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Saul Griffith Offers Solutions
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Saul Griffith Offers Solutions
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Saul Griffith Offers Solutions
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8 February 2023

Saul Griffith Offers Solutions

Saul Griffith is a scientist and inventor. He has built all manner of crazy machines and now he lobbies governments and big businesses as an advocate for clean energy transition. During a prolific engineering career, he has studied at MIT and led projects with NASA, DARPA and the National Science Foundation. Saul has also been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for inventions in the service of humanity. If Saul’s CV sounds a bit intimidating, that is quickly countered by his down-to-earth pragmatism when he starts to talk about his mission: to electrify the world’s machines and rapidly wean humanity from our addiction to fossil fuels and the comforts they provide.

This is a giant task, but Saul makes the conversion feel very much within our grasp this decade. He makes the case for electrification of everything as being a necessity, not an option, if we’re to limit the planet-heating result of our fossil fuel dependence.

During our conversation, Saul illuminated the practical and policy roadblocks to making this a reality and made the argument that we must divorce ourselves from the belief that it is the fossil fuels themselves that we crave. With the stakes unthinkably high on a planet in a state of overwhelm, Saul’s solution – to start by installing solar panels on all of our rooftops and powering everything with them – seems deliciously simple. I hope it proves to be something we can achieve: first in Australia, with all its natural advantages, and then across the world.

I met Saul in Byron Bay. We were both there for the 2022 Byron Writers Festival, where he appeared on several panels to discuss his latest book, The Big Switch. We dove right into Saul’s clean energy solution that might just be our path out of climate catastrophe.

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KIRSTY DE GARIS: So there was that gas-guzzling road trip across the States.

SAUL GRIFFITH: In one iteration it’s called A Bogan’s Journey. We are all complicit in climate change in ways that no one’s prepared to admit to themselves. I speak carburettor as a first language. I love cars and I like driving them. I know the machines intimately and I hate what they have done to the planet. They’re just the worst invention of humans, ever. The car that I drove in A Bogan’s Journey is the 1961 Lincoln Continental. An absolutely magnificent, beautiful car but it had a 430-cubic-inch engine. It got eight miles per gallon.


You can fall in love with the road trips and the sheet metal of that car, but you can still do that if that car’s electric. Why don’t we admit that we love the freedom, we don’t love the fossil fuels? Do all the things we do, with all the human frailties and all the excesses, but do it with electric versions. The US is one billion machines away from zero emissions, and we’re 101 million machines away from zero emissions in Australia. Then we will be living the Australian dream on zero emissions.

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

That’s what I want to talk about today. We’ve had the industrial revolution. Started pulling fossil fuels out of the ground. A short period in human history has trashed the planet.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that we were well advanced on trashing the planet before fossil fuels came along and that we did an awful lot of planet modification with farming cows and sheep. We weren’t perfect before fossil fuels came along, but yeah, the last 200 years we did the fossil fuel thing. It was good. It gave us a lot of good stuff. I think another thing that we should do is absolve our parents and grandparents for using coal and oil and improving the quality of life. Say, “Thank you for your service,” and retire them quickly.

I wonder if you could walk us through your thinking on the solution for electrifying everything. Something simple enough that a seven-year-old can understand.

Right. I arrive at a solution, which is to electrify roughly everything. And I do that by having a longstanding interest in climate science and energy systems and studying all the energy flows in the world, from where you get the energy – coal mining, oil drilling – through to where you use the energy – hair dryers, stoves, cars. And then because I’m an engineer and I spent my whole life thinking about building machines, it enables you to think about, Well how do you have most of the trappings that we like about modern civilisation without burning fossil fuels? And the answer, working backwards from the toasters and the cars and the ovens and the hair dryers, pretty much every pathway has to be electricity driving the machine, that’s powered either with renewables or nuclear. Because we can’t make enough biofuels. We’d have to basically use every plant on the planet once every year to create enough biofuels to do it. We could do it with nuclear for a little while but that is electricity anyway. So we have to electrify the machines. We have to feed all the machines with electricity that is zero emissions. We know how to do that with solar, with wind, with a little bit of hydro, but there’s not enough hydro-electricity to power the whole world. There’s not enough wave power to power the whole world. We can’t do it with tidal power either. The only three things that are big enough are wind, solar and nuclear power. But nuclear power you can only do for about 50 or 100 years and then you run out. Unless you get to fusion, which we could do for a long time and we probably will. So anyway. Look at all the flows. Acknowledge that humans probably aren’t going to change all of their behaviour. And we can approximately do that if we electrify.

