who’s afraid of failure?

I know it’s risky to drop the F-bomb on a workplace blog post, but it’s time to confront something we don’t talk about enough.

Failure, with a capital F.

[cricket chirp]

At the 2019 Stewardship Network Conference at Michigan State University, we heard a presentation from Allison Catalano, a Ph.D student at the Imperial College of London. Her bio states that she is “researching how conservation professionals learn from failure. In particular, I am interested in the dynamics of confronting and managing failure from the perspective of individuals, teams, and organizations. I study how cognitive biases and past experiences affect an individual’s ability to discuss failure. I also research how psychological safety and other team learning behaviors influence group response to failure.”

She gave examples from the aerospace, where the harsh mistress of gravity ensures that the consequences of failure are often fatal. Here, the inability to openly discuss failure is not just poor practice, it could mean that someone has to make a phone call to a family explaining why mom wasn’t coming home that night. As a consequence, this industry has a much more developed system of openly discussing failure & learning from it.

The consequences in other fields are perhaps less abrupt, but no less catastrophic.

My field of ecological restoration is still in its infancy in many ways. Never before have humans so thoroughly & systematically disrupted nutrient flows, hydrology, soils, and habitat during industrialization. We then decided that we wanted to piece things together, and we do it mostly with Europeans trained in the university-industrial model without the consult of people who were indigenous to these ecological communities. The goal is to restore the thousands of unbelievably complex, dynamic relationships in a context that is continuing to undergo change.

This is an extremely tall order, and we should not expect the task to be easy. It is a context ripe for many theories and techniques to fail. And the consequences are severe. I’d like to avoid dramatics, especially in assessing the importance of my discipline, but in reality we are talking about nothing less than the health & continuance of the biosphere on this pale blue dot we call Earth.

So many of these crisis in relation to biodiversity are deaths by a thousand cuts: habitat loss, poaching, climate change, and pesticide use. All while field science departments continue their decline throughout academia.

Pondering the consequences of failure inside the Wawona Tree of Yosemite. This Sequoia was tunneled through in 1881 to attract tourists. The bulk of the tree fell in 1969 and the base remains. It was over 2,100 years old.

It’s costly to admit failure. Embarrassing. At businesses, non-profits, churches, and relationships, we prefer to put our best foot forward. Only our closest friends get the unfiltered truth. 

But why should we expect everything, even most things, to succeed? It’s certainly not nature’s way, which is constantly experimenting & running trials to see which combination is best-fit for each context. Fear of failure prevents the opportunity for growth and evolution.

But let’s think through the consequences of indulging in this protective instinct. In the business world, we need to know if a product or service is truly needing the needs of our customers. We need to know early in the design process before lots of resources have been deployed.

In most Christian denominations in the U.S., weekly attendance has been in decline for quite some time. These challenges can be a moment of introspection for communities to question their role in the broader society, their ability to sustain a building or a large staff, etc. Inability to openly admit that changes have happened only delay the day of reckoning and narrow the options available. So many of my friends and family have been faced with this.

Professionally, if we think every project & initiative we do is God’s Greatest Unblemished Gift to the world, we fail to improve & hone our craft, or even to see where our behavior is detrimental to our co-workers or institution.

This blog is already getting lengthy, so let me begin to wrap up by repeating a great maxim that I heard recently. It comes in some variations, and deserves a whole post on it’s own: Fail fast, fail often, fail early, and fail cheaply.

One of my favorite examples of embracing failure is this SpaceX video. SpaceX makes rockets and is trying to start a human colony on Mars. It requires, well… actual rocket science, so one would expect a lot of mistakes. They livestream all of their rocket launches, so if something fails, the whole world sees it in real-time.

With the carnival-like music, this compilation of rocket failures looks like an attack video made by a competitor, not a professionally compiled series of videos by their own communications department!

And yet, what has been the the result of all these failures? SpaceX has revolutionized the space industry and captivated the imagination of millions from the broader public (like myself, if you couldn’t tell). My daughters and I try to watch all the rocket launches online now.

