Will the Future Be Electric?

Should anybody be optimistic about the climate crisis? Noted environmentalist Bill McKibben reviews a new book, Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future by Saul Griffith, an engineer and inventor. The title of the review is “The Future Is Electric”. Here’s McKibben’s summary of Griffith’s playbook: 

Electrification is to climate change as the vaccine is to Covid-19—perhaps not a total solution, but an essential one. [Griffith] 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. . . . The US uses about 101 quadrillion BTUs (or “quads”) of energy a year. . . .

Our homes use about a fifth of all energy [or 20 quads]; 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 30 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 . . .

Transportation uses even larger amounts of energy [40 quads?] —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 [10 quads?].

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.

The Original Sin

These are the opening and closing paragraphs of a review in The New York Review of Books (the review is “Uncanny Planet” by Mark O’Connor; the book is Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade by Nathaniel Rich):

In the opening lines of the Bible, having brought forth the world and everything in it, God makes his inaugural address to Adam and Eve. “Be fruitful, and multiply,” he tells them, “and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” God’s first, foundational decree explicitly casts the relationship between humanity and nature as one of separation and control. The whole sorry business with the serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the banishment doesn’t come about for another two chapters, but if you were in the mood for a little heretical revisionism you might argue, just for fun, that the true original sin can be located not in man’s first disobedience, but in God’s first command.

The attitude toward nature that He defines and sanctifies with those words is, after all, precisely the attitude that led human beings to exploit nature so ruthlessly, and for so long, that the planet is now in danger of becoming unlivable for vast numbers of its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. Our adherence to this view of the world and our place within it, in other words, has amounted to its own kind of Fall. . . .

[The first line of Stewart Brand’s original Whole Earth Catalog — “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it” —] recalls Francis Bacon’s characterization of his scientific work, and by implication that of the scientific method itself, as rescuing humanity from its fallen state. Bacon saw science and technology as the means by which we could reclaim our former oneness with the divine. The “true ends of knowledge,” he wrote, were in

a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power (for whensoever he shall be able to call creatures by their true names he shall again command them) which he had in his first state of creation.

The path of knowledge that led us out of Eden will, if we follow it long enough, eventually lead us back. . . . 

Though Rich’s book is hardly what you’d call a polemic, the stories in it gather toward an argument, which could be seen as a less nakedly utopian version of Bacon’s aims. There are over 7.5 billion of us on a rapidly warming planet; the seas are rising, the forests are burning, and every year hundreds of species go the way of the passenger pigeon. There is no reversing the Fall. There is no going back to whatever might be meant by “nature.” We must become “as gods,” not in order to return to a state of prelapsarian wholeness, but to move forward to some kind of livable future.