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US must declare war on climate for energy transition to accelerate

To lead by example, the United States should declare war on the inefficient use of dirty energy, US-based Australian entrepreneurs Danny Kennedy and Saul Griffith told a Spark Club event.

If you want to get tough about shouldering coal into the ditch you have to talk tough. For US-based Australian serial entrepreneurs Saul Griffith and Danny Kennedy that means declaring a war footing, where the urgency of transitioning to clean energy is on par to the United States’ response to Hitler.

It was President Franklin Roosevelt’s promise of an “Arsenal of Democracy” that saw GDP triple and unemployment plummet to 1-2% before peace was declared in 1945.

The climate emergency may be harder for some voters and politicians to grasp but it is no less important. Besides, if there are tens of millions of jobs to be had in the world’s largest economy, what have you got to lose?

Speaking at a Spark Club event at the Fishburners startup incubator in Sydney in late May, hosted by Enosi co-founder Grant McDowell, Griffith and Kennedy drew reams of data from their deep personal memory banks to outline the scale of the opportunity.

First of all, we need to wake up. To bring the climate target below 2°C, let’s face it, “we can never build any fossil fuel machine anywhere in the world ever again,” said Griffith, the founder and chief scientist of advocacy group Rewiring America.

If every car, appliance, gas stove, furnace – everything – is replaced with a clean electric equivalent, that’s a 1.8°C reduction “locked in”. And we can give up any hope of negative emissions from “any flavour” of carbon capture and storage, because “they are not going to arrive in time”. There is, indeed, no more time to invent anything. “Now is go time.”

“If you are trying to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to do something completely absurd in energy you need to justify it,” he said. “We need roughly a five-year ramp up period which looks like building the Arsenal of Democracy, which was the mobilisation of US industry to win the war.”

Cast your mind back to 1973

The reason we know what we know about our energy systems is because the oil crisis landed on Nixon’s desk in 1973, said Griffith, leading into an explanation of why energy is described in buckets: industrial, commercial, residential, transportation and electricity. Back then the White House needed to respond to a 15% cut in energy supply and introduced standards that cut petrol demand, boost efficiency of appliances and promote energy independence. “But you cannot ‘efficiency’ your way to zero, no matter what you do,” said Griffith. “It has to be a wholesale transformation.”

Sadly, we’re still stuck with the 1973 energy-buckets mentality and “wholesale transformation” looks way too hard to the majority. “But let’s be really, really honest – this is not how economic decisions are made … they are made at the kitchen table.”

Finance is the sticky bit. With most households in the US (and everywhere, probably) having less than $800 until next pay day, it never helps that energy-efficient options always costs a little bit more. And so junk is replaced with junk.

Ten percent of energy flow in the US is spent in the industrial sector simply pushing natural gas and coal around, so a shift to almost full electrification can remove an “abstract” but significant load. “If you reallocate the problem by household you start to think about this thing very differently.” Quite obviously, the sectors should all work together. If only it were obvious to them.

Electricity was the 20th century’s greatest achievement, said Kennedy, “except that we do it dumbly – we burn shit. We now have the opportunity to do those things – mobility and electricity services – better, cheaper, fast and cleaner.” Solar and storage will keep falling in price and the recyclability of the materials used in them is closer to proven. “The big difference between the thermal business – electricity by fire – is it’s a once-through-and-done, aspirated-into-the-atmosphere, poison-your-children, kill-the-future option,” he said, which does not compare well to clean technologies that can be built to far exceed demand for the cheapest optimised mix. “And then you can upcycle the stuff and do it again.”

Beyond 100%

So far to go … (from left) Danny Kennedy and Saul Griffith took the room through a compelling “what if” scenario for Australia’s energy industry, compered with flair by Grant McDowell.

It’s tempting to set targets for renewables all the way up to 100%, “but no-one has ever dared to think what’s beyond that,” Griffith said. To aim at 100% means solving the complexities of balancing daily and seasonal use – and hoping expensive technologies like hydrogen will prove themselves. In the US, overbuilding the system by 20-25% would be enough to achieve a clean grid and a supply of free energy in the summer, “but no-one dares to think that big because we’ve come from scarcity, and we don’t have time not to immediately get to the abundance narrative.”

Spark Club co-founder and host McDowell pointed to “lots of wartime language” in Griffith’s pitch to President Biden on the need to move fast. Griffith estimates if the US economy was decarbonised over 20 years, transport included, 60% less energy would be required. “The efficiency is in the electrification … there is an enormous win there” in converting 268 million cars and light trucks, 14 million trucks, a million buses, 69 million natural gas furnaces, 10 million fuel oil and propane furnaces, 40 million natural gas cooking ranges, 6 million stove tops, 70 million natural gas or propane water heaters, among many other appliances, to clean energy (all quoted without looking at a scrap of paper or his phone).