Here is another video, this time of a boat (“Ms. Tree”) catching the nose cone/fairing of a rocket that fell from space:

If that wasn’t enough, they used a massive 3-piece rocket (the Falcon Heavy) to launch a sports car into orbit around the sun on its test flight. They then simultaneously landed two of the pieces upright at Cape Canaveral on live television. The 3rd piece attempted to land on an autonomous drone ship in the ocean (named Of Course I Still Love You). It failed, missing the ship and exploding on impact with the ocean surface.

Volkswagen is pretty well known for their massive moral failure to protect human health by lying about their vehicles’ emissions. It was one of the largest corporate failures in human history, and they were (rightly) fined billions of dollars, now being used to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles. 

Since then, they have become perhaps the leading legacy car company in regards to aggressively pivoting towards electric vehicles. This includes the recent European launch of the ID 3, a vehicle that is expected to sell in significant volumes. Say what you will about the relative “sincerity” of a global corporation making this pivot, but nevertheless, they are doing it.

This advertisement encompasses the entire story in a very poignant way:


Perhaps they went so low, so publicly that they had no other choice, but such an embrace of their failure is now setting the stage for the next step in their evolution.

The irony is amusing… long-term success depends on embracing failure, while penalizing failure ultimately undermines long-term viability.

In keeping with this spirit, stay tuned to hear of some of my less-than-successful projects (see, I just can’t bring myself to use the F-word!).

“Solid Waste Board of Directors Approve Solar Project”

We are very excited to see yet another solar array going up in Marshall County! Cheers to Marianne & the Recycle Depot staff.

WTCA reporting:

During Monday’s Board of Directors meeting, Executive Director Marianne Peters presented members with three bids to put solar arrays on the property and use the electricity generated to operate the Recycle Depot and the main office building...

Peters said, “With the amount of money we have sitting in our rainy day fund I’ve been looking for a project that would use some of those funds to the benefit of Marshall County residents and reduce our costs.”  She went on to say, “We have the land, we have the available funds, it will reduce our utility costs tremendously and serve as an educational tool for people in the county who want to go solar and it’s part of our mission.”

After reviewing the bids submitted the board of director unanimously voted to go with Wellspring Solar at a cost of $51,068.19.  Peters will need to submit an additional appropriation from their Rainy Day Fund to the County Council for approval.  She is hopeful that the project could be completed before the end of the year. (full story here)

Faith in Indiana (Marshall County) Accountability Session with Plymouth Mayoral Candidates

Sunday evening I attended an accountability session at St. Michael’s school, organized by a local chapter of Faith in Indiana. Faith in Indiana is a statewide faith-based organization that works with clergy and leaders from various faith traditions to address and resolve social justice issues facing rural, urban, and suburban communities; it is a catalyst for marginalized people and people of faith to act collectively for racial and economic justice.

I normally focus here on the various ecological concerns of our world, but of course there are many interconnected & multifaceted societal issues we are facing (which is kind of the point of integral ecology). I’ve taken interest in a few of these other issues as a member of our Justice Seekers group & as a citizen raising my family here.

At the session, heard testimony from local families, teachers, non-profit leaders, business people, and the school superintendent around two main issues: the need to address the opioid crisis with treatment, not jails; and exploring a City ID program for city residents who are unable to access State ID’s.

The quotes here I have excerpted from the Pilot News coverage of the evening (look there for complete coverage of the evening).

Both candidates were asked the same question, ‘Will you work with us in developing a strategy which includes prevention, treatment over incarceration, and finding alternative treatments to opioid addiction?’

Mr. Walker responded, “Absolutely. Yes. 100% percent… When we look at our county jail, we know that it is overcrowded. There is an issue with that because we cannot keep cramming people into a jail over low level drug and alcohol offenses. We need to do more to prevent those and to educate them… I believe that treatment and recovery are more effective than incarceration…”

Mr. Senter responded: “Absolutely… I would be more than happy to talk about prevention and treatment. As we know, the Marshall County Commissioners right now are talking about adding on to our jail. We do not need that. We really have to come up with a different plan.”

Mayor Senter responds.

Both candidates were also asked, “Will you meet with us within 30 days of the election to work on these issues?” to which they both agreed.

