The Climate Revolution Will be Electric

Saul Griffith’s new book provides a clear climate crisis game plan

“What’s the game plan?” is a question I get a lot. “How exactly should we address climate change in the United States?" 

It sounds like a challenge. Those posing the questions imply that climate-concerned leaders have dithered and failed to put forth a credible path forward. They suggest that’s why we haven't made more progress. 

Here’s my answer: “If we build the right infrastructure, right away, the future will be awesome.” 

I know that Saul Griffith feels the same way, because I’m quoting him. In his great brand new book, Electrify: An Optimist's Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future, Griffith provides a compelling playbook for dealing with climate change. Griffith argues for doing two very big things as quickly as possible:

  1. On the supply side: make all electricity clean. 

    Think huge and immediate investments in solar, wind, and some nuclear. End burning fossil fuels for energy.

  2. On the demand side: electrify everything you can. 

    Think huge investments in electric vehicles, heat pumps, storage, and so on. 

Griffith credibly argues that these two big steps could address 85% of the decarbonization that America needs to accomplish. 

Please read this book. It's very timely — especially with Biden's climate plan under attack right now. (Biden's original proposal was really well aligned with Griffith's plan). It's inspiring too. We can do this. 

Here are my key takeaways: 

  1. Shift the narrative. Climate strategy isn't about sacrifice or deprivation and certainly not "degrowth”. It’s about making large-scale investments right away that not only address climate but also get the country on track for stronger economic growth, better health outcomes, a cleaner environment, and a plethora of great new sustainable jobs. The book lays out how renewable energy and batteries keep getting cheaper, which makes this positive scenario possible. 

  1. Think very big. There is a lot of upside here, but this is not an easy game plan to execute. The investments we need are massive, as are the changes in how we do business. All of this will require bold leadership by both the public and private sector. But Griffith reminds us that the US has done very big and important things like this before: The mobilization for WWII, the New Deal, and the Space Race are a few prominent examples. 

Griffith is a great writer and enthusiastic salesperson for his plan. For inspiration, he updates Churchill's famous “We will fight them on the beaches" speech:

"We shall fight right here in the US, we shall fight for the earth and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength for our homes, we shall fight with our vehicles, we shall fight with our grid and in the streets, we shall fight in our cities; we shall never surrender."

  1. Stop investing in committed emissions. Every time we retire a fossil fuel-burning machine, we need to replace it with a decarbonized one. Power plants, cars and trucks, HVAC systems, stoves, roofs, etc. This won't be easy to pull off. For example, even with all of the recent positive momentum, EVs still constitute only some 2% of annual car sales in the US. To make this happen, we need mandates as well as financing programs to make this affordable. We don't have time to just leave it to the "free market.” This is a page right out of the WWII playbook. 

  1. Be reliable 24/7/365. The all-renewable electricity sector must be reliable, of course, and that requires new ways of operating the grid. More long-distance transmission, grid neutrality, more storage (not just batteries). "Organizing-many-things-to-work-together" is a challenge akin to building the internet. Right up the alley of today's bold thinking private sector innovators. The reliability topic seems to be the thing that makes people most nervous. In the next edition of this great book, I think it would be helpful if Griffith would say more about why we should be confident here.

  1. Take personal responsibility. For those who ask what we individuals can do to address the crisis, the book provides clear guidance:

    • As citizens, demand the changes we need from our elected leaders. 

    • As consumers, don't worry about small decisions too much, but get the big ones right: your next car should be electric, your next roof repair should add solar, you should turn your home into a big battery that can provide power to the grid. 

  1. Corporate Responsibility. This is not really the focus of the book, but the message for the private sector seems pretty clear: 

    • Decarbonize ASAP on both the demand and supply side as fast as possible. This is so much more important than a net-zero pledge for 2050. We need a sense of urgency. (See link to Google’s plan below). 

    • Drive the innovations and new ways of doing business called for in the book. Seems like a great framework for designing a successful long-term business strategy. 

Griffith covers much more in the book, including land use, agriculture, plastics, stranded fossil fuel assets, carbon removal, carbon capture and much more. He has provocative ideas on all of these fronts. But I’ll leave those for you to read yourself. I’d love to know what you think — please report back. And if you generally agree with the book's arguments, please do everything you can to push leaders to move in this direction immediately.

The Index

  • Google's new climate goal to run 100% of its business 100% of the time with locally-sourced renewable energy is a nice example of an ambitious corporate climate commitment. First, by seeking clean energy everywhere, Google will help to accelerate investments in renewable power. Second, Google's core coding/engineering/tech skills will help achieve the 24/7/365 grid balance we need. Nice to see Microsoft match this commitment too. Read more here. I'd like to see more companies match their specific climate goals to their core capabilities in the ambitious way that Google is doing here. 

  • I didn't know about Hawaii's ambitious effort to finally ditch coal in the state's power grid until I read this great story by Canary Media. As you'd expect, it's not easy. But it seems doable and on an accelerated timeline too. Bravo! 

  • Microsoft and Stripe are doing a nice job of bringing transparency to their efforts to reach net-zero via carbon removals. These markets are young and complex — the best way forward is radical transparency. 

One Last Thing

Need a break from climate news? Stream this new series. Paul McCartney and Rick Rubin discuss how the Beatles put all of those great songs together. Wow!! 

Onward,