Saul Griffith's commitment to showing how much individuals--and entire superpowers--can benefit from "energy literacy"

Saul Griffith at Stanford ( video of presentation here )

Saul Griffith at Stanford (video of presentation here)

Continuing our week of blogs reckoning with the chastening IPCC report on climate change - but also trying to focus on concrete actions and motivating knowledge, rather than gnashing our teeth and rending our garments - we were alerted to the work of Australian-American inventor Saul Griffith.

About ten years ago, Griffith went on a tour with a presentation on how he - and by implication, we - could calculate the energy used in an everyday life (in his case, at the time, that of a San Franciscan entrepreneur). His talk from the Long Now seminar (a video at the link) in 2009 is worth listening to:

The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy, most of it burning fossil fuels. To level off at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to reduce the fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy, and we have to do it in 25 years or it’s too late. Currently about half a terawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources.

For individuals, to stay at the world’s energy budget at 16 terawatts, while many of the poorest in the world might raise their standard of living to 2,200 watts, everyone now above that level would have to drop down to it. Griffith determined that most of his energy use was coming from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff, along with his diet. Now he drives the speed limit (and he has passed no one in six months), seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. He’s healthier, eats better, has more time with his family, and the stuff he has he cherishes.

…Griffith said this is not like the Manhattan Project, it’s like the whole of World War II, only with all the antagonists on the same side this time. It’s damn near impossible, but it is necessary. And the world has to decide to do it.

This contemporaneous 2009 interview with Fast Company spells out what the consequences of his personal energy audit was for Griffith:

Did you have any surprises when you conducted an audit of your personal energy use? 

I was shocked at how much crap goes through my life and the embodied energy in it. I am repulsed now every time I see packaging, or some small item that serves no real purpose other than to mildly entertain me for the few moments before I throw it out.

I was also shocked to realize how much energy goes into our military and transport infrastructure. Broadly speaking, the percentage of your income that you pay in taxes is the percentage of your own personal energy use (and consequently carbon emissions) that the government decides on your behalf. For most Americans, this means 20 to 40 percent of their carbon output is done on their behalf by the government. A surprisingly large amount of this is in military infrastructure.

In a truly carbon constrained world, can we really afford to fight the wars that we do and keep the level of military infrastructure that we have?  It makes you look very differently at big government. I certainly don’t want my carbon spent fighting wars in Iraq or building infrastructure that will only contribute to making the climate problem harder to solve.

I was also surprised by the amount of energy used in flying. It has made me drastically change my travel habits and fly much, much less.

Are there many little things that we do with an energy cost we take for granted? 

Everything you do uses energy in some way. I was surprised, for example, by how much energy it takes to deliver one can or bottle of soda or energy drink to me. If you drink one or two every day, it is the equivalent of constantly burning a 60-100Watt light bulb. Similarly, having a newspaper home delivered every day uses about the same amount of energy as a four-minute hot shower each morning.

Being able to compare all of these things is quite liberating. It lets you think about which things you do that you really enjoy, versus those things you do purely because they are habit. In an odd way my life is improving right now because of my effort to reduce my energy use. I have been eliminating habits that use energy for no good reason, and focusing on using my power budget on those things that really make me happy. For example, rather than eat low quality meat at every meal, I only eat beautiful, quality meat once a week or every two weeks. I’m also walking and riding my bicycle more and am healthier as well.

Ten years on, and Griffith - whose OtherLab is a serial hothouse for climate-improving technologies, and has been coming up with them over the last decade - is now trying his best to graphically show the whole US where its energy use is going, in order that it can make planet-saving alternative choices.

A recent presentation at Stanford saw Griffith speaking to a giant wall graphic of total energy flows - from mining it, to using it as gas or electricity, to the sectors it precisely powers. You can scan it yourself here, at the cheekily URL’d (not really). The whole presentation is below, but The Stanford Daily gave us the highlights (after the video).

[One startling (and possibly enraging) fact that Griffith brings to us early: the first mention of atmospheric carbon dioxide in a government document was in a 1965 study commissioned by former President Lyndon B. Johnson. And he reminded his audience that Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.]

