Saul Griffith's 'Electrify' Is a Playbook on Electrifying Everything to Address the Climate Crisis

Can mass electrification solve the climate crisis? Saul Griffith's new book suggests yes, but it is more complicated than that.

Saul Griffith a few years ago
Saul Griffith a few years ago.

Brad Barket/ Getty Images

Saul Griffith, known to Treehugger readers for his "Electrify Everything" projects, has written "Electrify," which is "an optimist's playbook for our clean energy future." The first sentence says it all: "This book is an action plan to fight for the future. Given our delays in addressing climate change, we must now commit to completely transforming our energy supply and demand—'end-game decarbonization.' The world has no time left."

After reading his earlier writing about decarbonization and electrifying everything, I will confess that I approached this book with some skepticism. After all, in his "No Place Like Home" report, it seemed we could have it all: "same–sized homes. Same–sized cars. Same levels of comfort. Just electric." Just change your furnace and stick solar panels on everything and it will all be fine. Designer Andrew Michler called it "a shopping trip to the Home Depot and, bang, job done."

Electrify Cover

Penguin Random House

In "Electrify," Griffith is still an optimist, but this is a much more nuanced and sophisticated book. Where previously I thought his solutions to be facile, this book makes it all sound plausible. Right from the start, Griffith tries to convey the urgency of the situation.

"It’s now time for end-game decarbonization, which means never producing or purchasing machines or technologies that rely on burning fossil fuels ever again. We don’t have enough carbon budget left to afford one more gasoline car each before we shift to electric vehicles (EVs). There isn’t time for everyone to install one more natural gas furnace in their basement, there is no place for a new natural gas “peaker” plant, and there is definitely no room for any new coal anything."

Griffith notes, as I have, that we are mired in the 1970s thinking about energy and efficiency, and that the carbon crisis requires a different approach: "The language of sacrifice associated with being 'green' is a legacy of 1970s thinking, which was focused on efficiency and conservation."

"The emphasis on efficiency ever since the ’70s is reasonable, since almost no one can defend outright waste, and almost everyone agrees that recycling, double-glazed windows, more aerodynamic cars, more insulation in our walls, and industrial efficiency will make things better. But while efficiency measures have slowed the growth rate of our energy consumption, they haven’t changed the composition. We need zero-carbon emissions, and, as I often say, you can’t “efficiency” your way to zero."

One could argue that point; this is what my beloved Passivhaus does. But I cannot argue with his statement that "2020s thinking is not about efficiency; it’s about transformation."

But what kind of transformation? Here again, Griffith appears to suggest that everything can continue as it has, just running on electricity. Which he suggests is what Americans want.

"Americans will never fully support decarbonization if they believe it will lead to widespread deprivation—which many people associate with efficiency. We can’t address climate change if people remain fixated on, and fight about, losing their big cars, hamburgers, and the comforts of home. A lot of Americans won’t agree to anything if they believe it will make them uncomfortable or take away their stuff."

So forget about public transit or my e-bikes or insulation or behavioral change, it won't happen. "We need to transform our infrastructure—both individually and collectively—rather than our habits," notes Griffith.

Griffith does a terrific job of showing the math on everything from hydrogen to biofuels to carbon sequestration, all options being pushed by people who want to keep putting stuff they can sell into your pipes or tanks like they always have. They are all "thermodynamically awful."

"All of these ideas are cynically promoted by people who wish to keep profiting from fossil fuels, burning your children’s future. Don’t let them divide us by confusing us. We don’t just need to change our fuels; we need to change our machines. We need to use 2020s thinking to reimagine our infrastructure."
2019 Sankey

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

Things are more efficient when they are electric; quads and quads of energy that are rejected as heat and carbon dioxide just disappear and we need far less energy in total. A look at our favorite Sankey chart (2019) from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows how much is wasted; if everything is electric, Griffith says, then we need about 42% of the energy we are using now. So it is not nearly as big a stretch as one might think. 

However, to do all this, Griffith says we need a lot more electricity; three times as much as being generated now. That is a lot of wind, water, solar and a bit of nuclear, but not as much as we think: "To power all of America on solar, for example, would require about 1% of the land area dedicated to solar collection—about the same area we currently dedicate to roads or rooftops." 

