If you’re looking for faint gray linings to a very dark cloud, there is, I suppose, one slight benefit of humanity’s three-decade delay in dealing with climate change: we get to see the dimensions of the problem quite starkly because it looms so large. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with its Sixth Assessment Report in early August, underlined what we already know: the world is on a trajectory for destabilizing increases in temperature. The report is epic in scope and quality, the product of thousands of scientists volunteering long hours to sift through millions of pages of research. But it pales before the reports that nature issued this summer: record heat waves from Canada to the Mediterranean, record fires from California to Siberia, record floods from Belgium to Henan. If people in eastern US cities looked up from reading newspaper accounts of the IPCC report, they could see a smoky haze in the sky, the product of blazes a continent away.
That haze lets us see one thing more clearly: some of the solutions long on offer—from a carbon tax to changes in personal behavior—no longer qualify as enough, at least by themselves, since they won’t work as quickly as physics demands. The IPCC has told us we need to cut emissions in half in this decade to have any hope of meeting the targets set in the Paris Agreement. There’s one obvious route to reaching that goal, and it’s the path that Saul Griffith describes in Electrify: we must immediately figure out how to electrify everything we do, and we must supply that electricity with non-carbon energy. The era of setting things on fire—coal, gas, oil, wood—to produce power must end. Instead, we’ll have to rely almost entirely on the large flame that burns 93 million miles away.
Born in Australia and educated at MIT, Griffith is now a Californian. He’s an engineer and inventor, the recipient of a MacArthur grant, and a serial entrepreneur; among other things, he founded Otherlab, a research and development firm that studies energy usage across the US, and Rewiring America, a nonprofit that promotes the movement to “electrify everything.” He’s apparently also apolitical (which undermines his analysis, but more on that later). What he understands, above all, is where energy comes from in our world and how it’s used. His highly detailed flow charts showing things like the energy demands of outpatient health clinics—roughly equal, we learn, to those of houses of worship—are scattered throughout the book, undergirding his analysis.
As his title suggests, Griffith is fairly single-minded. Electrification is to climate change as the vaccine is to Covid-19—perhaps not a total solution, but an essential one. He begins by pointing out that in the United States, combustion of fossil fuels accounts for 75 percent of our contribution to climate change, with agriculture accounting for much of the rest. (His charts, confusingly, use “CO2 emissions” and “greenhouse gas emissions” interchangeably; given the emerging prominence of methane as the other significant greenhouse gas, this conflation is misleading, but not enough to dent the basic outline of his argument.) The US uses about 101 quadrillion BTUs (or “quads”) of energy a year, and Griffith’s data is so granular that he can tell you how much of that goes, for example, toward driving children to school and church (0.7 percent), flying military jets and transport planes (0.5 percent), or lighting billboards (0.005 percent).
The purpose of this exercise is to highlight the biggest users. Our homes use about a fifth of all energy; half of that is for heating and cooling, and another quarter for heating water. “The pride of the suburbs, the single-family detached home, dominates energy use, with large apartments in a distant second place,” Griffith writes. The industrial sector uses more energy—about thirty quads—but a surprisingly large percentage of that is spent “finding, mining, and refining fossil fuels.” A much smaller amount is spent running the data centers that store most of the Internet’s data, though, as he points out, much of this is wasted—“that photo of your kids you uploaded for Grandma will be seen only once, but it will require tiny amounts of energy forever as it is stored in some backwater memory bank.” (There’s also the rapidly growing use of fossil fuels to mine Bitcoin, which now requires as much energy as powering Finland.)
Transportation uses even larger amounts of energy—and for all the focus on air travel, passenger cars and trucks use ten times as much. The commercial sector—everything from office buildings and schools to the “cold chain” that keeps our perishables from perishing—accounts for the rest of our energy use.
