Pulling the Plug on Phantom Power

Pulling the Plug on Phantom Power

Data centers and office buildings waste energy when their electronic devices are plugged in but are sitting in standby or no-load operation mode. Now there is a universal power adapter called Green Plug that can communicate with PCs, laptops, cell phones and other common devices to receognize how much power they need and shut off the power supply when charging is complete.

Greener World Media Contributor Sarah Fister Gale recently sat down with Green Plug founder Frank Paniagua to talk about how the device can reduce energy consumption, as well as e-waste by eliminating the unique power supply cords that come with each device.

The company is working with manufacturers to incorporate its GreenPlug chip into the next generation of electronics products that will hit the shelves as early as next year.

Sarah Fister Gale: Why don't we begin by just telling me a little bit about Green Plug and your technology and how it's gonna change the business world as we know it?

Frank Paniagua:  Yes, good morning, Sarah, and thanks for having me on the show.

Well, I'm here in San Francisco, as I told you, at a conference and I just live across the bay and I had to bring one, two, three, four chargers with me.  This is how it started -- this whole thing started three years ago when I went to my friend's wedding in Chicago and I brought nine chargers with me.  One for my camcorder, one for my digital camera and I said, "This is crazy. How can we do this?"

We go to the store (and) we buy a toaster, we buy a blender, we buy a television set, we don't think about this stuff, but every new consumer electronic device seems to come with a wall wart.  Why just can't we do the AC/DC conversion and why can't it be more convenient, and more importantly, more efficient for the consumers and for businesses?  And that's what we set out to do here.

SFG: So, it sounds like a simple solution, but from what I'm reading about your work, you've run into some frustration.  What does it take to make everything able to be connected to a single charger?

FP: It's not lesser than any other frustration I've ran into in starting other types of companies.  You've got to get believers; you've got to get critical mass.  Twenty years ago when I co-founded the Video Electronics Standards Association, we ran into the same kind of headwinds, if you will, from system companies back then.  The problem was monitors didn't talk to graphics chips and graphics chips didn't talk back to monitors and you had flicker.

Carol Melnick and I sat around drinking a bottle of wine at COMDEX and we said, "This is crazy.  We should fix this."  No one wanted to unbundle their monitor, because hence they might lose revenue, and what about the safety features, and how do we guarantee the customer's response to this and all this kind of stuff.

NEC decided that they would do it and the rest of the world followed and there's no more flicker on monitors, and today you can buy a desktop and choose any type of monitor that you want to go with that. 

SFG: So how does that relate to what you're trying to do with Green Plug?

FP: Well, it is core to it.  It's exactly the same thing 20 years ago.  We're trying to convey and convince CE manufacturers do just what Apple is doing.  Apple has unbundled their charger from their iPod, if you've noticed.  If you want a charger, you have to buy one. 

What we're saying to the world is: This is crazy in a data center, let's say, or in an office or in a cubicle. You have all these things plugged in and you have all these power strips.  Why can't you have a good-looking iconic DC power hub that's efficient and effective? 

When you plug in a device, it recognizes the device, gives it exactly the power it needs, and when it's done charging it, it shuts it off so it stops the phantom power that these little things suck out of the walls continuously.

SFG: This is not just about clutter; it's about energy efficiency, right?

FP: Energy efficiency in stand-by mode, exactly.  Right now, when I go downstairs to this conference I'm at, I am going to be a bad boy probably - well, no, I won't because I just reminded myself.  But I bring a power strip over here and I have my Mac Book Air, I have my Blackberry. I have my Bluetooth headset.  I have a bunch of this stuff, my little printer right here, all plugged in, right, all of these DC hubs.  If I leave those AC/DC chargers in the power strip, it's going to continue to suck energy.  If I turn the power strip off or I unplug them, then they won't suck energy.  Green Plug does this for you.

SFG: So is Green Plug a concept or does it exist?

FP: Oh, it exists.  We've been demo-ing it since CES last year.  We have lots of samples, but remember we don't build power supplies, right. 

We build a chip that goes into a power supply and then we give away for free -- and this is how it correlates back to what happened 20 years ago -- we give away for free, on the product side, 12 kilobytes of code that reside in either a stand-alone low-processor that costs about 25 cents, or in an existing micro-processor, such as a Blackberry in your power management chip, your PMU chip or your baseband chip sold by Texas Instruments, sold by Broadcom, sold by SC Microelectronics.

