30 day challenge recap: accessorizing the sun

As a follow up to my previous “30 day challenge: Accessorizing the sun” entry, I have had great success at having my small devices leverage the solar panel and external battery for power. The one core complication I had was my Anker battery died in late June. I assumed the warranty would only be 90 days and that I would be out of luck but I called Anker support on a Thursday and they told me it was a one year warranty and had a new battery with a 75% charge in my hands by Tuesday. They were incredibly efficient and it was a human who answered the phone and helped me troubleshoot and get all my information without the need for a single transfer to another department. During that weekend without the battery I needed to charge directly from solar but thankfully the weather cooperated and I maintained keeping my devices from leveraging any traditional electric outlets.

My son has joined in and is using of few of his and my daughters batteries as his sole source of power for his mobile phone. This adds some competition for time charging batteries off of the solar panel but thus far we are managing to share effectively. He is about one month in using only solar power and I am about 2 ½ months in. It is pretty cool to see him take on this challenge as well and at the same time my daughter has written letters to our local members of congress asking for more action on climate change initiatives.

I have not yet finalized what my next challenge will be but have some thoughts and am open to suggestions.

Ikea revisited

In 2013 I blogged about (and tainted) Ikea for their lack of environmental sustainability. They recently joined a growing list of companies who are upstaging governments and have pledged over a billion dollars to help fight climate change and they are making numerous steps to improve their business practices which were previously lacking. Ikea Chief Sustainability Officer, Steve Howard, has been given the latitude to assemble a team to make real progress and improvements. The key to validating improvement on most things is to measure it, make educated decisions on where to apply effort, apply effort, and re-measure. That is the simplistic approach Howard is taking and he is the first to recognize it is an iterative process. He discussed this in part at his TED Talk.

Where some companies seem to talk sustainability for marketing purposes, Ikea’s commitment is genuine. In 2014, 42% of their total energy consumption came from renewables. With over 700,000 solar panels installed on Ikea buildings and a commitment to own and operate 224 wind turbines, they have quickly outpaced their competitors. They are well on pace with core things like water and energy conservation but more importantly have taken serious stock in obtaining materials from sustainable sources. In 2014, that was 41% of their wood and 75% of their cotton as examples. They are also shifting their portfolio of products to help home owners be more sustainable.

Recognizing that ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’, I hereby approve shopping at Ikea again if you are unable to re-purpose or salvage something.

30 day challenge: Accessorizing the sun

A few years ago I watched the Ted Talks by Matt Cutts called “Try something new for 30 days”. It is a short light hearted talk worth viewing that that more or less states, if there is something you want to do or change, commit to doing it for 30 days. More recently, a relative kept his online status updated with his “30 days of biking” and that rekindled the idea for me.

For the month of June I have decided that the core gadgets I use on a daily basis can only be charged via solar power. Thanks to my lovely wife and kids, I already had everything I needed to undertake this effort, I just had not put it into practice consistently. My gadgets are my phone, my Microsoft band, and my Bluetooth speaker. My solution is an Anker portable fold up solar panel and an Anker battery power bank. After about 22 hours of direct sun, the battery will fully charge from the solar panel. Based on past use, I know that the Anker battery can charge my phone nine times before needing more power. Presumably adding in my other devices will increase the frequency of how often I need to charge the battery brick but I still only anticipate it being once a week or so. For charging the battery bank from solar, I have found that leaving the panel spread out on the dashboard of the car with the battery in the glove box works well while parked in a sunny location at work.

You might be questioning my logic as the ROI on a $100 worth of solar panel and battery bank that was gifted to me will take a long time to recognize, but for me it is not about that. For me, it is a small iterative step I can take that is positive. I am hopeful that after a successful 30 days, I can sustain this practice and add in another new 30 day challenge. Transitioning to this model also forces me to be more proactive and plan out my devices energy consumption and re-charging. As I hope our family will be transitioning to an electric vehicle in the coming year or two, having this type of planning mindset for energy consumption and charging will be very useful.

I also feel compelled to mention that I used charge my mobile phone every night and then about 6 months ago I changed a few key settings which dramatically increased the battery life of my phone. The single biggest change I made was reducing the frequency of which I sync my e-mail accounts. I used to have them sync ‘as items arrive’ and I changed this to ‘once per hour’. The majority of the time the content constantly syncing, re-organizing, and deleting on my phone was unnecessary as I was managing that content from my laptop while working anyway. As time passed, I also realized that my nose was not in my phone as often which I think is a good thing. I can always manually sync when I want to check e-mail, otherwise once per hour is plenty. I also no longer allow non-essential applications to run in the background. For example, if I look at Facebook on my phone I log out and close it when I am done. This is another thing that offers the healthy by-product of looking at my phone less. When I want to consume content on my phone I do, but now I avoid toast notifications and others various things that used to nudge me for their attention.  I have also found that hooking up to my home wireless uses much less battery than cellular.

While solar powering accessories might not be for everyone and might not reduce emissions to a significant degree, I am excited to do it and already starting to brainstorm on my July plans. To you, I will quote Matt Cutts and say “Why not think about something you have always wanted to try and give it a shot for the next thirty days”.