The conversation then moved to the emerging need for a Plymouth City ID. There are many reasons for a municipality to initiate such a program, such as obtaining medications at a pharmacy, visiting your children at the public school, and identifying oneself when talking with the police.

Among the speakers was Sam Centellas, Executive Director of La Casa de Amistad, which administers City ID programs for South Bend and Goshen. He expressed his willingness to administer the program were it approved for the city.

Both candidates were asked the same question, ‘Will you support us to develop a city ID for the residents of Plymouth, Indiana?’

Mr. Walker responded, “Yes, absolutely…as I’ve been campaigning and meeting with people and families, Hispanic and Latinx families… this is the number one that continues to come to the forefront of the conversation… So yes, that will be one of my top priorities if I am elected mayor.”

Mr. Senter responded: “Absolutely… yes, my administration… we looked maybe a year and a half ago here at St. [Thomas] Episcopal, we had a meeting about that then… That is one of the subjects that came up that night. Yes, I would absolutely put a committee together.”

Both candidates were also asked, “Will you convene a meeting of yourself, the Plymouth School Superintendent, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce, the Chief of Police, and our leaaders within 30 days of taking office in order to work on a solution which is helpful to our families and to the Plymouth community?”

Mr. Walker responded, “Yes, absolutely.”

Mr. Senter responded: “Yes, I would.”

Local leaders from Faith in Indiana alongside candidates Mayor Mark Senter and Mr. Josh Walker.

Election day is Nov. 5th. The 30 day deadline is Thursday, Dec. 5th.

New Nissan LEAF discounts for NIPSCO (& other) customers

Nissan has periodically been running these LEAF discounts through the electric utilities, so I thought I’d highlight this news here. Depending on one’s tax situation, this could be a very low cost-per-mile commuting car.

The LEAF was the first mass-market electric vehicle in the U.S. and has sold over 130,000 copies state-side, the 4th highest selling model to date. Worldwide, Nissan has moved nearly half a million LEAFs, enough to make it the world leader in sales.

We’ve been using a LEAF in our fleet for nearly a year now. Our drivers have found it easy to adapt to. Those new to EVs will certainly need to do some research, but with a little patience it’s not too complicated to figure out.

solar + pollinators

We’ve been working on developing a bed of blooming native species underneath the first phase of our solar arrays. I overseeded them last winter & this is the first growing season.

I hope we can really use this as a test site to enable other institutions to do the same, and do it well. I adapted frmo this great guidance document from Minnesota DNR. But the overall concept is simple enough: pick native, low-growing species that bloom throughout the growing season, use very occasional mowing/spraying to keep woodies & invasives out, and sit back and enjoy the ecological benefits!

I’m submitting and abstract for an upcoming ecological conference. They’ll be more data & details in time. But I want to just show off some of the plants that are still blooming as of Oct. 7th, and the many small visitors they are supporting. Our pastures have lots of grass – which is obviously great for the intended purpose of grazing – but almost nothing in bloom right how. Hopefully these little flower islands can make a difference.

news round up (fall edition)

Ok, this is truly a grab-bag of various things I’ve been reading. Enjoy!

Virginia saves our kids; becomes the catalyst for electric school buses (Electrek)
Chicago startup will help test hyperlocal electric vehicle incentive in California (Energy News Network)

The City of Goshen has purchased its first electric vehicle in an effort to further test alternative fuel cars and their impact to the City’s budget and the environment.

Greta Thunberg: Why the Right’s Usual Attacks Don’t Work on Her (Vox)

Ash tree species likely will survive emerald ash borer beetles, but just barely (Phys.org)

Huge decline in songbirds linked to common insecticide (Nat Geo)

Jeff Bezos is quietly letting his charities do something radical — whatever they want: Is that good? Is that bad? It’s definitely unusual. (Vox)

Indigenous Plant Agriculture – great insights from a pioneering restoration ecologist in OH.