Thank you. Changing the behaviour is an interesting one. In your book you go through all the different ways. I’ve become obsessed with some of those solutions and feeling like we all bear the responsibility to eat vegan, to do this, that and the other. Nothing feels quite sustainable. Like you say, at most things we can be good, but nobody’s perfect.

And only some of us can be good. I spent 30 years trying to modify people’s behaviour. I was a ratbag alternative transport, “Everyone should ride a bicycle, there should be no cars,” activist. Then you meet girls that you like and you realise that if you can’t convince the girls that you like to do the things, you’re not going to convince the whole planet. So you then have to acknowledge that humans like what they like and work with them. An engineer is like, “How do we make the things that give the people what they want?” Meat is hard, so I conveniently have focused on the energy systems side of climate. That’s 80 per cent of the problem. We do need alternatives to cows and sheep. You can root for the seaweed solution where we feed them seaweed and they stop farting methane. But then we’re still going to have 45 per cent of the world’s land area dedicated to grazing. There’s two problems with cows, but cows are tasty. I’m allergic to beef now but I like lamb. And I feel guilty about it.

Yeah it’s problematic.

PF-dash-hypocrite: Planet-fucking hypocrite. The average American in 2011 and still today uses 11,000 watts of all types of energy. The average Australian uses 9000. If you electrify the average American’s life – you electrify their cars, you electrify their kitchen, you electrify their eating – that 11,000-watt profligate American only needs 4500 watts. And the average 9000- watt Australian only needs 3800 watts. Electrification is the efficiency we were always looking for. If we just electrify everything you can probably have all the things – same size house, same monster truck – and you can do it with zero emissions. Is that the world we want to live in? I don’t know. Here’s a crazy thing: 1.25 million Tesla Cybertrucks have been pre-ordered. They will weigh over three tons each. If they are all produced and delivered, those Tesla Cybertrucks will weigh nearly as much as all wild mammal life on earth.

That’s depressing.

So, the flip side of, “Oh we’ll just have all the same things,” is, there are other problems. But

on the glide path to hopefully saving humanity from itself here, we have 10 or 20 years when we say, "Well have the same thing, don't make so much change that society's not recognisable overnight. Electrify all the things." But as we're on that journey we'll fix a lot of other things as well. WE’LL FIX A LOT OF OTHER THINGS AS WELL.

I hope so.

I hope so too. But I’ve also learned that you’ve got to be on message and you’ve got to be concise. I don’t want to say, “Electrify everything but here’s all the caveats. Electrify everything and make it smaller and walk to school with your child because they need that time with you.” Instead of, “Put him in the back of a car and drive and be angry because the Starbucks attendant was late.” But society’s not ready for that conversation. We’re at least ready now to have the conversation of zero emissions.

You give us until 2030 to sort this out meaningfully?

There’s still the question of what temperature do humans want? The scary mechanistic view is if you bought a Volvo in 2020, it’s going to live for another 18 years. It will emit 48 tons of carbon monoxide between now and its death. If you commissioned a coal plant in China in 2015, it’s going to survive until 2040 or 2050. The machines that exist in the world today, that have already been born, if they are all allowed to live out their natural life burning oil and coal and natural gas, will take the world to 1.8 degrees or so. This is a much more visceral way to understand where we are at on climate. If you have in your head the model that we never allow a fossil fuel machine to be built or sold ever again, and every new car that’s purchased starting tomorrow is electric, then we get 1.8 degrees. If you take the coal plants out of action early you might get 1.7. If you can take some of the cement factories and the steel out of action earlier, you might get 1.6 degrees. But the only way you get 1.5 is negative emissions. And Australia was complicit with the United States and some fossil petrol states in lobbying the IPCC to include negative emissions in the modelling and the emissions reductions scenarios that we then got addicted to. This is why Greta is right. We’ve been using accounting to solve climate change. We kept piling on more future demands of a mythical technology that doesn’t work yet: negative emissions. Carbon sequestration. You can’t get a 1.5 degree world at this point without negative emissions. What does it really mean if you don’t allow a huge amount of negative emissions? You’ve got to do more than 50 per cent emissions reduction by 2030, which means you need almost perfect execution on decommissioning all of our fossil fuel machines.

Big task.

Yeah. It’s easier once you name it and say, “Actually you don’t have a love affair with the engine in that car. You have a love affair with the convenience and mobility. You don’t have a love affair with your stove. You have a love affair with cooking.” Once you get to the granularity of it, it’s just machines. I think we’re going to do better than we expected, now that we’ve stolen the conversation back from the economists. This was the big mistake. We went from climate scientist, “Here’s the problem, we’ve got to reduce emissions.” Instead of handing that task to engineers, which was the 1960s and ’70s approach, we had the neoliberal revolution and we decided that economists were the problem-solvers. We tried to use economists to solve climate change. So the scientists said, “Here’s the problem”, and they handed it to economists. Then economists spent 30 years trying to sell us on carbon taxes as the solution. The last moment that a carbon tax was capable of being a solution was maybe 2000. After the year 2000 you couldn’t introduce a carbon tax that was high enough to modify behaviour on the timeframe required to hit a 1.5 degree target. No. Let’s go to the people who make society work to fix the thing: engineers. Let’s fix the machines.

I felt really hopeful reading your book.

How am I doing in this interview? Have I crushed that hope yet?

No! You haven’t crushed it. I’m excited by the potential that Australia genuinely uniquely has to lead here. And I’d love to hear more about that. First in the practical sense, and then the political. Let’s do practical first, and then I have a few political questions for you.

There’s a few reasons why Australia could win and should win. We have low population density. There are a few good things about that. We also have great sunshine and wind. We can make much, much more solar and wind than we need per person. Because we have low population density, it costs more to get electricity from where it’s generated to the end consumer. It costs more to get natural gas to the end consumer. And because we don’t make our own, we import it all. What that means is petrol and diesel are more expensive in Australia than they are in the US. Natural gas is more expensive in Australia than it is in the US. And electricity is more expensive. Then

you invent this thing called rooftop solar power and you take out all the middle men and the cheapest energy that any human has ever experienced is Australian rooftop solar. It's 3.4 cents per kilowatt hour in South Australia today, delivered to your door. That's extraordinary.

Australia has these natural physical advantages and we’ve kind of still got a functioning democracy with enough scepticism of all things to have figured out how to get rid of bureaucracy and make solar cheap.

If we run our whole lives off that, we save more money. The cost of driving an Australian electric car is about one cent per kilometre if it’s running off rooftop solar. And if you have the average Australian car that’s 10.3 litres per 100 kilometres at $2 a litre petrol, that’s 20 cents a kilometre. So it’s 20 times cheaper to drive every kilometre in your electric cars. It’s 10 times cheaper to have a hot shower that’s electric heat pump-run off your rooftop solar. The Australian household could be saving between $3000 and $5000 per year on its energy bills, even after financing all those machines. So if Australia had a conscience in exchange for having put so much fossil fuel into the world and giving everyone cheap coal – and per capita we’ve been one of the worst emitters in the world and we don’t even count the stuff we export – if we were atoning for that sin and we wanted to make up time, we would show the world how to do it first. And we’d go first because the economics work here first. We’re five years ahead of America on this project. And we’re five more years ahead of Europe. South Australia is five years ahead of average Australia.

The gift that we could give to the world as penance for all the carbon we’ve put in the atmosphere is showing the world how to electrify our domestic economy, electrify our cars and our homes. Do it all, a huge amount of it, with rooftop and community solar generation. Then Europe’s going to struggle to get through the European winter and to have traditional industry like steel-making. China the same. Very high population density. So

the second gift that Australia has to give to the world is as the world's foundry. Solar cells are made out of glass, silicon, aluminium, and copper. Wind turbines are made out of steel, copper, and nickel. Electric vehicles are made out of steel and aluminum and copper and a ton of lithium and nickel. Australia is swimming in these things. We're the first, second, third or fourth-largest provider of all those metals in the world. We'll have the cheapest renewable electricity in the world. We are the natural place to become the world's foundry to help make all the metals for all of the machines that can get us to zero emissions.

So our near-term job is to show the world how to do it in a very practical, Australian way. Tradies with arse cracks installing electric induction ovens will be the heroes of the Australian climate movement.

