Columnists: Alan Meier, LBNL

Published on: 27 Feb 2018

When appliances use no energy and self-disassemble when they retire

Appliance efficiency standards – Ecodesign requirements to Europeans – are largely responsible for the ongoing decline in residential energy use in the United States. Their impact is also flattening the demand curves in Europe and Japan. With that successful track record, what could possibly be wrong with today’s efficiency regulations? Answer: they are not future-proofed. And the future is already lurking in some of today’s appliances. That’s why a recent eceee Brussels workshop on the future of energy efficiency standards (often abbreviated MEPS) had relevance far beyond the EU. The workshop explored several trends that are already transforming the appliance marketplace, but I’m going to describe only two here.

The first trend is the rising importance of the energy embodied in a product’s production and disposal phases. This is partly a consequence of the EU’s success in reducing energy consumption of appliances during their operation phase. It also reflects the growing recognition that we must take a product’s life cycle into account. The trend is strongest in electronic products, where embodied energy has already overtaken operational energy. And, of course, “zero-energy” homes still have lots of embodied energy. Europe needs to address resource impacts because Ecodesign requires it, while legislation in the US and Japan focuses almost exclusively on operating energy.

The second trend is the emergence of services in place of products. A good example is the jet engine. Manufacturers of jet engines are shifting to a “service model”; instead of selling the engines to Boeing and Airbus, the manufacturers own the engines and sell “thrust-hours” to the airlines. Photocopy manufacturers do the same: they sell copies through a service agreement rather than the machines themselves. Other service providers are emerging in lighting, computation, and energy storage. Lyft and Uber are leading the way in transportation. Your cable TV service provider has been selling you a service—it owns that energy-guzzling set-top box in your home—for decades.

Providing services instead of products scrambles traditional responsibilities and incentives for energy efficiency. Will that jet engine manufacturer make efficiency a priority when it sells thrust-hours? If the set-top box is any indicator, efficiency will be sacrificed for the convenience of the service provider. Shifting to a service-based model is probably occurring faster in the United States than Europe, and faster in the commercial sector than in the residential sector, but policymakers in both Europe and North America have barely considered the energy implications.

European policymakers are also concerned that products not covered by efficiency requirements are responsible for a growing fraction of energy consumption. This is important to Europe because it is trying to meet its commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Many of these products are in the industrial and commercial sectors, such as elevators, walk-in refrigerators, and large motor systems. They are typically custom-designed rather than the mass-produced products (like refrigerators) found in homes. The traditional approach to setting minimum efficiencies based on minimum life cycle cost won’t always apply in these situations, so establishing ecodesign requirements requires new approaches.

And then there’s the issue of disposal of appliances. Should they become landfill or disassembled for re-use and recycling? One workshop presentation – definitely worth viewing – showed how appliances can be manufactured to “self-disassemble” in ways that will amaze you. Non-landfill options are closer than you think.

For years innovations in energy efficiency policies flowed out from Washington to the rest of the world. In contrast, fixes for embodied energy, energy services, and product disposal must come from other capitals where the legal mandate exists. Welcome to Brussels.


The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Alan Meier