Thursday, December 4, 2008

Massive Small-scale Conservation

It's been a while since I've said anything here (almost a year!) but recently I've had a bunch of thoughts about conservation, local economy, sustainability, environment etc. with the election of President Obama, the turbulence in the financial markets and unprecedented government involvement in the free market. My friend Don gave me a book called Deep Economy too and after reading only the first couple of pages I'm SURE I'll have a bunch more to say. Stay tuned...

That said, here's my first installment.

I've been wrestling with how to power my cabin. It's a long and involved story and I won't bore you with the details. In a nutshell getting grid-power (which was supposed to be provided to me by the originally land developer) will cost me around $15k so I started looking into alternative solutions (solar, wind, propane generator, etc.). In doing so one thing has become clear and that is a typical grid-based electrical household uses A LOT of energy (if my household is typical) To provide the same wattage to your house in the form or solar would require a significant amount of money (I'd guess well over $100k). Some packages that I've looked at seem great but they all produce a small amount of watts (less than 1000W) and they way they make it work is by using DC current. I'm far from an expert but the reason for this is that is solar generation only happens when the sun is up (duh) and so a solar energy system relies on batteries to store up energy during the day for use as night and batteries are DC. Furthermore DC is much more energy efficient than AC because AC requires stepping the voltage up to very high voltages for transmission and then stepping it down to use in your house. In fact all of those big bricks that you have for your electronics in your house.... That's what they're doing; stepping down the 120V AC power coming out of your wall down to 12V power to go into your wireless phone, laptop, etc. (read this great idea for more insights). So to keep your house on AC current with a solar energy system you'd have to use an inverter to turn the DC current into AC (like the things you can buy for your car cigarette lighter that provides 120V plugs) but that is inefficient and even if it were perfectly efficient you'd get something like 1000W enough to power a fridge and 6 100W lightbulbs. Forget your air conditioning and heating, television/DVD, computer, dish washer, clothes washer, dryer, etc.

But, the point of this post isn't to complain about how much energy a typical home uses... Instead as I was thinking about this problem I looked at compact fluorescent lights and started thinking about the electricity required by *one* 100W lightbulb. Generally a CFL bulb requires 4-5x LESS electricity than a standard incandescent light. This is because incandescent light bulbs make light by generating heat with resistants in the filament and that is very inefficient. So switching *one* 100W bulb to a CFL bulb would save about 75W of energy *per hour*; plus CFL bulbs last MUCH longer (see this FAQ from GE).

That doesn't sound like much, but it's a *small* sacrifice to make to conserve energy. What if we could do that for every household in America (nevermind the world)?

If every household in America switched one 100W lightbulb to a CFL bulb then we would save 7.5 Gigawatts of power in an hour! For reference one megawatt of energy is enough energy to power 800 households for a year (under current energy assumption... i.e. assuming no one switches to CFL). In other words saving 7.5 Gigawatts is saving enough energy to power more than 6 MILLION homes for a year. That's crazy (either that or my math is somehow wrong ;)!

How can we not try?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Customer Service in a High-latency Environment

A couple months ago I sold some stuff on e-Bay and I got an invoice from them for my seller fees. I logged into my account and verified that it is setup with automatic payment via PayPal and I ignored that invoice. Yesterday, I got the same exact invoice. So it would appear that the "automatic" part isn't so "automatic" and I decided that I needed to contact their customer service.

Like all customer service these days (even for good companies) you have to wade through a mine-field of options that are structured to stop you from asking a question to a real human being. So rather that hunting longer for a phone number (or just finding it on wikipedia which I'm sure has it) I just tried out their "Live Help" functionality which is simply instant messaging.

Either they've got a few superheroes handling dozens of simultaneous conversations by multi-plexing them or they've got a bunch of two-fingered typers because it's SLOW. Every question that you ask takes a couple minutes to get a response. Even still, that's not the main thing that I noticed...

And that is, that when it takes so a long time to respond, typical courtesies that CS reps use are actually annoying. For example:

bq. "Hello, Andrew, I'll be happy to assist you"

bq. "Just a minute while I look that up."

bq. "Hold on while I transfer you to the Billing Department." (the "rep" that I'm talking to should be virtual and they may transfer under the covers, but don't let me know that)

It seems to me that answers in an IM/chat-based customer service system need to be FAST (why would I go through the hassle of using it if it's more of a pain that talking to a REAL person) and they need to prize word economy (cut the pleasantries and just get me the answer... I'm not chatting you up because I saw your latest change on Facebook).