CES: A paler shade of green

January 8, 2008: 1:02 AM ET

By Michael V. Copeland

LAS VEGAS -- The quiet here in a booth sponsored by Dell is at odds with the pandemonium all around at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Four plywood lounge chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames sit on a dark floor made of some obviously recycled material. In one chair , a guy with headphones covering most of his head quietly taps on a laptop. Squares of drought-resistant grass act as a border around displays highlighting how to live and work with less impact on the environment. A Plexiglas wall invites people to use a grease pencil and answer the question, "What Does Green Mean to You?"

Although it is often wrapped up in a good deal of marketing hype, it's a question that is beginning to be asked by the exhibitors here at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Much of the "greening" of the technology world is by necessity. Stringent manufacturing standards and recycling goals must be met. But for their own success, gadget makers are developing new technologies that consume less energy so they can provide longer run times or cooler operating environments.

The goal is better functioning products that happen also to be greener than the power-sucking alternatives. Chip makers like Intel (INTC), Broadcom (BRCM) and Marvell (MRVL) have been beating that drum for several years and are getting amazing results. At this year's CES, Broadcom is showing off powerful yet very efficient chips that enable things like the playback of high-definition  video on a cell phone. Other companies like Sony (SNE) and Samsung are using organic light emitting diodes to offer super-thin, bright and incredibly efficient screens. Are these kinds of technologies overtly green? No, but they are headed in the right direction.

A new cluster of companies at CES this year featuring "sustainable technologies" are overtly environmental. Some of the companies in this group include, Freeplay Energy which makes solar-powered radios and Meraki Networks, which sells solar-powered WiFi gear and aims to build a free WiFi network in San Francisco. This CES green group is a start, but it is a ridiculously small bunch of fewer than 10 companies.

Still other companies outside of this group have come to CES with a green agenda. One that is making a splash at CES is a company called Green Plug. The Silicon Valley startup previewed its technology Monday -- an electronics component chip that provides a layer of intelligence so that gadgets can talk to their power source and make more efficient use of energy, whether it's from a battery or a wall plug. Applications range from consumer electronics to cars, aircraft and power tools. And GM (GM) on Tuesday will unveil its Cadillac Provoq concept car, which it says will be "free from petroleum fuel and emissions." That can only mean all-electric or maybe a hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle.

Back at Dell's little green oasis, which must be noted is separate from the massive main Dell (DELL) booth and is tucked into the "sustainable technologies" area, spokesman Adam Schaeffer looks around at the mostly empty booth and stresses, "This is all about promoting the start of a conversation." Nigel Williams, one of the 140,000 CES warriors here in attendance, walks up to the Plexiglas wall and ponders the question, "What Does Green Mean to You?" Next to replies already written in green, yellow and pink grease pencil that say things like "Hope" and "Breathing clean air," Williams writes a simple statement, "There needs to be more green products."

He's right.

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