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Green Plug's 'smart' power supply to finally plug in

Technology from Green Plug will start to see the light of day next year, but the start-up still faces a long journey toward realizing its vision of a universal, energy-efficient power supply.

Start-up Green Plug is making progress, albeit in small steps, to commercialize technology that would enable you to cut the cord on the tangle of wires attached to the electronic gadgets you own.

Green Plug launched at the Demo conference in 2008 with a bold idea of enabling multiple electronic devices to use a shared power supply, which efficiently draws power from the grid.

The San Ramon, Calif.-based company hasn't met its target of having products available within one year of launch. But one partner and investor, U.K.-based Imagination Technologies, plans to release a power adapter with Green Plug technology early next year.

A prototype of a universal power supply which would optimize power delivery to multiple electronic gadgets.
A prototype of a universal power supply which would optimize power delivery to multiple electronic gadgets. Green Plug

Digital radio maker Pure, which is owned by Imagination Technologies, will incorporate Green Plug's technology in one of its products next year, according to a representative from Pure. Pure is using the Green Plug technology to further its goal of reducing the environmental impact from energy and packaging used by its products.

Green Plug makes a chip which acts as a controller in a power adapter, which converts alternating current from the grid to the direct current used by electronics.

With a Green Plug-compatible power supply, Pure's products will automatically cut off stand-by power, said Paul Panepinto, Green Plug's vice president of ecosystem development. That power supply will also be able to work with other Green Plug-compatible gear, he said.

Green Plug's technology addresses the growing energy profile of consumer electronics. The International Energy Agency estimates that consumer electronics and IT equipment accounts for about 15 percent of residential electricity consumption in OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries.

Many electronics products also draw stand-by power when they are not in use, leading to different products and industry efforts to minimize stand-by power. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that stand-by power from gear, such as TVs, wireless phones cradles, and set-top boxes, can account for close to 10 percent of residential electricity use.

Smart grid in electronics
To make power supplies more efficient and interoperable, Green Plug is making a digital, rather than analog, controller for its power supplies. That allows a plugged-in device to communicate its energy needs with a power supply to improve efficiency, according to the company.

"Today a power supply is only capable of varying the current it draws," explained Graeme Finlayson, vice president of sales and marketing at the company. "Why you want a digital controller is that you can dynamically tune the power supply in more efficient ways so that it will adjust to different operating conditions depending on your load."

The company has designed chips for power supplies and electronics devices as well as communications software, called Green Talk, which allows a device to work with the Green Plug power controller chip. So a printer, for example, with a chip and Green Talk software could tell a Green Plug-enabled power supply to deliver the exact power and voltage it needs.

A universal DC power supply would not only break the model of making a separate power supply for each new electronic gadget but it would also open up new applications, said Finlayson. For example, a person could choose to "fast charge" an iPod, rather than be gated by the speed of a USB connection.

The company intends to sell chips to electronics manufacturers, rather than make products for consumers. But it envisions a single power supply hub with multiple ports which people would plug multiple devices into. The hub adjusts to deliver just the power that's needed at the correct voltage.

Green Plug initially targeted consumer electronics companies but has shifted its attention to chipmakers who supply those manufacturers. Over the long run, consumer electronics companies can see benefits from a universal, efficient power supply, such as reusing common components, Finlayson said. But product groups tend to work in silos and are not willing to take on the investment in new technology for multiple products, he said.

Green Plug, which first started development of its technology four years ago, still has a long way to go before Green Plug-compatible devices are on store shelves of electronics retailers. But it is overcoming some of the initial resistance from consumer electronics companies, said Panepinto. "We're finally getting past the initial prototyping phase."