Electronics and Embedded Energy
Much of the discussion around energy focuses on how to reduce its use. For example:
- Turn things off when you’re not using them
- Keep the thermostat low in winter, high in summer
- Opt for energy-efficient appliances (look for the ENERGY STAR and EPEAT logos)
Yet, in the lifecycle of any product, energy is consumed at every phase, including:
- Sourcing the raw materials
- Transportation from manufacturing to sales channel to ultimate user
- While the product is in use
- During de-manufacture and recycling
For goods like cars and refrigerators, a lot of attention is given to their fuel or energy efficiency because these items expend enormous amounts of energy during the course of normal use.
But for some kinds of products – namely electronics – the embedded energy (the energy used to create or manufacture the product) warrants at least as much attention as the efficiency of the product.
According to a 2012 study, “… electronics, such as laptops, desktops, televisions and tablets, have the highest upstream impact [highest percentage of embedded energy compared with major appliances and lighting] … Put differently, over the course of the product’s life cycle, the majority of its energy use is tied to the production of the unit, and not due to [its] usage.”
The researchers attribute this primarily to the shorter expected useful life, but the disproportionate expenditure is exacerbated by the rapid proliferation of electronic devices. According to Gartner, 4.9 billion devices will be “connected” this year (2015) and that number is projected to rise to 25 billion in 2020. When you consider that the energy expended in the manufacturing of just a handful of microchips can be as much as the energy needed to manufacture a car, you can get a real sense of the energy challenges posed by manufacturing electronics.
Here at Arrow’s Value Recovery group, our goal is to get the most use out of all the electronics we handle. Only by extending a product’s usable life can we reduce the impact from embedded energy.
 “What We Know and Don’t Know about Embodied Energy and Greenhouse Gases for Electronics, Appliances, and Light Bulbs,” by Amanda Gonzalez and Alex Chase, Energy Solutions, and by Noah Horowitz, Natural Resources Defense Council, ©2012 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings