By Ed Meek
Instead of techno-utopian rhetoric, Electrify offers a plan with pragmatic steps to create a better environment and a stronger economy.
Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future by Saul Griffith. MIT Press, 288 pages, $24.95.
In case you are beginning to feel overwhelmed by the challenges posed by climate change, Saul Griffith has a plan for how we can win what Michael Mann (The New War on Climate Change), John Kerry, and others have declared to be our war on the ongoing crisis. An Australian-American with a PhD from MIT, the author is a high-energy scientist/inventor whose thesis focused on “self-replicating machines.” The idea behind Electrify is disarmingly simple: electrify everything while simultaneously creating the green infrastructure to generate the needed power.
Griffith gives very personal advice: when you are ready to buy your next car it should be electric. When you must replace your burner, go with Mitsubishi Heating/cooling units. When the oven wears out, buy an electric range. At the same time, he wants the government to encourage this by replacing oil subsidies with incentives for a mass conversion to green energy via solar, wind, and hydro power. Right now, of course, most of our energy needs are filled by the burning of fossil fuels: oil, gas and coal. The problem is that those fossil fuels create 75 percent of the CO2 that is behind climate change.
As Mann points out in his book, the fossil fuel industry has become frighteningly efficient at sowing confusion, coming up with phrases like “clean natural gas” and marketing how they are diversifying their energy sources. In fact, they are doubling down on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, politicians whose campaigns are financed by big oil scare us into believing that fighting climate change means AOC will take away our burgers. Big tech dreams big (and profitable) by assuring us they will be able to remove carbon from the atmosphere and seed clouds to make it rain. It is mum on the outrageous costs and infeasibility of these insane projects. Rather than talking about taking action to mitigate the causes of climate change, the Army Corps of Engineers proposes a 20-foot wall for Miami.
If the wildfires and heat waves and droughts and flooding aren’t enough to convince you that change is desperately needed, Griffith makes an economic argument: making the switch to renewables will not only make our environment healthier by cleaning it up, but it will create millions of jobs. The end of drilling and mining will not only save us energy, but it is more efficient. For example, rather than fracking for gas and then transporting the stuff and burning it for heat, it is much easier to cadge energy from the sun shining down on rooftop solar panels. For some, Griffith’s approach in Electrify will be especially appealing because it cuts across ideological lines. Unlike environmentalists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, he doesn’t think we need to change our lifestyles all that much. Griffith agrees with Nobel prize-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who believes that “it’s just an engineering problem.”
But it is a very daunting engineering problem. We currently get 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear power and 17 percent from renewables (mostly wind and hydro). So, in order to get 100 percent of our energy from renewables, Griffiths thinks eventually we will have to make a huge investment in wind turbines and solar farms, converting some of our farmland for those purposes. At the same time, he wants the government to make low interest loans available for home conversions. In addition, he’d like the government to help the fossil fuel companies transition to clean energy because they have the infrastructure and organization to do so.
He is well aware that most of our energy now comes from red states so Republicans would need to get on board, to acknowledge and fight climate change. That’s why Griffith — joining liberal politicians from Ed Markey and AOC to Joe Biden — emphasizes job creation.
Instead of techno-utopian rhetoric, Electrify offers a plan with pragmatic steps to create a better environment and a stronger economy. He reminds us that ’70s thinking — when, in response to the oil crises, we turned down the heat and bought fuel-efficient cars — is retro. According to Griffith, it is not about cutting back. It’s about transitioning and expanding our green energy infrastructure to power our cars and homes and factories.
Griffith is a science nerd, albeit a high-energy enthusiastic one, so his book is replete with detailed charts and graphs that support his ideas. He has charts detailing what Americans do all day (25,534,000 work in education, health, and services). He has a chart of US average household spending ($1,929 spent on gas). There are graphs on energy usage in the United States. His book is full of eye-opening info. Did you know that half of the freight on trains is coal?
Griffith, like Mann, compares our current situation to WWII. In order to ramp up for war, the country went on a huge investment and spending spree. The result is that the US became a lot richer and more powerful. Griffith, like Biden, argues that the switch to green energy will offer us the same opportunity to create a prosperous future. And that, if America goes in that direction, the rest of the world will electrify as well.
Ed Meek is the author of High Tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).