SAN FRANCISCO--Oh, what a tangled web we weave when plugging in and powering personal electronics whose chargers are so varied that they typically end up balled up in rat's nests beneath our desks.
Help, albeit slow, is on the way, according to members of consumer electronics companies, green-tech start-ups, and venture capital firms at the Alliance for Universal Power Supplies conference Friday.
Attendees charging ahead to create power supplies that cause fewer headaches and wasted energy found hope when Westinghouse announced that it will support standards from start-up Green Plug, whose Greentalk protocol enables devices and power sources to "talk" to each other.
"It's a no-brainer," said Darwin Chang, chief technology officer of Westinghouse Digital Electronics, which makes digital photo frames, LCD monitors, and high-definition televisions. "I'm challenging the rest of the industry to step up. Instead of making proprietary batteries and proprietary adapters, let's make something open."
Chang said he foresees working with Green Plug to implement a draft version of an open power standard for picture frames, then scaling up to devices with more demanding energy needs.
And tech companies can save money by adopting a universal standard for power supplies, which fail more than other electronics components, prompting many product returns, he added. "If it's externalized, you just buy another brick," he added.
Green Plug also makes an AC adapter (video) that can charge three USB-connected devices. It's meant to prevent accidentally "frying" gadgets, to eliminate standby power waste, and to spare users from toting multiple cables.
"With our technology, it plugs in and gives a digital handshake," said Frank Paniagua, Green Plug founder and CEO. "It only gives juice if recognized."
Green Plug is partnering with other electronics manufacturers as well as a large chipmaker, he added.
However, even if chipmakers get on board, sweeping industry change would require cooperation with the makers of appliances and gadgets, said Jeffrey Tingley, Broadcom's vice president of broadband and digital video engineering. Cooperation with Westinghouse is the first step, said Tingley, who is on Green Plug's advisory board.
Green Plug's Paniagua envisions chain hotels and coffee shops keeping universal chargers on site to attract and retain customers. He said he learned from informal talks with Hilton Hotels that the chain spends millions of dollars each year mailing hundreds of chargers every day to guests who leave them behind.
Building adapters into electrical outlets instead of a hodgepodge of cables and bricks was another approach mulled at the conference.
"If you can embed a power supply in a wall or in the furniture, then the consumer doesn't have to think about it," said Code Cubitt, an investment manager at Motorola Ventures.
Furniture makers, too, are considering better ways of integrating power supplies, according to Joel Mark Zwier, an advanced product development manager at Steelcase. It received Cradle to Cradle certification in part for substituting toxic vinyl for nylon within the wiring of workstations it makes.
Making power controls smarter and smaller helps to reduce wasted materials and energy, said Mark Muegge, director of product development at iWatt, which displayed its digital AC/DC power controls for LED lightbulbs.
Power supplies are a forgotten source of the world's growing piles of electronics waste, which a common standard could help to reduce, said John Katz, pollution prevention coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Pacific Southwest region.
In 2008, more than 3 billion power supplies will ship globally, he noted. And as each cell phone or MP3 charger lasts about a year and a half, some 2 billion power supplies are discarded annually around the world. In the United States alone, 379 million units wind up in landfills, amounting to one sixtieth of the plastic waste stream, Katz said.
China is the first country to pass a law demanding that all cell phones plug into a standard USB charger. No federal laws in the United States aim to reduce the proliferation, energy use, or disposal of electronics chargers.
Recycling the equipment is increasingly important not only to prevent pollution but to recover expensive materials, Katz added. "The idea that we're throwing away hundreds of millions of pounds of copper wire is a huge issue," he said.
John Trosko, a professional personal organization consultant in Los Angeles, said his clients stash useless cables in drawers indefinitely because they feel guilty about the potentially toxic trash and aren't sure how to recycle it.