After a summer full of record-breaking temperatures, wildfires and tropical storms, there is no longer any doubt that anthropogenic climate change is already impacting our global ecosystem and life on the planet. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that civilization has less than 12 years to cut emissions by 45 percent in order to keep Earth habitable to humans and other life-forms.
The cost of natural disasters in the U.S. in 2017. (Image courtesy of NOAA.)
Reducing emissions by such levels obviously will require a massive change to our current fossil fuel-based global infrastructure. In an attempt to address the United States’ own role in contributing to emissions, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts released an initial resolution to define the scope of a “Green New Deal,” a framework meant to simultaneously restructure the U.S. energy system while also addressing poverty in the country on a scale similar to the New Deal of the 1930s.
That 14-page document outlined a number of objectives, including the reduction of emissions by 40 to 60 percent by 2030 and down to zero by 2050. It also raised a number of questions, such as how the U.S. would pay for the program, what energy policies would or wouldn’t be included, and how to account for a projected loss of jobs in the oil and gas sector.
The fact that climate change needs to be addressed—and as quickly as possible—may render some of these questions moot, but, from an engineering perspective, the question of whether or not it is technologically feasible to significantly restructure the U.S. energy system in less than 12 years is of prime importance.
Is it technically possible to cut emissions by 40 to 60 percent by 2030 and to zero by 2050? We reached out to renewable energy engineer Saul Griffith to try to answer this question.
Can We Do It?
What gives Griffith a unique perspective on the matter is the fact that he has actually tried to calculate how much renewable energy would need to be produced globally in order to slow down climate change. Moreover, he has actually calculated his own carbon footprint over the course of a year and determined ways that he could reduce it.
When engineering.com asked Griffith if he believed if laying out such an infrastructure was possible, there was no hesitation. “Not only was it possible [when I discussed it in 2009]; it’s possible today. It’s always possible,” Griffith said. “There’s the industrial capacity—yes, there has to be a ramp-up period, but with commitment and clarity of vision, humanity is very capable of hitting the target.”
The key to fighting climate change, according to Griffith, is electrifying everything; that is, getting rid of gas-powered furnaces, water heaters and cars. While it may sound obvious, Griffith believes there is an important detail that those unfamiliar with engineering are missing when performing climate modeling projections.
“Everyone who’s thoughtful about how you solve climate change agrees that you have to electrify just about everything because there is no possibility for carbon sequestration or biofuels at the scale required,” Griffith said. “Once you’ve arrived there, you get such an enormous efficiency win just from being electric—which is why an electric car, pound for pound, uses about three times less energy per mile as a gasoline car. If that electricity is produced by solar, nuclear or wind to power a heat pump, it’s about three times more efficient than burning natural gas, for example, to create hot water. With the natural efficiencies of being electric and without burning fossil fuels, we probably need only half the amount of energy that everyone thinks.”
It’s true that a combustion engine is extremely inefficient compared to a drivetrain receiving direct energy from an electric battery. The thermal efficiency of a combustion engine is somewhere about 30 percent on average and peaking at around 40 percent, with most of the energy burned off as heat. An electric battery, however, reaches peak efficiency of 95 percent or greater, with average efficiency closer to 85 to 90 percent.
“If we just commit to electrification, America would need less than half the energy,” Griffith added. “And that’s not really an efficiency win in the Jimmy-Carter-wear-a-sweater sense, that’s just the natural efficiency of electric machinery versus burning crap in an engine.”
While that may be true for vehicles, water heaters and furnaces, making the same comparison with wind and solar power is a little trickier. The energy powering wind and solar is free and renewable, though the equipment is not. The energy for coal, gas and oil power plants is not free, but that energy is not intermittent. Therefore, a crucial component for renewable systems is energy storage.