Turning down the service

In the late 90’s or early 2000’s I took a work trip to Chicago and stayed at the Omni Hotel on Michigan Avenue. At that time the hotel was better known by the phrase “Guests of the Oprah Winfrey show stay at the all-suite Omni Hotel” which concluded each episode of Oprah. Fast forward ~15 years and a work trip brought me back to the Omni Hotel. The hotel truly is a luxury hotel in a great location and not too long ago it went through an $11M renovation. The public information about the renovation boasts about the upgraded public spaces, new guest and specialty suites, and a unique blend of modern and historical charm.

Returning to my room one evening is what first got my attention to their lack of sustainable practices. As I entered my room I found the TV on the relaxation channel, several lights on, the furnace on, and my ice bucket filled up. All of which had been off / empty when I left my room. It seems the turn down service attendant had followed protocol and prepared my room for me to turn in. Upon closer inspection I noticed that the lamps in the room all contained incandescent bulbs. It seems the $11M renovation did not include any modernizing of the room lighting. In hindsight, I should have done more research prior to booking my stay.

I reached out to the front desk and was told to leverage my do not disturb sign to avoid turn down service and was referred to the website for contacts to discuss sustainability practices further. I voiced my concerns respectfully to their leadership, asking them to consider making the turn down service an opt in practice. The next day I received a call saying that they would flag my account if I wanted and then would not change my bedding, towels, or turn down my room going forward if desired. I had them go ahead and do so, but the person on the phone was not the right resource to discuss the broader issue.

Most hotels these days have an Environmental Mission Statement and have instituted numerous things to help reduce energy consumption. Next time I will do more research first and likely stay at a Wyndham, Marriott, Starwood, InterContinental, Fairmont, or Hilton who are all more invested in environmental stewardship and sustainability. In a city as green as Chicago, where there are solar powered trash and recycling compactors on most blocks, the Omni hotel is a disappointment. Lastly, I should mention that the Omni Dallas made great investments while being built in order to achieve LEED certification; including capturing rain water for irrigation use, automated lighting and thermal controls, automated guest room energy management systems, water saving fixtures, low VOC products, recycled building materials, and more.

See something, Say something

The “If You See Something, Say Something” mantra became commonplace after 9/11 and there is still an active campaign by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which they licensed from the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The campaign includes signs stating this near airport entrances, public service announcements, partnerships with various agencies, and more. At the core of the DHS initiative is the idea that “It takes a community to protect a community. Informed, alert communities play a critical role in keeping our nation safe.” After watching a Frontline episode last night (American Terrorist) which outlined the story of David Headley and the failures of intelligence analysis to prevent the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the need for everyday citizens to speak up when something seems wrong is critical. Despite their best efforts, security agencies cannot effectively review the 3 million e-mails sent every minute and the countless other online communications to keep nations safe from terrorism. They require the help of everyday citizens to speak up.

At the start of today, I found myself very frustrated. It is Earth Day and the amount of fanfare and conversations about it seem very limited. Many folks I have encountered seem to have no knowledge of it and give it no more thought than National Candy Corn Day, Peculiar People Day, or Talk like Shakespeare Day. Yes, those are all real “days”. On the one hand it is sad that we need an Earth Day and that every day is not spent helping to better promote caring for the one planet we have. On the other hand, we will see an increase in some media coverage today regarding the importance of mitigating our use of fossil fuels which might spark some healthy dialogue. Unfortunately much of the media attention today thus far has been focused on the differing opinions and giving equal airtime to those opposed to action despite the overwhelming evidence that the time to act has been in hand for a long time. One example is president Obama giving an address on the importance of taking action while in the Florida Everglades today. The leading media outlets are busy talking about how the fossil fuel funded presidential nominees are responding and the uncertainty they feel there is on man’s impact to the warming planet. The story should be as simple as 13 of the 14 hottest years on record have occurred this century, the last global cold temperature record was in 1911, the greenhouse effect has been well understood for nearly 200 years, and more than 97% of peer reviewed papers on the subject agree that global warming is real and being caused by human activity. Global warming is not something to believe in or not believe in, it is a scientific explanation for the facts.

Part of my frustration stems from a lack of meaningful action being taken by society as a whole, or I should clarify, the frustration stems mostly from a lack of meaningful action being taken by the U.S. Working towards handing future generations a planet thriving and sustainable should be a core priority to be taking the lead on. Instead, we (the U.S.) consistently see profit margins and the economy taking priority over the environment. One recent example is the desire by some in Congress to turn over the federal public lands and national parks to states to manage. This includes a provision allowing the states to privatize the land for mining, drilling, and to sell portions to real estate companies in the name of economic progress. Sure, selling some of the northern Minnesota forests to a paper mill might create some jobs and additional tax revenue, but what if every state acted selfishly like this and did not consider the broader impacts? If we want economic benefits and a healthier planet, the answer is a carbon fee and dividend program which will help gradually shift us away from fossil fuels while not punishing taxpayers.

So on this Earth Day, let’s not lose sight of our moral, spiritual, and personal responsibility to care for this pale blue dot. We as a collective society need to do more of See something, Say something. There is a fine between bringing a concern forward and getting traction versus appearing like a crazy person. I have had various successes and failures in this area and have no doubt a few people I have engaged view me as radical, in part because my approach was not as respectful and articulate as it should have been. Implementing an environmental See something Say something campaign could be trying to get your local sports facility to recycle, getting your kids school to stop using polystyrene, or trying to get your company to investigate the ROI on installing solar panels where the typical ROI is now 7-10 years. Regardless of your passions, establishing a constructive dialog is usually the first step in making improvements so on this Earth Day and every day that follows; let’s not be afraid to use our voice.