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Thinking Outside the Grid

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From the nation’s ailing air transport system to its bridges and sewers, the message has come loud and clear of late:  It’s time to start shoveling out some bucks for our infrastructure, or it will slowly start reducing our economic efficiency and quality of life?

Unfortunately, the need for this spending comes at an inopportune time.  A big swell of the work force faces retirement, the government coffers are struggling under debt payments, the economy is not providing enough good-paying jobs to keep the middle class from eroding, the current account sees American wealth flee to foreign lands and the bills are coming due on Iraq.  With this as a more opaque backdrop, health care and education are the immediate concern of most.  Anything but consistent, robust economic growth (GDP>4.75%) leaves us wondering who will foot the bill for all of this stuff, or else what is it we will have to do without.

Many see climate change as a heavy risk for insurance carriers and ultimately its payers--us.  What will happen to the American way of life?  Or, maybe something should happen to the American way of life.  It is certain that government action or economic performance cannot alone bring solutions.  Governments and finance are big, but not nearly big enough.  Only our collective minds and attitudes are up to the challenge.

America is a culture unto itself.  Our heritage insists the corn-fed fat pig had better be there or we feel deprived that life is not stacking up to what it is supposed to be—that our expectations leave us wanting and disappointed.  Culture is something in our bones.  It’s in the fiber of our being.  It doesn’t have to be enumerated because we just know what context should exist for life’s fulfillment.  In fact, much of our debt and degradation problems stem from the gripping hold on our expectations, as the residue of changing times oozes through our fingers and flops uselessly onto the floor.

Maybe this critical era is our opportunity to agree upon a new Renaissance—not the Renaissance of old with the extension of man’s will, but the rearrangement of the elements of a bloated presence, to the simplified native needs residing in the roots of our being, than the greedy conquering ego passed from our history.  Culture has progressed through many epochs, as an unfolding, seen to incidentally improve our lot.  Possibly culture is defined as only that which is an accidental effect to which we respond, but we now have an opportunity to intentionally modify ourselves in light of the negatives we see as a probable in our future, the measure of a truly evolved specie, fully aware of its flawed instincts and intending to change to become a caring steward of the gifts before us.

From a financial and economic view, we see abundant creativity and an unanticipated unfolding before us.  In the endless array of derivatives, CDO’s, or imagining the Communist workers party is accumulating capitol outlays beyond any fathomable scale, our heads are spinning, hoping the man behind the curtain really is in control.  Assets as bundles of value are traded in a bizarre of investment banking, hedge funds, and private capital groups who necessarily spawn institutions that lack the nurturing, down to earth, seat-of-the-pants cohesive organizations and the focused and freely creative energy of its workers.  You can’t fix a leaky roof by rearranging the tool shed.

At this point in the narrative, many directions could branch out.  However, I want to button this up with a specific example of how a radical new notion about our lives and actions could stave off a more degraded future for all earthlings, except those who gaze wistfully over castle walls.

Much of the harm we do is in the over-consumption of energy.  In the services of heating, air conditioning and refrigeration, we are severely limited by stayed institutions and self-binding assumptions tying the hands for full-blown, creative and innovative methods capable of reducing hydrocarbon originated electricity and thus CO2 emissions.

Scratching the surface of a new post carbon culture is Lime Energy (up 54% YTD), who has installed a major interior energy efficient lighting system for Associated Food Stores (AFS).  At a gain to Lime of $725,000, AFS saves approximately $310,000 worth of energy annually.  Reducing electricity demand, in this case will more than double the investor’s (AFS) return in five years at a very low risk.  By contrast, there is no five year period within the last eight years where the S&P500 index has more than doubled its return and at a much greater risk than the probability electricity rates will be lower within the next five years.  Never let the cheerleaders of paper capitalism convince you that a healthier future is a sacrifice.  It is an opportunity.  Lime Energy has demonstrated the case.