The emission cuts we can do this decade are fixing our homes and cars. Next decade, we can do all those other things not just for us, but for the whole world. And you can tell an economic story. We’re going to make so much more money on our exports. The economic renewal for communities is going to be extraordinary. If you’re an average Australian household, you spend $3000 a year buying petrol or diesel for your 1.8 cars. When you spend that $3000, you spend it at the local petrol station. It creates half a job in your community. That job is also selling two other things that can kill you: sugar and nicotine. Then that money leaves Australia on a one-way ticket. Doesn’t create any other jobs in your community. But in the future, we could be generating the lion’s share of the electricity for those cars in your local community. Instead of spending $3000 outside the community, you’ll be spending a few hundred dollars within the community, installing the solar, maintaining electric vehicles. Doing these other things. And then saving about $2,500 per household per year, which under normal economic circumstances that household will then spend at the local grocery store, at the local cafés and the local restaurants, creating many more jobs. It’s those induced jobs from the savings that we enjoy that will create the most jobs in the economy. Not just energy jobs – it’ll be creating librarian jobs. Another way of thinking about it is an Australian suburb is typically about 5000 households. So that’ll be $20 million more spent in the local community every year that currently we send on a one-way ticket out of community. After the third year of saving $20 million in the community, you’ll run out of surf lifesaving clubs and new classrooms to build. If we get the policy decisions right and we figure out how to do this in the interests of community economics, this is the biggest economic renewal of communities, whether they’re rural or urban, that Australia will ever experience. It could be extraordinary. That’s an even better story than I think you’ve heard me tell before.

That is genuinely exciting!

You want something even more exciting?

Go on.

This is absolutely mind-blowing. A huge amount of the consumer price index [CPI] is the price of petrol and diesel, the price of natural gas and electricity that you spend on your house. If you look at the 30-year history – it’s true in the US and it’s true in Australia – the cost of the energy that runs the household has increased slightly faster than the CPI. Our fossil fuels define inflation. If I could take a magical Australian household and buy a ton of solar and a battery and electric vehicle and electric appliances today, I have to pay a lot up front to finance all those things. But I’m holding the price of energy for that household fixed for the 20-year life of those machines. Because I’m paying the mortgage on them, which is a constant price that’s paid 20 years into the future. This is the extraordinary thing about electrification. It’s inflation-proofing households for 20 years. This changes economics, in a potentially positive way, forever.

If we get this money back in communities and we make the right decisions, we might make healthier, more resilient, thriving communities. Humans are good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But it’s not fait accompli. We might snatch victory from the jaws of defeat here.

Which is super exciting. When did you know that electrification was the work that you were put here to do?

I knew we were deeply grappling with it all through the 2000s. You couldn’t narrate a path for humanity that was going to be broadly acceptable. When it became an obvious – Oh we might be able to use electrification to squeeze through this climate crisis and have a chance – that was powerful to realise. Then some of the other pieces fall into place. If you do it with community-generated electricity and solar, it’s on the roof in your community, all of that might positively impact economics.

Policy versus the tech evangelism, the notion that technology will somehow solve it all.

I’ve been building technology for so long. We think that technology is a panacea for everything. There’s not a single technology that I’ve worked on inventing and building and bringing into existence where the hardest component was that you’re bringing it into an extremely regulated world, where the regulatory risks and burdens are much harder than the technology. Because the laws have existed long enough to always advantage the incumbent everything. I guess understanding that viscerally was like, Oh, I can beat my head on trying to invent our way out of climate change for another three decades. Or I can just try to unpack the policy problem. Like fossil fuels: two centuries they had to write all the laws. And I don’t think in any conspiratorial way, it was all a good idea at the time to write the laws and rules to increase human longevity and amenity with fossil fuels. But then you’ve got all those laws existing and you’re trying to change. You’ve got to fix that shit. It’s in the tax code, it’s in the building codes, it’s in safety regulations. It’s everywhere. But that’s true of all technology. Building electric aircraft that are zero emissions? So easy. Getting one certified through the FAA to carry passengers? 10 to 15 years.

I took a flight here today. I drove 2.5 hours to get to the airport. I’m very conscious that my carbon footprint has had a bad day.

Here’s something you’ll love. Once you get to about 100 kilometres an hour, it takes less energy to fly than it takes to keep the wheels of a car on the ground. So if you want to travel at 100 kilometres an hour or more, flying’s the best way to do it. Batteries are now good enough that doing 500-kilometre flights is easy. Roads suck. They divide ecosystems and they fuck everything up. We could live in the Jetsons, we could have electric aircraft. They won’t be flying cars – they’ll look more like aircraft, like an albatross. If we had electric albatrosses we could use less energy and get everyone around without having the road infrastructure dividing all of our ecosystems. And autopilot for an airplane is so much easier than autopilot for a car. In the cup-is-half-full bucket, we could fix a lot of stuff.

