Saul Griffith, a former climate adviser to Joe Biden, has moved home to Australia. He argues policy changes made here could accelerate the world’s transition to renewables by 10 years. By Mike Seccombe.
The Joe Biden adviser living in Wollongong
He argued science, she argued familiarity. Saul Griffith, engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, writer and influential advocate of renewable electricity, was encountering strong resistance from his wife, Arwen, to his plan to put an electric induction cooktop in their kitchen.
The disagreement began some years ago, as they were planning their home in San Francisco. He wanted to live his principles by making everything – the heating, all the appliances, the car – electric and powered by renewable energy.
He managed to talk her out of gas heating, he says, “but she was more adamant on wanting a natural gas cooktop because she had listened to 25 years of propaganda from the natural gas industry that wanted you to believe that it was a clean blue flame and the only thing that can do stir fry, and all the bullshit that you’ve heard”.
His counterargument relied heavily on data. When you boil a pot of water with a natural-gas burner, about 90 per cent of the energy in the gas gets converted to heat, but some 70 per cent of that energy is wasted because it heats the kitchen not the water.
An old-fashioned electric resistance hotplate is better. Because the heat is more directly transferred to the pot, it is about 70 per cent efficient, twice as good as gas. Induction cooktops are better still: up to 90 per cent efficient, as well as being faster to heat, easier to control, easier to clean and cooler for the kitchen. And, of course, an appliance using renewable electricity does not produce planet-heating carbon dioxide, as natural gas does.
Still, Arwen wanted the stove with which she was familiar. There was a long standoff, right through the design and then construction of their house. “It was a multiyear lobbying campaign of mine,” Griffith says.
In the end what changed his wife’s mind, he says, was not his technical data on relative efficiency of the appliances, nor the global consequences of their choice. It was the evidence of the health benefits for their kids. Burning gas produces not only carbon dioxide but other substances dangerous to human health, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ultra-small particulates that can affect the lungs, particularly of asthmatics.
Having made the decision to switch to electric induction cooking for health reasons, using the new stove made her a convert to its other benefits. Indeed, she became an apostle for induction, inviting friends and chefs around to cook and experience for themselves how much better it was.
“So we ended up winning more hearts and minds,” Griffith says. “But it did take a long time to get my wife persuaded. And a lot of money.”
For Griffith, this problem was not just personal. He has spent decades working on renewables. He has been a climate adviser to Joe Biden and is a hero to New South Wales Energy Minister Matt Kean, who calls him “a genius”.
Bluntly put, the question that nagged at Griffith through the cooktop saga was this: “If you can’t persuade your wife, then how the fuck are we going to save the planet?”
The answer, he believes, lies in focusing less on the huge, global, negative consequences of inaction in the face of the climate crisis, and more on the personal benefits of action.
What eventually persuaded Arwen was not her understanding that her gas stove would make the global climate worse, but the realisation that the electric alternative would make their domestic lives better.
“I don’t think we solve climate change until we build public consensus that solving it is good for them,” he says.
“And I still think … in Australia we’re closer to that understanding than any other country in the world. Because I think people want climate action. I think we can be the country that goes first. I think if Australia does a good job at that really quickly, we will accelerate the whole world’s transition by as much as a decade. That would actually be something to be proud of in Australia on climate, finally.”
The biggest obstacle to that, however, is that people cleave to the familiar. Griffith offers another anecdote to make his point.
Having recently moved back to Australia after two decades in the United States, he enrolled his son in year 6 at a primary school near their new home in Wollongong. For one assignment, the class was to build a model of a sustainable house.
When Griffith went in with his son’s wildly imaginative cardboard construction, he saw it was nothing like the models presented by the other kids.
“I’m not kidding, each of them looked like they had 10 or 20 parent-hours in them,” he says. “They looked like architectural models. Without exception, they looked exactly like the houses that were already in this suburb, except they had a chicken coop, a solar cell and an electric vehicle. And I took a lot away from that. It was absolutely, abundantly clear that they wanted a green future, but they wanted that green future to be very familiar.”
That innate “desire for familiarity”, says Griffith, is exploited by the fossil fuel industry, which encourages concern that a more rapid shift to renewables will necessitate a radical change in our lifestyles.
Likewise, the governments that serve those vested interests justify delay and inaction on the basis that faster change would be prohibitively expensive and that if we just wait, a solution will present itself.
Witness the words of our current prime minister, Scott Morrison, last November: “We believe climate change will ultimately be solved by ‘can do’ capitalism; not ‘don’t do’ governments seeking to control people’s lives and tell them what to do, with interventionist regulation and taxes that just force up your cost of living and force businesses to close.”
Such glib sloganeering annoys Griffith because it masks the urgency of the situation. It annoys him because while the government preaches the free market, it spends billions of dollars exacerbating the crisis by subsidising the fossil fuel industry. And it annoys him because the necessary technology to solve much of the problem already exists, if only the will were there to implement it.
As he says in his forthcoming book, The Big Switch: Australia’s Electric Future: “It is a government’s job to lead its people into a future that’s better than the present for its citizens. This is not a job that requires sitting on one’s arse, waiting for the solution to happen.”
