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An Analysis of Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future

By: Charlotte Joannidis, Tony Striner, and Kathryn Weisbrodt, GMU Student Contributors

In his book, Electrify, Saul Griffith details his plan for how to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change. His idea is simple: electrify everything.

Review by: Charlotte Joannidis, Tony Striner, and Kathryn Weisbrodt , GMU Student Contributors

Book by: Saul Griffith

Executive Summary

In his book, Electrify, Saul Griffith details his plan for how to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change. His idea is simple: electrify everything. Griffith argues that the technology necessary to fully electrify our infrastructure and generate clean energy is available right now. He further posits that we can do so without making significant lifestyle changes. Griffith explores the themes of shifting from a mindset focused on efficiency to one of transformation, committed emissions, and a wartime mobilization of industry. Electrify is limited in its scope and does not fully examine international relations, politics, or social impacts. Pitfalls of the book that we identify during our analysis include Americentrism, non-inclusive means of electrification, and concerns regarding the supply chains of green technologies.[1] 

Themes 

From the beginning, Griffith affirms the idea that “…you can’t ‘efficiency’ your way to 0” (48). This means that merely improving current fossil fuel technologies to reduce emissions is the 1970’s approach that has led us to the climate crisis in which we find ourselves (48). On average, each American uses more than 100 lbs of CO2 per day (178). 21st century remediation of climate change is about transformation rather than improving efficiency (48). This theme highlights the scope of changes necessary for the success of Griffith’s plan. Transformation means moving away from fossil fuel emissions and building a new, carbon neutral grid for the 21st century. Proponents of oil and gas production continue to promote carbon sequestration, carbon taxes, and hydrogen as a fuel source because these technologies rely on fossil fuels. Griffith warns that these technologies are not a panacea (8). While they may have some role in addressing the climate crisis, each purported solution fails the “Is it ready and does it work?” test (xii). The real solutions to the climate crisis already exist; and it is up to today’s decision-makers to implement them.

Griffith points out how urgent the climate crisis is by stating, “…we have less time than you think…” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (11). He further proves his point by explaining the concept of committed emissions, which “…are locked in because we have already invested in infrastructure that will emit carbon dioxide throughout its useful life” (16). Committed emissions can take the form of a gasoline powered car that is not old enough to replace with an electric vehicle, or a recently completed fossil fuel power plant that is built to last fifty years. While some claim that the world can wait a decade or more before addressing climate change, Griffith observes that these individuals fail to account for committed emissions (16). Griffith stresses the importance of shutting down older fossil fuel powered plants and not building any more to minimize the effects of existing and future committed emissions (134-135). This theme is a critical point in his plan’s success as it lowers the amount of “committed” harmful emissions.

Another core tenant of Griffith’s plan to electrify the U.S. is 100% adoption of green technologies. This would be accomplished by a wartime mobilization of industry (16). Throughout the book, Griffith compares the existential threat of climate change to the threats the U.S. faced during World War II. He believes that the solutions to both of these problems hinge on the same idea: a massive mobilization of industry. Despite the lack of political consensus on the issue, Griffith argues that the U.S. can rally together and increase its production of green technologies through command-and-control mandates and financial incentives (19). He maintains that since the U.S. has successfully mobilized on this scale before, the nation can do it again. In fact, Griffith believes that mitigating the climate crisis will prove to be easier than victories in Europe and Japan. This is because electrification would require a smaller portion of GDP than was required to manufacture wartime materials for World War II (169). His metaphor of the world being locked in a war against itself underscores the sense of urgency as well as the sheer scale associated with his plans to fight the climate crisis. Realistic or not, wartime mobilization is the lynchpin of his plan, and is thus a major theme of the book. 

Critiques 

At the beginning of the book, Griffith states that he will only focus on the energy system of the U.S., arguing that the U.S. is “a reasonable proxy for the entire globe” (10). Griffith refutes the common argument that reducing U.S. emissions is ineffective unless other nations do the same. He states that other countries will follow the lead of the U.S. after they see that it is economically beneficial to do so. The U.S. will further benefit by owning “the lion’s share of these critical twenty-first-century industries” (200). However, his plan is not applicable to all nations. The plan relies on how the U.S. has responded to national emergencies in the past, such as the New Deal and efforts to win the Space Race (22-27). Many nations do not have the means to engage in a wartime mobilization effort (23) and rapid financial investment (169). His argument that the U.S. will own a large share of the clean energy industry by electrifying first is purely speculative, as a complete shift in the U.S. energy system has never been done before. Griffith’s exclusive focus on the U.S. limits the scope of his plan.

