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Taking the Green, Universal Charger to the Next Level

When the GSM Association last week announced that in three years all new cell phones would be powered by the same interface, it was a big win for the environment, as well as cell phone manufacturers and owners.

The move will save manufacturers millions of dollars in costs and resources for accessories that are essentially useful only as long as the original product functions; it will keep untold tons of potentially toxic waste from ending up in landfills; and it will make life significantly easier for mobile phone users.

Moving to a universal charger, especially in as large an industry as mobile phones, also heralds a big shift toward universal power in other electronics product lines, something long been hoped for in green IT and environmental arenas. Although no one type of gadget is as ubiquitous as the mobile phone, bringing a flexible, universal power supply to electronics of all types will amplify the economic and environmental savings.

The GSMA announcement was also, in a somewhat roundabout way, a big win for Green Plug, the manufacturer of smart power supplies for all types of products. We previously covered Green Plug in a feature on phantom power last year, and I got Paul Panepinto, Green Plug's executive vice president of marketing, on the phone to talk about the announcement.

While obviously excited about the move, Panepinto explained that the GSMA is following on a move the China implemented almost two years ago: As of June 2007, all cell phones designed for sale in that country will need to use the same universal charging standard, the same mini-USB technology mandated under the GSMA rule; China's Mobile Communications Associated predicted savings of the equivalent of about $300 million a year by making the shift.

Green Plug has more ambitious goals than just a universal charger: their innovation is a smart charger that interacts with a chip in the electronic device to manage power use while charging, while idling, and even in peak power situations. So they're working on a way to plug your iPod dock into the smart grid.

The group envisions a day when all devices will be enabled with their smart chip, drawing no power when fully charged but also able to put their recharging on hold if, say, the building the device is charging in happens to be in the peak hours of a hot summer day and the local utility is looking for ways to draw down electricity use.

"We've spoken with several utilities about this kind of smart grid and demand response," Panepinto told me. "The smart meters can negotiate with the smart power outlets to negotiate power usage -- it's this "language of energy" phrase we coined for our GreenTalk technology." The company believes that there are significant opportunities for energy efficiency based on dynamically changing demand.

For now, Green Plug is still working on manufacturers to take that leap into being early adopters -- to overcome the perceived risks of getting behind a new technology first -- even though the benefits to the technology seem readily apparent to manufacturers. "Vendors are recognizing that there's a huge win for them -- but why not let someone else be first?" Panepinto said.

Although he obviously couldn't share details of discussions or even which companies they are working on as early adopters, Panepinto described HP, Apple and Sony as obvious dream customers for taking on Green Plug.

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