August 15, 2008

Article at CNN

Plugged into energy efficiency

Have you ever thrown away a power adapter that works just fine? Don't feel bad. It isn't your fault that the adapter was made for just one particular gadget. But it is a problem.

Every year hundreds of millions of working adapters end up in landfills that would give Wall-E a run for his money.

The following isn't your fault either: When you leave your gadgets plugged in, even after they're fully charged, the adapter continues to consume electricity.

Again, don't feel bad. It's just a stupid system. It doesn't have to be this way. A (truly) universal power supply is possible. So are adapters that can be used for one gadget after another.

A California startup called Green Plug is bending over backwards trying to convince consumer electronics giants to go along with its idea for making this a reality.

Here's the vision: Imagine that the next time you order a gadget from a company like Sony, Apple, or HP, in addition to the usual routine of getting a power adapter included with your product, you get a second option. With this option, you can buy a sleek-looking power hub from one of these companies along with a special cable.

The hub can power three to 10 gadgets, depending on its configuration. Plug a gadget in to one of its ports and the hub automatically detects and supplies the appropriate voltage. The hub doesn't waste electricity on a gadget that's charged, and it also acts as a surge protector.

The cable is a hybrid USB cable modified to carry enough juice to power laptops and camcorders, not just cellphones and MP3 players. Through this thin cable flows not just power, but two-way communication between the hub and the gadget.

In a Green Plug world, the clutter beneath your desk begins to disappear. The number of bulky adapters you pack on vacation and business trips dwindles.

Hotels advertise that you can "leave your adapters at home," because they offer the hubs and cables in their rooms.

It's a nice vision. But there's a problem. It requires the consumers electronics makers to put a Green Plug chip into their gadgets. This low-power, low-cost chip allows for the two-way communication with the hub, so the gadget can indicate its voltage requirements and power status.

But Green Plug, being a tiny startup, has little sway over the giants. That makes CEO Frank Paniagua a frustrated man.

He's so far been rebuffed, for example, by a consumer electronics giant in Asia that he says desperately needs to reinvigorate its brand.

Says Paniagua: "They told me, 'We just want to make sales,' and I'm saying, 'If you cared about the customer like you used to, you'd make a lot of sales.'"

Customers, he notes, don't want gobbled heaps of power adapters. Yet the company in question makes hundreds of different kinds -- and it's hardly alone.

Paniagua believes if he can convince one major consumer electronics giant to hop aboard, others will follow suit. When every product a company sells can be powered by one adapter, that's a hard-to-beat selling point.

About 20 years ago, Paniagua co-founded the Video Electronics Standards Association, and he saw a similar falling of the dominoes in that market. After NEC agreed to adopt the open graphics interface, every major vendor quickly followed.

It's an uphill battle, though.

The consumer electronics industry "has been very good in developing standards in other areas," notes Dennis Pamlin, global policy advisor for the WWF, an environmental nonprofit.

"Communication is obviously very difficult unless you have very good standards. But for supply chain and the physical equipment, it has not been very good to say the least."

Vendors give various reasons for balking. Many prefer to focus on immediate sales, or stick to their own way of doing things.

Others worry about litigation matters, and don't trust an outside company. Sometimes they claim engineering difficulties. Many vendors are reluctant to sacrifice revenue from selling (over-priced) spare power adapters.

"Manufacturers need a positive incentive to make this change," notes Larry Chalfan, executive director of Zero Waste Alliance.

Long-term vs. short-term thinking

Paniagua says it's a matter of short-term versus long-term thinking. Over time, he argues, the loss of spare-adapter sales would be off-set by sleeker packaging, greater customer satisfaction, lower shipping costs, streamlined inventories and other benefits.

Long-term thinking is also required by customers. Those choosing the second option described above would pay maybe $70 for a cable and a three-port hub.

But over the long run they could save money through better power management and less replacement cables. They might even get a rebate from their local power utility for buying the hub, as often happens with the purchase of energy-efficient lighting.

Green Plug is in talks with a few large power utilities in Asia, though it can't disclose details yet. China, interestingly, now requires that all cellphones sold in the country be chargeable through USB adapters, so that a new adapter isn't needed for every phone.

At least one vendor has openly committed to using Green Plug: Westinghouse Digital Electronics, a maker of digital photo frames, HDTVs and LCD monitors. It isn't a huge player, but it's a start. Shortly the company will announce its full plans.

This will likely -- speculation only -- involve a few Green Plug products next year, and a broader range the following. Green Plug is a for-profit venture and stands to prosper if its model is widely adopted.

But Paniagua insists his startup isn't greedy and that there's a broader mission behind it. The company profits by selling the low-cost chips that enable the hub and gadgets to communicate; however, the communications protocol -- Greentalk -- is licensed to manufacturers free of charge.

Paniagua has offered generous arrangements, he says, to encourage one of the big boys to be the first to jump aboard.

"I want to leave this world knowing I helped inspire change for the better," says the 49-year-old Paniagua. "If we just build a small company that invokes change ... that's great."