Effect of Prescribed Fire on Timber Volume and Grade in the Hoosier National Forest (Purdue University Research) … ” Our results suggest that prescribed fire has a minor economic impact on standing timber, particularly when timber is harvested within two decades of the first fire. “

Prairie Resilience on Display (The Prairie Ecologist)

Indigenous Maize: Who Owns the Rights to Mexico’s ‘Wonder’ Plant? (Yale Environment 360)

How Solar Got Cheap (Planet Money podcast on NPR)

Bringing Together Young And Old To Ease The Isolation Of Rural Life (NPR)

be water: river education in the flow

Twice in September I had the privilege of being an educator & raft guide on an incredible, collaborative ecological education initiative on the Tippecanoe River. Arrowhead County Resource Conservation & Development celebrated its 25th year of bringing hundreds of local school kids out on the river to learn about forestry, water quality, and river ecosystems. It was my first year volunteering with the group.

Here’s some local press coverage of the event. I’ll let you read all about it there. It’s hard for me to overemphasize the importance of getting people – especially kids – out on the land and in the water. This is what we were made to do, and it’s almost always how we learn best. Without initiatives like these, some kids have such a limited experience with the beautiful, wild world around them.

My hat is off to Arrowhead County RC&D, their education committee, and all the dedicated volunteers. What a program!

solar ribbon cutting + blessing

Wow, what a week!

Our good friends Steve Owen & Jeff Deal from the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy came all the way up from North Carolina to help us celebrate the commissioning of 556 kW (DC) / 488 kW (AC) of photovoltaic solar.

We were blessed to start our consulting relationship during Phase 1 of our solar journey back in 2017. Given the distance, we had done all the work via e-mail, file-sharing, and videoconferencing. But we soon found that we had missional commonalities between our communities, and realized this was no ordinary project.

We set an aggressive finish date of Sep. 1 and scheduled the ribbon cutting for the fall equinox of Sep. 23. The amazing team at Green Alternatives, Inc. (in collaboration with Wellspring and Renewable Energy Systems) did everything in their power to hit the completion date. I really wish every project I did worked out this smoothly! After seeing projects languish in delays that can be measured in trips around the sun, Jeff & Steve were flabbergasted at how we went from ground breaking to flipping the switch in just 16 weeks. The utility meter was swapped out in the 11th hour, and we energized the system just 1 hour before the ribbon cutting, under a cloudless sky.

From the Poor Handmaid’s decision point of committing to the project until the blessing was less than 12 months. Now we boast what is (to my knowledge) the largest solar array of any Indiana university or college.

Did I mention what an amazing project team we had?

Few projects are this fun! We loved having the crew lodged on site & dining with us during the installation.

Ok, back to the ceremony! After hearing a few words from each of us in regards to the project, Ancilla College President Dr. / Sr. Michele Dvorak led a blessing of the panels with students and staff, complete with water from the Heilborn Chapel in Germany.

I have to credit our amazing new Marketing Coordinator, Jessica Craig, for planning the event. She had done enough boring ribbon cutting ceremonies in previous work that she knew she had to put a creative twist on this one. True to form, she sure did it! Instead of lopping the ribbon with oversized scissors, we loaded up staff, kids, and Sisters in electric cars & golf carts and drove right through it! You can see a video clip on Facebook.

After the event, we held a panel presentation on the project which filled in a little more details. Steve & Jeff took a quick trip in to Plymouth to tour the REES Theatre renovation, where they have solar ambitions (AIRE wrote about it here, and about Ancilla College here). We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting and conspiring together, wondering how we could amplify this message and facilitate and inspire even more projects.

The 41 kW (DC) / 40 kW (AC) rooftop installation at the Lindenwood Retreat and Conference Center.

I wanted to maximize the exchange between AIRE & The Center at Donaldson during our brief time together, so we also squeezed in some guest instruction at two classes at the college, in microeconomics & in ecology.

Lastly, they finished up with a more broad perspective on the energy transition by delivering a Lampen Lecture at the college. They blogged about it here, where they also posted the text.

Now that the project is live, we get to watch the clean electrons roll in!

A snapshot of the monitoring dashboard online.

Just in the first week of production, the arrays have produced as much energy as my small rooftop array (17 panels) has produced since I had it installed in August 2017. It’s finally clicking in my brain of how big of a scale we are working on. We can be very proud of this!

