We seem to be at an inflection point regarding our stance toward global warming; meaning that a lot is happening at all levels, from the international all the way down to our local households.
Many of us are taking an “all hands on deck” stance to this crisis, as evidenced by the formation of Oak Park Climate Action Network (Oak Park CAN), an ad hoc group which has nudged the Oak Park Village Board and staff toward formulating a climate action plan. We’ve also seen other local governmental bodies, most notably the Park District of Oak Park, moving ahead with ambitious projects to both conserve energy and produce it through solar installations.
Which brings me to Electrify by Saul Griffith. I don’t normally write book reviews, but this book has made quite a splash in the environmental community, and for good reason.
Appropriately subtitled “An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future,” Griffith simultaneously lays out the case that climate change is an emergency like no other while assuring us that following his game plan could result in an incredibly revitalized economy and a much more pleasant place to live, while averting a worldwide climate crisis.
An engineer, inventor, entrepreneur and MacArthur Fellow, Griffith draws on his extensive experience in measuring our country’s energy use for the U.S. Department of Energy. Electrify was released in October by MIT Press. It is currently available through the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library. I got my copy through a special order at The Book Table. Despite the fact that the book is crammed full of graphs and tables, the writing style is surprisingly crisp and accessible to the lay (non-engineer) reader.
Griffith’s basic position is that time has run out and we have to focus on the largest sources of carbon emissions if we are to have a realistic chance of getting the problem under control. He identifies the overwhelming source of carbon dioxide (about 75%) as the combustion of fossil fuels. Other sources, such as livestock, fertilizer, manure and cement pale in comparison.
It is refreshing that he cuts through a lot of side issues and provides a broad perspective of our current situation, making the case that we have to set aside 1970s’ notions of regarding energy conservation and recycling in order to focus on the task at hand. Don’t sweat the small stuff, he is saying, because the task at hand is big and needs our attention.
The good news is that we possess the technologies needed to convert to an electricity generation system reliant on non-carbon producing means. Solar and wind generation and batteries have plummeted in price while swiftly gaining market share. On the consumption side of the energy-use equation, we now have vastly improved electric vehicles and heat pump technology, which enables us to convert, with greater energy efficiency, to electric clothes dryers, hot water heaters and home heating. Even better, electrifying everything presents an opportunity to revitalize our economy in a way similar to what happened when our country was forced to ramp up manufacturing during World War II.
Without leaning too heavily on the doomsday scenario, Griffith reminds us of the multiple ways that the climate crisis is getting worse, including rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and potential crop failures. Although our technology is pointed in the right direction, he convincingly argues that waiting for the market to fix the problem will take too long.
Griffith comes up with a detailed plan of action that includes a great deal of information about how our electrical system works and how it must be changed. Although making our energy system all-electric will require vastly increasing our generation of electricity, it will actually reduce our energy use to less than half of what it is now, he claims. His argument is nothing short of exhaustive, and at times exhausting, as he covers such needs as revamping the grid, financing, zoning changes and other policy decisions that will have to be made by our political leaders.
Financing will be key, as the changes have to reach every income level to cut carbon emissions sufficiently. He likens the need for low-interest financing — for the acquisition of rooftop solar, cars and heating systems — to the low-interest financing provided during the Great Depression to avoid foreclosure on millions of homes. Indeed, he sees this as a potential boon to lower-income households that typically spend a much higher proportion of their incomes on energy consumption.
He pushes aside such considerations as the possibility of some dramatic breakthrough in carbon capture or free-market solutions like carbon taxes or carbon trading as being either untried or too slow.
Citing our experiences in other crises, he makes a very convincing case that we can avert a severe climate crisis. The effort to ramp up our war machine during wartime does show that we could probably accomplish a similar large-scale revision of our economy. One wonders, however, if we need an enemy to make today’s crisis real in the minds of our countrymen. Or perhaps we just need to make it a race with the Chinese and Russians to see who can get rid of their smokestacks the fastest, echoing our earlier race to the moon.
Nick Bridge is former chair of the Oak Park Energy and Environment Commission and is currently a member of the Oak Park Plan Commission.