How the U.S. Department of Energy is Partnering with Organizations Nationwide to Increase the Energy Efficiency of Semiconductors

By Dr. Carolyn Snyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Buildings & Industry at EERE

Now that summer 2023 is behind us and we’ve had a chance to reflect on the record-breaking temperatures and devastating extreme weather events of the past few months, I know I’m not the only one who feels an increased sense of urgency to see a rapid reduction in the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are fueling climate change. The alarming effects that climate change is having on our weather patterns, our planet, and our way of life are only becoming more dire with each passing season. And while it brings me great comfort to see that strategies to reduce these GHG emissions are becoming more mainstream, there are a few facets of our modern way of life that may be less apparent when it comes to the roles they play in contributing to our changing global climate.

Take microelectronics for example. You may be hearing the term ‘semiconductors’ in the news more frequently these days but what’s the connection between these tiny pieces of technology and our ongoing efforts to combat emissions reductions and climate change? The answer lies in how they use energy. Let me explain…  

From smartphones to artificial intelligence, semiconductors are the ‘brains’ of key products that millions of Americans use daily. The semiconductor industry is known more for its economic influence than its climate impacts. But after an extraordinary half century of doubling semiconductors’ energy efficiency every two years, these efficiency gains stalled and the industry’s energy use—and associated GHG emissions—have begun to surge. If this sounds like a big problem to you, you’re onto something. That’s why we at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have spent the past year working tirelessly to address this.

Enter: The DOE Energy Efficiency Scaling for 2 Decades (EES2) initiative. Having just celebrated its one-year anniversary in September, this program has united 57 organizations (and counting) across private industry, national labs, and academia to reestablish the semiconductor industry's virtuous track record of energy efficiency. The ultimate goal of this initiative is to increase the energy efficiency of semiconductors 1,000-fold over the next 20 years—by again doubling energy efficiency biennially.

By aligning to focus on this common goal, EES2 partner organizations are well positioned to meet or exceed the Biden-Harris Administration’s clean energy goal of halving emissions by 2030 and achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

An Industry That’s Crucial to Our Economy and Climate, Alike

Whenever I find myself explaining the importance of semiconductors, I realize that none of our nation's critical infrastructures, from defense to transportation, finance, communications, or healthcare, can function without this technology. Historically, gains in the efficiency of semiconductors were a byproduct of industry-led miniaturization; however, by 2010, this approach to efficiency had started to reach its limits. From 2010 to 2020, as demand for semiconductor applications like computing and communications burgeoned, their energy use began to double every three years.

This led the industry’s research arm, the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), to project in 2021 that computing could consume 20 percent of the energy produced worldwide as soon as 2030. If that sounds to you like a massive amount of energy consumption, you’d be correct!

A more recent analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that the GHG emissions associated with semiconductors could even quadruple by 2030. Just last month, the SRC published its R&D Roadmap for Microelectronics and Advanced Packing Technologies which showed a similar doubling trajectory for energy consumption of semiconductors for communication.

So, what are we doing about these astounding projected increases?

To achieve the major public benefits of a quick return to efficiency “scaling” in semiconductors—growing the economy while also tackling the climate crisis—government-supported, efficiency-focused innovation is essential. The U.S. government took a major step in this direction by enacting the CHIPS and Science Act last August, which dedicated more than $50 billion for American semiconductor research, development, and production.

EES2 Initiative Steps Up

It was in that same spirit that DOE and its partners stepped up to meet the moment by announcing the EES2 initiative and its 1000x semiconductor efficiency goal a month later, in September 2022. Led by DOE’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office (AMMTO), EES2 is developing a Semiconductor EES2 RD&D Roadmap. The purpose of this forthcoming roadmap is to guide RD&D toward that goal across the U.S. semiconductor industry and to inspire an expanded and more diverse U.S. semiconductor workforce. To keep efforts on track, EES2 has set specific interim efficiency goals of 10x by 2030 and 100x by 2036, coupled with concrete performance and cost metrics and technology research recommendations.  

The EES2 initiative has adopted a deliberate ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach, through collaboration with stakeholders in industry, academia, and government including national labs, to advance the semiconductor industry in the following ways:

  • Reducing semiconductor energy consumption at the material, device, circuit, and architecture scale
  • Providing a key technology leadership path for new CHIPS and Science Act investments
  • Dramatically increasing, and potentially doubling, the pool of semiconductor-interested STEM students for the electronics engineering and related careers workforce.

And the EES2 ecosystem continues to expand! As of this writing, the number of partner organizations stands at 57 signatories. One of the newest members is Bridge to Connect (BRDG), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping first-in-family college students study STEM.

Building a Clean Energy Workforce

With BRDG’s help, the EES2 Roadmap’s Microelectronics Education and Workforce Chapter will analyze another ambitious EES2 goal: to double workforce interest in sustainable semiconductors within a decade or earlier at EES2 participating organizations and nationwide.

Education and workforce development is a core element in AMMTO’s mission to foster a robust future of advanced manufacturing in our clean energy economy. The EES2 initiative is just one program that AMMTO is developing to help inspire, accelerate, and expand the pipeline of well-trained, diverse workers in the American manufacturing sector.

Help Meet the Moment: Join EES2!

Public-private collaborations remain vital as we work to reach the Biden-Harris Administration's clean energy goals, like achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050 and ensuring an equitable and just clean energy future for all Americans.

DOE’s AMMTO continues to invite more stakeholders from across the energy economy to sign on to EES2 and pledge their commitment to achieving 1000x energy efficiency gains in semiconductors. And if you ask me, this is one of the best choices you can make for your organization, our economy, and for our planet!

If you’re interested in having your organization sign this pledge, please reach out to ammto@ee.doe.gov to learn more about this opportunity.

As more partners join, the EES2 initiative builds on the administration's commitment to secure the nation’s supply chains and its climate future through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. These historic investments, along with the EES2 initiative and roadmap, will drive innovation, increase energy efficiency, and position the United States as a global leader in semiconductor manufacturing.

Learn more about AMMTO and the office’s efforts to advance energy-related materials and manufacturing technologies to increase domestic competitiveness and build a clean, decarbonized economy.