Farr Associates’ portrait of a city in which sustainability is placed at the center of urban planning. Read our interview with the founder, Doug Farr. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)
To tackle this problem, Griffith believes we need to reimagine the way we look at infrastructure. Rather than thinking of enormous dams, electrical wires and centralized management centers as infrastructure, we should consider every home, car, water heater and furnace as infrastructure.
“There are 120 million homes in America; every one of those homes could be part of the energy storage solution, whether it’s battery storage or thermal storage. There are 250 million cars in America; if all those vehicles were electric, they would have enormous storage capacity,” Griffith said. “Our collective water heaters, homes, furnaces, cars—if we think about these things as infrastructure, we’re in a much better position to solve [climate change].”
Currently, in many municipalities, homes with solar panels are able to sell power back to the grid. A variety of car manufacturers, from Tesla and BMW to Nissan and Toyota, have explored the idea of a vehicle’s electric battery as a storage device. If every energy device in our lives becomes infrastructure, we can imagine all of these systems sharing and distributing electricity.
Degraded battery from a BMW i3 used as energy storage. (Image courtesy of BMW.)
To finance such a project, Griffith threw out the idea of a “green home loan” to replace the massive government-backed infrastructure projects of the 20th century. To build dams and coal plants, companies received low-interest government-backed loans. The same kinds of loans could be used
to help people purchase the right electric car, heat pump and house heating system in order to make these technologies affordable.
Griffith pointed to the example of Australia, where, even without government subsidies, purchasing solar panels for one’s home is one-third the cost that it is in the United States.
“If I took an Australian family today and I converted their home to run off of heat pumps, converted their two cars to electric cars, and ran it off their rooftop solar, they would save four or five grand a year,” he said. “What they don’t have is the capital to finance the $100K that would change their lives in that way. That is to say that there’s already a place in the world where, if you think about infrastructure as cars and furnaces and rooftops instead of as dams and electricity wires, a cheaper more consumer-friendly solution is out there.”
In a lecture given in 2009, Griffith estimated what it would take to keep carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions below 450 parts per million (ppm), which is roughly equal to preventing mean global temperatures from exceeding 2°C above preindustrial levels.
At the time, Griffith estimated the planet was consuming 16 terawatts of energy, one terawatt of which came from nuclear, .5 terawatts from renewable energy, and the rest from fossil fuels. To prevent us from exceeding 2°C, he calculated that we would have to take this consumption down to just three terawatts from fossil fuels and the rest from renewable energy. All of this would have to occur within just 25 years from 2009, if we were to prevent complete climate collapse.
In order to do so, Griffith concluded the following: “Two terawatts of photovoltaic would require installing 100 square meters of 15-percent-efficient solar cells every second, second after second, for the next 25 years. (That’s about 1,200 square miles of solar cells a year, times 25 equals 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic cells.) Two terawatts of solar thermal? If it’s 30 percent efficient all told, we’ll need 50 square meters of highly reflective mirrors every second (some 600 square miles a year, times 25). Half a terawatt of biofuels? Something like one Olympic swimming pool of genetically engineered algae, installed every second (about 15,250 square miles a year, times 25). Two terawatts of wind? That’s a 300-foot-diameter wind turbine every 5 minutes (install 105,000 turbines a year in good wind locations, times 25). Two terawatts of geothermal? Build three100-megawatt steam turbines every day—1,095 a year, times 25. Three terawatts of new nuclear? That’s a three-reactor, three-gigawatt plant every week—52 a year, times 25.”
How 15 terawatts of energy could be divided in a fossil fuel world, based on Griffith’s 2009 talk. (Image courtesy of Saul Griffith.)
In other words, the production of these renewable energy (plus nuclear) systems would be massive. If all of this renewable energy were to occupy a single piece of land mass, which Griffith refers to as “Renewistan,” the total land area would be equal to the size of Australia.
And, under this scenario, not only do we have just 10 more years, but we also wouldn’t be able to ensure a habitable planet. At 2°C above preindustrial levels, the IPCC has reported that 99 percent of coral reefs will die off; droughts, wildfires and extreme heat will be exacerbated; mass migration and poverty will be even greater; marine fisheries will lose three million tons; and there will be 10 million more people impacted by sea level rise than if we were able to keep temperatures below 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.
