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By Jack Feuer, Photos by Mitch Tobias

Published Apr 1, 2010 9:15 AM


Balu Balakrishnan M.S. '76, president/CEO of Silicon Valley's Power Integrations, is a "green tech" guru whose EcoSmart integrated circuits recognize when appliances are in standby mode and automatically "power down" their consumption. The company estimates that the technology has saved consumers and businesses roughly $4 billion in energy bills.

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Q: How did you become interested in energy conservation?

A: I was always interested in energy conservation at home. I had a meter that would tell energy based on time of use. But at work, in 1997, I read an article by a scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Alan Meier. He had done a study that showed 10 percent of electricity in buildings was wasted in products that were turned off, but on standby power. That intrigued me a lot. I was working on a product that saved energy in standby mode, which I never realized was an important attribute. I met with Alan and showed him what I was doing. He was excited and we got the product out in a year. For a long time, it was us pushing this feature, but nobody really cared. Then the whole idea of green technology became very important, thanks to climate warning and other things that brought it to the forefront. So for the first time, people actually wanted energy efficiency.

Q: We hear a lot of hype about green tech. What's the reality?

A: There are a lot of different technologies, but the differentiating factor is whether it costs money or saves money while reducing emissions. There is a lot of technology for reducing emissions that actually saves money. People don't have to change habits or do anything.

Q: Any other part of energy conservation that excites you?

A: I really believe in solar energy. I'm putting solar panels on my roof. We're going to put a humongous solar panel array in the company to provide electricity for our buildings here. That's a technology that's already cost-effective, but return on investment can take about 25 years. Thanks to subsidies, though, my investment in solar energy will pay off in about 5.5 years. That's mind-boggling to me.

Q: What aspect of green technology doesn't deserve its hype?

A: One that is clear to me is ethanol. I've read many papers and it takes more gasoline to generate a gallon of ethanol, which makes no sense. Why would you grow corn if it takes more energy to do that than the energy that's produced by the ethanol you get? That seems very political. I've read that the only reason ethanol is produced is because primaries take place in Iowa.

Q: Where do you think the field is headed in the next five years?

A: Appliances will become more and more energy-efficient through the use of technologies like ours. Energy savings will be realized by new LED lighting technology that is far superior and becoming more and more cost-effective every day. It will take 20 or 30 years and billions of dollars to convert from coal technology and recover the huge investment in switching to efficient fuel by consumers and government. But saving energy is painless and all the government has to do is mandate that lighting has to be energy-efficient.

Q: Why did you become an electrical engineer?

A: From the age of 4 or 5, I was absolutely sure that was what I was going to be. I used to build a lot of gadgetry, had my own lab, and I know more about electronics than I learned from my bachelor's degree. In fact, [getting his undergraduate degree] was frustrating, because I spent five years learning what I already knew.

Q: And then you came to UCLA for your master's. How did that work out?

A: Most universities tend to train their students to become professors, because professors are the ones who are teaching them. But my professor at UCLA, Dr. Knorr, was in the industry; he was a circuit design engineer. He had the practical experience. So my master's degree was the most interesting part of my education because I actually learned a lot. In India [where Balakrishnan received his undergraduate degree], if you don't answer the way the professor is expecting, it will cost you. They don't like people thinking out of the box. It was exactly the opposite at UCLA.

Q: What would be your first piece of advice to young inventors today?

A: It depends on why they invent. Some invent just for the sake of invention. What is exciting to me is inventing something that solves a problem. I'm more of a Thomas Edison type, where I'm trying to solve a problem and invention is a means to an end. So I'd say, find a human problem and invent something that solves it.

Q: Do you recycle?

A: Absolutely. In fact, I don't have garbage collection at home because we produce very little. We hardly buy any packaged products. I produce about one bag of garbage every year and my gardener takes it with him. It's all degradable.

Q: You are based in Silicon Valley. How green is the Valley?

A: I always feel that Silicon Valley is further behind in using technology than other areas. In Los Angeles, all the lights are synchronized so you don't wait, idling. Even in the middle of the night, I find myself waiting at stoplights here. Having said that, San Jose is making strides in saving energy in multiple ways.

Q: Being green is so cool these days. What's it like being Silicon Chic?

A: That's only happened very recently. We've saved $4 billion worth of energy and only now is it becoming attractive to save energy. So we feel really good that after so many years, there's finally recognition.

Learn about smart grids, organic gardens, green buildings and many more ways that UCLA — and Bruins of all ages and backgrounds — are creating a sustainable future. Visit www.sustain.ucla.edu

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