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Unflashy innovations in energy efficiency.

February 24, 2011

Energy efficiency is frequently described as the “low hanging fruit” of energy policy reforms, because you can relatively painlessly achieve very significant energy savings (and consequently emissions reductions) through various efforts to improve efficiency, especially at its end use. For example, an oft-cited 2009 McKinsey report stated that non-transportation energy consumption could be reduced by 23 percent, at a savings of $1.2 trillion, by adopting a comprehensive plan for energy efficiency.

It’s been well known for years that simple behavioral changes or consumer actions can save a lot of electricity; hopefully, you have already banished all incandescent light bulbs in your house in exchange for CFLs or LEDs, and have caulked your windows, etc. Unsurprisingly, these types of mundane tasks are not very sexy, and consequently, it’s difficult to motivate people to make these changes. And it’s not just a matter of changing behavior: it’s just as hard to get people excited about reforming building codes, or making other infrastructural decisions to increase energy efficiency.

So what do people get excited about? Technology,  money, and novelty come to mind. And yesterday, those three exciting characteristics were all present in the news that through its venture capital arm, Google (everybody loves Google!) and other investors like Kleiner Perkins had invested $38 million in capital in Transphorm, Inc., a Santa Barbara-based startup that aims to reduce the energy loss that occurs when electricity is converted. The company’s chief executive says that 10 percent of electricity is currently lost using conventional conversion technology. Transphorm’s schtick is that they use gallium nitride instead of silicon, apparently resulting in a 90 percent increase in energy efficiency.

Their technology is kind of ridiculously vaguely described in the news articles I’ve found, but my sense from googling around is that Transphorm has basically come up with a new way to make switch-mode power converters, using gallium nitride diodes instead of silicon. Gallium nitride has a faster switching frequency and is a relatively novel material (compared to silicon compounds — it’s been in industrial and commercial application for years, most notably in LEDs). It seems that Transphorm’s actual innovation is in synthesizing the material most efficiently for the application.

The New York Times Bits post notes that Transphorm will first target the data center market, a major and fast-growing source of energy consumption. Not to be left behind, Microsoft is also working on improving energy efficiency in data centers.

This year, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates that $240 billion worldwide will be invested in clean energy, including energy efficiency. (UNEP also estimates that spending 2 percent of global GDP, or $1.3 trillion per year, is what’s needed to transition to a green economy with reduced water and energy demand, carbon emissions, and increased crop yield.) While Transphorm is still unproven, this kind of unflashy innovation, at all levels of society – not just energy resource extraction, but also the minutiae of maximizing the efficiency of electricity conversion – will be necessary parts of the transition to the new green economy. And while the efficiency of electricity conversion doesn’t sound super exciting, its applications in high tech areas like cloud computing are going to be important drivers of innovation.

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