Green comes from bottom up and top down

Both industry heavyweights and start-ups are pushing green-tech products at CES, a sign that eco-innovation is spreading in the consumer electronics business.

LAS VEGAS--This year's CES sported an expanded showcase for green-oriented gadgets. But arguably the more significant eco-action was tucked away in the booths of the consumer electronics industry's behemoths.

Behind the barrage of wall-to-wall TVs and mobile devices, you can find "eco-products" from familiar suppliers, such as Panasonic, Sanyo, Toshiba, Philips, and LG. In the technology-themed areas, such as the wireless Zigbee zone, there were displays for managing home energy or more fuel-efficient driving.

Green technologies are clearly still on the periphery of the sprawling consumer electronics business, but brand name manufacturers say they are innovating more around energy and environmental sustainability, driven both by regulations and economic interests.

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Consider the massive Panasonic display at CES, where there was a room-size area dedicated to energy-related technologies now being testing in homes in Japan and Denmark. Its purchase of a majority share of Sanyo gives it access to solar photovoltaic panels, but its vision is much more encompassing. It's developing home fuel cells that make electricity and heat water, back-up batteries to store solar power, and a home energy management system viewed through--you guessed it--Panasonic TVs.

Panasonic sees energy as a long-term business opportunity, and not one that only caters to a niche of hard-core eco-minded consumers.

"Consumer electronics is a fairly mature area and we're looking for new areas of growth, and energy fits into that category," said Mark Sharp, a group manager in the corporate environmental department of Panasonic North America. "By 2018, we expect to be a world leader. The technologies exist and work but the volumes are low and the products are subsidized."

Right now, though, much of the environmental activity in electronics is driven by regulations. Global companies have to comply with hazardous material rules, such as the RoHs directive in Europe or state-driven electronics recycling laws in the U.S. There are also voluntary certifications and labels, such as the EnergyStar power-efficiency label and EPEAT , a rating system that covers materials, energy, and recycling plans.

Toshiba has a systematic approach to sustainability where managers are measured on environmental criteria, said Craig Hershberg, director of environmental affairs at Toshiba America. That's showing up in its products: Toshiba expects to offer efficient and long-lasting LED bulbs in the U.S. later this year and plans to phase out the use of bromide flame retardants and PVCs from all its laptops by April of this year.

Product designers have to make difficult decisions that balance eco-features, such as energy efficiency, against other improvements every day, but the company says it has made sustainability part of is overall corporate strategy.

"We need this type of system to keep being successful. We need a sustainable world where people can keep buying products and living well and we can keep making products," Hershberg said.

Green scene
Consumer demand, too, plays a role in nudging manufacturers to build environmentally oriented gear. In addition to greener versions of TVs and laptops, CES showcased energy-efficiency tools and alternative energy gadgets.

At the Sustainable Planet zone, a number of smaller companies, such as Regen, Solio, and Solar Power International, showed off solar chargers with integrated batteries for charging gadgets on the go. There were other charging alternatives, such as a home fuel cell from Horizon Fuel Cells and handheld wind-power devices from Kenesis Industries and MiniWiz.

An area with more emphasis this year was so-called smart plugs that eliminate stand-by power drawn from home electronics when they are not in use. Australia-based Embertec showed off prototypes of power strips designed for PCs and home entertainment systems, where the power strip shuts off peripherals after a set amount of time. The HiSaver, which is available now to consumers or businesses, uses a motion sensor or a pre-set function to turn off stand-by power to peripherals.

Home energy efficiency was a big theme at the Zigbee wireless tech zone, where a number of smart grid start-ups showed wireless thermostats and smart plugs. Control4, too, introduced a home energy management system built around a Zigbee network. These tools help people stop running appliances that are on but not being used and allow them to control electronics through a central console or a smartphone over the Internet.

During a panel I hosted at the Sustainable Planet zone on Friday, the executive director of EPEAT, Jeff Omelchuck, argued that consumer and business purchases of certified green products play a "crucial role" in creating demand and expanding the definition of "green" beyond just energy efficiency.

Premium or dividend?
Although there's already an established market for eco-minded consumers, high energy prices make energy-efficiency tools appealing to a much broader audience, said Don Bartell, the senior director for environmental initiatives at Motorola, during a panel on energy and electronics on another panel I moderated.

For the most part, consumers are not willing to pay a premium for super energy-efficient electronics, panelists said. On the other hand, most electronics don't have labels to help consumers make decisions based on energy consumption.

The Federal Trade Commission was tasked with devising labels that will show consumers how much a TV, for example, will cost to run over the course of a year. But there's already debate within industry over how this information will be disclosed, with some in the industry arguing for an online disclosure rather than in-store labels, according to Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council.

Environmental regulations have a long history of being contentious and being opposed by industry. When the California Energy Commission passed a mandate requiring TV manufacturers to meet certain efficiency levels, the Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes CES, said the regulation would stifle innovation and raise costs.

But that's not a universally held view within the industry. The first California efficiency mandates go into effect in 2011, but Westinghouse's TVs already meet the more stringent one that goes into effect in 2013. The company has taken a holistic approach to making its TVs greener by requiring suppliers to be within a certain distance of the main manufacturing site and using at least 40 percent recycled material and soy-based inks in its packaging, said Rey Roque, the vice president of marketing.

Many measures that are environmentally beneficial have a positive financial impact, he said. Reduced packaging reduces the carbon footprint of its operations and saves it money on logistics and materials, he noted. "Some of our competition are trying to charge a premium for green, but they shouldn't because it doesn't cost any more. That will price green off the market," Roque said. "All of the executive team have kids. At some point, it's just a matter of conscious."

Environmental watchdog Greenpeace earlier this week released its latest rankings of the electronics industry , sharpening its focus on harmful materials. But, Greenpeace actually lowered its ranking for a number of companies for lagging industry leaders. After spending two days at CES, Greenpeace's overall conclusion is: "The consumer electronics industry is getting greener but not quickly enough."

 

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