June 17, 2008, 4:00 PM — A technology that could help the environment by eliminating the need to ship a power adapter with every electronics device got a vote of confidence Friday from consumer electronics maker Westinghouse Digital Electronics.
Westinghouse said it had committed to using a smart power technology developed by a start-up company, Green Plug, that aims to let people use a single "universal adapter" to power their laptops, cell phones and other electronics gear.
Most products today ship with a custom adapter that converts AC power from a wall socket into the correct DC power required for each device. Green Plug's technology allows each device to communicate its individual power requirements to the power adapter, allowing several devices to share one adapter.
The technology's success depends partly on getting support from electronics manufacturers, who will need to embed Green Plug's firmware into their devices so that they can send their power requirements to the adapter. That's why Westinghouse's support is significant.
"We know we're not the largest [electronics company] but we are the first, and somebody has to be first," said Darwin Chang, CTO of Westinghouse, which makes LCD televisions, computer monitors and digital photo frames.
Besides helping the environment, the Green Plug technology will also help Westinghouse to cut its costs, Chang said. Eventually it could stop shipping power adapters with its products because customers will already have a universal adapter at home, he said.
Each adapter will act like a hub that several devices can plug into. The first are expected to go on sale in the first quarter next year for under US$100, Chang said. The adapters also will shut off the power supply when a device has finished charging or is turned off, giving further energy savings.
It remains to be seen whether other electronics vendors will follow suit. Green Plug also needs semiconductor makers to build its technology into chips that will go into the universal adapters. Green Plug CEO Frank Paniagua said his company already has one chip-maker on board, though he won't say yet who it is.
Westinghouse made its announcement at the second meeting of the Alliance for Universal Power Supplies, a group comprising electronics vendors, power supply makers, utility companies and others promoting standard power systems to reduce e-waste and inefficiency. The meeting in San Francisco was attended by representatives from Fujitsu, Motorola, Intel and Broadcom, among others.
The stakes for the environment are high. More than 3 billion power adapters will be shipped worldwide this year, up from 2.2 billion just three years ago, according to Greg Lefebre of the environmental consultancy ESS. The growth has been driven by the proliferation of devices like cell phones, MP3 players and digital cameras.
A whopping 434 million consumer electronics devices are "retired" in the U.S. each year, Lefebre said, including 130 million cell phones. In many cases those products, along with their chargers and power adapters, end up in landfills, he said.
Some vendors don't have an incentive to eliminate unique power supplies and connector cables, because they get supplementary revenue stream from selling replacements, Lefebre noted. He cited Apple, which uses a proprietary connector for the iPod, as a prime example.
There are other hurdles too. Code Cubitt of Motorola Ventures, speaking on a panel here, said product managers are fixated on providing a good "out of the box" experience. If the company ships a product without an adapter, and the consumer doesn't have a universal adapter at home, it creates a bad impression of the company.
Another issue is liability. If a company ships a product and a consumer plugs it into another vendor's universal adapter and it starts a house fire, all the parties involved could find themselves in court. That problem will be lessened if the product vendor can show it conformed to an industry standard, said Armando Castro of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
In China, where 500 million cell phones were manufactured last year, the government has regulated that all cell phone chargers, including those imported, have a standard USB interface and output voltage, so consumers don't need a new one with every new phone.
Such regulations are unlikely in the U.S., but if the industry doesn't get its act together then the federal government may start to intervene in some way, speakers here said.
Green Plug offers its firmware to electronics makers for free so they can make their devices support its power specification, and it hopes to make money by licensing the technology to chip-makers. The cost to vendors to include the technology in each device will be about $2, Paniagua said.