The worldwide situation of carbon emissions remains dire, but one encouraging headline is that our use of energy from clean sources like the sun, wind, water, and geothermal heat is gradually increasing. According to Mark Parsons, Vice President of renewable electricity provider Green Mountain Energy, the demand for solar power, in particular, is on the rise, with the largest share of new capacity at 39 percent in 2021, and an expected reach of one in seven U.S. homes by 2030. "The solutions for climate stability are often perceived as complex, but it really comes down to personal choice—individuals are acting on their environmental concerns," says Parsons.
The supply chain is not alone in citing consumer demand as the driver of this progress. Energy expert and MacArthur "genius" fellow Saul Griffith is hanging his climate hopes not on groundbreaking scientific advancement, but human behavioral change.
"We already have the technology—the movement we need is every family demanding that politicians enable this clean-energy future, and that banks finance the corporations to produce the required goods," says the eco-minded inventor, whose seemingly bottomless well of ideas and efforts to end fossil-fuel dependency has cemented his place in the global conversation about climate repair.
Griffith’s current focus is Rewiring America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to stoking awareness and changing legislation to "decarbonize the U.S. by electrifying everything," starting with our 121 million households. He also has a new book—Electrify: An Optimist's Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future (MIT Press, Oct. 2021), which offers a plan to get there. Here, Griffith tells us more about his renewable-energy mission, and how we can participate.
When it comes to architecture, you’ve said the client is no longer the client—the planet is the client, and that energy efficiency, alone, is not enough to move the needle. Could you elaborate?
We are past the point where designers and homeowners should be thinking in terms of efficiency. We must approach decarbonization as transformation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 report predicts that we have 12 years to halve human emissions. That was almost three years ago, so now we have only nine. For a fighting chance, we need massive deployments of clean energy on the supply side and total adoption of renewable electricity on the demand side. The first correction involves a small number of large decisions, while the second involves a large number of small decisions.
What does this mean for the average homeowner? Where do we start?
It’s simple: Replace your fossil fuel–burning appliances with electric ones when they are retired. First, update your breaker box to handle three times the current electric load. Next, replace the gas heater with a magnificent appliance called a heat pump. Then trade your wasteful gas stove for an induction range. Same with your biofuel-burning car, fireplace, lawnmower, and leaf blower, and don’t forget about those outdoor heaters acquired during the pandemic.
What else should the building industry be focusing on to make a difference?
The most important issue is better home infrastructure, but architectural vernacular should also change. We need to incorporate solar into every building’s design—and not just passive daylighting strategies, which are important, but a general trend toward larger, flatter roofs that are oriented to the south, and covered with solar panels. We won’t new-build our way out of this problem. It’s going to be about minimizing retrofit costs.
So, what I say to designers is: Get to work! Electrify everything! The majority of the regulatory hurdles in the U.S are things like building codes. Architects and designers have a huge role to play in changing the bureaucracy of an outdated, fossil-fuel world.
Rewiring America has been advocating legislation to make household electrification more affordable. Tell us more.
We’re calling for government action that includes low-interest loans and consumer rebates for the purchase of key household components like solar panels, heat pumps, and better breaker boxes. These measures would help remove barriers to home electrification for U.S. residents at all income levels and create jobs while lowering our energy bills and reducing the cost of appliances through scaled production. Our recent household report, broken down by state, shows that with these things in place, each household would save between $1,000 to $2,000 per year.
You are also calling for grid neutrality. How important is this?
Changing the grid to operate more like the internet, to make it a two-way street with simple rules of the road, is critical. We need anyone with clean power to be able to sell it to the grid and anyone with a battery to be able to connect to the grid. Currently, this is not how things work.
Do you think all of this is politically possible?
I do think it is politically possible, but not before it becomes a political retail movement. My glimmer of hope comes from knowing that many of the barriers to a clean-energy future are systemic, not technological. We have the means to address climate change without sacrificing our cars and comforts of home. Instead of a miracle, we just need hard work.
I believe that the future can be awesome. There will be a day, and we are nearly there, when the economics shift for everyone and the politics change forever because most people will demand it. Those with improved lives, which will be all of us, won’t really care about the politics of it anymore.
Learn more about Green Mountain Energy and how to reduce your home’s carbon footprint by visiting greenmountainenergy.com.
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