A Word to the Wise: Know Your Power

May 7, 2012 2 Comments »
A Word to the Wise: Know Your Power

Power-related issues are a growing predicament on a global scale. The global population and industrial development are growing more rapidly than existing power infrastructure can handle, having a detrimental effect on efficiencies worldwide. The ever increasing global power issues all stem from an international power grid that is, in a word, archaic. Back in the 19th century electricity was turned from a scientific curiosity into an essential tool for modern life. During that period, names like Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were leading the way in electrical engineering. And worldwide population continued to grow exponentially, accelerating the use of electricity at a rate no one anticipated. Then, in the 1950s–1970s the first uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and surge protectors were created. But aging infrastructure in tandem with a rise in electricity consumption has resulted in a grid that has not evolved to properly support the population and global infrastructure. Until very recently there was a large gap between the growth of electricity use worldwide and power protection technology.

The Global Issue: Population and Industrial Development Exceeding Existing Infrastructure

The global statistics are in, and the findings are eye opening, as Figure 1 outlines. Over the next two decades, demand for electricity is forecasted to grow by 40 percent in the U.S. alone. Increased demand is most dramatic in Asia, averaging 4.7 percent per year until 2030. And while Africa accounts for over one-sixth of the world’s population, the country only generates 4 percent of global electricity. As a country, India loses 28 percent of the electricity it carries. In South America, demand for electricity is projected to double over the next few years, outstripping generation capacity and the aging infrastructure, thus causing increasing power disturbances.

Power grid versus worldwide growth

Figure 1: The global issue: population and industrial development is growing more rapidly than the existing power infrastructure can handle.

This exponential growth means increased stress on the grid, which in turn means more strain on individual electronic items, reducing lifespan, lowering reliability and affecting everyday life.

Electronics Power Protection Landscape

Today’s electronics are pervasive, and the majority of equipment is deployed with insufficient protection, resulting in damage from power grid disturbances, which are surprisingly frequent and destructive. All electronic equipment has two things in common: it needs power to operate, and it is significantly affected by power interruptions. Digital electronics are much more susceptible to glitches, and the evolution of electronics equipment has opened the possibility for more power-related issues. According to Electronic Power Research Institute (EPRI), the consequences of these daily loss-generating disturbances has been called “the most important concern affecting most industrial and commercial customers,” as they cost hundreds of billions of dollars annually to businesses in the United States alone.

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), enterprise companies, data centers and even consumers, until now, have relied on either UPS or surge protection to shield equipment from grid fluctuations, thinking that these devices adequately protect electronics from damage. UPSs offer protection and effectiveness from a technical standpoint by isolating electronics from the grid and powering them by battery. The downside, however, is that UPSs are expensive for most applications and too large to integrate into electronics. Thus, users either choose not to protect their equipment at all or turn to inexpensive surge protection or power strips that only shield electronics from less than one percent of damaging power disturbances. One of the greatest limitations of power strips is their inability to handle high voltage surges, making them practically useless in terms of electronics protection. In addition to risks from an already unstable power grid, digital electronics are microprocessor-based, leaving them susceptible to power fluctuations.

Evolution of Electronics

Although the grid globally remains unreliable, electronic equipment that defines modern life has become highly sophisticated, using a substantial amount of energy—with each new generation of devices more hungry than the last. In addition to its energy consumption, the majority of this equipment is being deployed with insufficient power protection and suffers from an extreme amount of power grid activity that is costing the industry an estimate of tens of billions of dollars annually in lost data, materials and productivity[1].

Grid Disturbances & Fluctuations

Increasing demand for electricity is putting enormous pressure on a grid not equipped to support such heavy usage. In a CNN article[2] regarding the rise in U.S. electricity blackouts, experts on the nation’s electricity system point to a frighteningly steep increase in non-disaster-related outages affecting at least 50,000 consumers. Research performed at the University of Minnesota indicates that over the past two decades, blackouts have increased 124 percent, yet blackouts are merely one of the ways in which the power grid affects connectivity. Electronics are affected by an infinite number of uncontrollable variables ranging from voltage surges and spikes to voltage sags, power outages, overvoltages and brownouts. Even a one-second outage can damage equipment and disrupt operations to the point where labor becomes impaired as systems are reset and brought back online.

In addition to power outages, even a minor voltage fluctuation or other disruption of the electrical signal can wreak havoc. Research indicates surges are not as severely damaging compared with the frequent and potentially destructive disturbances emitted from power grids. Far greater damage can be the result of voltage sags, brownouts, overvoltage conditions and power outages, which may have grave consequences as they relate to reliability and overall lifespan. Electrical disturbances of all types occur frequently, as Figure 2 highlights, and although we may not see an immediate effect such as a blackout, disturbances on the grid can still have lasting implications on our devices.

Power grid disturbances

Figure 2: The inherently chaotic power grid is caustic to connected electronics and affected by an infinite number of uncontrollable variables.

Mounting Costs

The Consortium for Electric Infrastructure to Support a Digital Society commissioned a study in 2009 to obtain a definitive estimate of the direct costs of power disturbances to U.S. businesses. The study sought to quantify the cost of brief outages—for example, outages of one second or a couple of minutes long—unlike previous studies that have confined their analysis to lengthier outages of one hour or longer even though shorter outages are more common and can cause data loss and damage to industrial equipment. The study revealed the following:

  • The average cost of a one-second outage among industrial and digital-economy firms is $1,477, versus an average cost of $2,107 for a three-minute outage and $7,795 for a one-hour outage.
  • Digital-economy establishments report that 49 percent of the outages they experience last less than three minutes.
  • Add all that up and the U.S. economy is losing between $104 billion and $164 billion each year to outages.

