80 PLUS™ Not the Average ‘Wall Wart’


Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Years ago, while doing technical marketing for a Unix system integrator, I lugged a mini computer and its paraphernalia to product demonstrations using a two-wheeled cart. I secured the clunky mass with bungee cords. The power supply – used by each of the dumb terminals of this Unix system – was called a ‘brick.’ Then, the ‘brick’ was bigger than a red-clay brick, heavier than a red-clay brick, and once plugged into electrical current, heated up like a red-clay brick baking in blazing sun. But it was black, as are most all power supplies (time to call Ideo).

Power supplies are the devices that convert incoming high voltage ac power from wall outlets into low voltage dc power needed by various electronic products. Power supplies can be internal to the product they are powering, as with televisions, or external, as with cellular and cordless phones. While the form factor of the ‘brick’ has slimmed down over the last 20 years, its energy consumption remains piggish. And, it has garnered more colorful names, too, like ‘wall wart’ for the bulky protuberance affixed to an outlet or power strip.

Run Cool, Run Reliably, Run With 80 PLUS™

In 2001, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) initiated a study of power supply energy efficiency and retained Ecos Consulting to “conduct initial research into the number of power supplies in use, their basic applications and technologies, energy efficiency differences, and national energy saving opportunities. Ecos found that improvements in power supply efficiency could save more than 1% of all U.S. electricity use. This would not require the invention of better power supplies, but the expansion of market opportunities for the highly efficient technologies that already exist.”

So began Ecos’ mission to transform the market of computer-based plug loads via energy-efficient power supplies…called 80 PLUS™. The name comes from the program’s requirement that the power supply for a desktop computer or desktop-derived server be at least 80% efficient at 20%, 50% and 100% operating loads, and have a power factor of 0.9 or better at full rated load.

Five years later, Kent Dunn, Senior Program Manager for 80 PLUS, describes the program’s well-turned channel marketing strategy – which he dubs “guerilla marketing.” The strategy is multi-pronged and involves outreach directly to multiple stakeholders: utility sponsors (which provide program funding) and two industry sectors (power supply suppliers and the computer industry). Not to overlook federal agencies and standards, Ecos corresponded with the Environmental Protection Agency to find synergies and establish a good working relationship. (80 PLUS power supply specifications were, ultimately, included in proposed EPA 2006 ENERGY STAR® desktop standards, according to the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, one of the program’s funders. These new standards are scheduled to go into effect the end of 2006, along with standards for desktop computers operating in active mode; standards already exist for sleep, or stand-by, mode.)

To fuel market transformation through a business-to-business, one-to-one strategy – one aimed to build awareness and interest with these multiple stakeholders – things had to happen in concert. In keeping with Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” guidelines, Ecos chose and coordinated its discrete markets and channels carefully.

Utilities. Ecos established partnerships – through direct outreach, events, and large meetings with existing sponsors – with utilities in markets experiencing very high electricity rates or those known to be progressive, such as those in the Northeast, California and Canada. Targeted utilities include those on the West Coast, in the Pacific Northwest and some interior mountain states, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, and the Midwest. Adds Dunn, 80 PLUS has great representation in Canada.

“Though the energy efficiency benefits of better power supplies are compelling, the non-energy benefits may be even more important to the companies that purchase power supplies for their finished products, the retailers that sell them, and the consumers that buy them. Highly efficient power supplies tend to be smaller, lighter in weight, and more convenient. They operate at cooler temperatures, contain fewer parts, and are likely to result in greater product reliability.” NRDC: Power Supplies – A Hidden Opportunity for Energy Savings

Power Suppliers. Ecos solicits mostly (and directly) in China (Taiwan, specifically) as well as to representatives of the power supply industry in the States (California, primarily). Dunn says “this is very guerilla marketing…phone calls, encouragement, market benefits, differentiating opportunity to them.” He says suppliers can see the advantages to those suppliers that get a leg up on market demand. And, they see that ENERGY STAR is going to push for energy efficiency (so, it’s in the interest of power suppliers to begin adoption).

“The principal challenge is that the purchaser of the power supply is not the one that pays the electric bill. While the consumer pays the electric bill, it is the large companies such as Sony, Hewlett Packard, and Black and Decker that buy the power supplies for use in their TVs, computers, cordless telephones, and portable vacuums and power tools. This is a classic split incentive case where the purchaser, of the power supplies, is not the one that benefits directly from the reduced electricity bills.” Ibid.

Computer industry. Ecos understands the main barrier to adoption facing the computer industry: slim margins. However, according to Dunn (and Sun Microsystems, see below), the industry also sees that energy efficiency is now technically feasible…it can be good PR…its energy and non-energy benefits are measurable…and there are tools (like 80 PLUS) to make it possible. With ENERGY STAR standards fast approaching for computers operating in active mode, it behooves the industry to co-brand with 80 PLUS, as the language and specs will be the same as these new federal standards. Says Dunn, the incentives are there for the computer industry to do supply changes and implement new product into their supply line. These external forces help along Ecos’ ‘guerilla marketing’ efforts.

Consumer Marketing, Co-Branding
I asked Dunn if the public would see the 80 PLUS logo in retail stores any time soon. He said it won’t show up in retail for some time, but that Ecos has already completed marketing and style guides to share with industry, along with approved language and creative. However, computer retailers are already running advertisements that can be heard on the 80 PLUS website (“Every business wants to reduce costs and everyone wants to save energy. Computer Systems West can help you do both. As a comprehensive technology company, Computer Systems West is always looking for ways to provide the most cost-effective computers for their clients. Now Computer Systems West offers 80 PLUS power supplies…it’s good for the environment and good for business…”).

Dunn said that after the computer industry gets involved, the marketing money will be made available by utilities to work with the computer industry to sell product to consumers. Ecos is talking with some of the big Tier 1 OEMs like Apple and Hewlett-Packard, as well as system integrators. They are working with the small and the large and moving through a targeted customer list. Again, it looks like Geoffrey Moore would be pleased.

Eschewing advertising and favoring direct sales, of a sort, Ecos created a suite of standard marketing collateral and technical material with consistent messaging, including pull sheets such as 80 PLUS Benefits, Power Quality, 80 PLUS Reliability, 80 PLUS Procurement Guidelines, and a list of Approved Products. Their website is clean, informative and current. This collateral is standard marketing delivery for the computer industry.

Followers or leaders? In February 2006, Sun Microsystems held a joint conference with the EPA to market its push for SWaP (space, wattage and performance) – energy efficiency metrics for data center servers. It may be just a marketing campaign, but they’re saying all the right stuff…“Sun’s sponsorship of the conference also builds upon the company’s continued effort to address global environmental concerns by delivering innovative and “eco-responsible” products to market. As a technology-driven company, Sun’s prime contribution to eco-responsibility is centered on innovation which not only benefits customer’s business, but also helps to benefit the environment, including improving energy efficiency, choosing less harmful materials, and encouraging reuse and recycling.” Sun says it’s time for the equivalent of the hybrid engine of the processing world, and that it has been working to reduce the energy demands of computing and networking for many years.

OK, but special thanks must go to Ecos Consulting for spurring energy-efficient technology forward, for acting as a conductor to orchestrate multiple stakeholders in good time.

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