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The TV Slims Down on Power

Michael Kanellos: September 30, 2008, 4:26 AM

CHIBA, Japan -- For years, TV makers competed over price and screen size. Now they're beating each other up over who is the most green.

The environmental friendliness of TVs is the new battleground for set manufacturers, at least from my interviews at Ceatec, a technology trade show taking place in the Tokyo suburb this week. Sony, for instance, has a 42-inch LCD TV from 2005 on display that consumes 131 watts while showing programs. Next to it is a 2008 set of the same size consuming 57 watts to show the same program.

Sharp also has two experimental TVs that run on solar power. One, a prototype 26-inch LCD TV, consumes only 40 watts of power, less power than a conventional light bulb requires. It functions on two solar small panels. Sharp is also showing off a 52-inch LCD TV that runs on a larger panel. It consumes only 220 kilowatt hours of solar power in an average year. (See photo below of the 26 inch.)

Sharp has come out with an application for its new slim LCD TVs that display family pictures or paintings from the Old Masters while in sleep mode. Running this screensaver-like device only consumes 60 watts. (See photo below.)

Meanwhile, Panasonic says it will reduce the power consumption in its plasma TVs by two-thirds by 2010 or 2011, said Toshihiro Sakamoto, president of Panasonic’s AVC Networks group in a meeting. The power consumption reduction will come in two ways. First, Panasonic will reduce the number of components in a plasma TV. Plasmas, which create images through chemical excitation, need more components than LCD TVs.

Second, Panasonic will try to direct more of the light coming from the light source to the screen itself. Doubling the luminance halves the electricity required to paint images on the screen, he said. Tripling it cranks down power to one-third.

“If the luminance effect is enhanced, we can dramatically reduce power,??? he said.

Power consumption isn’t the only trick. Many TV makers continue to slim down their sets. Panasonic showed off a demo plasma that is under 27-millimeters thick, while Hitachi and Sharp have already released (expensive) LCD TVs that are in the same range. Sony has an organic light-emitting diode TV that is far thinner, but smaller.

Smaller TVs require fewer materials, which cuts down on petroleum in the manufacturing process. And they're lighter, making transportation easier, said Etsuhiko Shoyama, chairman of the board at Hitachi during a keynote presentation at the conference.

Hitachi earlier this year released thin LCD TVs in Japan that act as a convection oven, which dissipates heat better than fans or other devices. That allows the TV to be made thinner.

Panasonic: A Rising Force in Green Homes

Michael Kanellos: September 30, 2008, 3:54 AM

CHIBA, Japan -- Startups that make green homes be warned: Panasonic is coming. It will take a few years, but it’s coming.

The Japanese electronics giant has assembled a strategic plan to start making modular homes in about three to five years that will combine green construction along with sophisticated electronics to curb energy consumption, according to executives during a roundtable discussion at Ceatec, a large technology trade show taking place near Tokyo this week.

In a Panasonic demo at the show, sensors embedded in the ceiling adjust the air conditioner and lights depending on whether or not people are present. The sensor system (based around a technology called Beam Steering) also tries to determine which members of the household are in the room. If grandpa is there, for example, the heater might get cranked up.

“House to total solution, Panasonic is the only company to propose that,??? said Ohtsubo Fumio, president of Matsushita Electric, which will officially change its name on a global scale to Panasonic on October 1.

This being a Panasonic demo, plasma TVs play a big part in the home of the future. That window in the back of the room in the photo? It’s a series of plasma TVs creating the illusion of a wonderful day. Another TV on a robotic track follows the models/occupants as they go from room to room so they won’t miss a minute of “America’s Got Talent.???

There is also a full-length mirror that turns into a TV that can also beam yoga lessons.

The scary part for green building startups is that Panasonic has the money and technology to pull this off. The company already has a construction division that makes modular homes in Japan. It also sells several upscale household appliances. It sells them in Japan, but will soon market them in Europe. LG, the South Korean conglomerate, has reaped huge amounts of revenue off of its upscale white goods over the last five years – take a look at the Best Buy supplement in your Sunday newspaper.

One of its marquee products is a sleeping system that slowly dims bedroom lights and plays soothing nature sounds as you go to sleep. The company also has a bathtub with insulation that can keep the water warm for hours. Energy and personal health (i.e., home exercise equipment and health monitors) are two of the four major areas of research for the company. Many of Panasonic’s appliances are on permanent display at a green home the company has erected in its showcase in Tokyo.

Other green housing companies just don’t have these kinds of resources. Building modular home factories is expensive. The industry in the U.S. is also in its infancy. This is the kind of news that can give VCs second thoughts.

On the other hand, Panasonic is a conglomerate and that can be a tough place to incubate new businesses. Additionally, the U.S. could be the last market it approaches, so everyone does have some breathing room.

