Pluralistic: 09 Dec 2021

Today's links

  • Electrify: Saul Griffith's visionary, practical program for a US clean energy transition.
  • This day in history: 2011, 2016
  • Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading

Electrify (permalink)

The cover of Electrify.

In Electrify, the MacArthur prizewinning engineer Saul Griffith offers a detailed, optimistic and urgent roadmap for a climate-respecting energy transition that we can actually accomplish in 10-15 years.

There are a lot of popular science books out there, but the world really needs more popular engineering books – books that set out the technical parameters of our problems and the various proposed solutions, sorting the likely from the plausible to the foolish, and laying out a practical range of plans to accomplish the best of them.

The first book like this I ever read was David McKay's superb 2009 "Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air," a life-changing book that sets out the energy transition as an engineering problem.

McKay describes the upper and lower bounds of the Earth's estimated carbon budget – how much CO2 we can emit. Then he looks at the energy budget for a variety of human activities – buildings, transport, food, and so on – decomposing each into a variety of subcategories. Then he looks at the maximum theoretical renewable energy generation available to us, by category – how many solar photons strike the Earth every day? That's your absolute solar limit. Then he gives you the knobs and dials to play with these figures – this kind of activity, plus this kind of renewable, requires this much raw material and space, and presents the following advantages and disadvantages.

The remarkable thing about MacKay's book is that it becomes abundantly clear that while an energy transition is a lot of work, it's eminently possible. MacKay's book spawned a whole line of "Without the Hot Air" titles from UIT Cambridge. The latest, last year's "Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air," is an excellent continuation of MacKay's legacy:

Griffith's popular engineering book is also part of MacKay's legacy (in case there's any doubt, Griffith namechecks him). Electrify is far more concrete and granular than MacKay's book, focusing on the US context to understand what is possible, what is necessary, and what stands in the way.

Griffith starts with some very good news: the US's energy budget has been wildly overstated. About half of the energy that the US consumes is actually the energy we need to dig, process, transport, store and use fossil fuels. Renewables have these costs, too, but nothing near the costs of using fossil fuels. An all-electric nation is about twice as efficient as a fossil fuel nation. That means that the problem of electrifying America is only half as hard as we've been told it was.

There's more good news! Your car, stove, water heater, furnace and air conditioner are all super-inefficient, too. When you have electrified your life, everything you do will be cheaper, faster and better. A just energy transition isn't a transition to ecology austerity – you can have better, cheaper versions of the stuff you love.

Getting all this done will require a lot of money. Electrification is front-loaded: you spend a lot of money now to save a lot more money (oh, and the planet) later. That means that retrofitting our homes, replacing our appliances, and changing over our utilities will require large upfront investments.

John Kerry calls this energy/resource mobilization "World War Zero," a comparison to the rapid, total conversion of the US economy to a war materiel economy after Pearl Harbor.

Here, Griffith has still more good news. The WWII mobilization was proportionately much, much larger than the mobilization needed to win World War Zero.

For Griffith, the roadmap is pretty straightforward. From now on, every time we replace a vehicle or renovate a building or swap an appliance, we should be buying electric. Every new roof should include solar panels. New housing should be energy efficient and shouldn't even have a gas hookup. All of this should be financed with low-cost, long-term loans comparable to the government-backed mortgages that created the post-war middle-class (but without the racism that created Black housing precarity and poverty).

No more fossil-fuel plants should be built, period. Existing extraction and refining programs should halt, now. Existing plants should be decomissioned and replaced with renewables and batteries. This should be federally funded, as should the new jobs for fossil-fuel-sector workers, whose labor the electrification project can handily absorb, with room to spare for every un- and under-employed person in America.

The stuff we've been told is impossible with renewables – like maintaining base-load – is revealed as a largely solved problem (big batteries, which will get smaller and cheaper over time).

Some of Griffith's solutions raised my eyebrows, particularly his plan to simply buy off the fossil fuel sector, giving them a fractional return on their stranded assets (book value minus the expected expenditures to dig them up and process them, discounted by some kind of penalty percentage). This is basically the solution that Kim Stanley Robinson proposes in his brilliant Ministry For the Future. I hate it. But Griffith makes a good case for it, a kind of "would you rather be happy, or right?" conundrum. If you want to argue with him about it, I suggest you read the book first.

Other parts of Griffith's solutions surprised me. He points out specific elements of our public safety codes that can be amended to fall in line with standards adopted in Europe and Australia, which would represent a significant savings in the cost of solar conversions. There are a lot of wins like these, where Griffith points to something we can do for free, basically, and then says, "This knocks 2% off the total budget for winning World War Zero." Add up all those little wins and we're talking hundreds of billions in savings.

Electrify opens up with a mildly disparaging view of the Green New Deal as a kind of mushy and aspiration and nonspecific. I bridled at that at first, but by the end of Electrify, I got it – a green transition needn't be a bunch of slogans to be understood. It's possible to articulate a highly specific plan, fully shovel-ready, without being dull or so technical that only wonks can understand it. This is a book for everyone.

If you've read this far, you're probably wondering about Griffith's takes on some of the contoversies within the green transition movement. He actually devotes a chapter to these: nuclear power (mmmmmmaybe); geoengineering (no), carbon capture (fuck no), hydrogen (don't be stupid), etc.

Griffith writes with beautiful clarity, which will not surprise you if you've ever heard him speak; he has a real gift for simplifying ideas to the point where anyone can grasp them, but not so much that they lose nuance or coherence.

One of Electrify's appendices is very moving – it's a list of marching orders for kids and voters and politicians and artists and musicians and writers and teachers and energy workers and engineers and bankers and oil execs, a sentence or two for each on what they can do, now to advance this program.

As with everything Griffith makes, this advice sits at the intersection of practicality and visionary optimism. It's the precise mix that we need to survive this transition.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Patry’s How to Fix Copyright: deftly argued, incandescent book on the evidence-free state of copyright law

#10yrsago Rumpole at Christmas: curmudgeonly stories for a heartwarming holiday

#5yrsago Apple’s tax-dodging offshore billions are sunk into Treasury Bills that pay out using American public funds

Colophon (permalink)

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