1,392 panels (110 more panels at Lindenwood)

Sorry, I’ve just got so much to post! Here’s Steve & Jeff standing by the Phase 1 installation across the lake, which powers our w̶a̶s̶t̶e̶w̶a̶t̶e̶r̶ Water Reclamation Facility. I’ll be blogging more about integrating pollinator habitat in with solar arrays in the future.

Lastly, what’s the impact of Phase 2 of our solar project?

With the annual solar production, you could:
*charge 262 million AA batteries
*power 66 average homes for a year
*drive 2.8 million miles in an electric car
*power a 9W LED light bulb for more than 10,000 years

Pollution avoided annually:
*547 tons of CO2 (equivalent to planting 54 acres of forest)
*saved 334,408 gal of water, 562 lbs SO2, 894 lbs NOx, 34 lbs VOCs, 29 lbs particulates

As it stands, we’re now sitting on 638 kW (DC) / 560 kW (AC) of solar panels across The Center.

What’s next?!

DCFC ASAP! a fast-charging experience with our electric car

I’ve written about our transition to electric vehicles a few times here, but I just realized I’ve never introduced the latest addition to our fleet.

We’d had the Nissan LEAF in our shared fleet for almost 9 months now. Unlike my plug-in hybrid that is gas+electric, the Nissan is electric-only. The 40 kilowatt-hour battery is rated at 150 miles of range, depending on weather and driving speed.

Our motor pool is used for everything from runs into Plymouth (8 miles), to the airport (110 miles), or across country. The LEAF fills a nice slot for local daily runs or trips to regional cities like Warsaw, Elkhart, South Bend, or Hobart. It can also go further (more on that in a bit). A few people were hesitant at first, but they generally found driving the car to be surprisingly normal. The responsive & smooth acceleration that the gear-less electric motor provides just means you have to watch the speedometer a little closer! Plus, no stinky stops at the gas station, just 5 seconds to plug in when you’re done.

Our LEAF is on the right, and a visitor’s Chevy Bolt is on the left. Our station is designed so that two cars can charge at the same time.

So far we’ve covered around 6,000 miles in the LEAF. That’s displaced 170 gallons of gasoline compared to a 35 MPG car. It runs instead on the electric grid, which is combination of wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear, and coal.

But with a little planning, the LEAF can do even more. It addition to the standard charging port (“Level 2”) that adds about 25 miles of range per hour, it is equipped with a direct current fast-charging (DCFC) port called CHAdeMO. Don’t ask me about the initials, I just know that it works!

DCFC is designed to charge fast enough to make longer distance highway usage possible. On the LEAF, it charges up to 50 kW, so it can add around 90 miles of range in 30 minutes. Newer LEAFs charge twice as fast (100 kW), and Tesla – which is the industry leader – can now charge up to 250 kW for brief periods.

Well, since I pushed us into EVs I figured it was on me to be the guinea pig. This March, I was delivering a talk at the Indiana Academy of Science meeting in Indianapolis. I saw that there was a DCFC at the Keystone Mall, which was on the way to my destination downtown. It was 104 miles away. The range of the LEAF is 150 miles in temperate weather, but it can be quite reduced in the cold, so I was a little worried. I drove slowly and kept the cabin temperature reasonable, and rolled into the mall with 14% battery remaining.

I can’t figure out why is says 53 degrees F, because it was spitting snow on the road.

I was pretty anxious as I was cruising down on 31 and relying on just a single DCFC station to get me downtown. This is the dreaded “range anxiety” among first-time EV drivers. There’s really no way to alleviate it except from experience. Most drivers report that the anxiety subsides with familiarity (time), and that was certainly the case with me. I just needed to know what the car was capable of, and have a reasonable backup plan. I’ve found that Nissan’s range-remaining estimator to be a little optimistic, so I discount that number in my mind for extra margin.

I plugged the car in, activated the charger from an app on my smartphone, and slipped into the quiet mall to use the restroom.

By the time I got back from the other side of the mall, the charging session had lasted 16 minutes and had boosted me up to 41%. I was ready to go downtown. Since my coffee-swilling self needed a bathroom break anyway, I didn’t really spend any extra time waiting.