From The Stanford Daily:

Griffith compiled the different elements of U.S. energy use on one flow chart that showed the energy used by the country as a whole. He expressed frustration over his inability to isolate data from the steel industry, chemical industry and petrochemical industry because the government allows these industries to retain such statistics as trade secrets. 

“I used to think it was because they didn’t want us to know who’s making munitions, but it’s actually because they didn’t want us to know who’s making fertilizers,” Griffith said.

Griffith pointed out that Canada, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico are the biggest sources of U.S. oil, in that order. He also explained that data for U.S. fossil fuel production shows that 87 percent of oil, 89 percent of natural gas and 88 percent of coal are produced in conservative-leaning states.

“You want to understand why these states keep up the fight for [fossil fuels]? It is their economy,” Griffith said. “You can flip that on its head and make it good news. The reason those states have all of the energy is because they’re the giant states, so if you map solar and wind resources they also win that on giant margins.”Griffith projected how modifying people’s life habits could change the makeup of the U.S. energy usage flow diagram. He warned the audience of possible misconceptions regarding sustainable lifestyles.

“I’m very frustrated with the [idea that] if we all buy Teslas or use stainless steel water bottles and get LEDs, then the problem is solved,” Griffith said. “This is pretty untrue.”

Griffith also noted that some studies on vegetarianism can mislead readers into viewing meat as more energy intensive than it is, because the studies measure food production costs by kilograms rather than calories. The amount of calories in a kilogram of food can vary widely: For instance, one kilogram of lettuce contains 139 calories, while one kilogram of beef contains 2,506 calories. Still, Griffith noted, vegetarianism proves more sustainable.

“It’s about five times less better than the headlines try to teach us,” Griffith said. “So I think this gives us a different perspective on how to solve the problem. Yes, we need to make good purchasing decisions, but what we really need to do is consider how we have built our society and how … we embody good energy decisions in our everyday lives.”Griffith also touched on different motives for working toward sustainability and recommended that anyone involved in sustainability efforts find their own personal motivation. Griffith said his own efforts stem from his love for the natural world.

“Those people that wish to die on Mars, go for it,” Griffith said. “My biggest concern about climate change is that we’re going to make the world just a lesser place for us all to be.”

Griffith said the biggest reductions in U.S. energy use over the last 20 years have come from LEDs and cold water enzymes for washing clothes. He noted that roughly four to five quads of U.S. energy use per year is spent in the current process for turning trees into paper and newsprint; Griffith encouraged the audience to eliminate these sorts of energy expenditures through research and development.

According to Griffith, the average U.S. citizen uses 10,000 watts of energy per day but only needs 4,000. To illustrate his point, Griffith modified the U.S. Sankey diagram from earlier in his presentation by taking out what he called “stupid” energy expenditures that result from a lack of assets such as renewable energy infrastructure and electric vehicles.

Griffith said that while he thinks solar energy is moving in the right direction, wholesale industrial solar cell installations would prove much more effective than the relatively expensive rooftop installations common today. He emphasized that making the transition from 10,000 to 4,000 watts per person per day remains realistic as long as policymakers and businesses work toward long-term energy efficiency.

“[This scenario] is close enough to true today that it’s either true next year or five years or 10 years out, and I think that’s unbelievably good news for us,” Griffith said. “I think you can build an argument to anyone of any partisan politics that it can be economically advantageous to follow some plan roughly like this.”

There’s much to push back on here. Can we really address this ten year window before damaging climate change is irreversible, by providing plausible plans to venture capitalists and corporate strategists? Yet, as Micheal Pollin has written recently, a “Green New Deal” may bet a better shot at improvement, by appealing to business and government practice on its own “growth” logics, than a drastic “degrowth” scenario.

From an A/UK perspective, we also wonder what it would take for a personal energy audit to become a real-time display on a smart-device or web platform. Who would we trust with monitoring the full spectrum of our energy interactions, in order to give us a daily indicator of what we had to do to stay within our expendable energy limits?

In the age of Facebook and Edward Snowden, will we end up only allowing this kind of data oversight and synthesis to happen at the localised level; where we might agree to a large degree of data monitoring, if we know those managing it are accountable and recognisable to us?

In any case, Saul is an engaging advocate for green engineering. And his wind-energy generating kite, Makani, is pretty cool (flying soon):