Griffith posits that individuals only need to make a few key decisions to combat the climate crisis. The issue is that these decisions hinge on one’s own financial ability to purchase green technologies, which are often expensive (99). Griffith wrote his plan for a homogenous, middle-class America. However, nearly 69% of Americans would struggle to afford their bills if their paychecks were delayed a week (American Payroll Association, 2020). Additionally, as of 2021, 30.9% of total U.S. housing units were occupied by renters (Callis et al., 2022). People who rent their homes may not have the ability to select electric appliances and many landlords often choose the most cost-effective options. Alternatively, individuals may not be able to afford the current costs of electric vehicles but still need cars to commute. On top of the upfront cost of EVs, the infrastructure needed to conveniently charge an electric vehicle outside of the home does not yet exist in many parts of the country. Individuals who lack financial capital are excluded from purchasing green technologies. Griffith examines household energy expenditures and references the statistic that low-income households spend roughly twice as much on energy than high income households, proportional to their income (113). This means that the energy savings of electrification would provide low-income households with greater benefit. However, the problem of initial accessibility is not well explored. 

Griffith’s plan to electrify the U.S. overlooks a key component of green technology manufacturing. Griffith believes that through private and public investment in these technologies, the U.S. can lead nations in developing a carbon neutral world (17). However, Griffith does not express that the U.S. is couched in a global economy with complicated supply chains and limited resources. He writes, “Much of the cobalt in the world is mined in … Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)” (185). Griffith’s comment exposes the larger issue that rare earth metals are only available in a small number of countries (Cho, 2012). These metals are essential for the proliferation of green technologies, but there simply might not be enough of them to manufacture current technologies at a global scale in the timeframe needed. This logistical issue challenges the book’s core argument. If we lack the resources needed to construct these green technologies at scale, we do not have what is necessary to electrify the nation. Another issue is that the cobalt mines are built on child labor. The Wilson Center estimates that forty-thousand of the two-hundred and fifty-five thousand cobalt miners in the DRC are children (Lawson, 2021). Griffith’s plan does not account for human rights concerns associated with green supply chains. If the U.S. and European nations manufacture these green technologies with existing supply chains (200), they will do so at the risk of human rights abuses in countries like the DRC and Zambia.

Conclusion

Griffith refuses to limit his plan to only what is politically possible, but the omission of all political considerations leaves many holes in his proposal. Addressing the implementation of his plan would require significantly more chapters that may muddle the core message of Electrify. Perhaps the exclusion of politics is also what allows Griffith to remain optimistic throughout a book addressing the realities of climate change. Regardless, this lack of real-world analysis is a crucial hindrance to implementing a structured plan for national electrification. Within the scope that Griffith outlined at the beginning of the book, his overall plan is comprehensive and induces further discussions of decarbonizing the planet.

References

American Payroll Association. (2020, September 21). Number of americans living paycheck to paycheck on decline despite pandemic. Number of Americans Living Paycheck to Paycheck on Decline Despite Pandemic. Retrieved March 21, 2022, from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/number-of-americans-living-paycheck-to-paycheck-on-decline-despite-pandemic-301134207.html  

Callis, R., Holley, P., & Truver, D. (2022, February 2). Quarterly residential vacancies and homeownership, fourth quarter 2021. Census.gov. Retrieved March 21, 2022, from https://www.census.gov/housing/hvs/files/currenthvspress.pdf  

Cho, R. (2012, September 19) Rare Earth Metals: Will We Have Enough?. Columbia Climate School. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2012/09/19/rare-earth-metals-will-we-have-enough/

Griffith, S. (2022). Electrify: An Optimist’s playbook for our clean energy future. MIT PRESS

Lawson, M. (2021) The DRC Mining Industry: Child Labor and Formalization of Small-Scale Mining. The Wilson Center. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/drc-mining-industry-child-labor-and-formalization-small-scale-mining 


[1] This paper is in response to an assignment in the course, Introduction to Energy Law, EVPP 505-202/POGO 750-021, taught by Professor Bubbosh.

Image: The MIT Press

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