If we are to cut emissions in half this decade—an imperative—we’ve got to cut fossil fuel use in big chunks, not small ones. For Griffith, this means leaving behind “1970s thinking” about efficiency: don’t waste time telling people to turn down the thermostat a degree or two, or buy somewhat smaller cars, or drive less. Such measures, he says, can slow the growth rate of our energy consumption, but “you can’t ‘efficiency’ your way to zero”:
Let’s stop imagining that we can buy enough sustainably harvested fish, use enough public transportation, and purchase enough stainless steel water bottles to improve the climate situation. Let’s release ourselves from purchasing paralysis and constant guilt at every small decision we make so that we can make the big decisions well.
“A lot of Americans,” he insists, “won’t agree to anything if they believe it will make them uncomfortable or take away their stuff,” so instead you have to let them keep that stuff, just powered by technology that does less damage.
By “big decisions” he means mandates for electric vehicles (EVs), which could save 15 percent of our energy use. Or electrifying the heat used in houses and buildings: the electric heat pump is the EV of the basement and would cut total energy use 5 to 7 percent if implemented nationwide. LED lighting gets us another 1 or 2 percent. Because electricity is so much more efficient than combustion, totally electrifying our country would cut primary energy use about in half. (And simply not having to find, mine, and refine fossil fuels would reduce energy use by 11 percent.)
Of course, replacing all those gas-powered pickups and oil-fired furnaces with electric vehicles and appliances would mean dramatically increasing the amount of electricity we need to produce overall—in fact, we’d have to more than triple it. We’ve already dammed most of the rivers that can produce hydropower (about 7 percent of our current electric supply); if we’re going to replace coal and natural gas and simultaneously ramp up our supply of electricity, we have three main options: solar, wind, and nuclear power, and according to Griffith “solar and wind will do the heavy lifting.”
That’s primarily because renewable energy sources have become so inexpensive over the past decade. They are now the cheapest ways to generate power, an advantage that will grow as we install more panels and turbines. (By contrast, the price of fossil fuel can only grow: we’ve already dug up all the coal and oil that’s cheap to get at.) According to Griffith’s math, nuclear power is more expensive than renewables, and new plants “take decades to plan and build,” decades we don’t have.
It’s a mistake to shut down existing nuclear plants that are running safely—or as safely as current technology allows—and it’s possible that new designs now on the drawing board will produce smaller, cheaper reactors that eat waste instead of producing it. But for the most part Griffith sides with Mark Jacobson, the environmental engineering professor at Stanford whose team showed a decade ago that the future lay with cheap renewables, an estimation that, though highly controversial at the time, has been borne out by the steady fall in the price of solar and wind power, as well as by the increasing efficiency of batteries to store it.
Griffith devotes more attention to batteries than almost any other topic in this book, and that’s wise: people’s fear of the “intermittency” of renewables (the fact that the sun goes down and the wind can drop) remains a major stumbling block to conceiving of a clean-energy future. Contrary to these fears, each month brings new advances in battery technology. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the super-cheap batteries being developed that use iron instead of pricey lithium and can store energy for days at a time, making them workhorses for utilities, which will need them to replace backup plants that run on natural gas.* Griffith is good at analogies: we’d need the equivalent of 60 billion batteries a year roughly the size of the AAs in your flashlight. That sounds like a lot, but actually it’s “similar to the 90 billion bullets manufactured globally today. We need batteries, not bullets.”
This renewable economy, as Griffith demonstrates, will save money, both for the nation as a whole and for households—and that’s before any calculation of how much runaway global warming would cost. Already the lifetime costs of an electric vehicle are lower than those of gas-powered cars: Consumer Reports estimates they’ll save the average driver $6,000 to $10,000 over the life of a vehicle. Though they cost a little more up front, at least for now, the difference could be overcome with a reasonably small subsidy. And since most people buy a new car every six to seven years, the transition should be relatively smooth, which is why in August President Biden and the Big Three automakers announced their plans for 40 to 50 percent of new sales to be electric by 2030.
That’s still not fast enough—as Griffith makes clear, we’re already at the point where we need every new replacement of any equipment to be electric—but it’s likely to happen much quicker with cars than anything else. A gas furnace lasts twice as long as a car, for instance. And putting solar panels on your roof remains an expensive initial investment, partly because of regulations and paperwork. (Griffith notes that in his native Australia such “soft costs” are less than half of what they are in the US.)
