Working for a fantastic London-based charity, and teaming up again with Simon Bottrell of 7creative, the functionality of this site really pushed my use of Custom Post Types and inter-relating content to the max. I also did some pretty cool stuff with the jQuery Crossslide plugin, using WordPress to manage the gallery and some cool loop-stuff to populate the crossslider itself.
Solar-powered LED lights. Yawn. Seen them everywhere: home improvement stores, fuelling stations, supermarkets, pound stores and don’t even talk to me about eBay (3,200 listings when I checked).
In theory, solar-powered LED lights make a lot of sense. LEDs consume very little power so even a small solar panel can keep enough charge in a couple of AA batteries to keep the LEDs lit for a few hours at a time. Millions of solar-powered LEDs are sold each year: for garden lights, shed lights, camping lights, decorative lights. Even that old favourite playground joke of a solar-powered torch is now a serious product. I myself have three different types of solar LED light in the garden. I don’t need to run mains cables everywhere, I don’t need to worry about turning them on and off, they provide enough light to do the job.What’s not sensible and sustainable about that?
Whilst the large scale picture seems simple and easy, once you start looking a little closer things get more difficult. LEDs are complicated. Photovoltaic panels are complicated. Batteries are complicated. Sticking them all together to get the best combination, well, you’ve guessed it. It’s complicated.
There are ultraviolet LEDs, RGB LEDs, Phosphor-based LEDs, Organic LEDs (OLEDs), miniature LEDs, high power LEDs. AMOLEDs produce the best screens for mobile devices. You can now buy LED replacement bulbs for most domestic light fittings, and certainly that’s going to be a huge market in years to come. But perhaps the best use for LED lighting is in the developing world. LEDs are robust, reliable, easy to manufacture (although not necessarily easy to manufacture well) and can last upwards of 20,000 hours usage. In the developed world, we worry about what temperature of light our light bulbs give out. In much of the developing world any chance to see anything after the sun has set is a huge step forwards.
It is for this market that SEC have primarily developed their AnyWhere range of solar-powered lights. The one I am going to review here is the AWL240-1 Solar Powered Light Kit. It includes a decent sized Photovoltaic panel, the AnyWhere light itself, terminal hub / junction box, 2 x 4.8 meter electric cable with simple twist-fit connections. The AnyWhere light is by far the most complicated component, composing not only the super efficient LED’s and three position dimmable switch but also high performance Lithium Ion battery with energy storage and management system.
Looking over the packaging, the first thing to strike me was the performance figures. They’re actually given, and in much detail with actual units of measurement. Not “lasts up to 3 hours on a single charge” but “At switch position 2, the light output will be 120 Lumens consuming 4 kJ/h and will last about 15 hours” the LED lights will last more than 10 years down to 75% of original brilliance.
Then I rewound a little. At position 1, the light produces 240 Lumens about the same as a mains powered 40 watt bulb. At full charge the AnyWhere light can produce those 240 Lumens for about 7.5 hours with a life expectancy, if used for 6 hours per day, of 9 years. That’s a lot of useful light, bright enough light to light a room well enough to read and write.
How long does the battery take to reach full charge? According to the packaging, about 4.5 hours of sun per day. That’s not unrealistic, even in quite temperate climates.
This is a completely stand-alone lighting solution. There’s nothing you need to replace, refill or reload. Just leave the solar panel out in the sun and it will recharge the battery for you. Then, when you need the light turn it on. When you’ve finished, turn it off. That’s the beauty of the AnyWhere lights: really useful light in a really simple package.
Another nice touch with the AnyWhere lights is the modularity. Through the use of the terminal hub, you can mix and match the components to arrive at the most suitable lighting solution for your house. These kits are available as:
1 x AWL240-1 Kit = 1 Light 1 Solar panel, 1 hub and 2 x 4.8 meter cable
2 x AWL240-2 Kit = 2 Light 1 Solar panel, 1 hub and 3 x 4.8 meter cable
3 x AWL240-3 Kit = 3 Light 1 Solar panel, 1 hub and 4 x 4.8 meter cable
4 x AWL240-2 Kit = 4 Light 1 Solar panel, 2 hub and 5 x 4.8 meter cable
With the Solar panel being left in the sun all day all the lights will be fully charged by nightfall.
If you were to run a 40 watt incandescent bulb for 6 hours a day for 9 years, that’d cost you roughly £90 (with out the cost of the bulbs). That pretty much the retail cost of a single AnyWhere Light kit. So, the cost is comparable with current mainstream with the bonus that with the AnyWhere light you end up with a high quality Solar panel with a life expectancy of 20-25 years, thus you could reasonably hypothesise that using AnyWhere lights will be cheaper over the long term.