Ohtsubo said that it will be at least three years before Panasonic will be ready to move forward.

Global Crossing Founder Gets Into Cement

Michael Kanellos: September 26, 2008, 9:19 AM
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Gary Winnick, the investor who founded the once-mighty telecommunications giant Global Crossing, has gone green. Winnick is the chairman and founder of iCrete, which says it can reduce the carbon content in concrete by 40 percent. Manufacturing concrete and cement are two of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Winnick also continues to be the CEO of Pacific Capital Group. The company has developed algorithms that let engineers and contractors optimize the concrete going into a particular site for strength and durability while at the same time maximizing LEED points. The secret sauce is that iCrete can reduce the amount of cement paste in the aggregate concrete mix by increasing the voids. Additionally, iCrete-fashioned concrete dries quicker than regular concrete, thereby shortening construction time. The company claims that the technology also allows builders to reduce the amount of steel that goes into a structure. And the company has friends in high places. The co-chairman is John Cushman, who is chairman of the real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield. The company is helping design the 240,000 cubic yards of cement that will go into the Freedom Tower in New York. Green buildings and building products are emerging as two of the more promising segments in the cleantech industry. Stand out companies to date include Serious Materials (drywall), Hycrete (waterproof concrete) and Integrity Block (earthen building products). All of these companies have devised complex formulas and processes to reduce the energy required to make their products and/or the carbon content in their products. One of the attractions of building products is that many of the products haven't changed in years, giving startups room to improve them. The challenge, however, lay in getting contractors – who are notoriously conservative when it comes to new products – to buy them. With Cushman, iCrete has a fairly strong calling card. Profits also often aren't easy to come by because of price competition. Winnick is one of many execs from the IT world to enter into the green market. Some have done well. Others have resigned from their prestigious jobs. In many ways, VCs seem to be split on the trend. Many say they like to bring in Silicon Valley veterans to run green companies because they have experience in running startups. Others say they prefer execs with oil or energy experience. Global Crossing was one of the more interesting melodramas back in the go-go days of the Internet. The company began as a developer of undersea fiber optic cable systems, the first of which was a transatlantic cable called Atlantic Crossing. But it was also known for lavish pay packages and publicity stunts. After much corporate chair shifting and the meltdown in telecommunications, Global Crossing (under Winnick) filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. A substantial portion of its assets were sold to Asian companies. Winnick also used to work for Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert, a name from the last major U.S. financial crisis. I learned about Winick's new venture at iCrete while hanging out this week at the West Coast Green trade show.

A Frisbee-Shaped Home From France

Michael Kanellos: September 26, 2008, 5:17 AM
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It can withstand typhoons. It is more earthquake proof than most homes. And it looks like something Cornelius and Zera might have lived in during the original "Planet of the Apes." It's possibly the coolest home ever. It's the Domespace home from Solaleya. Patrick Marsilli came up with the idea in the late '80s. Some have been built in Europe and Asia and now the company is coming to America, David Fanchon, project director at Solaleya told me during a meeting at West Coast Green, a green building show taking place in San Jose. One home has already been built in New Paltz, New York. The secret sauce of the home lay in its unusual swoopy design. That makes it more aerodynamic. Domespace homes in Taiwan do well in the country's notorious bad weather because of the aerodynamics, he said. The Domespace is also supported by a curved central support that gives it the strength to withstand a 8.0 quake on the Richter Scale. The home is also capable of rotating with the sun to cut down on energy consumption. Sizes vary from 829 square feet to 7,158 square feet. They also aren't as costly as you might think, he added. The homes cost about $130 to $160 a square foot to build, not including land. For a modular home, that's fairly cheap. And, unlike a geodesic dome, it isn't one big room. It can be subdivided into rooms. A doll buried in the basement that says "Mama" is optional.

A Light Switch Without Wires

Michael Kanellos: September 25, 2008, 6:03 PM
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Think of it as peel and stick electronics. Verve Living Systems is debuting a new lighting control system for homes at West Coast Green that does away with wires. You plunk a light switch on the wall (you can stick it on with tape or screw it in), sync it with a remote control to a particular lamp, and that's it. The next time you flick the switch on, the light goes on. Flick the on button and hold your finger on it, and it acts as a dimmer. Flick it off, and it turns off the light. You can then take it to another room, sync it with another lamp, and start using it there. At nighttime, you can even tweak a switch to flick on lights that will let you go from your bedroom to the bathroom but light no other parts of the house, according to vice president Diane Pisarek. And you don't have to clap like some maniac with a clapper. What gives? The kinetic energy from your finger produced when you hit the switch is strong enough to generate an electrical current. That current is then used to send a wireless signal to a central control unit. Thus, the lights are flipped on by electricity, but you don't need wire. The kinetic energy technology in Verve's system comes from a company in Germany called EnOcean. EnOcean specializes in energy harvesting devices. The company has other ones that harvest energy from the temperature differential between a hot water pipe and the surrounding air, for instance. The power generated from that contrast drives a sensor that can monitor the health of the pipe or water flow. It's as close to perpetual motion as you are going to get. You could even call it perceived perpetual motion. (Side note: I wrote about EnOcean a few years ago and wondered what happened to them.) A system for a good-sized (3,000 square feet) home might cost $3,000 or so, but it is fairly impressive and it cuts down wiring. As a result of the price, Verve will mostly try to sell its products to people building new homes. It can also come in handy in remodels where historical preservation is an issue. One of the first homes to adopt the system is a remodeled brownstone in New York City, she said.