So we're going and we're working with these companies and we hope to have a major announcement here soon. But they take our firmware for free and they put it in this chip and then when RIM buys their chip, they are green -- the devices that those chips go into are Green Plug-enabled for free.  And then what you have to do as a consumer or a business is buy a Green Plug enabled-power supply and Voila! They make music together.

SFG:  So you say you hope to have an announcement to make soon.  Anything you can say about that?

FP: One big large chip company. 

SFG: One big large chip company.  So is this just another gadget or is this going to change the way people travel, the way offices operate?

FP: Yeah, we aren't in the gadget business.  This is not a gadget. We want to get rid of the 3.2 billion of these devices that get designed, manufactured, shipped and then subsequently discarded.  Think about it, when you get a new phone, Sarah.  You get a new phone. There's nothing wrong with your old charger, but it goes in a box or it goes in a landfill somewhere, right?

Wouldn't it be just cool if you're talking to me right now from your office and you had one sexy little hub that sits there (and) any anything you plug into it, it recognizes it. 

If you plug in your Craftsman screwdriver, if you plug in your Mac Book Air, if you plug in -- whatever you plug into it, it recognizes that device, gives it the power that it needs and then, guess what? It also has a safety aspect that we hardly talked about but that's very important to this.  Because we've all fried devices, because, oh yeah, guess what? It fit and you plug it in a AC/DC converter and it's the wrong output voltage and it fries your device.  With Greentalk, it won't happen like that because it recognizes the device and does the secure handshake with the device and says, "Ah, you're an iPod, you need 5-volts.  You're a Mac Book Air, you need 65 watts." And gives it just that power.

SFG: Let's talk about the savings, the environmental impact that this kind of a change could have?

FP: Well, from an e-waste perspective, it's dramatic because you're not just going to buy one hub and that's going to be for everything.

I have 42 chargers in my home, right?  My college daughters, they have six devices in each of their rooms.  So there's not enough AC outlets in their room to charge everything that they have, and certainly in my desk and where my wife's desk is, we've got all this stuff. 

I've got three power strips in my garage with my Craftsman screwdriver, with my Makita drill with this and that and this plugged in, and my dust buster -- everything.  And so what I'm envisioning is a very cool -- because I like to charge my phone and stuff in my kitchen and so does my wife and my friends come over -- a very cool Bose radio charging station that sits in my kitchen, so when I'm cooking and drinking wine, I can be charging four or five devices. 

Let's say it's a five-port DC hub in my kitchen.  That means that four chargers won't have to be designed, built, shipped and then subsequently discarded because I have a five-port hub that charges five devices. 

So in my house, I could go from 42 chargers down to about one in each of my daughters' room, one in my garage, one in my kitchen, one in my den.  I can go down to five.  So from an eco-green standpoint, 42 minus five is what? Thirty-seven.  So, 37 chargers won't go in a landfill someday.  That's pretty cool and that's just my house.

SFG: And then what about the energy savings?  Have you measured that?

FP: We've measured it. We've done all kinds of different analyses and calculations on the energy savings, and we got these Stanford MBA students to help us with it, and I'm happy to share it.  It comes down to what's plugged in and for how long.  What kind of devices do you have plugged in and how long they're plugged in for. 

So, for instance, let's say you had a five-port hub in your den where you do your work and you had a laptop and you had a cell phone and you had a Bluetooth headset, and those are little 5-volt devices so they don't take much juice.  And you had your back up hard-drive that is in stand-by mode all the time, right?  It backs up your information; let's say once a week you have it set for.  Maybe you're diligent and you back up once a day, but the rest of the time you're on stand-by mode and I'm sure Sarah doesn't unplug it from the wall, right?

SFG: No. 

FP: O.K. It sits in your power strip.  So in this kind of configuration, it would save more power in a day in a week, in a year in stand-by mode than if you had five 5-volt devices plugged in there, like a phone and Blackberry and a Bluetooth headset.  So the calculations just vary and it just depends on what you have plugged in and for how long they're plugged in for.

SFG: O.K.  But basically, and I think that this is true probably for most people, we are not unplugging our chargers when we're done with them, taking our phones out the moment they're charged.  So any of that excess power that's being sucked out unnecessarily goes away?

FP: Yeah.  In stand-by mode we really shine.  You measure power in active mode.  You measure it in stand-by mode and then you measure it in no-load mode when the device isn't plugged in at all. 