Happily, he provides the formula for success. The federal government needs to do for home and business energy retrofits in this decade what Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae did for homeownership in the last century, except this time accessible to all applicants, not just white ones: provide government-backed mortgages that make it affordable for everyone to acquire this money-saving and hence wealth-building capacity, and in the process jump-start an economy that would create vast numbers of good jobs. “A mortgage is really a time machine that lets you have the tomorrow you want, today,” Griffith writes. “We want a clean energy future and a livable planet, so let’s borrow the money.”
In short, Griffith has drawn a road map for what seems like the only serious chance at rapid progress. His plan won’t please everyone: he has no patience at all with NIMBY opposition to wind turbines and transmission lines. But I don’t think anyone else has quite so credibly laid out a realistic plan for swift action in the face of an existential crisis.
That said, there’s a huge hole in Griffith’s thinking, one that he’s apparently proud of. He announces on the first page of his book that he has no interest in the question of “what is politically possible,” contrasting himself with the “all too many people in climate advocacy or climate work” who begin with that question. He’s right that if political reality was all you cared about, you’d fatally limit your ambition. But the Silicon Valley arrogance of insisting you’re above politics is even more fundamentally flawed. (Griffith is not alone by any means; Bill Gates proudly boasted earlier this year that “I think more like an engineer than a political scientist” and voiced much the same disdain for activists.)
Consider all the things that Griffith has correctly diagnosed as necessary, like major regulatory changes to make renewable energy easier to install or an enormous government program to underwrite the cost of retrofitting every building in the country. Now think about the power of the fossil fuel industry: Charles Koch, say, among the country’s largest oil and gas barons, who essentially owns a political party and who (with his late brother David) helped bankroll the three decades of climate change denial that put us in our current fix. If you can’t beat them, you can’t accomplish what needs doing—as was neatly illustrated over the summer when the “bipartisan infrastructure bill” slighted precisely the technologies Griffith correctly supports in favor of costly boondoggles like funding for the natural gas–based hydrogen production that the oil companies love. As of early October, the climate change sections of the Democrats-only reconciliation bill are under threat from Prime Minister Joe Manchin, the single largest recipient of fossil fuel largesse of any senator over the past five years. He argues explicitly that fossil fuel and renewable energy have to get the same tax breaks, even though one is killing the planet and the other offers its possible salvation. This is politics at work.
Griffith’s miscalculation, on the other hand, is based on a misunderstanding of how political change happens, which is not by simply repeating rational arguments in the face of vested interests. If you do that, you win the argument but lose the fight, because the fight is about money and power, not reason and evidence.
For instance, Griffith assumes that activists have mounted their huge fossil fuel divestment movement in the hope that “if enough people sell these assets, we’ll slowly starve the fossil fuel industry of the precious capital they need to keep digging, drilling, and pumping,” a process he says will take too long. But in fact the real goal of the divestment campaigns, right from the start, was to take away the social license of the fossil fuel companies by stigmatizing them for their climate change denial, and in so doing reduce their ability to dominate our political life. That we’re even considering big climate bills in the Senate is testimony to the success of that strategy (and other such campaigns, like the ones to block pipelines); activists have worked to shift the zeitgeist, and that shift is always the wellspring of political change.
Griffith’s many flow charts of energy sources in the US miss the flow of political power, and his analysis suffers for it; engineers need to understand that other skills are part of the answer, too. The real world is messier than his neat diagrams, but that’s no excuse for avoiding the effort of figuring out how it actually works. The truth is, precisely because of all that movement building, from Al Gore to Greta Thunberg to the Sunrise Movement, we’re in a position to take advantage of the remarkable engineering progress that has been happening simultaneously.
The outcome is entirely a question of pace—how fast can we go, and how fast will the world unravel? New analyses over the summer showed both the jet stream and the Gulf Stream to be faltering in the face of our rising temperatures. If the largest physical systems on earth are in trouble, we’ve got to use all the might of our political systems to make change happen fast. Yes, we’ll eventually power the world on renewable energy for all the reasons this fine book outlines, but if that transition drags even a little, the world we run on sun and wind will be a broken one.
—October 7, 2021