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Vampire Voltage

No, not the Beck album. Here I refer to devices that draw power even when not in active use.

Over the past few years, I have read a number of studies that indicate between 5% and 10% of household energy is consumed by these devices. Look around your room and the vampiers are everywhere! For example, your DVD player, cell phone charger, and microwave are always on, but not at full power. Some of these devices provide services when they are in this low-power mode. A microwave, for example, might have a digital clock, where as your DVD player and TV are in a standby mode allowing you to turn them on with a remote control. Other devices like cell phone or computer chargers when plugged in provide no services to the user unless it is activley charging.

I recently purchased a Kill a watt(TM) power meter to see how much power in my household was being consumed by the “vampires”. Our entertainment center consists of a 32″ LCD TV, DVD player, VCR, a DVR, a cable modem, and a wireless router. Together these devices use about 30watts of power when in stand by mode. This doesn’t seem too bad, but it is equivalent to having a standard 60W bulb on for 12 hrs a day. The sad thing is that we only use them for about 2-3hrs a day. These devices are all on a power strip which we try to turn off when not in use, but we sometimes forget. So we use a simple timer to switch them off at night and during the day.

My electric toothbrush and razor each consume about 3W because they are continually in charge mode. I now routinely unplug the razor until it needs a charge. Office devices like a desk top computer use about 5W when in standby mode and about 90W at full power. My laptop charger used about 20W to charge and <1W when not charging. An idle external hard drive consumed an additional 2W as did a label maker. These devices are now unplugged when not in use. Any device that has a brick like power converter (aka wall warts) uses power when plugged in. You can tell by feeling it – is it warm? That is electricity being disipated as heat.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that our cell phone chargers and camera charger used less power than was detectable by the power meter (<1W). I plugged in 3 cell phone chargers and a camera charger and combined the used less than a Watt. Perhaps this is a reflection of the International Energy Agency’s One Watt Initiative. Other devices like toasters, blenders, coffee makers, etc. used no power even when plugged in. This would of course change if they had timers or clocks of some sort.

Our entire household inventory of devices that provided no useful function when off, totaled at around 50W and most of this was for the entertainment center. We found a power strip and timer to be an easy way to manage these devices and others we just unplug unless needed. Some devices like night lights, our toothbrush, microwave, and radio we decided to just leave plugged in mainly due to the inconvenience unplugging them between frequent uses. Still we managed to beat back the vampires by about 75%.

For more informion, Alan Meire of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory maintains an excellent website on this issue. There you will find a comprehensive list of the power consumption of nearly every appliance in existence.

The Stream That Became a Freeway That Became a Stream

This fall, I am on leave from Lawrence and have been living in Beijing. Professor Jeff Clark asked me to contribute a few entries to the blog about some of the environmentally-related experiences and observations that I have had in Asia. This post is about a brief trip I took to Seoul in September.

On a bright September weekend afternoon in Seoul, South Korea, I found myself walking along a beautiful stream, where fish darted among flourishing plants and children splashed in the water at the edge. Old people rested on benches, couples held hands and talked, and the clamor of Seoul’s streets, with their speakers blaring pop music over every storefront, seemed far away. This peaceful place was once a six-lane freeway, but today it is Cheonggyecheon, a restored waterway in the heart of one of the world’s most densely populated and modern cities.

Cheongyecheon has been part of Seoul’s life for centuries, but for much of its history it has served as the central drain for the city’s wastes. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Seoul’s people used the stream’s tributaries as a water source and the Cheonggyecheon as a sewer. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was a foul, sluggish example of urban misery. In a burst of post-World War II modernization, the stream was covered and a major freeway built over it.

In 2001, when Lee Myung-bak ran for mayor of Seoul, he proposed a radical plan: tear down the freeway, restore the stream, and create a park that would wind through the busiest part of the city. New mass transit lines would compensate for the loss of the transportation that the freeway provided. The hope was that property values near the park would rise and that air quality would improve. Seoul would have a unique feature that could attract investors and tourists. Work on the project began almost immediately after Lee won the election, and it was opened to the public in 2005. Since then, many species of fish and insects have established themselves along the stream, which has become a popular place for walking, jogging, or simply sitting to gaze at the stream as it flows past.