So with our technology, for free, basically, on the client's side, for the first time ever, the client device and the power supply, they communicate.  Right now it's a one-way love affair, right?  It's a one-way relationship.  The power supply, when it's plugged into the wall, delivers power and they're getting more and more efficient.  The government has regulated it to be more efficient in stand-by mode.  They're getting more efficient and they're getting good, but they're not there yet, because they don't have what Green Plug and Greentalk are offering the world, and that's real-time digital collaboration between a client and a power supply. 

So, for instance, here in San Francisco, I have a hybrid, O.K.?  I want to buy a plug-in hybrid. Let's say you buy a plug-in hybrid and we both come home at 7:00 at night.  O.K., with Green Talk, we can charge our devices - any devices, not only our hybrid, but all the devices I mentioned earlier that are in our den or in our garage. We can set those to be charged at 2:00 a.m. so we can un-tax the grid and energy is less expensive.  So we can set those to be charged.  We don't care, we just know at 5:00 a.m. when I have to call you, I want my devices charged.  But I don't care if it's charged at 6:00 at night or 2:00 in the morning.  I just want them charged.

SFG: So it's going to save the user money because they can control when that charging happens?

FP: Yeah, and it's going to make the utility companies happy as well, because now the user, for the first time ever, can actually help with shifting that power balance to different times.  And people say to me all the time, the naysayers, "Oh, you know it's just a phone.  It doesn't even draw much power."  But in aggregate, there's a lot of energy that can be saved on an hourly basis, on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, on an annual basis.

And wouldn't that be cool when you travel?  Think about the day - I envision this, right?  This is my dream.  When I go to Starbucks or I go to Peet's Coffee or I come here and I stay in San Francisco overnight at this conference, and I don't even have to bring any chargers.  There's a sexy DC hub right here next to this cool plasma television set and anything I plug in from my hair dryer to my digital camera to whatever, it just recognizes and charges it just like it was an AC outlet. 

But it does so more effectively and more efficiently because now it's collaborating with that device so it's not going to overcharge the device.  It can charge it and the hotels can setup the user with a very cool user interface that we ship with our product to be to say, would you like to help us to save energy?  Right here there are these signs all over: please don't wash your towels if you don't have to.  Please don't call for maid service if you don't need it.  All these thoughtful things to save the environment and save water here in drought-stricken California. 

Think about when you go to a hotel room, right?  What do people do?  They take longer showers, they leave the TV on, they leave the lights on, they do all that kind of stuff.

With our technology, we can control some of it. 

SFG: So what is it going to take to make this mainstream?

FP: Well I think there are a lot of things.  It's always a push/pull thing.  I think if a large company like Hewlett Packard said, "We're gonna do this," then you'd see other companies like Toshiba, Sanyo, Sony, all these other companies jumping on the bandwagon and saying, "Yeah, this is real easy.  We just put this in our devices for free." We upsell to consumers like you an efficient, an effective multi-port charging hub, which I think we all would like to get to. 

SFG: Well this does sound like very cool technology and it sounds like, as you say, this may be about to happen.  If you get a couple of big companies on board with it that the rest are likely to follow suit.

FP: I think that's the whole trick. We'll do it and I think if a couple of big companies -- and we're going to work on those big companies and try to give them proper incentive to do this and I think they will.  If they look at the business model, what's good for the customers and what they're customers want, they're going to save money once they pull that brick out of their box, right? 

And in the whole big green sphere out there - think about it, your packaging will shrink.  Their shipping costs will go down because there will be less weight in the box, which uses less gasoline, which uses less fossil fuel.  It's good for everybody not to ship these things because everybody hates them, no one wants them and the company -- just like Apple when they pulled out the power supply out of the iPod, did the street price of the iPod go down?

SFG: No?  Yes?

FP: No.  But did their margins go up?  Yes. Everybody wins.

SFG: The cost of making the cord is gone from the product development price, right?

FP: Yeah.  And I have news for a lot of these CE guys and they know it too.  And it's just around the corner - around the corner in a couple years. It's happening in different countries, it's going to happen here in the United States, but they're going to be responsible for these things to have to bring them back.  So there's going to be a cost. They're going to hit their P&L, they're going to have to recycle all of this stuff. 

SFG: Frank, thank you so much for your time today. 

Sarah Fister Gale is a Chicago-based freelance writer.