Of course, many light bulbs sold these days are compact florescent (CFL) or LED rather than incandescent bulbs, so one must take that cost comparison loosely. However, it’s still pretty impressive that such a new and totally renewable lighting solution is fairly comprisable with today’s technology.
Assume 1 watt of electricity = £1 per year in electricity bills – currently about right for the UK.
40 watt x 0.25 years = £10 /year to run a 40 watt light bulb for 6 hours per day for a year
So £10 per year x 9 years = £90
AnyTime UPS Lighting Kit (Sister product)
There is a sister product called the AnyTime UPS Lighting Kit where a mains powered AC / DC 18 volt charger is used in place of the Solar panel. This light kit is designed to be used where ever the electricity is unreliable and or subject to frequent outage. The light is the same as used in the LED AnyWhere light but uses less than 10% of the electricity used by a 40 watt incandescent light thus reducing the household cost of lighting your house by 90% and is always available to provide light for up to 10 hours in a power outage.
There are two sizes of AnyTime UPS lighting kit equivalent to 40 & 80 watt incandescent bulb:
1 x ATL240-1 Kit = 1 Light, 1 AC / DC 18 volt 1 amp charger, 1 hub and 1 x 4.8 meter cable
1 x ATL240-2 Kit = 2 Light, 1 AC / DC 18 volt 1 amp charger, 1 hub and 2 x 4.8 meter cable
1 x ATL240-3 Kit = 3 Light, 1 AC / DC 18 volt 1 amp charger, 1 hub and 3 x 4.8 meter cable
1 x ATL240-4 Kit = 4 Light, 1 AC / DC 18 volt 1 amp charger, 1 hub and 4 x 4.8 meter cable
1 x ATL480-1 Kit = 1 Light, 1 AC / DC 18 volt 1 amp charger, 1 hub and 1 x 4.8 meter cable
1 x ATL480-2 Kit = 2 Light, 1 AC / DC 18 volt 1 amp charger, 1 hub and 2 x 4.8 meter cable
Note the ATL480-1 gives the same light output as an 80 watt incandescent bulb.
I’d like to know how recyclable the kits are? How reliant on resources that aren’t highly available from environmentally-sympathetic sources. How easy is it to e.g. replace a battery or LED set? Or is the strategy to simply swap out whole components? What is the end-of-life strategy for consumers? I don’t know any of the answers to these questions, but I’d feel reassured about the sustainability of the product if I did.
My one major suggestion for improvement? A USB power socket either on the terminal hub or the lamp itself. That way, the units could be used to charge a wide range of electronics such as mobile phones as well as providing lighting. USB is such a wonderfully universal connector that it seems a shame to miss that opportunity. Maybe in the second iteration?
I’m impressed with this product. Very impressed. The bottom line with any product is performance, and these things just perform. Thanks to excellent design, the kits match technologies together that complement each other and combine to offer incredible efficiency and flexibility. The world needs technology like this to tackle some of the critical and fundamental gaps in peoples’ standards of living. For me, this light will make the best camping light ever, and make me the envy of the campsite. For an Indonesian family, it could mean the difference between children being literate or not.
Stop Press – Latest Minute Development
SEC have just announced the availability of a mobile (cell) phone charger that plugs into the hub with built in battery charged by the Solar panel
Disclaimer: SEC is associated with LowCarbonEconomy.com, a company with which I am associated. But, I have no direct link with SEC and the facts and opinions in this post are honest and true to the best of my knowledge.
Were you born into a lifestyle in harmony and equilibrium with your environment?
It’s unlikely that you were, whatever your background. Most of us were already being unsustainable before we could spell it. Think about that for a minute: You have never experienced a sustainable lifestyle. Very few people still alive today have.
None of us can control the lifestyle into which we’re born, but we can control the lifestyle our children are born into. Many of us live with self-imposed lifestyle guilt, but remember that you didn’t eat that first apple.
You’ve never experienced sustainability
What does this mean? That we need to stop feeling guilt about what’s passed by already. The future depends on the choices we make going forwards now. We need to look forward to a positive vision of sustainability. There is no reverting or going back. The golden time at which humanity truly lived in sustainable harmony with its surroundings is too far away. We need to imagine and embrace a future that none of us have ever experienced, where technology and sustainability are married to the goal of a happy, productive and sustainable future for humanity.
How do we move past our original sin? By letting go of guilt. Speak to any sustainability expert and they’ll tell you that the hardest part of any sustainability journey are the lifestyle and behavioural changes. There are fundamental psychological reasons why we’re so resistant to changing our values and lifestyles. We’re pre-programmed to make sustainability misjudgements.
