Opinion: Electronica = Green = Black

MUNICH, GERMANY—The logo of the Electronica exhibition has been green as long as I can remember Electronica exhibitions. It also combines one period of a sine wave in a simplified version of an oscilloscope trace. That's one of the simplest graphical representations of the concept of “analog” you can get.

What goes around comes around. This year's Electronica was shot through with green-ness from Hall A1 to Hall C4. And in close support of the environmentally friendly, power-efficient theme at Electronica was analog circuitry.

However, the times we live in are so interesting, it seemed many companies felt a need to go to extremes. Many large semiconductor companies—but not as many as in years past—were in Munich claiming they had always been analog/power-efficiency/industrial/ automotive chip companies. And in those much loved organizational and market-sector charts, most executives just ignored the computing and consumer sectors—though they make up most of the total semiconductor market.

Of course, those same markets are likely to be responsible for a lot of chip-price attrition in 2009, but at Electronica it was as if they had never existed. The digital revolution had never happened and digital, in the manner of totalitarian rewrites of history, had become a non-entity.

Welcome to the analog, industrial, power-efficient, automotive world of Electronica.

The tone was set by Brian Halla, chairman and CEO of National Semiconductor, who highlighted the possibility of a new form of noise cancellation in handset applications, using analog techniques at one-tenth the power of digital.

Halla also participated in the traditional CEO panel debate at Electronica, which took as its theme “the contribution of the semiconductor industry to climate protection.” The topic gave rise to discussions about the opportunities to use power management with solar cells, in automotive engines and in communications and industrial infrastructure.

Carlo Bozotti, STMicroelectronics president and CEO, made the point during the panel that ST has been trying to quantify the cost-effectiveness of “green” programs since 1995. That's 12 years of trying to drive down power consumption, water use and carbon emissions while at the same time producing more silicon. It was Bozotti who used the phrase “green is black,” seeking to emphasize that green programs produce a return on investment.

But there is a dark (not just black) side to all this enthusiasm for green. All through the panel session and elsewhere at Electronica, we were bombarded by messages about how this or that technology could save 20 percent here or 30 percent there. But what went unsaid is what, exactly, is being used as a basis of comparison for this new technology.

I've seen marketing pitches that claim the standby button “saves” on power consumption because users would otherwise leave televisions on while not watching, or would waste energy turning televisions on and off. But a European Commission study estimated that the power consumed by equipment on standby in 2005 was equivalent to the total annual electricity consumption of a small country such as Portugal or Greece—so how green is that?

Should the engineers behind standby buttons be brought before an “eco-crime” tribunal in The Hague or hailed as energy-saving heroes?

Such whimsy hides an unpalatable truth—and it was left to a member of the audience of the CEO panel to bring it to light. His observation went along the lines that, for all their fine words, the CEOs on the panel represent companies with business models based on the production of more, not fewer, integrated circuits. The more chips sold means the more energy consumed—both in the making and in the using.

The panelists presented investment in green technology as a way forward from the current economic malaise, and we certainly endorse that. But there remains a conflict of interest between consumerism and sustainability. The chip industry—both analog and digital aspects—needs to be doubly good to give itself room for growth.

Peter Clarke is European news director of EE Times Europe.

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