Consumer Electronics Go Green

Lynne Kiesling

The annual Consumer Electronics Show kicks off today in Las Vegas, and at least at a marketing level it’s going green:

Gadget makers are joining a green movement sweeping the corporate world, a new theme at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Vendors plan to display products such as biodegradable PCs and solar-powered cellphone speakers, while panel discussions will include “Tech’s Greener Pastures” to “Going Green — the Eco-Technology Opportunity.”

But is there substance underneath the hype — are electronics firms really starting to think seriously about the power consumption of their devices? The Wall Street Journal article cited above notes that “the new push in part reflects pressure from environmentalists, consumers and big customers in the industry to clean up its act.” This San Francisco Chronicle article notes that

The buzzword at this CES is “green.” Manufacturers are looking for ways to at least appear more environmentally friendly. You’ll see chipmakers stress low battery consumption, while hardware makers will be pushing recycling efforts for old devices. And Fujitsu will be showing off a personal computer with a shell made from biodegradable corn, which is easier to recycle than oil-based products.

This Reuters article focuses on telephone handsets and the incentives facing manufacturers and cellular operators with respect to recycling the actual device. I know that’s an issue, but I think there are bigger fish in the ocean here.

I think there are two related questions that should be on the minds of electronics manufacturers, and consumers:

1. Is the device using as little energy as possible while delivering the same functionality?

2. Is the device capable of communicating information to the user about its energy use, and/or about energy use on the premises, and changing its use in response to price signals?

If you read the above articles you’ll see that manufacturers at CES this year are thinking about #1. But they are not thinking about #2. Obviously with #2 I am asking if the consumer electronics community has really thought about the potential value to consumers of price-responsive devices and of embedding other smart grid capabilities into end-user devices.

What if my laptop’s power supply had an option so it would not charge the laptop when the price of electricity was above a particular trigger price that I could program in? What about incorporating electricity price-responsive capabilities into home automation systems? These are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more potential value propositions for electronics to communicate information to consumers about their electricity consumption, and to be automated to take actions to reduce that consumption in response to price changes.

But before electronics manufacturers are going to see any market value in doing these things, we must have regulatory change: this value will not be created until retail consumers can actually choose to see these price signals. We know that consumers empowered with price-responsive technology are more willing to choose real-time pricing and other dynamic electricity pricing contracts. But here’s the chicken-and-egg, Catch-22 problem: the technology is not valuable without the price signals, and the regulatory change to allow the price signals is unlikely to happen without the technology.

I think the electronics manufacturers and technology firms should take the lead on this one, because they are more willing to take commercial risks than the typically risk-averse regulators (and certainly more willing to take risks than the typical backward-looking and hidebound regulated utility).

We have to draw attention to the availability of technology that empowers us to send prices to people, and to their devices.

3 thoughts on “Consumer Electronics Go Green

  1. Sending prices will likely start with devices that can read price codes in Wal-Mart, and get the prices from the Wal-Mart database (like the Wal-Mart cash registers).

    After folks get used to getting retail prices for their purchases, they’ll be interested in prices for other stuff.

  2. Lynne, have you seen the recent stories suggesting that California regulators want to make smart meters mandatory in new construction– but also to mandate that utility regulators have the ability to adjust the thermostat in “emergency situations” regardless of consumer consent? It seems to me that that kind of heavy-handed regulation could sour the public on smart meters and the idea of price signals and voluntary programs that could do a lot of good.

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