Saul Griffith, Renewistan And Energy Literacy  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , , ,

The Long Now blog has a post from Stewart Brand on a talk by Saul Griffith (who I've mentioned before when talking about alternative wind power company Makani) and his vision of "renewistan" - the area of the world's surface that we need to use to convert our energy systems to clean energy sources - Saul Griffith, “Climate Change Recalculated”. It also talks about the changes Saul has made to his own lifestyle to reduce his energy consumption, and notes the many side-benefits that have been accrued as a result.

Engineer Griffith said he was going to make the connection between personal actions and global climate change. To do that he’s been analyzing his own life in extreme detail to figure out exactly how much energy he uses and what changes might reduce the load. In 2007, when he started, he was consuming about 18,000 watts, like most Americans.

The energy budget of the average person in the world is about 2,200 watts. Some 90 percent of the carbon dioxide overload in the atmosphere was put there by the US, USSR (of old), China, Germany, Japan, and Britain. The rich countries have the most work to do.

What would it take to level off the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm)? That level supposedly would keep global warming just barely manageable at an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. There still would be massive loss of species, 100 million climate refugees, and other major stresses. The carbon dioxide level right now is 385 ppm, rising fast. Before industrialization it was 296 ppm. America’s leading climatologist, James Hanson, says we must lower the carbon dioxide level to 350 ppm if we want to keep the world we evolved in.

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 terrawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources.

That would mean the following. (Here I’m drawing on notes and extrapolations I’ve written up previously from discussion with Griffith):

“Two terawatts of photovoltaic would require installing 100 square meters of 15-percent-efficient solar cells every second, second after second, for the next 25 years. (That’s about 1,200 square miles of solar cells a year, times 25 equals 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic cells.) Two terawatts of solar thermal? If it’s 30 percent efficient all told, we’ll need 50 square meters of highly reflective mirrors every second. (Some 600 square miles a year, times 25.) Half a terawatt of biofuels? Something like one Olympic swimming pools of genetically engineered algae, installed every second. (About 15,250 square miles a year, times 25.) Two terawatts of wind? That’s a 300-foot-diameter wind turbine every 5 minutes. (Install 105,000 turbines a year in good wind locations, times 25.) Two terawatts of geothermal? Build 3 100-megawatt steam turbines every day-1,095 a year, times 25. Three terawatts of new nuclear? That’s a 3-reactor, 3-gigawatt plant every week-52 a year, times 25.”

In other words, the land area dedicated to renewable energy (”Renewistan”) would occupy a space about the size of Australia to keep the carbon dioxide level at 450 ppm. To get to Hanson’s goal of 350 ppm of carbon dioxide, fossil fuel burning would have to be cut to ZERO, which means another 3 terawatts would have to come from renewables, expanding the size of Renewistan further by 26 percent.

Meanwhile 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.

Can the world actually build Renewistan? Griffeth said it’s 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.

WorldChanging had a guest post by Saul last year, talking about how to measure your own energy consumption (and the associated "carbon calculator" concept for measuring your carbon emissions) and then how to reduce them - How to Become Energy Literate and Battle Climate Change.
Al Gore's documentary "An inconvenient truth" reached many people but his is just the most recent telling of a story that has been told many times before. At the peak of the energy crisis in the 1970’s, Amory Lovins wrote a book called Energy Strategies that largely outlined the problem we have today. In the 1950s Buckminster Fuller wrote many similar treatises on the dangers of over-consumption of energy and materials and its effects on the earth’s ecosystems. At the turn of last century, Henry Thoreau wrote a beautiful book about simple living in the woods of Massachusetts as an antidote to the destructive lifestyle of modern living he perceived at that time. Walden has sold many copies and inspired the modern conservation movements. Muir and Carson should be attributed for their contributions also. 2 millenia ago, in his book "Critias", Plato wrote about the demise of the forests:

“What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left...there are some mountains which have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees not very long ago, and the rafters from those felled there to roof the largest buildings are still sound.

There are many more books and speeches and documents beside these that are available today to further discuss humanity's influence on the environment. Except for the fact that we now have better information thanks to the concerted efforts of modern science and the many tireless individuals that study the effects of humans on the environment, I'm not telling you a story much different than these.

The principal difference here is that I've approached telling this story as an engineer would approach a challenge. "Tell me what I have to do and I'll make it work" might well be the call cry of engineers. This document is thus set out as a resource and an open document for other people to critique and improve until we can specify the task for engineers. Once we know what we have to do, we will certainly do it.