To get CO2 concentrations below 450 ppm and reach the desired goal of under 350 ppm, as recommended by leading climate scientist James Hanson, we would have to completely stop burning fossil fuels. Renewistan would have to be expanded by three terawatts, growing the fictional country by 26 percent.
It may be possible to completely restructure global infrastructure in time to mitigate climate change, but that would mean restructuring many lifestyles in the Global North.
In addition to his calculations regarding global energy usage, Griffith’s work is also unique in that he calculated his own carbon footprint in extreme detail for an entire year. In 2007, Griffith determined that he used 18,000 watts of energy.
Discussing the chart below, he wrote, “From the top of the graph back to about 7 p.m., that's every single flight I took in a year. The grey area is every mile I drove and every car that I own; the yellow is power I used in my house, from heating and cooking to my electric toothbrush; orange is the food that I eat; pink shows the embedded energy in all of the products that I own; blue shows my tax dollars at work, including the energy that goes into fighting wars.”
Griffith calculated his total energy usage over the course of an entire year. In addition to numerous airplane flights, a big chunk of his emissions came from those embedded in products he purchased. (Image courtesy of Saul Griffith.)
This compared to the average North American who used 11,000 watts and the global average of just 2,000 watts. Griffith’s 2007 calculations match closely with the general emissions patterns of the world, with the U.S. being the second largest carbon emitter after China. It’s interesting to examine how the numbers change if you calculate
net importing and exporting of emissions via manufacturing and trade.
It’s also worth noting that, due to China’s immense population, the country’s comparatively high carbon footprint is associated with the sheer number of people who live there. So, we have to look at per capita emissions in order to better understand how a nation’s society as a whole contributes to global warming. Per capita, the U.S. follows only a number of wealthy Middle Eastern countries and Luxemburg in terms of emissions.
For that reason, we can imagine a less energy-intensive lifestyle for countries with high per capita emissions. (Here it’s worth referring to an Oxfam study that concluded that the wealthiest 10 percent of the population is responsible for half of global emissions.)
In his 2009 talk, Griffith argued that, with a global energy budget of 16 terawatts, the poorest people on the planet would raise their standard of living to 2,200 watts and those already using more than that amount of energy would need to drop down to 2,200 watts. Griffith contends that one way to do this would be to cut the workweek by a day, so that people don’t have to commute as often. Otherwise, it may just mean a reduction in consumption patterns associated with wealthy countries like the U.S.
In our interview, Griffith joked that, in some cases, those modeling climate scenarios are projecting that “the whole world is going to adopt Elon Musk’s vision of the future, where we all wear Lycra and drive a Tesla from Palo Alto to a golf course.” In reality, he believes that “most upper middle-class Americans would happily trade their lifestyle in for a southern European lifestyle: They work less, enjoy life more, have more family time, drive less, use less than half the energy, and report greater degrees of happiness.”
Though he was joking in using Elon Musk as an example, his overall point was that many of our solutions to climate change aren’t technological, but sociological. He argued that the home loan, car loan and shortening of the six-day workweek may have contributed more to the shape of the 20th century than did many technological developments. And, as for modeling the future, Griffith asked, “Is the whole world going to be like America in the future or is America going to look more like the rest of the world?”
After outlining many of the reasons why humanity is capable of succeeding, Griffith asked, “Can I now tell you all the reasons we won’t do that and the reasons why we’re actually f***ed?”
The engineer wasn’t referring to the potential technical problem of resource scarcity, which some researchers have warned planners about. In Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement Goals, the authors project that, “The cumulative demand for cobalt from renewable energy and transport exceeds the current reserves in all scenarios, and for lithium, the cumulative demand is exceeded in all scenarios, except the ‘potential recycling scenario’.”
