At the weekend I went to assemble a new picnic bench for the garden and found that my drill has bitten the dust. The battery no longer holds a charge, and I borrowed a drill from my neighbour to finish the job. I noticed that his drill is part of the Power for All Alliance, which you may have come across if you have been shopping for power tools recently.
Led by German multinational Bosch, the Power for All Alliance is a design standard shared by several tool makers, who have agreed to use the same shaped battery in their devices. The high quality 18V batteries are interchangeable across dozens of different tools, made by several different manufacturers. So you could take the battery from my friend’s drill and use it in a vacuum cleaner later. Charge it overnight and use it to wash your car with a pressure hose in the morning, then pop it out and pump up the car tyres.
This kind of universal battery technology is a useful part of circular economy design. Think about all the materials that are used for batteries, across so many different devices. You might only use a drill for a few minutes a year, but the battery sits there the whole time. Then there’s a different battery for every other cordless tool about the house, garage or workshop, all replicating the same functions unnecessarily.
Making batteries swappable reduces resource use – just have one battery and share it. That’s an important saving at a time when demand for battery materials such as lithium is rising fast. The same arguments were made for universal chargers and cables ten years ago, leading to some standardisation around USB – though every device still seems to include one.
Standardised design is good for the environment, but it’s also good for the user because it keeps prices down. If you buy into the Power for All system with one device, you can buy any future devices without paying for another battery. This, in turn, is good for the companies. It encourages customer loyalty. If I were to replace my drill with a Bosch model, it would make sense to perhaps buy a compatible lawnmower or strimmer should I need one at some point.
Standardisation isn’t a particularly exciting aspect of green technology, but it’s a powerful one and something to look out for.
One final thought – I find it interesting that Bosch have led on this, because they are a unique company – one of the world’s largest not-for-profits. They are 94% owned by a trust and dividends go to charitable activities, with a very high proportion of revenues reserved for research and development. This unusual corporate structure frees them to spend around twice the average corporate rate on R&D, and they can spend so much on research precisely because they are not driven by shareholder interests. They’ve made some mistakes in recent history and so I won’t hold them up as a paragon of righteousness, but they certainly puncture the idea that profit is the best driver of innovation.