This document started out as a very cold and impersonal look at the physics, and the thermodynamics of Earth's energy systems. It was clearly apparent that while audiences enjoyed that conversation and it provided valuable perspective, the numbers were too large, and the issues so impersonal, that it was difficult to understand the implications.

In an effort to remedy that this document now has two stories intertwined: The larger, global energy picture, and the more personal energy accounting for all of earth's individuals. The larger story is about very big numbers and very big implications. The personal story is about each of us living and working in this shared planet, and the cumulative effects that each of our lives make.

I remember first watching Al Gore give a tremendous, and important, presentation at a conference with his climate change talk. The immediate questions from that audience were "How does this effect me?" and "What can I do to make a difference?". A few years later the answers to these questions ended up in the credits of his documentary "An Inconvenient Truth". Because the answers to those questions are the only way we as individuals can understand our global challenge, we have tried to bring them into the center of this conversation rather than the appendix. This isn't meant as a gross criticism of Gore, just that I personally want a deeper understanding of the consequences, and to know what to do.

Without doubt, the only way to move forward is to know what the target is, know how to measure progress towards that target, and have the data and information to make good personal decisions as well as good global decisions. ...

Saul is an Australian who now lives in San Francisco, after doing his Masters thesis on personal fabricators at MIT - Tim O'Reilly did a good profile of him a while back - Radar Profile: Saul Griffith, Maker Extraordinaire.
Saul's Masters thesis at MIT was entitled Towards Personal Fabricators: Tabletop tools for micron and sub-micron scale functional rapid prototyping. [pdf] It took a "traditional" tools-based approach to the construction of new materials. But by four years later, he'd taken a different turn. His PhD work at MIT was on self-assembling systems and the design of programmable materials. As described in the abstract of his paper that appeared in Nature:

Autonomously self-replicating machines have long caught the imagination, but have yet to acquire the sophistication of biological systems, which assemble structures from disordered building blocks. Here we describe the autonomous self-replication of a reconfigurable string of parts from randomly positioned input components. Such components, if suitably miniaturized and mass-produced, could constitute self-fabricating systems whose assembly is brought about by the parts themselves.

The full article can be found here [pdf]. If you want to go deeper, take a look at Saul's PhD thesis, Growing Machines. Saul also described some of his work in a talk he gave at the TED conference in 2005:

The key idea that Saul began exploring was one of changing the relationship between tools and materials. We tend to think of materials as shaped by tools, but that isn't the only way to build things. Living things grow organically, with the instructions for their own construction somehow embedded in the materials themselves. What Saul showed was that even today we can construct primitive mechanical systems with the same characteristics. A set of parts with matching physical characteristics might randomly self-assemble into repeating strings, much like DNA, or fold into complex, predefined shapes, like proteins. Effectively, Saul was doing some of the groundbreaking work on programmable materials.

However, Saul's insight about new ways to make things doesn't just rely on new materials yet to be designed. A lens formed by the same physical laws that shape a waterdrop, a kite as an optimal energy surface for capturing the wind -- these are objects and manufacturing processes that can be revisioned by a better understanding of the laws of physics. As Saul told Wired, Squid Labs, the company that Saul co-founded with some fellow MIT graduates, is "a design firm that does differential equations."

The carbon calculator concept mentioned earlier is one that has captured the attention of a few different people. Kiashu at GWAG, for example, has his Carbon account challenge.

Saul has started (yet another) company called Wattzon which is providing a "free online tool to quantify, track, compare and understand the total amount of energy needed to support all of the facets of your lifestyle". Wattzon and Saul were recently profiled by Fast Company - Powering Down: Q&A With Saul Griffith, Makani Power.
Forget about a new gym membership or diet. The most important New Year’s resolution for 2009 may be slimming down your energy footprint. Saul Griffith, a MacArthur genius grant winner and president of Makani Power, believes that a mass movement is necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. To that end, he and his colleagues created WattzOn, a personal calculator that allows users to track energy consumption down to the last apple they eat. In addition to calculating things like travel, WattzOn also factors in less obvious contributors to our energy footprint like our possessions, food consumption and government activities on our behalf. This can bring some surprises: Griffith, who bikes to work, assumed he had a small energy footprint until WattzOn showed him he was “a planet f***er.” In This Q&A, he explains why we should scrutinize our power consumption and how this can improve our health and quality of life—even without that gym membership or fad diet.

Speaking broadly, what do you hope to accomplish with WattzOn?