Another area that I find encouraging is local councils.

Local councils. Now you’re talking my language. I love mayors.

It seems that you can really make a change at the local level. How far are you into a pilot project, or working with a local council that is prepared to take this on?

think the fear and scare campaign of the fossil fuel industry and the general, I don’t want to change human nature, I like some change and I want you to improve my life, but don’t do it too fast. Don’t make everything look different. Both of those forces are at play in making it hard for people to imagine that this could all work out. That we could have reasonable lives, zero emissions. Because of that, I’m obsessed with the idea of, “Let’s just do it in one place and show everyone that it’s great.” Because Australia has the economics working first, why don’t we do it in an Australian community? Let’s have international climate tourism, where the whole world wants to come to an Australian suburb, an Australian small town, and say, “These look like people living really well. There’s no asthma in this community. It’s all electric and it works.”

There’s real value in that lighthouse thing. Let’s “world’s fair” an Australian community. There’s no reason we can’t do it in 2023. Just talking about it is already having an effect. South Australia wants to run a community and we’re in conversations already. We’ve got broad support from Australian funding and regulatory agencies and they’d like to help make it happen. We’re not there yet; they haven’t signed any cheques. We’ve got a community in Tasmania that wants to do it and a whole bunch of people who want to drive it there. All of that is good.

But in some respects, the best version of this is in my local community. I live just north of Wollongong and the local chapter of Extinction Rebellion is a bunch of young families. I guess they were finding Extinction Rebellion a little extreme for their five-year-olds so they were like, “Can we do anything? We’d like to be more involved in actual solutions, rather than complaining.” And I said, “Why don’t you see what appetite there is in our community to do this?” They have run an original door-knocking, make stickers, print t-shirts campaign. In about a week, they had 1000 households out of the 4000 – a quarter of the households in 2515 postcode, saying, “Let’s do it.” It might be 50 per cent. We haven’t knocked on all the doors yet. Australians are acutely aware of climate change and we’re generally a practical bunch. I think there’s a good chance we’ll pull this off.

That’s really heartening.

It’s extraordinary. Australia can do this on a quarter of one per cent of our land, which is basically just our rooftops. America can do it on about one, one-and-a-half percent, which is about the area of all of its roads, all of its parking places, plus its rooftops. Australia, America, Canada, you know – there’s a few countries that are big, lots of area, they can do it easily on renewables. But it’s ignorant to say the world can do this without nuclear unless you’re taking a huge amount of sunshine from Greece and northern Africa to northern Europe, for example. That is possible. There are people who say you can do it all 100 per cent renewable, and that is true. But we have to be a little more heroic. I think there’ll be some nuclear, but not a ton of it. Does Australia need to do it? No. We already provide the world with a quarter of its uranium. Should we continue to do that? Probably. The only way to have safe nuclear submarines is to also run a domestic nuclear power fleet. So if we’re going to go in on that insanity, we may as well do some. But for the price of one of those submarines, we can do renewables for the whole country.

Let’s do that.


Last question. What’s your vision for the world? What do you want to see?

The greatest mistake of the 20th century is taking a family that could survive on a 40-hour work week, and what we did was double the work and made houses bigger, so there was more housework. So now it’s 120 hours of work for the same household. We took all that away from our children and we took the extra money we earned and put it into real estate. So we created the real estate problem, which is global. We designed tax codes for real estate for the middle class. You might be thinking, This has nothing to do with energy and electrification and climate change, but it does. Honestly, my hope for the world is that we slow down and work less. And electrify everything and learn to live better. In this allelectric future, which I totally believe in, you will commute on your electric bicycle through a rainforest on a dirt path. And you’ll arrive at school on this tiny electric vehicle having chatted to your child the whole way ’cause you had enough time to engage with your child again. You weren’t angry behind the wheel of a Cybertruck. We give time back to the children, give time back to our partners, invest in friendships and community. And eliminate emissions. And it’s going to be great.

This conversation appeared in Dumbo Feather issue #71 “Beyond Ego”. Read the stories of other trailblazers reaching beyond our individual lives to deeply consider the wellbeing of the collective, the planet and all living things in Issue #71 of Dumbo Feather or find us at your local independent retailer. 

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