Griffith addresses the daily and seasonal cycles with storage of all kinds- batteries, thermal storage, pumped hydro, but also notes that when everything is electric we have less of a problem; cars can store power. Loads can be shifted and balanced. A better-interconnected grid means that if the wind isn't blowing here, it is probably blowing somewhere else. Even solar power moves as the sun crosses four time zones. He also reminds us that solar and wind are getting so cheap that we can overbuild it, design it for winter, and have more than we need in summer. 

And it is such a wonderful world where we can all live just like we do now. 

Jimmy Carter in a cardigan

Jimmy Carter in a cardigan

"Our houses will be more comfortable when we shift to heat pumps and radiant heating systems that can also store energy. While it may also be desirable to downsize our homes and cars, this isn’t absolutely necessary, at least in the US. Our cars can be sportier when they are electric. Household air quality will improve, as will public health, since gas stoves raise the risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses. We don’t need to switch to mass rail and public transit, nor mandate changing the settings on consumers’ thermostats, nor ask all red meat–loving Americans to turn vegetarian. No one has to wear a Jimmy Carter sweater (but if you like cardigans, by all means wear one)! And if we sensibly employ biofuels, we don’t have to ban flying."

This is where I believe it veers into fantasy and tunnel vision. Changing a heating system doesn't alone give you comfort; that can come from a variety of factors, especially the building fabric. Changing to electric cars doesn't deal with a sprawl of dead pedestrians. Mass rail and public transit serve millions that are too old, too young, or too poor to own sporty electric cars, not to mention all those commuters who want to avoid parking congestion issues. And red meat remains a problem, you can't electrify cows. And none of this accounts for the vast amounts of upfront carbon emissions that come from making all this stuff.

Or maybe it does. In my last post griping about Griffith, I noted that electrifying everything wasn't enough. And indeed, Griffith veers back into Treehugger territory towards the end. He notes we should use fertilizer more efficiently not just because it takes a quad of energy to make it; we have discussed how that could be done electrically, but because it is polluting. He suggests we should buy less stuff because of the embodied energy in it all, although he never makes the leap to the question of the embodied energy in his electric cars and pickup trucks. He writes like a treehugger here:

"The energy used to make an object is amortized over its lifetime. This is why single-use plastics are a terrible idea. It is also why the easiest way to make something “greener” is to make it last longer. I’ve always loved the idea that we could turn our consumer culture into an heirloom culture. In an heirloom culture, we would help people buy better things that would last longer, and consequently use less material and energy."

He even comes around to suggesting that building extremely efficient new homes to Passivhaus standards is a good idea, and noting that it would be nice if there were "the cultural shifts that make living in smaller, simpler houses more desirable."

So where my biggest complaint with the electrify everything brigade was that they ignored everything else, Griffith does not. He understands sufficiency, simplicity, and even a bit of efficiency. 

The final chapters of the book are worth the price of admission on their own, where he offers "dinner party–ready talking points for the main questions that people will inevitably have for the main argument of the book." He goes through the litany of problems with carbon capture and storage, natural gas, fracking, geoengineering, hydrogen, and even techno-utopians and magical solutions, which I have previously accused Griffith of being. He even mentions meat. 

In the very last section, he even gets into personal responsibility and what we can all do to contribute, including voting the bums out. He advises what everyone can do to effect change, but I particularly liked his advice for designers: "Make electric appliances so beautiful and intuitive that no one would ever buy anything else. Design electric vehicles that redefine transport. Create products that don’t need packaging. Make products that want to be heirlooms." And for architects: "It means promoting high-efficiency houses, lighter construction methods, and, given that buildings use so many materials, finding ways for the buildings to be net absorbers of CO2 rather than net emitters."

I really did not expect to like this book. I do not believe we can all live the future we want in suburban houses with solar shingles on the roof charging big batteries in the garage where the electric cars are parked. Griffith does pitch a positive story that perhaps people will buy into, that can be sold to Americans who don't want to give up "big cars, hamburgers, and the comforts of home." But the boffo finish, the last chapter, and the appendices tell a much bigger story. 

View Article Sources
  1. Clark, Hugh M. "Who Rides Public Transportation." American Public Transportation Association. Published January 2017.