Maybe our cultural rehabilitation program needs to start with an acceptance that we are (almost without exception) responsible for damaging our environment and ourselves, but that it’s not our fault. Once the scorecard is clean, we can start the accounting afresh. I don’t know whether that’ll help us to refresh our cultural values, but I do know that without forgiving ourselves our original sin, we’ll find it much harder to move forwards positively.
The future is the most exciting opportunity going – let’s get excited about it.
5. Herd Mentality
Herd mentality is the tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority to feel safer and to avoid conflict.
I’m going to explore this one in more detail later: personally I think that herd mentality is actually an emergent behaviour caused by an altogether more interesting facet of human nature: social hierarchy.
Reactance is the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice.
A big one. I believe that the transition to a sustainable civilisation is going to require that we challenge many of our deepest beliefs, values and cultural habits. We’re going to find that difficult. We do things at the moment because we desire them (we live in indulgent times), they’re easy, they’re culturally-ingrained, or some mixture of all three. Our desires are like pressures inside us. If we don’t do something we really desire, we can find ourselves blowing up. How will we react to being told to eat more vegetarian food and to take the bus? I’ll bet that at least a few us will be tempted to drive our cars at top speed to the nearest burger joint and-the-environment-be-damned.
3. Hyperbolic Discounting
Hyperbolic discounting is the tendency for people to prefer a smaller, immediate payoff over a larger, delayed payoff.
Another big one. There are numerous studies under way that investigate the tension between discounting and sustainability. Every time we hunt a species to extinction, we are discounting the future: swapping the immediate reward of an easy meal of roast dodo for the promise of countless future roast dodos for us and our children through maintaining a breeding population. Historically, the hyperbolic discounting of our ancestors (our generation continuing where others have left off) is commonly attributed as the cause of The Sixth Extinction. In essence, the decline and extinction of the majority of the world’s large mammals is contemporaneous with the great human diaspora out of Africa, starting around 100,000 years ago.
The dodos example also touches on another important facet of human psychology: the in-group/out-group dichotomy. Even as the dodo population was visibly failing, it is not hard to imagine that one ship-full of sailors thinking “Well if we don’t eat these last few birds, that ship on the horizon is bound to anyway”. Had that ship full of sailors been isolated on the island, would they have been more inclined to preserve a viable dodo population for the future? The crux of this question is a question that Jared Diamond explores thoroughly in his book Collapse.
2. Escalation of Commitment
Escalation of commitment is the tendency for people to continue to support previously unsuccessful endeavours.
Is the Copenhagen Accord an example of global escalation in commitment? I’ve previously argued that any policy or treaty that is not fair, simple and clear will be doomed to suffer from the Bikeshed Effect. COP15 was perhaps our best chance of learning from the difficulties of Kyoto, especially when it became clear that there was not unanimous support for it. Instead, a few powerful countries promulgated what is in effect an extension of the Kyoto Protocol. Whilst it’s certainly not fair to accuse the Kyoto Protocol of being totally unsuccessful, neither is it unfair to say that there is significant room for improvement.
Are further examples of escalation of commitment the proposed construction of a new generation of nuclear power stations? Or the proposed extraction of ever-more-marginal fossil fuel reserves such as oil shale and slate? Each of these energy sources has so far been unsuccessful in securing sustainable energy for humanity’s global civilisation.
Escalation of Commitment is something I’ve been thinking about more and more since drafting this post: I’m going to dedicate a whole post just to this soon.
1. Placebo Effect
The Placebo effect is when an ineffectual substance that is believed to have healing properties produces the desired effect.
Ironically, the number one item in the source article’s list is also perhaps the least relevant to this post. After all, if we can find a placebo solution to sustainability, surely that’s a win even if it is a misjudgement?
[So that’s the end of the list that I drew from the source post. Forgive the silly numbering going onwards…]
0. Social Hierarchy and Dominance
As Thomas Friedman said at one of COP15’s side events:
There’s only one thing as powerful as Mother Nature and that’s Father Greed
The theme of “greed” sweeps through many of the points we’ve covered, but for me it’s still a symptom of a deeper pressure from the human psyche.
I always seem to recommend this book: The Lucifer Principle by Howard K. Bloom, but it’s definitely the best exposition of the point I’m trying to make, so I’ll repeat that recommendation here. The book explores the proclivity of the human mind to seek dominance over our peers. Everyone loves to win, and most people don’t like losing. Why? It’s simple: people that have more social dominance have more children, are happier, live longer and are healthier. These are make-or-break traits in evolutionary terms, so it’s hardly surprising that the urge to win and succeed is so deeply entrenched in our psychology. It’s natural selection in action, with a heavy peppering of sexual selection.
