Wireless Charging Wastes Tons of Energy. Will MagSafe Help the iPhone 12?

A new charging method could make a big difference

The convenience of wireless charging comes at a cost that, if adopted worldwide, could have a measurable impact on the environment. Earlier this year, Debugger examined wireless charging and found that, on average, it can consume around 47% more power than wired cables just for a slightly more convenient charging method. On Tuesday, Apple announced new MagSafe charging accessories that, when used with its new iPhones, will help cut that down. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s exactly the kind of user-oriented example that other tech companies should follow.

The problem with wireless charging is that even under the best of circumstances, more power is wasted than would be when charging via a cable. However, wireless charging pads rarely operate under the best circumstances. The charging coils inside both the phone and charger need to be aligned, or else even more power is wasted. Since many charging pads don’t make it obvious where the coils are located inside the device (and phones even less so), it’s common for us to simply place them close enough, resulting in a lot of excess power waste.

This is where Apple’s new MagSafe connectors come in. Wireless charging accessories for Apple’s latest iPhones will include circular magnets that snap directly to the correct spot on the back of the phone or the case it’s in. On top of making it possible to have removable accessories like a wallet, it also drastically reduces the likelihood that charging coils will be misaligned while charging.

“When it comes to inductive charging, alignment can have a huge impact on efficiency,” iFixit technical writer Arthur Shi told Debugger. “I think there will be much more reliable charging with magnets.”

This would likely have a measurable impact on how much power wireless charging consumes. In my initial piece on this topic, I shared a story about how during one charging session, I thought my coils were properly aligned, but in fact, the phone wasn’t charging at all. In this test, power usage was 80% higher than using a cable because the coils were off by mere millimeters.

I included this test in my overall average because it reflected the kind of real-world usage one might expect when charging a phone normally. However, if I exclude this one outlier from the rest of my data, the average extra power use drops to 42%. If all of my tests could have been done with perfectly aligned coils, the result might be even lower. More robust tests than mine have shown that wireless charging inefficiency can range from using 30% to as high as 60% more power. A magnetic charger can help keep it toward the lower end of that range.

The feature is so crucial that, arguably, it should’ve been there the whole time. “When they first came out with inductive charging, I somewhat marveled at, like, why didn’t they actually implement magnetic alignment right from the get-go?” Shi said.

MagSafe helps solve one of the major problems with wireless charging, but not all of them. Wireless charging will always lose some excess power as heat or while passing through materials that aren’t as conductive as metal wiring. Charging pads can also consume power while not being used, which can exacerbate the problem.

The goal here isn’t necessarily to reach perfect 100% efficiency — very few devices are perfectly efficient — but rather to ensure that any increase in power consumption is offset by reducing consumption elsewhere. Apple gave a nod to this idea when it immediately followed up its segment on wireless charging with an announcement that the company would aim to be carbon neutral by 2030 (emphasis added):

By 2030, we plan to have net zero climate impact across our entire business, including our manufacturing supply chain, and all product life cycles. This means that every Apple device sold, from material collection, component manufacturing, assembly, transport, customer use, charging, all the way through recycling and material recovery, will be 100% carbon neutral.

Reducing this impact can take the form of switching to renewable energy, using recycled materials, or even investing in initiatives to restore forests that can reduce carbon emissions. To dramatically oversimplify, if Apple plants enough trees and gets enough power from renewables like solar panels, then the extra power wireless chargers use won’t matter as much.

This helps explain Apple’s less popular move to stop including chargers and EarPods with its phones. The change reduces how many chargers and EarPods need to be manufactured (and end up in landfills) and makes boxes smaller, which means less energy needs to be spent on producing packaging material and transporting the boxes.

Some have argued that the move is just as much about increasing margins on iPhone sales as it is about protecting the environment, but carbon emissions won’t care much if Apple’s motives are pure on this one. Still, there is a difference between being carbon neutral and merely reducing carbon emissions.

What Apple has pledged is that by 2030, from a carbon emission perspective, the company’s impact on the planet will effectively be neutral. However, a 2019 UN report suggested that neutral isn’t enough. Global emissions, the report said, must be reduced by 7.6% every year between 2020 and 2030 in order to reach the 1.5°C temperature goal set out in the Paris Agreement.

Competing companies have arguably set, and in some cases reached, much more ambitious goals than Apple has set for itself. Microsoft, for example, has pledged to not only reach net negative carbon emissions by 2030 but to continue reducing emissions to erase all the carbon the company has ever emitted over the course of its lifetime. Google (which is a younger company that does far less manufacturing) claims to have already reached this goal and aims to be carbon-free entirely by 2030.

One of the biggest ways Apple could reduce its carbon impact is still making phones last longer. Apple didn’t discuss repairability this week, but even replacing the battery in an aging phone can make it last longer. Longer lasting phones means fewer phones need to be manufactured, and that can reduce Apple’s environmental impact. But, of course, it means fewer phones sold each year.

“If you’re convinced that selling phones that consume power is doing harm to the environment, then you should fix the harm that’s being done to the environment right now,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, told Debugger. “There’s no closed-loop recycling on these phones. Every new phone Apple makes we have to go and mine more [material].”

It’s hard for the average consumer to think about how moving their phone a couple of millimeters can affect how much power their wireless charger consumes and, ultimately, how that affects the global climate. By putting magnets in a wireless charger — or not including a spare cable — shows how Apple is capable of making systemic changes that reduce the environmental impact of their devices on users’ behalf.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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