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Silicon Valley aims ingenuity at energy

Conservation giving wallets and power grid a big boost

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FOSTER CITY, Calif. — On a typical summer day at Electronics for Imaging Inc., about 700 workers can feel the cool breeze drifting across San Francisco Bay without stepping outside.

Taking advantage of its waterfront location, the company uses a high-tech network of dampers and fans to import air to its 10-story, 300,000-square-foot headquarters. Workers are comfortable, and shareholders are happy as the company saves tens of thousands of dollars in energy costs each month.

The unusual cooling system is just one example of the ingenuity that makes EFI's headquarters one of the most energy-efficient buildings in power-hungry California.

Air-circulation motors shift to lower speeds when they don't need to work as hard to reach a desired temperature. Elevators are programmed to recognize usage patterns so they don't have to go up and down as frequently.

"If we had more buildings around like this one, I have a feeling our blackout problems would either be gone or less of a concern than they are now," said Grant Duhon, who supervises commercial construction for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

PG&E estimates EFI's energy-saving measures save the equivalent of 783 kilowatts per day — enough to power roughly 600 homes.

Until recently, few high-tech companies seemed interested in steering their innovative drive toward energy conservation. Rapidly growing Silicon Valley businesses demanded energy reliability, and not necessarily efficiency, to power computers around the clock.

This has fueled perceptions that high-tech companies played a key role in creating a statewide power shortage.

But the industry's energy usage isn't that much greater today. Technology companies now consume 4.1 percent of the electricity in PG&E's service area, which covers 70,000 square miles from central California to the Oregon border. A decade ago, it was 3.9 percent.

"Energy conservation just hasn't been on the radar screen for most Silicon Valley companies because of its low cost," said Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California at Berkeley's energy institute. "The electricity bill has taken up just 1 or 2 percent of the budget at most Silicon Valley companies."

A recent utility rate hike that will double the electricity bills of some businesses is prompting more high-tech companies to find ways to curtail usage, said Michelle Montague-Bruno, spokeswoman for the Silicon Valley Manufacturers Association.

"It's not only good for conservation, it's good for the pocketbook," she said.

To save power, IBM Corp. in San Jose and Milpitas-based parts maker Solectron Corp. are investing in white coating materials to create "cool roofs" that retain less heat and keep their buildings cooler.

Other high-tech companies are taking a lot of smaller conservation measures, such as setting thermostats higher, installing power-saving devices on their computers and keeping more lights off.

At least one high-tech company is trying to cash in on California's greater sensitivity to power issues. Alameda-based Silicon Energy Corp. makes a suite of software that tracks a company's energy usage and provides a road map for conserving power.

EFI, which makes equipment and software that link computer networks with color copiers and printers, spent about $1 million more on its $57 million headquarters for the conservation systems.

"We could have spent that extra money on a lot of marble in the lobby and fancy paintings on the wall, but what does that do for anyone?" said Fred Rosenzweig, EFI's president and chief operating officer. "I think if you do something pragmatic, you will wind up looking smart in the long run."

EFI estimates it saved $600,000 in utilities over the past two years combined and should save at least $500,000 this year. The company also believes its headquarters — filled with cool, clean air — brings psychological benefits that increase employee productivity.

Rosenzweig noted, "Our engineers don't seem to mind spending 10- or 12-hour days working here."