The energy crisis of the 1970s happened a long time ago, but there's been a paltry amount of progress toward energy independence since then. Amid the boatload of energy-saving gadgetry, few have been groundbreaking products that really make a difference.
In fact, interest in energy efficiency seemed to wane over those years, until gasoline prices skyrocketed beyond $4 per gallon. At the same time, worries about climate change further piqued the public's interest. Suddenly, green tech was cool again.
We're optimistic, because now we're seeing a torrent of ideas for energy-efficient gadgetry that's actually within reach. But we have a long way to go. Let's take a look at some of reasons why green gadgets still suck and then figure out what we need to do to improve the odds of future products saving the world.
It's mostly symbolic
That hybrid badge on a Toyota Prius might make its owners feel like they're saving the world, but in the car's manufacturing process, that nickel-metal-hydride battery pack polluted the environment and required way too much fuel for it to be truly green. Mining the raw materials (usually done in environmentally negligent mines in China) exposed the planet to toxic rare-earth minerals. Then, separating the metal from the ore and shipping all that stuff across the ocean consumed even more fuel. After the car's usable life is over, that nickel-metal-hydride battery could be hazardous unless it's recycled. Ultimately, that hybrid vehicle could be worse for the environment than its internal-combustion counterpart.
In another example, the amount of energy you'll save with a novelty gadget such as a water-powered clock is negligible. Not using any energy to tell the time might give you a cheap thrill, but don't kid yourself. You're not really saving the planet.
How to improve: Big players need to go beyond the symbolic with tech that really saves energy. Our world needs more electric high-speed trains and bicycles as well as faster broadband pipes for "you are there" videoconferencing. These could all put a huge dent in the amount of energy wasted every day. Imagine the energy savings if half of all office workers did their work from home. Not only would there be a huge environmental benefit, but less energy would be wasted building new roads.
Batteries are still lame
The sun doesn't shine at night, and wind doesn't blow all the time either, so the energy they gather must be stored somewhere. The problem is, battery technology is not making enough progress to keep up. We need a better energy storage medium.
How to improve: We're getting there. The intense interest in electric cars has sparked new initiatives in battery technology, and a good example of that is the IBM Battery 500 project. The group of 40 world-class engineers and scientists aim to create a lithium-air battery that will give electric cars a 500-mile range. Meanwhile, Samsung is making progress with its DMFC (Direct Methanol Fuel Cell) battery, set to hit battlefields sometime this year. Still, progress is slow, because of that little catch called the laws of physics.
Solutions in search of a problem
Solar-powered talking bible? (pictured above) Crazy. A solar cellphone is dumb, too, for obvious reasons. And a solar backpack is not going to be gathering any energy if its wearer spends all day inside.
How to improve: Just because something can be powered with solar energy doesn't mean it should be. Instead of randomly choosing devices, manufacturers should solarize those that can most benefit from it, such as the Solar Impulse plane that just completed its first test flight, and might soon circumnavigate the globe.
Leaching on to the widespread concern about the environment, advertisers and marketers want to jump on the bandwagon, making wild and hard-to-prove claims about how their products might save the world. At the same time, they swaddle their products in layer after layer of useless packaging, usually consisting of difficult-to-open plastic shells that will spend hundreds of years in landfills before they degrade.
How to improve: Rather than packaging gadgetry in containers designed to best display them in a store, wrap them in biodegradable materials for easy opening and recycling. A notable example of that is Amazon's frustration-free green packaging, in which we received a hard drive recently. There were only two pieces of recycled cardboard holding the drive inside its box, and we were able to open it within a few seconds.
Rechargeable batteries are the perfect example of this concept. We love Sanyo Eneloop batteries — they can be recharged 1,000 times, delivering great value compared to disposable batteries. But it's a whole lot easier for consumers to throw away spent batteries than place them in a charger and use them again. It's just not convenient enough for lazy gadgeteers.
How to improve: Build rechargeable batteries into devices, standardize wall-wart adapters so any device can be replenished with any adapter, and enhance the efficiency of wireless induction chargers that let users simply place a device on a table where it immediately begins charging.
They overpromise and underdeliver
The green industry is rife with hype. Sure, you could have a fuel-cell car today if you don't mind spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a vehicle that looks a lot like a modernized Honda Accord. Beyond that, some entrepreneurs exaggerate the capability of their fuel cells (we're looking at you, Bloom Box), and when experts run the numbers, they find out these magic lamps can't possibly do what their inventors claim. The big problem with fuel cells is their need for hydrogen, whose tiny atoms are really good at escaping even steel containers. Large amounts of energy are expended extracting hydrogen from water, and that energy must come from somewhere, usually fossil fuels.
How to improve: Use solar energy to turn water into hydrogen without breaking the bank, a feat that British scientists say they've accomplished with 60% efficiency. Meanwhile, Mitsubishi has a solution for the lack of sunlight at night: within three decades, the company plans to harness the power of the sun with a solar collector parked in geostationary orbit.
Green is expensive
People talk a lot about going green, but not enough are willing to buy the actual products. Heck, 42% don't even think global warming is a serious problem. Usually, green products are more expensive than their conventional counterparts, so people shop price, buying the cheapest, which usually isn't the most energy-efficient choice.
For many buyers, the value proposition just isn't there yet. For instance, owning a home that produces more energy than it consumes would give its inhabitants are feeling of energy independence, but it might take decades for the various solar arrays and energy-gathering devices to pay for themselves.
How to improve: Design awesome tech first, then make it green. To sell, a product must offer something people want. Then they'll buy it whether it's green or not. As a product gains popularity, its manufacturer can take advantage of economies of scale, gradually lowering prices so that green products will be as reasonably priced as those that waste energy.