Sunday, August 09, 2020

Wireless charging: A colossal waste of energy

It turns out the cellphone industry believes its customers just can't be bothered with setting their phones in charging cradles or worse yet, actually plugging a charging cord into a phone. Users can now simply place a phone on top of a wireless charging pad to get their phones topped up.

For the privilege of being extra lazy these users of wireless charging expend up to 47 percent more energy to charge their phones, something that if widely adopted would require dozens of new power plants across the globe to accommodate.

Everything wireless seems like magic, and it is essentially sold as magic. It's also sold as freedom, freedom from those pesky cords that limit where you can use your electronic devices. But the freedom is illusory. We are simply shackling ourselves ever more tightly to an addictive device that is contributing to an unsustainable fossil fueled way of life which is bound to crumble dramatically if we do not alter course.

That's because, in addition to the wastefulness of wireless charging, wireless technologies require 10 times more energy than wired technology to transfer each unit of data and voice and do so at much slower rates than fiber optic cable. It's no wonder then that wireless companies do NOT use wireless signals to transfer data and voice throughout their systems. Instead, they run fiber optic cables right up to the antennas that service your phone because those cables have much greater capacity and speed and much lower energy usage. (In the interests of keeping energy usage down, maybe we should consider returning to wired connections as much as possible. But that is a story for another time.)

To make matters worse, so-called over-the-air charging is now becoming available. Users don't even have to put their devices on a charging pad. They can just leave them wherever they please, and those devices will slowly charge by absorbing energy broadcast throughout a room from a charging station. It's more of the "magic" you've come to expect from the wireless industry and even more wasteful than conventional charging pads. By allowing you to be even lazier than a regular charging pad does, over-the-air charging will alleviate what one company in its promotional video calls "battery anxiety." (Users of over-the-air charging equipment might want to ask themselves whether they feel another kind of anxiety related to spending lots of time in rooms that have essentially become big charging units.)

There have even been proposals to extend wireless charging via the entire cellular network, a system that presumably would offer charging to anyone out and about in a car or on foot 24 hours day. It's hard to imagine a more inefficient and wasteful mode of charging wireless devices.

It may be that some wonders aren't worth it. Magic tricks that entertain us may delight us. But magic that imperils the very stability of our society can't be justified by an appeal to the illusory and temporary "freedom" it promises.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Shawn B said...

Hi Kurt

Do I have the following thinking right?

- Wireless and other technologies that use electricity are growing because electricity is still relatively inexpensive.
- Electricity is relatively cheap because fossil fuels are still relatively cheap and in some cases now, over supplied. ( Coal, natural gas primary sources of electricity generation power + Hydro + Nuclear infrastructure built using fossil fuels (embedded energy) ).
- Fossil fuels are over supplied and inexpensive now due monetary intervention of central banks and debt accumulation of at all levels in particular national governments and corporations.

WHEN economic and fossil fuel production growth ends permanently and the fossil fuel energy descent begins, and it may have, will electricity prices soar? (Fossil prices themselves may not increase that much except for short term price spikes. The fossil fuel supply will decrease...)

Two related comments:
-At least in the U.S., consumers do not seem to directly bear all the costs of wireless, internet, other technologies. Google and Facebook for example are "free". I would suggest that 12 years of central bank intervention have resulted in the misallocation of capital and distortion of market prices not just in fossil fuel production, but many industry sectors.

-There may be real efficiencies in using technology + software + electricity that is in fact a significant part of driving increased use of such technologies. But we really will not know if that is true until the era of central bank stimulus ends and we return to currencies tethered to real values or the actual economic output of a country. I am assuming with this statement that fiat currencies will not function in a Post Peak Oil, post growth, deflationary world.


Robin Datta said...

Does the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (the leftover ambient energy from the Big Bang), or "cosmic rays" or any other ambient source have enough energy denstiy to charge a cell phone? Shades of Tesla, but not excluded until someone with enough STEM says so.

Don19 said...

I would assume most people's savings and private pension funds will be wiped out in a post peak oil World. The Govt will be forced to allocate remaining resources with the help of ration books

S. W. Lawrence said...

In response to Robin, I would note that wind and solar energy could be construed as ambient sources of energy. But nothiing is cheaper than energy efficiency, which is easier, faster and cheaper [also often permanent] than any other energy source, including the renewables.
The mean temperature of space is about 3 kelvin, equivalent to 3ÂșC above absolute zero, is irrelevent as far as receiving electromagnetic radiation. After all, that doesn't stop us from using the Sun for almost all our current [wind] and remote [fossil fuel] energy sources. But The cosmic background microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang can only be detected with seriously big radiotelescopes, often based above the atmosphere, many, many orders of magnitude less intense than our nearby star.
Efficiency first + foremost, always. And then the sustainable energy sources.