It’s easy to forget the US is a little way behind on clean energy. The 2030 Department of Energy goal for rooftop solar is $US1/watt, which was achieved long ago in Australia (back in California, Griffith is being quoted more than $US5/watt on a home in San Francisco). The country needs 114 million rooftop PV systems additional to the 2 million completed so far, he said, with net power consumption expected to at least double after full electrification. All of this extra load will require upgrades to network connections at 128 million households and 140 residential buildings, along with vehicle chargers.

Twenty-five million tradie jobs

Kennedy estimates it will take 500,000 homes a month for 20 years in the US to rely wholly on clean energy for the country to meet any kind of climate target. That’s 25 million tradie jobs, he said. Governments love to hear about new jobs, a message he and Griffith are eager for President Biden to hear. In Australia, meanwhile, we’ve torn ahead with rooftop solar and big batteries while politicians are defending coal and gas. “You’ve also got these silly buggers blocking EV adoption, as if we make markets in automobiles in Australia,” Kennedy said. “It’s just denying batteries on wheels coming into our lives and becoming an asset in the grid.”

Clean electricity makes so much sense in Australia, where petrol and gas are expensive and solar and wind are abundant and cheap. “The profit on our coal exports doesn’t pay for the oil we import; we are having a dysfunctional conversation that is focused on industry and exports … [but] it doesn’t make us any money,” Griffith said, with Kennedy following, “But we could make money exporting good stuff, including knowhow and smarts, and it would have a really big impact.”

Kennedy is CEO of New Energy Nexus, managing director of the California Clean Energy Fund and a “career activist”. California is aiming for 100% renewables by 2045, and Kennedy is confident it will happen before then. Strong population growth and consumerist aspirations in other parts of the world will be behind ballooning emissions, he says. “The puck has gone to Asia, then it will move to Africa.” New Energy Nexus works in start-up support, training and funding in Uganda, India, China, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and New York.

Australia could have a valuable service economy and value-added manufacturing economy, Kennedy said, founded on very cheap solar energy – so long as government eases the way with clear and sensible regulations.

“Every problem in the future looks like an entangled regulatory technology problem. We need to have a proactive government at every level helping entrepreneurs … if we do that, we have everything to win,” said Griffith, whose engineering career started in the blast furnace at Newcastle, NSW, before he found himself completing a PhD at MIT (after cold-calling the team there working on electronic ink – “I went into MIT through the tradesman’s entrance”) and then flipping to the West Coast to start companies in California, including Squid Labs, Makani Power and Instructables.

An irresistible upgrade

How do you convince a government? With the promise of jobs. But that in turn relies on a population-wide shift in thinking. Forty-two percent of emissions and roughly 40% of energy in the US hinges on decisions made at kitchen tables. The average household spends $US4,600 on petrol, electricity, natural gas and propane. “They spend more on gasoline than they do on fresh fruit and vegetables, they spend more on natural gas than they do on dentistry, more on electricity than they do on education,” Griffith said. With the falls in technology costs and efficiencies possible by 2024, that household energy spend could halve.

Australian households could see equivalent savings today, Griffith said, “but we don’t do it because we love our Ford Rangers.” As PV prices keep falling, savings will keep growing. “If you’re a single mother in Parramatta or a union member in Geelong, that’s what you want to hear – but no-one’s telling the story and it’s not bubbling up to politics.” Any party that gets this message into the electorate’s head is guaranteed victory, he said.

Twelve manufacturers turn out almost all the appliances that make up consumer energy demand in the US. Four retailers sell 85% of those gadgets, and energy-efficient electric options are sold alongside non-electric/less efficient gear. As industry responds to political signalling and consumer prices fall in response to scaling up of manufacturing, the tide will turn against dirty, inefficient alternatives.

What’s in it for us

Australia’s part in the global energy transition is providing the smarts – software, microgrids, grid management systems – because it’s “not hugely likely we will export 700% of our solar and wind in some intermediary” form, Griffith said. As for steel and aluminium, it will take 10 times and double the domestic energy load respectively to make the most fundamental forms of these metals for export. Solar would have to be extremely cheap to pull that off.

The payoff of huge natural grid assets linked to manufacturing is that the energy storage problem will become so much smaller. “We’ve just got to understand that selling 15c/kWh hydrogen and our iron ore to Japan to have them very expensively make steel is not what will play out if we are smart and we go all in on those industries we already do some exports in,” Griffith said.

“That’s how you get 700% renewables. That will dwarf by a factor of 10 the income we get from coal and fuel exports.”

Spark Club would like to thank sponsor and recruitment specialist Anávo.

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