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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.

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The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Carbon-Offsets that Keep On Giving... Energy and Food – The Low-Hanging Fruit

For those who missed it, my last article described -- a new, public-domain innovation -- how charitable foundations could dramatically impact climate change, peak oil and the credit crunch while taking the sale of conventional carbon-offsets and turning them into immense profits. How? By picking financially stable cities in areas with a surplus of renewable energy sources and offering them loans at incredibly favorable rates -- 2% interest on loans repaid in the first few years, 0% if repaid in a year to 18 months, and 10% of the loan would be forgiven if repaid within one year. Given the time horizon on peak oil and climate change, we also allow for the forgiveness of 20% of loans repaid within nine months and of 30% of loans repaid within six.

How does this give a charity, but not a for-profit corporation, immense "profits"? Because unlike normal carbon offsets, you're not buying the renewables or energy efficiencies outright, but loaning governments the money to make the necessary changes, quickly.

And if you loan these funds to support projects which "pay for themselves" in the grace period that a government has to repay you, then they make these profitable changes using money that is never "on the books" in terms of tying up their their own cash flow. In effect, for the governments, these changes are free. But only if you choose "low-hanging fruit," improvements of such remarkable value that a mere 12 months, nine months or six months is enough time to repay you for your investment.

Your charity, on the other hand, was obligated to take one ton of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere in exchange for a fee (usually $4 to $40). But once your loan has accounted for the tons you have committed to eliminating, you get to keep the 70%, 80% or 90% of the principal when it is paid back to you. In effect, you are being given someone else's money to offer as a loan, and when most of the money is paid back to you, your organization gets to keep that remainder. And only a charitable foundation, plowing its earnings back into its good works, can get away with such egregrious profit margins. Indeed, if you keep putting the money into such loans, helping cities and towns reach the goals of these "low-hanging fruit," you may well become celebrated for your accomplishments, as you use those original carbon-offset funds over and over again.

What are the low-hanging fruit? Well, we will be discussing some of these in later columns, including a simple, inexpensive, scalable, solar-based method for desalinating water, and two renewable-based techniques for moving water (one integral to this desalination system, the other capable of functioning independently and requiring almost no resources whatsoever). These innovations will be useful both in the undeveloped world and in places like California, where the water pumps supplying Los Angeles with water are apparently the biggest energy expenditure in the state. Imagine being able to supply most if not all of that demand with almost no energy expenditure, and using extremely low-cost equipment to do so.

But in the meantime, let’s look at some other options that qualify as this low-hanging fruit. One of the most obvious is to simply paint the roofs white on buildings in cities and towns in most temperate and all equatorial regions. This simple change will dramatically reduce energy spent on air conditioning for those buildings that have that equipment, and make those which do not far more livable. You will be increasing either your energy efficiency or overall productivity either way. Because most asphalt roofs, in particular, are dark and absorb heat, you will also be having a significant impact on global warming by reducing the overall albedo effect (absorption of sunlight) in your cities, not to mention the world. This will help reduce the warming of the planet, without even considering the carbon emissions that will no longer be required as you reduce the need for air conditioning.

Alternatively, the first thing you do when installing a renewable-power system in any home or business is to do an inventory of the location’s energy expenditures. Regardless of whether you are putting solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and/or micro-hydro sources, in order to avoid buying a system two or three times greater than you really need, you have to look over the building to find ways of tightening up your energy use. In particular, you have to look for "energy hogs" and eliminate them.

Realistically, everyone controlling any sort of an organization, be it a business, a government or a non-profit, should take the above step as soon as they can. Why? Because whether or not you have the resources to add a single renewable power supply, every bit of conservation you undertake as a result of this energy inventory will save you energy and thus money. These extra funds can be turned to acquiring renewable power, but even without those devices, you will have lessened your exposure to energy price spikes and begun conserving critical resources, as well as having done something to slow peak energy and climate change.

A third tactic is to hire (or otherwise motivate) large numbers of people to do work that reduces energy demands and climate change using extremely inexpensive techniques that generate dramatic benefits for their communities. For example, imagine that you hired a small group of people who knew a great deal about gardening and planting orchards, and others familiar with work such as energy audits, renewable installation or simple painting. What if you then hired a large number of part-time high school students and other people willing to work for a modest wage, and then went around planting community gardens and fruit-and-nut-bearing trees, painting roofs, energy auditing buildings and organizations and installing renewable energy sources (such as solar panels, wind turbines or micro-hydro turbines). You could use this method to mobilize quite a few people to make rapid changes that might otherwise take a very long time, while reducing unemployment. You would also be training your employees in many useful skills, and those who were interested could be promoted to full-time status as supervisors teachers (especially if you expanded the program) or else seek employment in other organizations, with some useful training and experience on their resumés. And the work they would be doing could enormously impact the "carbon footprint" of your city or town. (We will discuss the full value of gardening and food-producing trees later in this series, but rest assured, it’s considerable.)

