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Staking the Vampire: The Future of Recharging


By Glenn Fleishman

The unsightly plastic warts on our walls are sucking down hundreds of gigawatts of power globally each year. It’s time to put a stop to that needless energy drain by replacing dumb bricks with smart hubs -- putting a computerized stake through the hearts of our home electrical vampires.

Devices that are plugged in but not in use consume between 200 and 400 terawatt hours (TWh) per year, according to the International Energy Agency. Other research pegs the not-in-use drain from 5 to 25 percent of all residential energy used in the U.S., with numbers rising.

Research doesn’t divvy up between the consumption of DC-converting “wall warts” that provide juice to recharge batteries or convert power for various electronics, and the power sucked by the standby mode of televisions, microwaves and other appliances that are ostensibly “off.” But experts believe the adapters drain a significantly greater amount.

DC adapters waste power through excess heat in transforming AC to DC current, through continual charging (which shortens device lifespans), and through drawing power even when nothing is attached to its DC plug, or when an attached device is powered down. Most DC converters are cheaply built, vary widely even from the same maker in efficiency, and have little of the prowess built into most other home electronics and computing peripherals.

With the rise in prices of oil and the volatility of electrical prices in the U.S., there are many different efforts underway to reduce standby power, as well as shift recharging power from daytime to off-peak hours when electrical demand is low.
One of the comprehensive solutions for some of the lowest-hanging culprits comes from California-based Green Plug. The company wants to give away a chunk of their technology to secure themselves a place in all power supplies sold. The tradeoff may be very worthwhile.

Building a DC Ecosystem
Green Plug’s goal is to kill off the adapters by creating a new standard for power recharging: a central and efficient DC conversion hub. They use standard USB connectors and intelligence about power supplies to reduce electrical usage while potentially extending the life of our hardware. Green Plug has developed their own high-power version of a USB cable that could recharge laptops and other more demanding hardware.

In Green Plug's model, a central hub with multiple USB ports handles anything that’s plugged into it. It checks for whether a given device has its smart technology built in, and whether the device is high- or low-power. Unless a higher charge is required, the hub uses only USB-compatible low power. In standby mode, it simply shuts off power, instead of allowing an unneeded trickle.

According to company founder and CEO Frank P. Paniagua, Jr., the system works because it's a natural transition for consumers. “You don't have to change your behavior: you plug in, you save energy, you cut e-waste. Plus, it's safe: it detects what that client device is on the other side.”

A related benefit of Green Plug’s approach is that the charging system has smarts. Any hardware enabled with Green Plug’s chips can transmit information about its status—number of battery cycles, current charge, and other details.

Home users might use this information to see the power they’re consuming, to find out whether they can unplug a camera or phone and use it for the day, or to help with technical support when a device goes south. In offices, this information could ultimately be aggregated and used to control when power is used, as companies can often score off-peak prices from utilities, or spot faulty hardware.

It’s the enabled hardware that’s the limiting factor for adoption, however.

Will Manufacturers Buy In?
Green Plug has patented some of its technology, and opted to provide royalty-free licenses for its communications protocol (Greentalk) and its modification to USB connectors to allow high power. It makes its money by selling its own chips and licensing its technology to chipmakers to embed in their power-supply systems. Westinghouse is the first company to sign on to use Green Plug’s system in some new products.

Paniagua believes that they have a fighting chance because of regulatory and energy market changes. Manufacturers in some countries, including those in the European Union, must plan for a product’s lifecycle, and be able to accept and disassemble systems when they’ve expired. “If you manufacture it, you're going to have to take it back." (Read more about producer take-bake programs in the Worldchanging archives).

Green Plug likes to emphasize the waste resulting from the adapters' short lifespans. The company estimates 3.2 billion external power supplies will be built worldwide in 2008 (with about a quarter coming to the U.S.), and that 434 million will be retired this year in just the U.S.—with only a small percentage heading into electronics recycling. Green Plug’s system—which, as their reference design demonstrates, uses water-soluble plastic and solder—easily comes apart at end-of-life, making it easy to harvest recyclable components.
But even without fees, Green Plug faces no easy task in challenging the industry to adopt a new norm. To begin the conversation, Green Plug founded a trade group, the Alliance for Universal Power Supplies, to bring together stakeholders like utilities, chip makers and manufacturers. California utility giant PG&E has hosted the first two alliance meetings.

The Future of Charging
Perhaps what’s most likely to help lead Green Plug’s ecosystem to success, however, is Paniagua’s focus on the broader charging market—including hybrid plug-in and electric cars. PG&E’s involvement with the power supply alliance stems from a broader goal: to combine smart-grid intelligence on a power system with smart-charging intelligence in devices like cars.

Utilities are looking for “a real-time secure protocol” that they can work with, he said, and Green Plug hopes theirs becomes the winner.