Ideally, I would’ve had a reasonable option for Level 2 charging for the car while it was parked for 8 hours, like the station we have here at The Center. Then it could’ve went from 41% to 100%. With a little extra planning I could’ve found a way. Unfortunately, the downtown Indy charging scene still leaves a lot to be desired, so I did not.

After a wonderful day of nerdy goodness among fellow scientists & practitioners and a dinner break at an old friend’s house, I went back to the mall to top off before heading north. I was down to 8% by that point, and I needed to charge up to at least 95% to make it all the way home. Unfortunately, as the battery fills up, the charging rate slows (it’s an unavoidable battery-chemistry-physics-thing). I knew this ahead of time, so I had planned to get some steps in by walking the mall.

I have to say it was an ace move by Tesla for locating a showroom in a mall with a non-Tesla charging station.

The Model 3 sedan.

When it comes to EVs, there’s Tesla, and then there’s everyone else trying to catch up. Their mission “is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” and they’ve done that by setting the bar for which other manufacturers are now aiming.

One of their strongest advantages at this point is their supercharging network. The superchargers typically operate at 100 kW and faster. They are designed as a network across the U.S. interstate system, evenly spaced so that there is always a charging option on the highways. You plug in and the network recognizes your car, billing your account automatically. You go to the bathroom, grab a coffee, and you’re more or less ready to go.

The Tesla Supercharging Network, which spans 1,604 locations and 14,081 charging stalls worldwide. Map generated on PlugShare.com.

Unfortunately for us, this network is for Tesla vehicles only. Nissan, GM, Toyota, and other manufacturers don’t own and operate a network of DCFCs. When you look at the CHAdeMO charging map (used for the LEAF), there’s no central planning agency or company that ensures there are evenly-spaced stations throughout the interstate system. Some are free & located at car dealers. Others are run by private companies, but seemed to be clustered around metro areas. The federal government, so far, has not stepped in to remedy this market failure yet.

The CHAdeMO charging network. It can be managed with a little planning, but still has a long way to go.

Meanwhile, as I pondered the trials of being an early adopter, I kept poking around the Tesla Model 3.

The Model 3’s front truck, a.k.a “frunk.” EVs don’t have engines, they have motors. The batteries lie flat in the floor underneath the car.

The Model 3 was the 3rd step in Tesla’s “Master Plan” published in 2006

  1. Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
  2. Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
  3. Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car

These steps correspond to the Roadster, the Model S, and now the Model 3. While Tesla got established as a luxury car manufacturer, they are now moving into mass production. The Model 3 is now shipping around 14,000 units per month in the U.S. and is currently the 3rd best selling car in California, ahead of staples like the Honda Accord and Toyota Corolla.

Most surprisingly, the total cost of ownership of a Model 3 is now on par with… the Toyota Camry.

Yep, read that again. The secret hasn’t yet trickled out to the average car buyer yet, but we are quickly approaching the tipping point when EVs will not only be the less polluting option (and improving annually as the grid cleans up) but also the less costly choice.

Meanwhile, back to my mall walk…

After an hour of charging, I was ready to head home.

Even though it was the best bang-for-the-buck at the time we were deciding on a purchase one year ago (and will continue to be useful regardless), the 40 kWh LEAF is already getting superseded. A 220 mile range is becoming the minimum for new EV models. Batteries continue a steady downward march in pricing. The charging network is slowly improving, though we desperately need a boost in the non-Tesla infrastructure (more news on that I’m hoping to share in the coming months).

I expect to look back on this time like we now view party line phone system my parents used growing up on the farm, a system that people certainly managed to make work, but would ultimately be a transition phase to the next step.

Since March, I’ve tried out a few other DCFC locations as well. There’s one we used at Bosak Nissan on US 20 & I-94, getting a quick top up after visiting Sojourner Truth House. The photo below was a quick fill-up at a Wal-mart in Lafayette, IN. I went in to the bathroom, answered some e-mails on my phone, and got back on the highway.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the college has been using a Honda Clarity plug-in hybrid that has logged almost 12,000 miles, but that’s for another post. Until then, charge on

“Charging into the Future”… get it? 😉