The best way to appreciate Cheonggyecheon is to join the people who use it and to walk along the path that borders the stream. The stress of dodging Seoul’s traffic melted away, and I noticed that I became aware of little details: berries hanging on a bush, fish rising to feed at the surface, the laughter of a group of teenagers, two old men playing cards. I was only in Seoul for four days, and I saw some beautiful temples, enjoyed some great food, and did some fun shopping, but it was at Cheonggyecheon where I ceased to be a tourist and, if only for a moment, felt like a part of the city.

To read more about Cheonggyecheon, see this story from the New York Times and this article from the Preservation Institute.

Our To-Do list from the Campus Sustainability Conference

Wow, that was a really great conference at St. Olaf last weekend. Their are a lot of great sustainability initiatives moving forward at Lawrence and our peer schools, hopefully we can all keep moving forward!

As a final activity, the LU contingent worked together to come up with a to do list, here it is:

1. Small house energy challenge

2. Green roof retrofits

3. Make a campus sustainability map (stolen from Beloit who stole it from Macalester!)

4. Launch a labeling campaign to help make the “invisible” environmental choices we make more visible.

5. Write a Sustainability Strategic Plan which will be a part of the new LU strategic plan.

These are just some of the many ideas that we had (can we compost ALL of our food waste? – St. Olaf does).

All in all, I came away feeling like we have done some great things that were lauded by others (trayless dining, LEED building, etc.) but there is a TON more that we can do.

As a final challenge, it was suggested that each school in the Consortium sign on to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 2% by next year. Let’s do it!

Green Roots and Green Roofs

Lawrence’s new campus center has certainly made a number of efforts towards energy efficiency and eco-friendliness. One very important aspect of its ‘green’ design is its rooftop. The roof is composed of five different sections. The main two portions of the building are covered by slightly sloped standing seam metal rooftops. Metal rooftops have a number of advantages, they: (1) are very durable and long lasting, (2) require little maintenance, (3) are fire resistant, and (4) come in a variety of colors and styles. As these roofs are generally made out of sheet metal, they are easily cut to fit on site. One disadvantage of the metal rooftops may be that they get hot very easily, especially if they are a dark color. However, since the material is so thin, they also cool down very quickly for they cannot retain the heat that they absorb.

Another type of rooftop that is used on the campus center solves this problem. The flat rooftops are covered by a thick white reinforced TPO (Thermoplastic Polyolefin) membrane. This is a fully adhered roof system that also has a number of advantages. Unlike the metal roofs, these roofs do not absorb much heat at all. When membranes absorb heat they tend to deteriorate and self-destruct more quickly, creating cracks and holes that create leaks from expanding and contracting depending upon the amount of heat they absorb. Instead, because the campus center’s flat roofs are white and fully adhered, they reflect the majority of the suns energy and experience minimal heat expansion.


But why reflect the sun’s energy when you can utilize it instead? The campus center answers this question with a modular live-roof system. This is a series of rectangular containers that are set up in rows (and spaced for easy maintenance) and house pre-planted, fully matured plants that are drought and winter resistant. This includes Gold Leaved Goldmoss Sedum, White Flowered Sedum, Kamtschatica Sedum, Neon Sedum, Tricolor Sedum, Voo Doo Sedum, and Vera Jameson Sedum. The containers are placed on top of the TPO membrane mentioned above, and can easily be removed if needed. The plants use the sun’s energy to survive and grow and help keep the roof cool via evapotranspiration. The eight inches of soil they are planted in also acts as an insulator soil keeping the roof it cooler in summers, and a little warmer in winters. The plants also use rainwater for their survival, which cuts back and unwanted runoff, puddling, and rooftop water management. The only disadvantages of a live-roof system are that they currently can only be used on flat roofs, and they increase the needed load capacity of the roof. However, because the advantages of a live-roof system are so numerous in comparison to their costs, we might to see an increase in their utilization around campus (especially where ballasted rooftop currently exists).


Written by Vince Dyer

Bon Appetit Adopts Fair Labor Standard Commitment

If you are following environmental issues on the Lawrence campus — or if you just want to know what you might be eating next year here — you probably know that we have contracted with Bon Appetit Management Company to provide food services to Lawrence next year. Bon Appetit offers organic, local and healthy food options, and by hiring them, Lawrence has taken another step towards sustainability.