Are our desires for the latest fashion, Apple gadget or new-model Ferrari the human equivalent of the Peacock’s feathers? Is our quest for the discovery of the New, the Best and the Greatest our way of showing that we’re alert and successful? The Rat Race is very real, and undoubtedly affects our lives more than we wish to acknowledge (part of our social camouflage is the pretence that we don’t feel pressure, that we’re capable enough of taking everything in our stride and that our potential for future success is not in doubt). So where does the quest for success end and greed start?
Maybe some insight can be shed by Gore Vidal’s quote:
It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.
Are we predisposed to require a society where some must fail? Is greed a reflection of our wish not only to have more than others, but also to deprive others and thus amplify our position of dominance over them? Maybe Agent Smith was right?
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster.
Whether my reasoning is right or wrong, it must be indisputable that greed is in our nature.
-1. The Bikeshed Effect
The Bikeshed Effect, as blogged here. How damaging is our faith that other people will take care of the big picture, leaving us free to argue about the details?
-2. Social Identity
The theory was originally developed to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination
Blood is thicker than water – that’s social identity at its most basic level. Every organism is (by default) genetically predisposed to favour the survival of genes more similar to its own – that’s the basic tenet of Richard Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene”. This predisposition has extended itself into our societies in subtle and complex ways: from racism to religion and most notably in cultures. The way that we treat those in our “group” and those outside is incredibly dichotomous. We’ll actively sacrifice ourselves for our children, but we (usually) have to be persuaded to give money to charity to help kids in Africa.
This mutual dichotomy (which obviously works both ways between groups) detracts from our ability to take collective responsibility for global issues. I reckon this is going to be one of our biggest challenges: In-groups are basically frameworks for trust. Our brains are (presumably) designed (by evolution) to be able to cope with really knowing only a few hundred people so that’s typically the maximum size of our in-groups (Dunbar’s number). How can we extend the trust that we offer to our in-groups to the whole of humanity in order to be able to take effective action on global issues?
Since I first drafted this post, I’ve done a LOT of thinking about the psychology of sustainability. I want to write follow-up posts looking at:
- Escalation of Commitment
- Possible solutions/mitigation
So I guess the conclusion is that I find this really interesting and will write more on it.
I am constantly inspired and enthralled by the ingenuity, compassion and creativity of the people around me. For upright, naked apes we’ve come an awfully long way. Our collective model of the universe (our knowledge) spans orders of magnitude and scales which our minds can only barely imagine, let alone experience. Our technology is profoundly astonishing: it enhances our capabilities as a species far beyond our original abilities in almost every aspect of our lives.
And yet we seem determined to throw all this away. The vast majority of us aren’t trying to poison ourselves, irreparably degrading our environment, consume the resources vital to our civilisation or generally jeopardise the survival of our species, and yet the net effect of our lifestyles, choices and actions leads directly to these outcomes. We’re neither evil, nor stupid, so why is it that we seem incapable of addressing humanity’s most important challenge: Sustainability? Wikipedia is pretty unambiguous on the meaning of sustainability:
Sustainability is the capacity to endure
Are we reducing our capacity to endure? That’s something I want to blog about separately: It’s quite a big topic in its own right. For now, I’m going to hypothesise that we are, simply to explore some of the behaviours that I think are generally undesirable, whatever the ultimate outcome. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I guess it was this post: “Top 10 Common Faults In Human Thought” that finally prompted me to try and crystallise some of my thinking.
I guess a little background wouldn’t hurt. I believe that humans are born with a brain that has been shaped by evolution to serve specific purposes and tackle specific challenges. The human brain is not a blank slate, its development completely dependent on what we expose it to. If you want to read up, I again recommend Stephen Pinker’s “The Blank Slate“. The brain’s very success in carrying our species to this point leave it susceptible to mistakes in perception (optical illusions), logic (which we’ll look at here) and memory (nostalgia!).
I’ll follow the order in the original article and then add some others at the end. It’s a long list, so I’ll stretch this over a few posts.
10. Gambler’s Fallacy
The Gambler’s fallacy is the tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality, they are not.
Perhaps our greatest gamble is our reliance on technology. Thomas Malthus predicted as long ago as the 18th century that unhindered population growth would be “checked by disease, famine and widespread mortality”. Up until now, technology (particularly the Haber process for creating artificial fertiliser) have kept humanity’s food supplies in sufficient quantity (even if we don’t choose to distribute it evenly). Medical technologies and practices have defended us against smallpox, tuberculosis and a host of human zoonoses, diseases and epidemics. We’re gambling that using up our fossil fuel reserves now will allow us to develop replacement technologies in time to transition seamlessly and securely. Technology has always served us well up until now, so the chances are that it’ll serve us well in the future too, right?