For instance, a plug-in hybrid or electric car with Greentalk inside could be scheduled through an owner’s computer to charge between 1 am and 5 am in the morning, with the device figuring out the amount of current it needs to draw to charge within that period.

This could allow the kind of personally managed power shaving that utilities love: moving power usage off peak daytime hours into the night when power is cheap. Utilities that own plants also run their least-efficient, most-expensive, and most-polluting facilities last.

Ultimately, the inefficiency of almost every part of electronics power usage, from cords to adapters to power supply components, has to be addressed as the cost of raw materials increases, manufacturers are more obliged to use less and accept back more, and power prices climb.

Green Plug may not have the only answer, but they do have a viable one. Equipment using their technology should start appearing as soon as late this year.

Glenn Fleishman is a Seattle journalist who focuses on technology, and how to overcome it. Glenn writes regularly about wireless data at Wi-Fi Networking News, and Macs at TidBITS.

Image credit: Green Plug.

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Hmm, perfect example why people think environmentalists haven't done their sums...

The lede says "warts on our walls are sucking down terawatts of power". Now, this is clearly wrong, since the whole planet uses only about fifteen terawatts total, so a hurried reader will tend to discount the whole article (and, by extension, the group that published it).

The second paragraph clarifies the units to be "terawatt hours (TWh) per year" - a strange unit, to be sure, which works out to about a tenth of a gigawatt or 114 megawatts. So 200-400 TWh/year works out to 25-45 GW. This sounds much more reasonable (Charlie Stross did a back of the envelope calculation recently and got 1.5GW for the UK).

So, the correct phrase to use in the lede would've been "gigawatts of power".

Is the truth not scary enough? If you feel the need to dress up the truth in misleading copy, in places outright incorrect, it doesn't help nor does it do you or the cause credit. If you can't do the sums, or give the impression that you can't, people will discount your conclusions. Perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, but the opportunity to convince them has been lost.

Posted by: sabik on 11 Aug 08

I like the concept of one efficient charger for multiple items (less is way more). And the recycling-friendly part.

I am still amazed at how much energy is estimated as wasted on adapters & vampires. How hard is it to:
* Plug in chargers/adaptors only when in use.
* Buy electronics that actually have the option to shut completely off. (When available.)
* And unplug the ones only used occasionally.

Now wouldn't that be nice - a mandatory standard that requires electronics have a real OFF switch.

Posted by: Tori on 12 Aug 08

SABIK: "Is the truth not scary enough?": It was an error of omission, not intent. As I note terawatt hours in the next paragraph, you can see this was a simple mistake (mine), which I've asked the editor to fix. There's no agenda here, nor a math error; just a garden variety terminology mistake.

If anything, I tried to make sure the case isn't overstated: the bigger issue is standby power; vampire power is just a sub-case, although one that has environmental/resource issues attached because of the cost of making, distributing, and disposing of hundreds of millions of AC/DC converters.

The IEA has a wide range for unnecessary standby power usage -- 200 to 400 TWh -- and it's likely that somewhere in the 10 percent range, but possible higher, comes from constantly powered or horribly inefficient DC converters.

TORI: Mindfulness is important here. Most people are running on nearly empty already. A healthy two-digit percentage of Americans sleep less than five hours per night. People work 2 or 3 jobs to pay the bills. People are distracted or just don't care.

The solution is not to require people to pay more attention to something that's inefficiently designed, I'd argue, but design products more efficiently to save money, reduce waste, and reduce usage. Then people can buy into that and never think about it.

You could make the opposite case. Seat-belt laws were widely derided before they were passed as a silly way to save lives. Mandatory airbags were the only way to do. However, in states with seatbelt laws, even though this requires the power of the state to enforce and the mindfulness of individuals to at least get into the habit (contradiction intended) of putting on the seat belt, an enormous number of lives were saved beyond those saved by airbags. (The New Yorker had a detailed story on this a few years ago.)

So I could accept your case: it might be that folks need to learn to manage their wall warts just as they manage their seatbelt. But I think something that requires no intervention is more likely to produce broad results.

Posted by: Glenn Fleishman on 13 Aug 08

The IEA has a wide range for unnecessary standby power usage -- 200 to 400 TWh -- and it's likely that somewhere in the 10 percent range, but possible higher.

Global electricity consumption in 2005 was a little under 16,000 TWh. Given the range of loss you mention, that amounts to 1.3-2.5%.

Posted by: jp on 17 Aug 08

@Glenn, no worries. It was just that, well, four orders of magnitude - that's like the difference between the price of a hamburger (maybe with chips) and an annual salary... the difference between an hour's easy walk and the circumference of the Earth... the difference between an hour and a year. It's rather a lot.

Thanks for the fix (although I do note that somehow a "hundreds" snuck in, even though it seems to be "dozens" or "tens"...)

Posted by: sabik on 17 Aug 08



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