Sunday, June 11, 2017

Beware of Technology Claiming to Save the Environment

We find technology in many aspects of our lives. They often make things cheaper and easier, but how are they affecting the environment. We have electric cars, solar panels and smart thermostats claiming to reduce our impact. Are we actually helping the environment or just letting us go on overconsuming with a clear conscience?

Let's start by looking at home heating. Putting in a smart thermostat may seem like an obvious choice. Nest makes claims that it will save 10 to 12% off your heating consumption and 15% off your cooling use. This is far from insignificant, but there are lots of factors involved. First, if you don't keep your temperatures within an appropriate range, it may risk your pet's health or damage your home. In my case, if I let my home warm up too much during the summer and then cool it off too quickly I risk my air conditioning unit freezing up because I live in a very humid environment.  The other factor is whether people are around or not. If your home is occupied almost continuously like mine, you may not even see a difference at all. They do make options like the Eccobee that has sensors to detect whether a room is occupied and optimally control the temperatures for occupied spaces. While this would improve your home's temperature control, it may actually use more power to keep the more distant rooms comfortable. If you would like to learn more about smart thermostats check out this guide.

Overall, smart thermostats are great at reducing power usage for the right people. They can even pay for themselves over a couple of years. They work best in an average home where everyone is gone for a reasonable amount of time during the day.

 Next, on my list would have to be solar panels. The pinnacle of green technology. The ability to produce solar panels with minimal environmental impact has increased about ten-fold over the years. Solar panels installed in around 1975 would have taken about 20 years to break even. Now according to The Economist, it's more in the range of 2-4 years depending on where the panels are produced, with European panels being produced more efficiently on average than those manufactured in China. While this is great its based mainly on carbon emissions. There is still a substantial potential to pollute the environment in other ways such as chemical leaks, and there is still virtually no recycling infrastructure for old panels yet.

Solar panels have come tremendously far. It will be especially interesting to see how efficiently made something like Tesla's roof tiles will be considering that they will literally be a roof tile and a solar panel. Either way from an environment standpoint, solar panels are more environmentally friendly than they have ever been.

Electric cars are even more challenging. They are quite efficient with models like the Chevy Bolt offering 119 MPGe which is great, but their environmental impact still depends greatly on how power is produced in your area. Compared to gasoline-powered cars they are tremendously more efficient, they also have the benefit of being more flexible because electricity can be produced from many sources. Cars, in general, are not the most efficient things. They require a lot of resources to make and the infrastructure to use them is tremendous. Things could be much more effective if we were to focus on mass transit, but this really isn't consumer friendly, since you are limited by schedules and routes.

Technology has made great strides in improving the quality of life while minimizing the impact on the environment. We still greatly depend on fossil fuels as a society, and I don't see that changing any time soon even with the ability to harvest energy from a number of renewable sources such as wind and solar.

If you like this post check out my post on Teslas Roof Tiles or Automating your home.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Mobile Payments in 2017: Are we ready to leave our wallets home?

These days you can use your phone to pay in most places. When I go for fast food, I can use Apple Pay directly at McDonald's or Subway, but if I want to use it at my local Krispy Kreme, it becomes challenging. Things become even more complicated when purchasing items at retailers like Walmart or when I need to buy gas.

First on my list is Restaurants. You can use Apple Pay directly at many fast food places. For those you can't, you can easily use either their designated app or purchase a gift card and scan that from your device. Both options can offer a significant discount either from the store or by buying discount gift cards from places like Raise, which is also almost instant.

Sit down restaurants are still a big problem. Some chain restaurants have brought on table terminals, making mobile payments easy. Most places I go to still require the usual process of asking for a bill and either paying with cash or giving them your credit card. Not the most secure thing to do. I still have yet to find a good alternative for these situations, but am welcome to any suggestions.

On the topic of food. Things are much easier when it comes to groceries. In fact, all of the local grocery stores I shop at offer mobile payments including Giant and Weis. This makes things convenient, and I don't even have to pull out my wallet to pay.

Gas stations and other forms of transportation are troubling. This is tricky because it's so hit or miss. To keep all options available you still have to carry a traditional credit card and sometimes even cash.

ExxonMobil came up with a creative solution for pay at the pump. They offer an app that allows you to either scan or select a pump and pay with Apple Pay or a credit card loaded into the app. This is great because it also automatically links with your Plenti rewards card. At least in my area, no other gas stations have any pay at the pump solution for mobile devices. This is something that will hopefully change with time, but many gas stations still offer discounts for paying with cash.

Public transportation is even more challenging. Many buses in my area still require either a card, cash or a pass. Trains are a similar situation. They require you to either purchase tickets from a kiosk using a credit card or ordering the tickets in advance.

Department stores are the most difficult. Many have no solutions in place other than buying gift cards which you can scan on your device, which works with only mixed results. This also requires you to keep track of partial gift card values. Walmart does have plans to offer an app for mobile payments which is expected to be released soon. They do currently offer an app to scan items while you shop and skip the checkout if you're lucky enough to live near the four stores that accept it.

Overall mobile payments are accepted at many more locations than a year or two ago. We are still in no situation to leave are wallets behind, but we are getting close. Mobile payments are convenient in many cases since our phones are always close at hand and are frequently more secure. It's still somewhat redundant if you have to carry other forms of payment anyway.

If you liked this post check out my post on automating your home.

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