With HVAC and refrigeration, the tangle of institutions and interests constraining change are:  FERC, DOE, EPA, the generator, who must show a return to investors, the distributor who must fight for the land rights for new power line infrastructure, a scramble of building codes, the electricians union, the NEC, plug in purchases attained without a concern for efficiency, users who lack the technical expertise to muster simple innovations, engineers who design solely for raw functionality, investors who demand a quick return, managers who haven’t a clue what is a Watt of power, and general ignorance about even basic technology among the populous.  There are probably a whole other passel of self interested parties doing their little part to permit the draining of an enormous amount of electricity into the ground without providing much service along the way.  In fact electricity demand is largely seen as inelastic.  It’s our way of life—thoughtless, careless, heedless.  No small wonder electricity demand pre capita is still on the rise.

There is no chance of taming this monster to act in concert to reduce electricity demand---except, per chance, as an example, we create a structure for a new industry that can focus on the one common purpose:  CALORIE DISPLACEMENT.  If the county auditor can put a sticker on a gas pump guaranteeing a defined unit of measure is being purchased, then the same can be done with calorie displacement.  Customers shouldn’t get an electricity bill.  They should get a calorie displacement contract, under which electricity is subsumed and optimized comparatively against capital outlays and ingenuity as all factors are integrated.  Where ever the entrepreneur can plug the holes, optimize the technology, wager for the agglomeration of interests, she profits, the customer profits, and our future is a little less risky.  Electricity waste is not audited, so we haven’t the slightest idea how much waste exists.  It could be 25%, 50% or75%.  Did you ever wonder why a refrigerator maintaining an interior of 34 degrees F, consuming 300 KWH, churns away all winter when the temperature just eight inches from its shell is an average 28 degrees F?  It’s because everybody else does it.  Guess that’s why it says "hotpoint" on the door.

If there are minds clever enough pull off the boondoggle of Enron for so long, there are minds clever enough to figure out how to use electricity exactly and only where it provides a desired service, and nothing more.  There are countless ingenious methods of getting the service we want without using $300,000,000 worth of electricity per year, as we harness the genius across the spectrum from physics to tinkering (the way most inventions are discovered).  The reason for this clueless state of mind is something like the 2003 proposed global consensus that a “mushroom cloud” was about to emanate from Bagdad.In fact, at this moment, electricity is draining away in billions of locations.  It becomes a task of full social commitment to plug the little holes, toss out the ancient contraptions still crippling along, to use our best new automated control and information technology concurrently to permit the indifferent, busy, self-absorbed people to have their free-wheeling lifestyles—i.e. those who have come to believe there are trivial amounts of electricity, as intuited from our cultural heritage, assuming abundance.

It won’t be easy to reduce the grip on conventionality.  The intangible value of esthetics, convenience, and any number of personal preferences interact with the technical choices.  But over time, the weightings of numbers and kinds of choices will clearly be understood to weigh against the technical possibilities to elucidate full spectrum value in individual contracts, as well as to identify the simply useless.  For example the weighting of payment for an occupied 78 degree room in the August heat, against a 72 degree room itself can depend upon many personal factors, such as health and monthly budget, as well as personal concern for such natural effects as habitat loss.  The main point is that, finally we can have a system that provides fully organized intentional choice and the ability to weigh the cost of those choices, as well as the just-plain-dumb and worthless ways electricity is wasted.

I know we can do it.  All it takes is leadership, commitment, creativity, cooperation, intelligence, and the realization that our culture can make an intentional change, this time toward the post carbon era and not to sit waiting for the technical magic bullets with personal guns (GHG’s) to shoot holes in the greenhouse up there in the sky, as the bullets drift into space, releasing sparkles with your name in big letters for everybody to read.I know electricity demand reduction can be done, because such a complete mobilization has been demonstrated.  It was attained by the Great Generation in America during WW II.  Since that time enormous wealth has accumulated, but the barons of late have forgotten to notice the enormity of suffering now at hand, with the numbing anonymity and the TV glare of just another news story.

It’s us—each of us—on one crowded planet, hoping we can make it though this century without calamitous catastrophe, even beyond the enormous suffering in India, Bangladesh and China at this at this very moment, that should be tugging at our hearts and giving pause at the outcomes of our way of life.

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