Bill Clinton Visits Clinton Foundation Projects In Africa A new study commissioned by the United Nations revised its global population projection upward to 13.2 billion people by 2100 – including billions of new middle-class consumers. According to Germany’s Spiegel Online, the study’s lead researchers give this high population growth scenario a probability of 95 percent to materialize. Unsurprisingly, increasing total consumption in the developing world – from a much lower baseline than in advanced Western economies – will occur in lockstep with the surging need for energy to generate electricity given the projected increase in prosperity across the globe and accompanying improved living standards as more consumers and businesses gain access to reliable electricity.

The energy industry like no other affects economic livelihood, societal texture, and quality of life at the same time. Computers – particularly with regard to mobile technology – and other electronic products are the linchpins of broadening economic and social progress in the 21st century. All these products increase power demand multifold.

A recent EIA analysis of energy used for the production of metal-based durables (MBD) attests to that:

“MBD industries comprise fabricated metal products, transportation equipment, machinery, computers and electronic products, and electrical equipment appliances and components. (…) MBD industries used 466 trillion Btu of electricity in 2010, representing nearly 20% of total electricity use in manufacturing. Electricity accounted for nearly 50% of total energy used by MBD industries.”

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The above graphic illustrates that a world dominated by personal computing also increases the world’s already high dependency on electricity. RealClearEnergy rightly draws attention to the fact that “even such advanced technologies as computers and electronics equipment are tethered to energy production. In fact, computers and electronics are the MOST dependent while heavy manufacturing items such as cars and household appliances are slightly less so. The non-metal-based durables sector, on the other hand, is only about half dependent on electricity and natural gas.” Moreover, the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 projects MBD shipments to increase substantially over the projection period, from 2012 to 2040.

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This insight taken together with the fact that mankind is at the very least on the cusp of what MIT Professor Carlo Ratti calls “ubiquitous computing” – i.e. “with its ‘internet of everything’ corollary, (…) creating a new urban condition: the so-called ‘smart city’” – with digital information often transmitted on-the-go and possibly revolutionizing many aspects of life, leads to the following question: Where is, for example, the ‘smartness’ as it relates to the power efficiency of smart phones or the energy efficiency of mobile networks in general?

In a very interesting article written for the World Economic Forum blog and titled “How mobile phones can save, not waste, energy,” Mattias Astrom, Co-founder and CEO of Eta Devices, points out that while the “energy efficiency of mobile networks remains extremely low,” the mobile industry continues to grow uninhibited globally – driven by “almost 7 billion subscribers and an ever-growing demand for data traffic.” Mr. Astrom’s explanation for this seemingly counterintuitive and divergent trend is very instructive:

“Both base stations and smartphones regularly waste 70% of the energy consumed as heat. The underlying power architecture used in mobile communications still relies on outdated technology developed during the 1930s. (…) The mobile industry consumes 1% of global power consumption. (…) At the core of mobile communications is the use of radio spectrum. (…) [Ever] since the advent of mobile communications, radio engineers have been confronted with a fundamental design choice of optimizing either power efficiency or spectrum utilization [, meaning that] radio engineers can either design for effective use of the spectrum or for low power consumption, but not for both desirable properties at the same time. This has been brought about by the rapid adoption of smartphones, tablet computers and laptops, together with the emergence of cloud-computing applications that require constant network communications. As a result, radio spectrum has become an ever-scarcer resource, which mobile operators need to use as efficiently as possible. Hence, the trade-off between power efficiency and spectral efficiency has swung decidedly in favour of the latter.”

As a result – something all smart phone users are familiar with – phones still need to be charged daily due to high data rates, and the battery drains faster in areas where a network connection cannot be established swiftly. “A lot more power is used than is actually needed for the radio signal,” Mr. Astrom adds. Long gone are the days when it sufficed to charge a phone once a week. This is obviously not a ‘real’ concern in the developed world where access to electricity is basically defined by finding the closest electrical outlet.

However, what is the impact on some of the most vulnerable populations – off-grid, energy-poor, rural customers in developing countries? According to Fabio de Pascale of Devergy, “most of these communities can only afford a few initial energy services – usually mobile phone charging and lighting.” Bringing the benefits of mobile technology/communications to the energy poor is nothing short of a herculean task as is borne out in the following chart depicting the lack of access to electricity just in developing Asia:

Population without Access to Electricity in Developing Asia

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Source: UNESCO 

Mr. Astrom mentions in his article that base stations consume “the bulk of the power used in mobile communications,” concluding that “these cannot today be powered by renewable energy alone, so they rely on costly and dirty diesel, despite the associated logistical and security challenges.” The Economist calculates that “[power] can account for two-fifths of a mobile-phone company’s operating costs.” This is seconded by Pär Almqvist of OMC Power, who describes the already dire situation in India:

“In countries like India, the telecom footprint has vastly outgrown the power footprint. This means that many people who lack basic energy access still have a mobile phone – there are over half a billion people who own a phone but have yet to switch on an electric appliance. Telecom towers – the backbone of mobile networks – need power. [Power] and fuel make up 40% or more of the opex (operational expenditure) for a mobile operator in emerging markets.”

Consequently, as a viable solution Mr. Almqvist suggests “building and operating industrial-scale renewable “micropower” plants to power mobile networks and rural communities.” In contrast, “the centralized grid-based approach to bring power into homes has been, by and large, a failure for most rural areas in developing countries. (…) The problem is that billions are still being poured into this failed approach. So, in fact, [energy] poverty is a system-design failure,” he laments.

Given the mobile industry’s projected exponential growth trajectory and expansion to almost every corner on the planet, this offers a great opportunity for the respective companies to improve their bottom lines by working on the energy efficiency of their smart devices as well as power efficiency of their base stations when building up the necessary infrastructure in energy-poor, developing countries. Especially the latter would display real social responsibility with the effect of reducing energy poverty by installing sustainable, renewable energy-based mini-grids in tandem with the industry’s primary goal of expanding mobile service.