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The Greening of Entertainment Tech

Some of you are really going to hate this column.             Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my future. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about what an energy-scarce future might mean for my career as a writer and my chosen subject matter. I write about the audio/video universe: surround sound, big-screen television, and all the other products and issues that attend them. These things are products of an expansive age of cheap energy, an era when bigger is better, whether it’s your 7.1-channel audio system, your 60-inch TV screen, your McMansion, or your SUV.             There is ample evidence suggesting that this happy-go-lucky age is beginning to wind down, largely due to something called peak oil. It follows a classic bell curve. On your way up the curve, the oil is easy to extract, of very high quality, can be sold cheap, and life is good. At the top of the curve the field is 50 percent exhausted—that’s peak oil. As you move down the curve, the oil gets harder to extract, harder to refine into something usable, and becomes exponentially more expensive. Domestic production in the United States peaked in 1970, setting the stage for the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and a decade of financial instability. To cover the shortfall, we began importing more. Now there are many who believe worldwide production is peaking. For more details, see mainsteam media coverage. Then check out these folks who are keeping a vigil.             A Harris Interactive survey—sponsored not by some treehugger group, but by the oil industry itself!—found that Americans have a woefully low energy IQ. What nation is our single biggest supplier? Sixty percent of us said Saudi Arabia, but actually it’s Canada, followed by Mexico, Nigeria, and Venezuela. Less than 15 percent of our oil comes from the Persian Gulf, and only eight percent of us knew that. All 10 of the world’s largest oil companies are owned by the foreign governments that control the fields, and only two percent of us knew that.             I won’t bore you with a full essay on the subject of energy scarcity, but here are a few more highlights: Oil cost just over $10 a barrel in the 1990s. Right now it’s around $71, due to increased demand and flatlining supply. We’re running out of natural gas too, which is too bad, since it heats 50 percent of our homes, and unlike the bell curve of peak oil, a tapped-out gas field just abruptly shuts down. Producing ethanol from corn requires massive inputs of nitrogen fertilizer made from—uh-oh!—natural gas. Nuclear plants take a decade to plan and build and are mind-boggling terror targets. Coal mining rapes the land and aggravates global warming even more than other fossil fuels. Solar, wind, and hydro added together can satisfy only a small percentage of our needs.             And then there’s that whole global warming thing. I’ll assume you’re up to speed on that, even if you’re not.             So a lot of the things we take for granted are about to become prohibitively expensive, if not downright impossible, including industrial farming, large homes with central AC, capacious SUVs, a landscape optimized solely for private vehicles, discount air travel, the Wal-Mart retail environment, and—oh, yes—all that home theater stuff I write about for a living.   Let’s at least try to imagine a bright side: We’ll have to eat more locally grown organic food for sure. Maybe our post-WWII subdivisions will give way to an older type of traditional neighborhood with walkable streets and nearby shopping. For the first time in generations, we’ll have a chance to rebuild the national passenger rail network and build local light-rail systems to hold our communities together—and what kid doesn’t love trains? And we’ll still enjoy movies and music at home, especially since it’ll be hard to drive to our entertainment. Here’s what our home entertainment systems may look like.     Rash Predictions     Manufacturing will go local. Sure, most electronic products are made in Asia, but when fuel prices raise the cost of shipping beyond a certain level, much of that manufacturing will move back. It may be awhile before an iPod is made in the U.S. but speakers are obvious early candidates. They’re big, expensive to ship, made from fairly mundane parts and materials, and people can build them in their soon-to-be-empty garages (many hobbyists actually do). A generation or two ago, most audio and video equipment was still made in the U.S. Anything they can do, we can do, if economic conditions warrant.   New TV technology will keep the boobs tubing. Energy efficiency is not as big a factor in TV design as it should be. But when the need is upon us, we’ll find ways to save watts. Some models are already compliant with the Energy Star program, using less energy in general, especially in standby, and this trend will continue growing. We’ve already seen huge changes in TV tech with the virtual extinction of the tube. Direct-view TVs have given way to flat panels and tube-based projectors to slimmer microdisplays. Flourescent backlighting in flat panels is giving way to LED backlighting. New flat-panel technologies like the OLED (organic light emitting diode) will eliminate the backlighting completely.   Surround receivers will get smarter… If surround sound survives at all, it will have to go green. Digital (or Class D) amplifier technology is more energy-efficient because it dissipates less energy in the form of heat. And it’s already finding its way into receivers. Not all of them are good, but some—like the JVC RX-D702B—are both innovative and decent-sounding.   …And so will surround speakers. Satellite/subwoofer sets have come of age. With the sub producing bass, speakers can operate with relatively little power. Look at sensitivity ratings in spec sheets—the higher the number, the better. A speaker with rated sensitivity of 90dB uses half the power of one rated at 87dB to produce the same volume level.   Stereo will replace surround. Though I’ve devoted a large portion of my career to convincing people that a home theater system needs at least five speakers and a sub, a lot of people with good music systems have never gone that route, and never regretted it. Many people buy surround receivers and connect only two speakers to them. Stereo may make a comeback even in movie-centric systems. My colleague Steve Guttenberg refers to this as Home Theater 2.0.   Compact systems will prosper. A lot of people who operate power-sucking rack systems may just pack it in and go for something smaller. They will join a large group of technology-shy people who are just not within my audience even now. I recently offered a first-rate pair of speakers—a remnant of my former reference surround system—to several friends and relatives. One by one, they turned me down. How depressing.   The iPod will inherit the earth. There’s nothing smaller or more self-sufficient than a flash-memory player that can operate for long periods off the power grid. You’ll need it for company on the tram, or during all those long walks you’ll be taking to the grocer, the school, and the church. At home, it’ll become the a/v server for your main system, however large or small. Say goodbye to disc players.   Some commentators on the ramifications of the peak-oil phenomenon are pretty caustic. They have my attention, and I suspect they’re right about the tumult and convulsions they predict. But we are a smart, hardworking, imaginative people. I think we can build new lives for ourselves, if we have to—and after a long day of coping with our brave new world, we might even enjoy a little music in the evening.   Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater.

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