Green Building VC, Pt. 3: Meet the Team

Michael Kanellos: September 25, 2008, 6:03 PM
I finally spoke with the team at the VC firm that will target green building. Navitas Capital is run by Jim Pettit and Travis Putnam. They plan on strictly investing in companies dedicated to green buildings, building materials and other technologies that relate to cutting down the energy and carbon generated in construction or running structures. So far, the firm has invested in Serious Materials, the green drywall guys, and Integrity Block, which makes a building brick out of rammed earth. Integrity Block is particularly interesting. EcoRock, the green drywall from Serious, gives contractors and building owners LEED points, but it costs more than regular drywall. Integrity Block's bricks cost less than conventional bricks. Thus, building owners get LEED points and a discount. It's a good sales pitch. Contrary to my earlier report, Navitas Capital does not have anything to do with another green technology fund out of the Netherlands called Navitas Capital. I kid you not. There are two firms concentrating in somewhat the same area with the same exact arbitrary name. [Confusion is further enhanced by the fact that Navitas Capital (the green building group) doesn't have a Website yet. Navitas Capital (the Europeans) does. It is] "You know how that goes," laughed Putnam. "You try to come up with a name and..." Green building is growing and so far there hasn't been a ton of VC activity in the sector. Foundation Capital and Khosla Ventures have been the most active. But buildings consume 40 percent of our power and some of the technologies are decades old. It is also one of the few green markets that won't require government subsidies. (Investors hate subsidies, they say, except when receiving them directly.) There are challenges – like the fact that a lot of these startups need factories – but it seems destined to grow. Expect to hear more from Navitas in the future.

Startup Converts Old Shipping Containers Into Homes

Michael Kanellos: September 25, 2008, 1:18 PM

Here's a home that’s been on the high seas.

South Carolina’s SG Block is retrofitting those 40-feet steel boxes you see on cargo ships emblazoned with brand names like Maersk into building units for homes. The home you see in the picture, on display this week at West Coast Green taking place in San Jose, is made up of five of them. Three reformed containers form the bottom floor and two make up the top floor.

The company has already erected a few homes and is now working on a development of several homes in Oceanside, California. Because the frame is made of steel, the homes also should stand up well in earthquakes. Ultimately, SG wants to become a component supplier to the construction industry – i.e., it will supply brand-name blocks to builders, architects and developers who will then turn them into dwellings.

Modular homes are getting ready for their close-up. Building homes in factories and then transporting them to a building site has several economic and environmental benefits over traditional construction, say advocates. Factory-built homes can be built more rapidly than conventional homes – the SG Block on display here took 13 days to build and five hours to set up on the show floor.

Building in a factory eliminates exposure of wood and other materials to the weather, which reduces the odds of mold blooms or warping. You can also get very tight seals between walls, windows and ceilings, which increases energy efficiency.

Michelle Kaufmann Designs is probably the leader among the new wave of modular home companies but the number of competitors grows all the time. VCs are also dipping more into building materials and buildings: unlike solar, these companies don't need hundreds of millions of dollars. There is even a VC firm, Navitas, that specializes in green building investments.

The prices on factory homes vary widely. Some high-end modular homes can go for $400 a square foot. SG will sell some for $150 a square foot. (The price doesn’t include the cost of a foundation, which the company says can run $5 a square foot, or the land.)

The idea for the company came to founder Dave Cross during his days in the merchant marines. When you pilot crates around the world and stare at them all the time, you start to think about other things you can do with them, he explained.

He initially built some small versions of the house. Bob Vila saw them and began promoting SG Block.

And where do they get the block? Cross has pals in the salvage business from his days at sea. When they get the block, they remove the sides, clean them of noxious chemicals and add any needed support.

Disclosure: Greentech Media is one of several media sponsors at the show, but it is a pretty cool show. In a singe day I learned about how to make artificial grass, learned about alcohol-burning portable fireplaces and saw a toilet with a sink attached. By all means go.