Good news, right? There’s another reason to be happy about Bon Appetit, though. The company has made an agreement with labor organization The Coalition of Immokalee Workers to set working condition and wage standards for laborers who grow tomatoes in Florida. Bon Appetit has agreed to buy tomatoes only from growers who abide by the standards. The company buys almost 5 million pounds of tomatoes per year, so their decision could have a real impact on Florida growers who don’t want to play by the new rules.

Want to read more?

Bon Appetit’s press release can be read here. For more about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, go here. And here’s an April 29 article from the Washington Post.

Paul Schurke, Polar Explorer, to Speak at Lawrence

Paul Schurke, who has led and participated in several major polar expeditions, will speak in Wriston Auditorium on Thursday, May 21 at 7 pm. Paul’s travels have been extensively covered by National Geographic magazine and television and he is the author of North to the Pole with Will Steger. Most recently he led a dogsled expedition along Hudson Bay to raise awareness about the effects of climate change on arctic wildlife habitat. Paul is also the founder and director of Wintergreen Dogsledding Lodge in Ely Minnesota, ranked by Outside magazine as one of the “Top Ten Innovative Outdoor Small Businesses.”

This event is sponsored by the Outdoor Recreation Club (ORC).

“Thinking Like a Homeowner: An Environmental Ethic for the Twenty-first Century”

Gregory Summers will be speaking at Lawrence next week on the topic: “Thinking Like a Homeowner: An Environmental Ethic for the Twenty-first Century.” Greg is the author of Consuming Nature: Environmentalism in the Fox River Valley, 1850-1950, which is in my opinion a must-read for anyone interested in the history of this area. He teaches environmental history at UW Stevens Point. I’m really excited about his presentation, which I suspect is drawn from his current research project, tentatively entitled, The Comforts of Nature: A Natural History of the American Home.

Greg’s talk will be on Monday, May 4 at 4:30 pm in Science Hall 102. I hope to see you there!

Sticks and Stones

Yesterday afternoon, sculptor Patrick Dougherty capped a day spent with Lawrence students in their art studios by discussing some of his work in a lecture. To understand what Dougherty does, you really have to see his work, because it’s tough to describe in words. He’s a builder, a weaver, a crafter, and yes, an artist. He’s also a very approachable, down-to-earth person who graciously answered questions and asked quite a few of his own.

One thing that Dougherty talked about was the need to find the “animal heart” that we all still have. It’s easy to slide from this idea into some embarrassing territory: exotic-primitive fantasies of running around naked in the woods. But we are animals, of course, and we seem sometimes to be willfully bent on forgetting this fact. As we wrap ourselves up in new clothes, drive around in cars, plug ourselves into headphones, exercise on machines, and eat food full of chemicals whose names we can’t even pronounce (cf. Jess’s post on Annie Leonard’s talk), we get farther and farther away from our animality. Patrick Dougherty’s work reminds us that while humans are builders, so are many other creatures. Think of wasps, beavers, coral. What if we started imagining our own structures as akin to the things that other organisms create? What would that mean for our architecture? Our cities?

Annie Leonard

As part of Earth Week, yesterday, Lawrence University had the pleasure of having the esteemed Annie Leonard, of The Story of Stuff fame, on campus. The Story of Stuff is a short internet film crafted by Leonard explaining the socio-political systems and factors driving our modern American materialistic culture of excessive consumerism and consumption. (See Leonard’s video here.)

Alright. I cannot reign in my enthusiasm while writing this post any longer. Annie Leonard was phenomenal! She was the most inspiring, energetic, fascinating, knowledgeable speaker on the subject of sustainability and environmental activism I have ever seen in my life! I not only got the opportunity to see her speak in the scheduled evening lecture, but I participated in a Q&A session earlier in the day, introduced her evening lecture, and got to go out to dinner with her afterwards! It was more than 6 full hours of pure inspiration!

(For those of you who missed Annie Leonard’s talk on The Story of Stuff, it was recorded and will soon be available through the Lawrence University website. As soon as it becomes available, I’ll be sure to link to it here!)

