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How to Decarbonize America

Saul Griffith, engineer, researcher, physicist, serial entrepreneur, inventor, and MacArthur Genius grant winner has a plan for how the U.S. can retool or "rewire" or economy on a scale commensurate with our world staying below 1.5C. His plan came into focus while working on a study for the U.S. government that mapped out in minute detail how energy gets used in our country. It allowed him to come to some surprising and exciting conclusions about decarbonizing our economy.

First and foremost, Saul concludes that if we embark on a WWII mobilization style program of retooling our economy starting roughly now, we can stay below 1.5C. We have the technology today to decarbonize most of our economy without resorting to carbon capture and sequestration or any other unproven technology. On the generation side we have wind, solar, batteries, hydro and nuclear. On the consumption side we have electric vehicles, induction cook tops, heat pumps and demand response. The industrial sector and air travel can be only be partially decarbonized with existing technologies, but given that we can get most of the way to our goal starting now, there is no excuse to slow our adoption of the technologies that exist today.

Secondly, it turns out that electrifying not only slows climate change and drastically improves our health but it halves the amount of energy our country consumes. This is for several reasons, but the main two are that converting the chemical energy in fossil fuels to useful energy is inherently inefficient compared to directly converting wind and solar energy into electricity due to heat lost in the conversion process. The other reason is that combustion engines are inherently less efficient than electric motors. The upshot of this drastic reduction in the amount of energy consumption post-energy-transition is that the cost of the transition is roughly cut in half. Another important benefit is that there will be on going and permanent financial benefits for all consumers of energy. Saul estimates that the average U.S. household will save over $1000 per year net of all investments in new electric appliances, EV, solar panels and reduced energy bills.

Saul is quick to point out that one very important factor to consider is the time frame that this transition needs to occur. Had we implemented a price on carbon back in 2020, we could have slowly adjusted our economy with a purely market based approach. But we didn't and emissions have continued to increase. So now we are in a mad rush to lower our emissions by at least half by 2030. His answer: starting now, every machine that runs on fossil fuel must be replaced by an electric version. This mandate driven approach will be politically difficult to enact nationwide, but that is for a separate discussion. I should also note that Rebuild Climate is of the opinion that a price on carbon complements any mandates and that the two aren't mutually exclusive. Regardless, some form of mandates that drive a massive mobilization will be necessary to move at the pace that the climate crisis demands.

Recent research shows that the transition to renewable energy pays for itself just in reduced health care costs, but you can't buy an EV based on improved health outcomes. So how to pay for all this? Saul points to the U.S. government backing loans that would allow consumers and businesses to purchase these new electric machines at rates similar to home loans. A low interest rate would make the transition affordable for everyone. As Saul points out, this has been done before by the U.S. government. When the Tennessee Valley Authority built dams back in the 1930s, there was an excess of electricity. So the federal government created a program that offered low interest rate loans to consumers to purchase electric appliances for their homes.

Depending on how much I've peaked your interest, you may want to watch the Vox video on Saul's Rewire America plan. This 10 minute video does a great job of summarizing the plan. If you want more nitty, gritty detail go to the Rewire America website and download the Rewiring America Field Manual. The field manual is 130 pages long, but it is an easy read and well worth the effort. Thank you Saul and the rest of the Rewiring America team for your important contribution to our understanding of how we can stay below 1.5C.

After the election, the Rebuild Climate team of volunteers will refocus our energies on building the political will to ensure that the Rewiring America plan (or similar) gets put into action.

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