USB is as much a part of everyday life nowadays as cars and cell phones. The plugs that are provided by it are small and convenient. USB cables can carry both power and data. Plus, and probably the most important aspect, is that USB is a completely universal platform. This is why USB is considered by some to be the future of electricity. According to a new Economist report, smart grids, more convenient storage, and solar power will all be easier with USB.
The odd part is USB framework is based on a system of transmitting and distributing electricity that’s been out of fashion since the 19th century. I’m referring to the direct current (DC), the standard championed by Thomas Edison that eventually lost out to Nikola Tesla’s alternating current (AC) as the global standard for electricity. While AC won out for its ability to switch between different voltage, low-voltage DC is cheap, efficient and doesn’t require an adaptor. For a few different reasons, USB happens to be an ideal vehicle for DC power.
The latest Economist report took a close look at the future of USB and suggested that the USB plug you now use to charge your phone or plug in your keyboard could replace conventional power outlets altogether. We’re already seeing a whole bunch of smaller USB powered devices enter the market including headers and blenders, but USB will also be able to power much larger devices starting in 2014 when the new USB standard is introduced. Imagine the convenience of a USB powered TV that uses the same plug for power as it does for data. The greatest part about this is when you take a look at the possibilities of an entire network of USB devices, including those that produce and store electricity. As a convenient bonus, the USB based DC network could be more environmentally friendly than AC.
“A low-voltage DC network works well with solar panels. These produce DC power at variable times and in variable amounts. They are increasingly cheap, and can fit in windows or on roofs. Though solar power is tricky to feed into the AC mains grid, it is ideally suited to a low-voltage local DC network,” noted The Economist. Zoom out even further, and imagine connecting these DC networks to each other. It could produce a whole new kind of power grid, one that’s not always on like our current AC network.
“It works even better if the network has a biggish central battery hooked up to the mains grid, which can charge itself up at night when power is cheap. But the real prize comes when several buildings combine such DC networks. Pooling supply, demand and storage gives you the makings of a ‘smart grid’—electricity supply system which is more resilient and thrifty than the existing set-up,” noted The Economist. The next big step for the USB standard is the introduction of USB power Delivery or USB PD systems. While USB PD devices will start to hit the market next year, it’ll hit the market sometime in 2015, and the specifications are on point. USB PD increases the standard’s power to 100-watts and allows electricity to flow in both directions.
The specification is also tailored to optimize power usage, giving each device exactly the amount of electricity it needs. As for whether or not this will be replacing the electrical outlets in your walls, it could essentially become the new standard in homes. To convert the whole power grid from AC to DV is a much bigger challenge, but it is already starting to happen with most data centers using DC power.