A fourth option is eventually loaning to a broader class of customer, businesses marked by the sustainability of their operations – in particular offering microfinance or microloans to support initiatives that will notably reduce atmospheric carbon. For example, most of the work just described "planting community gardens and fruit-and-nut-bearing trees, painting roofs, energy auditing buildings and organizations and installing renewable energy sources" would be suitable for carbon-offset funding. This can be trickier to support if you have absolutely no experience in this field, and may work best in partnership with credible microfinance operations such as the Grameen Bank.

A fifth possibility is taking certain critical infrastructure "off the grid" even if the cost of installing renewables is not less than the savings returned before the loan is repaid. Normally renewables that offer such dramatic savings are very easy to promote. But there may be circumstances in which the population sees a clear need for the upgrade in and of itself because of past crises.

For example, during the recent Florida blackout, CNN was showing pictures of a city whose transportation grid had almost immediately shut down. Imagine promoting LED stoplights, even solar-powered LED stoplights, in such a city. Not only would your relatively cheap, financed solution be extremely welcome, you could probably tap into other government disaster-relief/preparation funding, and perhaps even local, private contributions. And even if such funds were limited, the local government’s motivation to avoid being immobilized again would make such an offer extremely attractive.

As a further example, during the California wildfires, Reuters and others reported that the city of San Diego was nearly cut off from the rest of the nation's power grid, a situation that would have made the municipality vulnerable to major blackouts. Given that San Diego, as the southernmost city in California and one positioned on the seacoast, has ready access to at least two major sources of alternative power (solar and tidal), the area could easily be an ideal place to initiate the kind of renewable-power-upgrade program described in this series.

On Dedicated Power:
Why build this emergency capacity into your core infrastructure? First, if your grid goes down, then obviously you want the functions most critical for the survival of your city or town to go on unimpeded or at least somewhat effectively. But second, one of the ironies of our present power-distribution network is that it fails to discriminate between users. This seeming democratization of power usage means that blinking neon lights at a local strip mall or a kid’s Playstation receive power at the same priority level as hospital incubators or pumps supplying a municipality with water.

Now while the latter equipment may have backup generators keeping them online in a blackout, the fact remains that in the event of sustained disruptions of power and fuel supplies, they go out right along with more frivolous uses.

To be blunt, we can not save every strip mall, videogame console and giant SUV on Earth from blackouts or fuel shortages, nor should we want to. But as local and national leaders survey the question of how to deploy renewable-energy resources, they should not be paralyzed by the unanswerable question of how to instantly provide unlimited power to every single user in their country, no matter how indiscriminate. Instead, they should focus on the most absolute needs – providing water, food, medical care and other basic necessities in livable quantities to their populations.

Further Notes:
In doing this work, it is important to avoid the appearance of "greenwashing" – making a project, product or business seem environmentally sound when it is not. Remember that your most likely pool of donors will tend to be well-informed about environmental issues, and that you can’t afford to alienate them. They will also be aware of other potential problems, such as bio-fuels that produce no net energy, or planting monoculture orchards instead of encouraging bio-diversity.

Another variation on this plan is to allow for a form of earmarking – permitting donors to specify that funds should be used first in a local area of their choice (but in which the organization is already operating or planning to operate) for any credible projects in those areas. After one or two or more cycles through that area, the remaining funds can be moved into other projects as needed. This earmarking should be something the donor checks off on a form (with the above conditions clearly specified). The donor will also write in the name of the county or municipality (or province or country) where they wish for these earmarked funds to be used.

This variant should extremely useful when seeking the donations of people who are deeply committed to the welfare of their community or of a recently beleaguered area (such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina).


I make no claims for any of these concepts, only to tell you they are here and they can now be used by anyone. Thank you for listening.

Ralph Cerchione

Renewing the Earth: Public Domain Inventions for a Sustainable Future Solar desalination, solar steel, reversing global warming, etc.
Future Imperative -- A broad look at human enhancement, from gene therapy to accelerated learning, from neural implants to smart drugs, from posthuman evolution to the wildest flights of human imagination.

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