Product energy use must be reduced systematically: myth or not?

As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or true. In today’s episode: product energy use.

Electronic devices are becoming more and more present in our lives: every type of consumer good is becoming ’intelligent’, with bright and sometimes colourful displays or added communication functions that allow control with a smartphone or tablet.

The consequence is ever-growing global electricity consumption, which in turn puts pressure, through labeling or regulation, on manufacturers to design lower-burden products. At first thought, reducing product energy use sounds like a good idea. But does lowering the energy consumption of individual products lead to an improvement in the environmental impact overall?

Forgetting the function

Improving the electrical burden of a specific product might seem a no-brainer. But consider it, and then take another look: if this reduction leads to downgrading the main capabilities of the product, it would probably lead to overall losses.

A good example can be seen with tumble-driers: to maximize energy savings, low-energy driers must not lose their effectiveness in drying clothes. Otherwise, users will run them twice for each load of laundry, which probably surpasses the savings obtained with one run.

Intelligent electronics…

Modern electronics, associated with efficient software, can have a more positive result on the environment than simply reduced energy use.

First, they often integrate the functions of several products. A smartphone, for instance, provides the functions of a phone, an organizer, and an mp3 player.

Second, and maybe more important,  smart products can be integrated into advanced systems and be used to reduce the energy of the entire system. A smart meter, for instance, can interact with the heating system so that the energy spent is exactly what’s required for comfort, not more. Overall, the whole system will benefit from energy savings, whatever the consumption of the smart meter itself.

…but does that intelligence last?

Generally, that comes at a cost. Adding ‘smart’ capacities to an electronic assembly is usually done by improving its communication functions, which requires powerful integrated circuits that cost a large amount of energy to be manufactured and function. This leads to an increased impact for the single product.

Moreover, devices with complex capacities are usually very sensitive to malfunctions, since components can be crucial for all functions. With separate devices, a component is necessarily only essential for one function. In addition, complex devices are often subject to faster obsolescence.

That smartphone we mentioned probably has a higher energy consumption than a simple cell phone. It could help save energy if it replaced 3 other types of products, but only if they can all run for 10 years without any problems. However, if the smartphone only lasts 3 years, you would need to buy more than 3 of them to cover the 10 years, leading to a higher amount of energy used in total.

Product energy use must always be reduced: myth or not?

Status: busted.

As usual with LCA, all pre-conceived assumptions must be considered in terms of the function of the product. Look beyond one component, and to the entire lifecycle.

The value of reducing the absolute amount of electricity needed to run a product must be related to the function of the product and its lifetime. If the product has extended functionality or a different lifetime,  you could come to a completely different conclusion.

Uncover more sustainability myths

This is the fifth part of our Sustainability Mythbusters series. See other episodes:

It’s easy to use ‘common sense’ and make assumptions in sustainability, but does that get you the results you want? If you want to learn how you can use sustainability metrics to uncover more myths for your company, contact us.

Jori Coustillas

Product Owner

I believe companies and organisations need to make drastic changes in the way they do business. In my opinion, LCA is the best tool to help people focus on actually relevant changes. It can help companies steer in more sustainable directions without falling for obvious, but sometimes misleading, options.

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