⚡”When it dies, electrify”⚡

by | February 7, 2023

You may have noticed the movement to electrify everything is starting to pick up steam! In particular, there’s been a lot of buzz recently about the terrible impacts gas stoves have on our health.

Rachel and I recently got to chat with Saul Griffith about electrifying everything on our latest episode of the CS podcast.

Saul is an inventor, engineer, MacArthur Genius award winner, and much much more. He probably knows more about the US’s energy system than anyone and helped shape the Inflation Reduction Act with his teammates at Rewiring America.

As always, I’ll share key takeaways from the episode below on what electrifying everything means, why it matters, and what you can do to help, but I recommend you check out the full conversation on Youtube or your favorite podcast app!

Key Takeaways

Committed emissions from the world’s existing fossil fuel machines would take us to 1.9°C or 2°C

Saul thinks that this is “one of the most useful ways to think about the challenge”.

Here’s how it works.

There are about 600 million machines in the US economy that burn fossil fuels – mostly owned by households (e.g. 280 million vehicles, 100 million cooking machines, etc).

Each of these fossil-fueled machines has an expected “lifetime” – how long it’ll last before it stops working (e.g. cars last for 20 years on average, stoves for 15, etc).

Once you know the total number of fossil-fueled machines being used today and their expected remaining lifetimes, you can estimate how much more greenhouse gas emissions those machines will dump into the atmosphere before they are replaced. These are known as “committed emissions”.

And once you’ve calculated these future emissions, you can pretty accurately estimate what the correlating temperature will be.

“If all of the machines alive on earth today live to the end of their lifetime, the calculation a few years ago was that it would take us to about 1.8°C of warming. I think it probably takes us to 1.9 now, maybe 2.” – Saul Griffith

“Committed emissions” are not set in stone though. We can retire these fossil-fueled machines early. Especially the big ones like coal plants – if we retired enough of those polluters early, committed emissions could go down by 0.1°C. We can also invest in nature and technology to remove emissions that are already in the atmosphere.

We really need to use every climate solution that we have. But perhaps the most important thing to do right now is to stop making the problem worse. We need to stop building new fossil fuel machines and infrastructure and start replacing the existing fossil-fueled machines with their electric counterparts as quickly as possible.

According to Rewiring America, 1,063,000,000 machines must be installed or replaced in the US to eliminate household CO2e emissions. That’d be 50 million machines a year for the next 20-25 years.

Doing so won’t be easy, but thankfully it should be a no-brainer due to health benefits, cost-savings, and, you know, not destroying our future.

Electrification is anti-inflationary

As an increasingly scarce resource, fossil fuel prices will continue to rise.

The cost of clean energy, on the other hand, is fixed for 20+ years once the solar panels or wind turbines are installed. That’s because the sun and the wind are free resources, whereas fossil fuels need to be continually dug up, refined, and transported.

Think about it. Today, the price of fossil fuel not only drives the cost of transportation, electricity, and heating your home, but it’s also a factor in the cost of food and other goods you buy (e.g. cost of transporting goods, manufacturing, etc.)

When everything is electrified and powered by renewable energy, these costs will stop going up.

“I think this is the most profound graph I’ve seen in years – [electrification] changes economics” – Saul Griffith

It is abundantly clear that the long-term savings of electrifying everything are massive.

Communities will save *millions* of dollars annually and create local jobs

Saul has done the math for his postcode in Australia. The 4,300 households spend $21 million dollars on fossil fuels every year.

But his community is now aiming to be the first in the world to fully electrify and, if 80% of the postcode has solar on their roofs, as is expected by 2030, the community could save $16 million a year on energy.

That’s nearly $4,000 in annual savings for every household. And a good chunk of that will inevitably be reinvested in the community itself, instead of going to the fossil fuel industry.

Not to mention that electrifying everything means creating a lot of local jobs to do all of this important work.

Financing is key for speed, scale, and equity

Despite massive savings over time, the transition to this better, safer, healthier, and cheaper technology still has higher upfront costs overall. In the US…

  • The richest ~5% of households will have no problem electrifying everything and should do it now if they haven’t already.
  • The next 30% to 50% of households could electrify fairly easily with financing.
  • The bottom 50% of households will need financial help to afford this better future.

Done poorly, this transition could widen the already enormous inequality gap. Designed thoughtfully, it could increase equity and lessen the disproportionate energy burden on low-income households.

Saul outlined how much of a no-brainer this should be for governments economically using Australia as an example:

If the government wrote a check for $12 billion over ten years, it’d cover the upfront cost difference between the price of the fossil-fueled option and the clean electric option. And they’d start getting $20 billion more in taxes every year next decade because people would spend a certain percentage of their newfound energy savings.

Saul’s call to action

“Motivate your community to be the first zero-emissions community.”

To electrify your community faster, invest time and energy into modernizing:

  1. Building codes → these need to be improved everywhere to make buildings more efficient, affordable, and healthy. Generally speaking, our buildings should use less energy, produce more energy, and stop burning fossil fuels because that poisons the air that people breathe.
  2. Rules of the electric grid → push for grid neutrality.
  3. Reforming the solar permitting process → bug your mayor to change the permitting process so that it’s done online and doesn’t require an expensive/time-consuming permitting and inspection process.

“We need those 6 to 10 concerned people in every zip code to organize – go and door knock, demystify [electrification]…the trust of neighbors is much higher than the trust of companies…I would love every community in the world to have half a dozen people similarly motivated to become these ambassadors for electrification and these people that show up to the utility rate hearings and to the city council and make the changes that need to happen in your town.”

I think this is a fantastic reminder. Big changes start with small numbers of persistent people. Every one of us is far more powerful than we typically give ourselves credit for.

And consistently working with others to improve your community takes that power and impact to a whole new level.

And on that note – one last thing that may help!

Upcoming workshop to help you craft your climate story

When it comes to rallying support to make positive change, don’t underestimate the power of your story.

Our brains are wired for stories – they may be the best tool we have for connecting, communicating, understanding, and cooperating with one another.

Sharing stories with each other helps spark and build strong relationships. And strong relationships are key to getting hard things done.

So on February 21st at 1 pm EST, Story Strategist and Co-Founder of Eco-Anxious Stories, Rachel Malena-Chan, will lead a workshop to help you:

  • Put eco-emotions into context so that you can respond to them with compassion.
  • Craft your own personal “climate story” around the themes and characters that mobilize you.
  • Communicate with others about the climate crisis from a place of personal clarity and empowerment.
  • Apply story as a powerful tool for organizing, connecting, and changemaking.

Rachel is pretty awesome at this. I know because she helped me with my climate story years ago 🙂

Hope to see you there!

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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