friendly vehicle for the next day’s commute or round of errands.

If all that sounds like a nice idea that will never happen, guess again. In Texas it is happening, right now, thanks to a previously unlikely alliance of planners, power infrastructure providers, utility companies and automobile manufacturers, all coming together to help the future get here just a little bit faster.

“We realize we have to evolve both industries together,” says Britta Gross, Director of Global Energy Systems & Infrastructure Commercialization for General Motors, which is introducing Chevy’s much-anticipated Volt to the market. “There’s just too much opportunity right now in terms of influencing what the smart grid becomes, and too much opportunity to take a blank sheet of paper and design a vehicle like the Volt.

“We’ve spent a lot of time at GM looking at infrastructures, to improve the whole system. I’m not sure we’ve ever had this kind of cooperation and close relation with an industry to make this vehicle as good as it is.”

That cooperation was evident in the panel assembled in October to trumpet the arrival of the electric car – specifically, the Volt — in North Texas. The group included representatives from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the Texas Public Utility Commission, IBM, Oncor, The Beck Group and the Electric Power Research Institute.

The message: The electric car is no longer a concept; it’s a real thing, it’s here, and a broad coalition is prepared to help make it make sense for the average citizen to take the plunge.

“You have this unique new set of systems that are coming together that are going to have to collaborate to basically develop a business model and a market that doesn’t fully exist right now,” said Brad Gammons, IBM’s VP for Sales and Solutions, Global Energy and Utilities Industry. “From an IBM perspective, it’s all about information, from the consumer, all the way back to the power industry. It’s all going to have to be connected for this to work.”

While few question the potential positive impact of moving from gasoline-powered engines to electric, change on any kind of large scale — and GM certainly hopes it is large scale — is not without challenges.

The Volt, for instance, has a range of only about 40 miles before it needs to recharge or revert to a gasoline-powered generator. To fully maximize charging potential, owners will have to install a 240-volt outlet in their home garages or allow up to 10 hours for the car to recharge at 120 volts.

Will owners respond to a plea for off-peak charging, a potentially critical part of the plan? Or will the average commuter plug right in when he gets home from work on a typically sweltering summer afternoon, negating savings and further stressing the grid?

Electric car home charging station. Image: greenrightnow.com

“Range anxiety” is another issue for those for whom 40 miles may not be enough. How many offices will install charging stations, and how common will stations be around the city or town where you live?

GM and its competitors are gambling that these questions can be answered economically and efficiently. Still, the company recognizes that the quality of experience in the initial phase could determine the overall success of Volt and its brethren yet to come.

“There is no guarantee that we’ll actually be able to transition this country away from gasoline, but we are really, really trying hard to make it work this time,” said Gross. “To do this is a really big effort, and the devil is in all these details.

“How smoothly will the home installs go? Will there be a lot of people complaining about the permitting experience? There are a lot of yucky details. With the Internet, one bad experience can negate a thousand good ones. That’s the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.”

GM, of course, has been down this stretch of road before.

From 1996 to ’99, the company experimented with EV1, an electric two-seater with a range of about 100 miles per charge. The cars were available by lease only, and only about 1,100 were produced over a four-year period at a total cost of upwards of $1 billion. While the cars were popular with actual owners, GM decided to cut its losses. In a controversial move, the company shut down the program, recalled the vehicles, crushed all but a few and disabled the drive train in those spared.

“There were some reasons the EV1 didn’t sell in the marketplace,” Gross said. “It was a two-seater, very special aerodynamic materials, very expensive to do. The range was limited to 100 miles on a good day. We didn’t have industry standards for charge points.

“We sat down with Volt and started chipping away at these excuses.”

Volt is powered by a smaller, more-efficient lithium battery. It’s a four-seater. Newly established industry standards dictate that the coming generation of electric vehicles will all plug in the same way, leveling the playing field and simplifying charging station design.

GM research indicates that three-quarters of all Americans commute less than 40 miles a day. For those who need more, a gas-powered generator can add an additional 300 miles of range.

“We thought this was the smartest thing we can do,” Gross said. “We can also limit the size of the battery.

“There really can’t be any good excuses not to buy this vehicle,” she added with a laugh.

Unlike EV1, Volt and its competitors – including the Nissan LEAF, also due in December — figure to have a greater network of support. In Texas, that starts with infrastructure, which Oncor is working to provide.

“We’re in the process of spending approximately $5 billion to build 2,300 miles of high-capacity transmission out to where the wind blows so we can grab 18 ½ gigawatts of wind,” says Jim Greer, the company’s Senior Vice President for Asset Management and Engineering. “That’s a lot of wind. That’s more than any other state and all but a handful of countries.

“Ideally, we get to the point where, at night, you can charge up for a very small cost. In return for that, in the middle of the afternoon, the prices can be more expensive. That’s the kind of grid you’re talking about.”

Utility companies have been taking some initiative, too. Last month, TXU Energy announced plans to build at least a dozen charging stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Previously, Reliant Energy announced a partnership with Nissan to build charging stations in the Houston area.

Greer cited two critical areas any large-scale move to electric transportation will need to address.

“One: We need to really encourage off-peak charging. We need to encourage people not to come home at five o’clock on an August afternoon and plug in. We’re just creating additional problems.

“The second is some kind of early notice that a consumer is even looking at an electric vehicle. We need to bring folks like Oncor in to the loop so we can do an analysis of our distribution network.

“Bottom line is that there is a lot of pre-thinking going on to make these pieces go together. In general, I think we’re well positioned.”

While no one knows how successful this first iteration of electric cars will be, just about everyone agrees on what must happen to fully convert a still-skeptical public.

“Historically, the battery has been looked at as the weak link,” said Tom Reddoch, Director of Energy Efficiency for the Electric Power Research Institute.

Current versions, while improved from the EV1 days, remain big, heavy, and not particularly efficient. More worrisome, to some, is that the U.S. isn’t necessarily out front in pursuing better technology.

“It is about the battery, and China gets that,” IBM’s Gammons says. “Our own government is investing pretty heavily, so that’s encouraging.

“We’ve got a program collaborating globally with Toshiba and other companies called “The 500 Mile Battery.” There are other programs going on around the world to find the new material science and chemistry that will be needed for this new generation of batteries.

“That’ll be the complete game changer. If you have a battery that acts and responds, that’s lighter weight and does that, that’s going to change things very rapidly.”

In the meantime, GM and other manufacturers hope the car-buying public will embrace the first wave of mass-produced electric vehicles as both environmentally-friendly and cost effective.

While Volt is expected to list at about $41,000 and LEAF at $32,780, federal tax incentives could take as much as $7,500 off those tabs. For a typical driver, operating costs can take some of the edge off, too.

According to EPRI’s Reddoch, a typical mid-size vehicle consumes about 500 gallons of gasoline a year. At $2.50 a gallon, that’s about $1,250 per year, or a little over $100 per month.

Volt requires 10 kilowatts for a full charge. At 11 cents per kilowatt hour, that’s about $1.10 per day or about $33 per month, a savings of nearly $70.

Will those arguments sway a public that may be wary of making a major investment in unproven technology in a still-struggling economy? GM and its partners hope the answer is “Yes.”

“A little more than a decade ago, we made a run at electric transportation. And we failed miserably, for a lot of reasons,” Reddoch said. “The great news is that, today, we are positioned to have a success story.”

Imagine that.