Annie talked primarily about how in today’s world, we increasingly turn to stuff and things as a replacement for human interaction and connection. College students, she said in last night’s address, tend to have “a surplus of friends and a deficit of stuff.” However, as we go through life, she continued, we begin to have fewer and fewer friends and more and more stuff. This results in a three-part problem in society, she says:

“We’re trashing the planet.

We’re trashing each other.

And we’re not even having any fun.”

There is so much more in her arguments, but the crux of it is this: Because of the deterioration of community, we’re buying more and more stuff that we don’t need and is full of toxic chemicals anyways. And in order to pay for this consumption, we’re working more and more, and have less and less time to enjoy ourselves. And, of course, all this stuff we buy uses tons of natural resources, the extraction of which is destroying ecosystems and causing massive ecological crises. So we’re destroying the planet, ourselves, and we’re not even enjoying ourselves in the meantime.

Annie’s thoughts and ideas are essentially the culmination and articulation of things I’ve been stewing over since the start of my undergrad. In today’s world, we are increasingly disconnected from other people and from the ecological reality of our planet. As community deteriorates–perpetuated by urban sprawl, large yards with fences to barricade us from our neighbors, store-to-door delivery of everything from books to groceries, and fear of crime–it becomes harder and harder to even know the name of your neighbor, much less create meaningful relationships. Our daily needs become farther and farther away from where we live and so we increasingly rely on the fossil-fueled car to take us to work, the shopping mall, the internet café, etc. All so we can work more to buy more stuff!

As I said in my introduction to Annie’s talk, modern society often measures how “successful” we are by how much “stuff” we have. This concept–often termed “keeping up with the Jones'”–is not at all unfamiliar to us: how many times has each of us looked at our neighbor’s house or pool and wished we had something “as nice as they did”? We are constantly seeking to prove our worth to those around us by how much we have–do we have the latest flat screen HDTV? Do we have the newest iPod? Is the car we drive fancy enough, new enough, big enough? Even proclaimed “environmentalists” often define their status and commitment to the cause by what they have: do you drive a Prius hybrid, or ride your bike?

But Annie Leonard (not to mention the many others with similar ideas–Paul Theobald, David Orr, Richard Louv, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, et al.) is not all about the doom and gloom inherent in the destruction of community and the environment. Ms. Leonard, especially, more than any others I’ve come in contact with, is a true optimist and makes it clear that there are so many things we can do to help.

“One of the good things about such a pervasive problem,” she said yesterday, “is that there’s a lot to be done in terms of solutions.”

We can be more conscious of what we buy and whether we need it. We can send letters, emails, make phone calls and visit our legislators lobbying to get the toxics out of all the stuff we buy. We can get internships, volunteer, or work for the many organizations designed to help develop and implement solutions to these socio-ecological crises. We can talk to our neighbors and figure out how to share things so we don’t need to buy as much stuff for ourselves. We can start thinking about how to redesign the system.

One of the many tools people can use to start making a difference is Wiser Earth. Created by Paul Hawken, Wiser Earth is an open-source, wiki-based networking site for individuals, organizations, resources, solutions–everything dedicated to creating a sustainable earth. I recommend that everyone get connected on this website, and start finding the people in your area dedicated to sustainability and community activism. Then we can connect with each other, get organized, and start formulating plans for how to start the sustainability revolution!

My Wiser Earth page.

Endnote: For those who are hungry to know more about The Story of Stuff and the deeper reasons behind our consumerist society, Annie Leonard is fast at work on a book to accompany the internet version of The Story of Stuff. It is set to be published March 9, 2010, and I can’t wait to read it!

(This entry was originally published in Jess’ personal blog, Adventures In Sustainability, found at:

Environmental Film Series: “The Return of the Cuyahoga”

The Return of the Cuyahoga

May 6, 2009, 6:30 PM at Bubolz Nature Center, 4815 N. Lynndale Drive (Cty A), Appleton.

The story of the death and rebirth of one of America’s emblematic riverways. A positive example for Wisconsin people working to improve the Fox River. Free–donations appreciated.

Sustaining Life Environmental Film Series is co-sponsored by NEW Audubon Society, Bubolz Nature Preserve, Fox Valley Sierra Group. For more information: 731-6041.