Reactivity is the tendency of people to act or appear differently when they know that they are being observed.
I don’t think that this fault is necessarily the most important in terms of sustainability, but I’m sure we’ve all at some point caught ourselves being a little greener than usual in order to escape criticism from someone we think is greener than us. One example stays with me from my young and foolish university days. I dropped some litter (something my parents would have given me a scolding for) and a friend reprimanded me, embarrassing me to the point that I haven’t knowingly littered since. So what harm is reactivity? Maybe just that it’s hard for us to be honest with each other about some of our worst habits and behaviours.
Pareidolia is when random images or sounds are perceived as significant.
It’s snowing – so global warming has to be a hoax? Maybe the most important insight into our psychology that this phenomenon offers us is in fact recognising that our brains are not faultless computing machines: they’re pattern-matching algorithms designed to interpret and predict our environment. We need to stay mindful of the need for rigour and method in our decision-making. This works both ways: we’re equally as likely to see false positives as false negatives.
7. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Self-fulfilling prophecy is engaging in behaviors that obtain results that confirm existing attitudes.
As the source article says:
Economic Recessions are self-fulfilling prophecies. Because a recession is 2 quarters of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decline, you cannot know you are in a recession until you are at least 6 months into one. Unfortunately, at the first sign of decreasing GDP, the media reports a possible recession, people panic and start a chain of events that actually cause a recession.
Will the same be true for an environmental recession? Will the first signs of resource scarcity cause resource grabs or wars which exacerbate the situation and lead to real resource shortages? Do films like The Road and Children of Men give life to fears that our civilisation will inevitably end in a decline into chaos and desperation? Are there expressions of hope and a positive future that are as compelling?
This short YouTube video is worth a watch. It’s palindromic in that the phrases can be read in reverse order and the result would be the same. It’s a fantastic little illustration of how closely hope and fear are related, and the importance of perception: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42E2fAWM6rA#
6. Halo Effect
The Halo effect is the tendency for an individual’s positive or negative trait to “spill over” to other areas of their personality in others’ perceptions of them.
The Halo Effect is perhaps most harmful at a corporate level. “Surely this company which makes such good _____ and has a glossy web page explaining its commitment to sustainability must be a safe bet. I like their products so much that I simply can’t believe that they’d be engaged in harmful and unsustainable activities.”
I’m not saying that all companies are bad: I’m just saying that just because a company is carbon-neutral and recyclable doesn’t mean that it’s not flying fresh fruit from all over the world, lobbying government for policies that have favourable loopholes or are investing their profits indirectly in arms manufacture.
I’d love to hear what you think in the comments. The second post in the series is in progress, more to follow soon…
*Update: The second post on this topic is here.*
The climate change policy platform that’s floating just under the surface of negotiations
I was privileged to attend COP15 in Copenhagen this week as a member of the Global Commons Institute delegation, headed by Aubrey Meyer. During our attendance, I spent a fair bit of time talking about C&C theory with Aubrey, and felt motivated to share what I’ve learnt and the synthesis that this has led me to. Essentially, I think it’s the only sensible framework on which to base an international treaty that aims to be effective, simple and equitable – in this post I want to explain why.
It’s worth reading the Wikipedia page about contraction and convergence before going further with this post.
Remember that the objective is to reduce atmospheric carbon levels through reducing net carbon emissions.
Remember also the importance of equity in securing a workable policy framework. The only really fair deal would give every person in the world equal entitlement to emit carbon.
Let’s do a quick mental exercise. Work out the total amount of carbon that can be emitted over a set time (say 50 years) to avoid Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change (CACC). Create a simple graph of carbon emissions over time, where the area under the line of the graph is less than or equal to the maximum amount of carbon that can be emitted to avoid CACC – that line will necessarily be heading down and to the right, as we’re currently emitting too much carbon – that’s contraction. Adjust the rate of contraction to suit a realistic carbon emission reduction schedule. Divide the amount of carbon under the line of the graph by the number of people in the world to arrive at per capita emissions entitlements.
Then, it’s simple. Nations emitting more carbon per capita than their entitlement need to reduce their emissions, or trade entitlements with nations who are under their entitlement. This provides a stable and workable framework for carbon credit trading. Nations can either reduce their carbon emissions per capita, trade to increase their per-capita entitlement, or (importantly) reduce their population to increase the per-capita amount of carbon. Inevitably due to market forces (yes this is capitalism people – but in a sensible framework),