With regard to material shortages, Griffith doesn’t see the issue as a nonstarter, believing that, in addition to the efficiencies related to electrification, solutions to material supplies will arise further down the line—including material substitutions and new recycling methods. After all, material shortages won’t exacerbate climate change, whereas not pursuing a renewable energy rollout will (problems related to the environmental impacts of mining and conflict around minerals are quite a separate topic altogether).
Instead, Griffith sees the issue as a political one.
“The problem is we still have enormous embedded interests,” he said. “We need to popularize the notion that natural gas is the new coal. Starting in the 1990s, there’s been a giant campaign to have everyone believe that natural gas is the bridge fuel for the future, and we have to stamp that out as a lie because every time we install natural gas as a bridge fuel to the future, we set ourselves back 50 years on that piece of capital expenditure.”
Methane that leaks from natural gas projects is much more potent than CO2, in terms of its impact on global warming. The Union of Concerned Scientists explains that methane is “34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years.”
Outside of the grave environmental impacts, some reporters and analysts suggest that natural gas supplies may not be as significant as previously thought. Many fracked gas and oil companies have been unable to turn a profit. Hedge fund manager Jim Chanos told Bethany McLean for the New York Times, “The [fracking] industry has a very bad history of money going into it and never coming out.”
McLean went on to say, “The 60 biggest exploration and production firms are not generating enough cash from their operations to cover their operating and capital expenses. In aggregate, from mid-2012 to mid-2017, they had negative free cash flow of $9 billion per quarter.”
Griffith sees another technology as hazardous to the fight against climate change as well: carbon sequestration. This process involves either capturing carbon from the air and storing it underground or in the ocean.
“When you pull a hydrocarbon out of the ground and you oxidize it and you try to put it back in the ground, it’s going to naturally be four to five times bigger because you’ve added all of this oxygen. The idea that you can stuff the s**t back in the hole you take it out of just doesn’t even pass the first blush of sanity check,” Griffith said. “It’s just fundamentally not reasonable to think that we will do air capture of carbon dioxide or any sizable amount of carbon sequestration, yet there are people screaming loudly for that and taking resources and mindshare from the pretty simple things that would work.”
For his part, Griffith flies less, drives more slowly, bikes more, eats meat just once a week, and buys as little as possible. Doing so, he said in his 2009 talk, has made him healthier and happier.
Griffith’s R&D incubator Otherlab is attempting to tackle the technological hurdles in addressing climate change. This includes the development of solar technology that would cost 50 percent less, the electrification of heating, and air conditioning that produces less than half the emissions typically associated with A/C units.
Cutting the cost of solar is something Griffith considers “a technological hack for a political problem,” given the fact that solar is already less expensive in Australia. He believes this solution will be on the market within a year. But there is still an incredibly difficult road ahead.
Not only do we have climate change to contend with, but the planet is currently facing numerous ecological crises that are becoming associated with what is being called the “Antropocene.” According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, mass species loss, ocean acidification, the erosion of topsoil and deforestation will lead to a destabilization of global society and the global economy. The first global review of insect populations, mainly due to intensive agriculture and pesticides, suggests that massive loss of insects could lead to “a catastrophic collapse of nature's ecosystems.”
Saving the only planet teeming with life and the only species with consciousness for millions of light years in any direction is going to require massive upheaval. Even U.N.-appointed researchers and prominent scientists are arguing that large-scale social, governmental and even economic changes are required to meet the needs of the planet. If we can shake the political forces and entrenched interests, Griffith believes that we have a fighting chance, with a heavy emphasis placed on “fighting.”
“Even the most recent IPCC projections are conservative, meaning we’re on track for worse. I don’t think there’s a huge amount of reason for optimism and I am not optimistic,” Griffith explained.“That said, you have to stay and fight. Not like you throw up your hands. You have to fight bitterly to the end. At best, this is going to be like a Rocky movie, where we keep making mistakes until the final round.”