Additionally, a study by EPRI from 2005 suggests that the cost to the North American industry of production stoppages caused by voltage sags now exceeds $250 billion per year.

Wide Range of Industries Feel the Impact

The grid is relied on by a wide variety of industries ranging from consumer devices including laptops and televisions to sophisticated medical equipment. All of these industries use power to function and are affected differently by an unreliable power source.

Consumer Electronics

Consumer electronics, like all electronics, are vulnerable to power-related glitches such as equipment lock ups and resets, service calls for unknown stoppages and modem problems. According to a report by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and Business Monitor International (BMI), the average U.S. household has 24 consumer electronics products, contributing to the growth in the consumer electronics devices market, which is expected to increase from $253.5 billion in 2011 to $322.9 billion by 2015. The latest projected figures from GfK Digital World, produced in partnership with Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), reveal global spending on consumer technology devices will surpass $1 trillion in 2012 for the first time. This is an increase of 5 percent over 2011’s figure of $993 billion. Consumer electronics devices range from TVs and personal devices to laptops, smartphones and audio equipment, and the industry as a whole can be segmented into entertainment, productivity and communications categories. In addition, consumer electronics accounts for 15 percent of global residential electricity consumption. This continued massive growth of digital electronics creates the possibility for additional power-related issues.

Data Centers on the Rise

Beyond consumer devices, more than ever, companies are moving IT infrastructure to data centers. Emerson, a networking provider who recently commissioned a study on the global data center phenomenon, revealed that there are over 509,000 data centers of varying sizes across the globe. These data centers combined accommodate the 1.2 trillion gigabytes of data created every day. In addition, despite stalled growth during the recession, IDC estimates approximately $22 billion will be spent on new data center development worldwide this year alone. Although downtime may be extremely low at data centers, damaging power disturbances are a very common, costly occurrence. To make matters worse, according to a data center report in 2010, problems with UPS equipment and configuration are the most frequently cited cause of data center outages. As a result, there is a growing movement to discover and implement a solution to add additional protection for these electronic assets without incurring massive cost, size and service requirements.

Invaluable Medical Technology

The need for reliable power goes beyond consumer electronics and data centers; another example is the global medical technology market. The medical device industry is large, intensely competitive and highly innovative, with annual worldwide sales in 2009 exceeding $220 billion according to Zacks Equity Research. A study performed five years ago by the U.S. International Trade Commission discovered that the United States, EU and Japan together account for approximately 90 percent of the global production and consumption of medical devices. The study also discovered that the U.S. medical device industry is the most competitive in the world, having been recognized for its ability to continually design, develop and place medical devices in U.S. and foreign markets. When improving the reliability of technology and services for the medical field, it’s critical for manufacturers and electronic equipment designers to remember the complexity of today’s digitally advanced world, which is largely affected by the power grid. If medical equipment malfunctions, it can have an immediate impact on patients, doctors and nurses. Given the sheer importance and monetary value, it’s necessary to understand the significance of protecting this equipment from power disturbances. The current solutions in place are expensive to acquire, costly to maintain and increasingly difficult and expensive to dispose of when replaced. Owing to these limitations, electronic equipment serving the medical industry is either protected at too great a cost or not protected at all.

A Solution: A New Approach in Power Protection Technology

New technology developed by Innovolt provides electronics power protection technology designed to guard against damage from 99.5 percent of power interruptions and is accessible to and effective for all electronics, regardless of size. This technology manages the impact of power disturbances and effectively increases the lifespan, reliability and efficiency of electronics equipment. According to Innovolt, companies that have deployed its technology have seen a decrease in service calls on protected equipment.

Innovolt has developed an intelligent electronics protection platform that in comparison with traditional surge protection and filtering technologies is a cost-effective, viable and proven long-term option for electronics protection. Similar to UPS systems, the technology provides immunity from grid and line disturbances, yet with a greater success rate, increased functional form-factor and more affordable design. Fortune Global 500 OEMs including Ricoh and Toshiba as well as other companies including Konica Minolta, ECi OMD and Katun have been quick to adopt Innovolt’s technology platform, a move that signifies the critical need for electronics equipment protection.

Electronic disturbances can occur at any time, without warning. With risks such as decreased profitability, productivity and customer satisfaction, businesses and consumers cannot afford to risk leaving their electronics unprotected. As we continue investing in new technology, we must understand the severity and implications of exposing our costly investments before it is too late. Innovolt’s ultimate future goal for electronics protection is to improve performance, reliability and longevity of equipment and reduce the number of service calls.

About the Author

Jeff Spence of InnovoltJeff Spence joined Innovolt as President and COO in 2010 after more than 15 years in executive and corporate development roles growing worldwide companies in the energy, finance, telecommunications and technology sectors across five continents and dozens of countries. In addition to his leadership roles with Innovolt, Spence continues to consult to the industry regarding sales, corporate finance, technology, business incubation and international business development. He is an active speaker across multiple industries and disciplines, having appeared at high-profile conferences including Comdex, Networld+Interop, The Homeland Security Summit, and the International Autobody Congress & Exposition (NACE). In addition, Spence has counseled policy groups including the United Nations, the European Union, and a host of other government and business groups on subjects ranging from economic development, entrepreneurialism, sales and marketing to government intervention and monetary policy.


[1] The Cost of Power Disturbances to Industrial & Digital Economy Companies, June 29, 2001,

http://www.lb7.uscourts.gov/documents/08-13064.pdf

[2] CNN Tech: U.S. electricity blackouts skyrocketing, October 15, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/innovation/08/09/smart.grid/index.html

Photo courtesy of PCgeek86

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