This year’s Greener Gadgets conference, hosted today in New York by the Consumer Electronics Association, showcased a range of cleantech concepts and devices. Featuring speakers from BusinessWeek, Intel, Dell, TreeHugger and Panasonic, the event culminated in a competitive design contest.

While there were a handful of truly clever entries among the 50 finalists, it was disconcerting to see how many of them were based on imaginary technology and bad science. And many only gave the slightest nod to the contest’s primary instruction to “seek ways to minimize the environmental impact of consumer electronic devices at any stage in the product life cycle.” In the end, the panel of jurors succeeded in pulling out three relatively eco-friendly products for its winners’ circle, and one impromptu runner-up.

The hands-down favorite of both the judges and the audience was the Tweet-a-Watt energy monitor developed by Phillip Torrone and his team from Make Magazine. Conceived as a gadget mash-up of the popular Kill-a-Watt energy meter, a ZigBee wireless data module and an automated link to Twitter, Tweet-A-Watt allows any electronic device to broadcast its daily energy consumption directly to its user’s Twitter account (see video below for a demonstration). While the open-source device does not inherently save energy itself, it certainly promotes awareness. As one of its creators remarked, if everyone could see everyone else’s energy habits, it wouldn’t be long before either peer pressure or people’s natural competitive spirit began to modify usage patterns.

After a tough race between three similar entries, the second place prize went to Power Hog, a combination piggy bank and coin-operated power meter that rations out energy for televisions, appliances and video games through a switchable plug that is activated by depositing money in its slot. The gadget is meant to sensitize young children to the costs of energy, ideally discouraging waste.

Third place went to a completely non-electronic design — a wall-mounted indoor drying rack for clothing. Constructed out of eco-friendly materials and sporting a sleek, utilitarian look, the folding rack contains absolutely no electronics but still managed to be one of the best examples of appropriate and sustainable technology in the contest. The goal behind it is to cut down on household use of dryers, one of the most expensive appliances to run.

In keeping with the low-tech theme, the Laundry Pod, a compact, manual laundry machine, was awarded an impromptu honorable mention. Based on the salad spinner, it provides an energy-efficient alternative to washing machines and laundromats for delicates and small loads of laundry. The pod narrowly edged out the Blight solar window blind system, which has photovoltaic cells on one side of its blades and a solid-state lighting system on the other.

Even more interesting than the competition’s winners were the entries that didn’t make the cut. Among the more bizarre submissions was a mattress equipped with a pizeo-electric energy harvesting system capable of drawing enough power from rapid body movement to charge a cell phone (or perhaps a more personal device). A close second in the off-the-wall category was the RITI Printer, a hand-powered hard-copy output gadget that uses filtered coffee and tea dregs as its ink supply.

Unfortunately, some of the more practical and innovative entries failed to capture the imagination of the judges. Several of these tackled the problem of electronic material waste with unconventional casing designs — like the Recompute cardboard computer. Unlike so many of the other Greener Gadget contestants, Brendan Macaluso actually built a working version of the Recompute. Its sturdy corrugated cardboard case houses a full microATX motherboard, power supply, and a full complement of I/O connectors. Easily modified for upgrades, it can also be recycled as needed. (See the video below.)

Among the other hidden gems at the competition was the Zeer, a chilled vegetable keeper modeled after smaller devices that have been used in Africa for over a thousand years. Designed to look like a standard kitchen counter storage unit, the cooler uses nothing but a weekly-replenished water supply to provide the ideal temperature and humidity for keeping fruits and vegetables fresh. A home outfitted with one of these could opt for a much smaller refrigerator that would eat half the power of the humming monsters that lurk in most American kitchens today.

Here’s a short demonstration of winner Tweet-a-Watt:

Greener Gadgets Design Competition from Jennie Bourne on Vimeo.

Video produced by Jennie Bourne /

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