A personal responsibility around energy use. It would be great for people to truly understand, have a literacy, if you will, around how much power is required to run their life, and how they could change their lifestyles and behaviors to save money and lower their energy use. It seeks to answer the question that comes at the end of a movie like An Inconvenient Truth—"But what does this mean for me? What can I do?"

What do you mean by boosting energy literacy?

Energy is invisible. Apart from the heat of the flames in an open fire that you can feel and see, there are not many cases where you see the massive flows of energy. You never actually see the gas in your gas tank; I bet few people even know how big their car's gas tank is. You never see the electrons that pass from your wall plug, but the lights magically continue to go on. What I mean by energy literacy is making energy visible to people, allowing us to see all the ways we use energy and help us reduce it sensibly, in ways that improve our life and our environment. Energy literacy means you can see the waste in disposing of a plastic bottle after you've drunk water from some place on the other side of the world.

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. ...


Saul has always brought a sobering combination of reality, data and personal action.

And his data makes the strongest arguments that 'reduce energy consumption' may be the only way to meet 'the target numbers'...

Saul - "40 percent of their carbon output is done on their behalf by the government...'

Ad in weapons development and foreign military deployment and it may be as high as 60%.

There are 100's of sustainable options that are financially 'doable' to the US right now for consumers that offer a EROI in less than a decade... adding in the costs of fossil fuel exploration and 'foreign fuel rifts' and the ROI may be as short as five.

However, consumers are less than half the piece and very flexible to change... the US, UK, India, CHINA governments consume MORE than half their nations energy needs, and are not flexible to change (after adding in all gov sectors).

Here Saul brings us to a point were it is absolutely critical that we focus attention of the massive energy needs of world leaders and how they can reduce it at the same time or consumer changes may be futile. China and India are perfect examples of this...

It is more about safety and security than the salvation and prosperity... yet are they not held in the same words?

Like my coach once told me - "it's going to take a lot more than band aids to stop all this bleeding kid"

I am not going bank our worlds future on the successfulness of these 'personal action lifestyle campaigns'... as I watched what the first generation of 'tree huggers from the 70's' did to our world.

Live Earth Quote - “I pray that this event ends global warming the same way that Live Aid ended world hunger.” -Chris Rock

While they may be a 'wake up call' to the misinformed and misguided... they can also lead the same people down a path of hate, harsh feelings, worthlessness, self loathing and despair.

Hating themselves and others for not 'doing it right'...

'Personally' I show nearly everyone I meet how we can live better, longer, healthier with sustainable energy and environmental protection changes we want to make for ourselves and others.It brings empowerment, self worth and respect for others and their surroundings.

I also believe these great nations want to do the same when shown the way.

In perspective-
When we look back at our 'place in time' in the future.... generations will laugh in how we were so worried about 'energy' when surrounded by it. And shocked of our inhumanity and lack protection of our basic building blocks of life... water, air and land.

'Change' we need it.

The point about how much carbon government emits on your behalf was a very interesting.

When I put my numbers into Wattzon it showed more than half my emissions weren't under my control at all.

Which does show that personal responsibility isn't enough, unfortunately.

It's broadly-true that when you look at what causes emissions, about half is stuff that domestic households have direct control of - like how much they drive, whether they buy their power from coal-fired generation and how much they use, what they eat and how much stuff they buy, and so on.

From experience I've found that it's quite possible to reduce those things which cause emissions by 50-75% without spending more overall - in fact saving money - and without any discomfort - in fact with an overall better quality of life. And the changes can mostly be done within a week, and certainly within a year.

Further reductions in domestic emissions require spending money on stuff (insulation, etc) or else a strong change in lifestyle (growing much of your own food, buying nothing new, etc).

Still, while saving money and improving quality of life we can reduce our household emissions by 50-75%, which would mean a national reduction of 25-38%. I don't know of any other plan which offers this; most offer smaller reductions at high dollar cost.

It bears saying that for the full 50-75% domestic reduction some government or corporate spending are needed. While I can walk or bike without anyone's help, government has to lay down train tracks; I can choose to reduce electricity consumption by myself, but to be able to buy wind power from the energy retailer it has to have been built somewhere.

So what we see is that individuals can do a lot by themselves, but to do the sort of grand things we're hoping requires the help of corporations and government.

This should not surprise us, since the same is true of healthcare, education and all the rest. You can do quite a lot for yourself and your family, but you still need society to really achieve what you want.

Sad but true.

I'll have to go ask my libertarian friends how to deal with this :-)

Anonymous   says 4:41 AM

I enjoyed this article and listening to Saul present his ideas. He is a world-class thinker and should have access to a wider audience.

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