Griffith made his reputation in America, but he was raised in Sydney. His early employment included jobs at a steel rolling mill in Newcastle and an aluminium recycling centre in the western suburbs.
At the age of 19, he left for Silicon Valley. He spent two decades working in energy research and development. He built some successful energy companies “and some not so successful ones” – in wind, solar, natural gas, hydrogen, energy storage and heating and cooling. He won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant and modelled America’s electricity systems for the US Department of Energy. Famously, he set up a non-profit organisation mapping out how America might be “rewired”, and wrote a book about how America could decarbonise using existing technologies, called Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future.
He is no longer so optimistic about the US, however, which is a large part of why he moved back to Australia.
“When I wrote Electrify, before and during the last presidential primaries, I had hopes that America would lead the world on climate, but that’s not going to happen … America is falling apart. On the ground over there, the mood is terrible.”
Nonetheless, he sees a much clearer path to a clean future for the world than he did 10 or 15 years ago.
“When I go back and watch talks I gave in 2008 or 2009, they were pretty dark. And I think if you looked at the options and the technologies on the table then, you couldn’t see a pathway,” he says.
“But in just the past decade extraordinary things have happened, like the Australian rooftop solar revolution, like the cost of batteries coming down, like the success of – I don’t want to give all the credit to Tesla – but the success of Tesla and electric vehicles. And you now don’t need nearly the imagination that you did in 2010.
“The revolution has already happened technologically. Now it’s just a matter of little innovations around the edges, plus scale.
“Every time you double the amount of solar we are capable of making per year, the cost drops about 20 per cent. For wind, every time you double the capacity, the cost drops 12 or 15 per cent. For batteries, it’s over 20 and as much as 25 per cent. With two or three or four more doublings for each of these technologies, the price is going to drop by more than half again.”
Electric vehicles and domestic batteries remain “a tiny bit too costly”, but he says they will become much cheaper in the next few years. It is predicted that electric cars will reach their “crossover point” with internal combustion vehicles – the point at which they are the same price or cheaper – by 2026. Griffith says, “I think it will happen sooner.”
Once that happens, he says, “it will change everything”. Electric vehicles are not only a means of transport but a means of storing electricity. In his book, published by Black Inc, a Schwartz company, he lays out the sums and describes these batteries as a “slam dunk” in terms of power cost.
There is, on top of this, a social argument for electrification. Essentially, cheaper power will most greatly benefit the poorest households.
“The top 10 per cent of households spend about 3 or 4 per cent of their money on energy; the bottom 10 per cent spend about 40 per cent of their money on energy,” Griffith writes. “They typically live in less well-insulated homes that need more energy for heating and cooling. And they typically drive further.”
Opponents of incentives argue the opposite, he says, claiming incentives subsidise wealthy Tesla drivers. “Whereas they should be saying, ‘We’re going to help everyone afford it, and it’s going to make the biggest difference to our blue-collar workforce.’ That would be spectacular political messaging, and true.”
For a variety of reasons, Griffith says, Australia has the easiest path of any developed country to zero emissions. Ours is a wealthy country with low population density and abundant sources of renewable energy, mostly solar and wind. It is also rich in most other resources needed for a decarbonised future, including iron ore, copper, zinc, bauxite, lithium and rare earth elements, and many other mineral riches.
Even some of Australia’s disadvantages, such as the relatively high cost of gas and largely imported petroleum products compared with the US, serve to make renewables more competitive here, he says.
“And then, of course, we did one thing very well, which was the policies that got us the rooftop solar miracle,” he says.
“What’s worth emphasising about that is that means that a lot of actual voting Australians have had a good experience of this revolution. In the US, rooftop solar is three times more expensive, due to regulatory costs. I put a huge system on our new house in San Francisco, and it will never pay for itself.”
Australians now are familiar with that aspect of the renewables revolution and appreciate its benefits. That, he believes, should make it “a much easier message to sell that your lifestyle is not going to change enormously” by embracing renewables.
“We can have the same cars as we do now, just as big, only electric. We can still have the biggest houses in the world, only electric. We can still have industry and business, only electric.”
What is required to change is the story people are told by their political leaders, and a cessation of hostilities in the culture wars fought over climate action at a federal level.
“You know, there’s not a Labor water heater or a Liberal–Nationals water heater, right? The point is water heaters are going to be cheaper if they are solar-powered heat pumps,” Griffith says.
And at the state level, various governments, both Labor and Liberal, have embraced different aspects of reform. Between them, they are “nearly doing all the right things”.
In an effort to inspire greater ambition among politicians, Griffith and tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes will send a copy of his new book to each member of every parliament in the country.
“We are engaging with both parties,” he says, “trying to propose the world’s first all-electric suburb. That’s about 1000 homes with an electric car for every house, solar on the roof of every house, batteries, appliances, all the things mentioned in the book.
“This is the federal government’s opportunity to show the way the change can be made. And you know, I wouldn’t care if it was Liberal or Labor or some new coalition that committed to doing this. Because if you did that in Australia, if you showed it would work, you would change the world’s trajectory.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "The revolution will be electrified".
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