AUSTINMER, Australia — During a TED talk, Australian inventor Saul Griffith wanted to show his audience how much a person’s individual choices can affect the planet.
The person, in this case, was himself.
And so, the tall engineer with tousled brown hair pulled up a chart on a big screen behind him on the stage.
On display was an exhaustive audit of his personal energy impact, calculating the carbon footprint of every action in his life down to his underwear, toilet paper and taxes.
The founder of a wind power company and a dedicated bicycle commuter, Griffith was ashamed to discover that he was consuming much more power than the average American.
In short, a planet hypocrite, he told his audience.
“I really thought I was the leader of the environmental movement. I was not,” he said. “I was doing bad things to Gaia.”
Since that TED talk 10 years ago, Griffith’s San Francisco lab has attracted $100 million in capital from investors and spun out a dozen companies.
The 47-year-old, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2007 for his prodigious inventions “in the global public interest,” from novel household water-treatment systems to an educational cartoon series for kids, has spent the past decade working to solve climate change through technology.
His solution: mass electrification.
While most environmentalists have taken aim at the fossil fuel industry, Griffith wants to decarbonize each American household — replacing every gas cooktop, furnace and hot water heater with electric devices. Otherwise, he says, efforts to reach net-zero carbon emissions will fall short.
Most of Griffith’s tinkering happens in a nearly century-old former factory in San Francisco’s Mission District. Organs were once assembled here and lowered to street level through a giant trap door in the wooden floor.
Now, the organ parts left behind have been crafted into benches, tables and a skateboard rack. Old organ chimes hang from the walls above the main workspace. The three-floor, narrow, 24-foot-wide, 6,000 square-foot building’s architecture predates modern building codes, with perilously steep staircases winding up to Griffith’s top-floor office.
From every available space on the ceiling and walls, Griffith’s team has hung bicycles — from cargo bikes to a four-seater electric model.
Otherlab, which Griffith co-founded more than a decade ago, is where the Australian and two dozen other scientists are trying to find a way to stop global warming.
One of the lab’s current projects aims to radically redesign offshore wind platforms. Another team is designing a solar-powered scooter set for launch this year. They also designed a tracker system that helps solar panels follow the sun’s path through the day.
“Things don’t stay on paper very long,” said Joanne Huang, Otherlab’s special projects lead, who joined the company in 2019. “It is like a build-it-and-see kind of place. It’s very fun in that way.”
Where many environmentalists focus on a gloomy outlook for the planet, Griffith believes climate change is solvable, and he imagines a cleaner future that looks better than what we have now.
“Most environmental groups are still telling the story that if we try really, really hard, life is only going to suck a little bit less than it would otherwise,” he said in an interview. “There is every reason to believe the future can be awesome!”
In the first-floor workshop, Huang and Hans von Clemm, an engineer, were recently working on modular cubes designed to stack neatly in the corner of a person’s garage to store excess energy from rooftop solar systems. The heating and storage systems are being tested in several homes in California, including Huang’s. Their hope is to store electricity from rooftop solar panels for far less than the cost of a lithium battery — making the technology accessible to more people.
“When Saul is doing development, he is trying to understand: ‘How can I make the biggest impact, and how can I involve the most people? How can I address the people that new technology doesn’t normally get to?’” Huang said.
Otherlab’s projects have received grants from the U.S. Energy Department’s advanced research lab, the U.S. Navy and NASA.
For the task, Griffith has assembled an eclectic team. Von Clemm is a former ski instructor; Huang was a competitive snowboarder.
Von Clemm, who joined Otherlab as an intern in 2016, remembers the day he interviewed for the job. Griffith asked to see his hands, which were calloused and covered in cuts. The week before, von Clemm had been building a knife drawer for his mom. “All right,” Griffith said approvingly.
He then handed the young engineering student a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to draw a working bicycle in 60 seconds. Von Clemm said his hands were shaking. When he finished, Griffith declared: “Okay, you can start tomorrow.”
Griffith’s vision for addressing the devastating impact of climate change bucks tradition. Instead of just focusing on shutting down coal and gas-fired power plants and polluting industries and switching to renewable power generators, he wants to also focus on suburban life.
Switching to more renewable energy sources, such as wind power, and solar are important, he said. But there is little use in having wind or solar power if your stovetop, furnace and water heater are powered by gas.
Griffith acknowledges this could be a tough task — furnaces are not easy to swap out like appliances such as refrigerators: Typically, you replace them only when they are broken. Clean technology for households has not kept up with the strides made in the renewable energy industry in the past decade, he says.
“We need a Cambrian explosion of local experiments of how to locally solve the problem” said Griffith, whose book, “Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future,” will be published in October.
“Solving climate change should taste at least as good as carrots, at best ice cream, but it should not be painful,” he writes.
Households are a big source of emissions, Griffith says, and unlike previous energy crises, this is not a problem that can be solved by turning down the thermostat and buying Energy Star appliances. It requires complete replacement of household fossil fuel appliances.
“Saul’s ideas challenge status quo thinking in some climate circles, mine included, and I think that is good for the broader dialogue,” said Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at Washington think tank the Niskanen Center.
Still, some experts — while sympathetic to Griffith’s efforts — favor solutions such as carbon pricing that put markets to work.
“I appreciate and admire Griffith’s creativity,” said Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute and Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago. “However, I think the urgency of the climate crisis requires that we ruthlessly search for the least expensive reductions in CO2, rather than those that might be possible no matter the cost.”
Griffith retreated to Australia during the pandemic and is monitoring progress at his California lab through video chats.
He is also running experiments on his own home, south of Sydney. He built a six-foot-tall cedar-clad hot tub in his yard to store the excess electricity from experimental solar panels covering his home. He could have bought a water tank for the job, but a hot tub is more fun.
For an inventor who is happiest with a tool in his hand, Griffith said he is spending an awful lot of time behind a computer these days. In his study, a series of vibrantly colored sketches — like illustrations in a children’s book — map out what he believes Americans will need to replace to stop climate change.
Walking around his yard he pointed out the lawn mower that he says can be electrified. He has a collection of old cars, from a 1960s Fiat minivan to a gas-guzzling Lincoln Continental, all of which he plans to convert to electric, starting with the Fiat, which is in a shop in San Francisco. There is still room in his plan for backyard tinkerers and mechanics.
He grew excited as he talked about the possibilities, every adult toy — boats, Jet Skis, vintage cars — that could be electrified and double as batteries when not in use.
The foundations for Griffith’s environmentalism were laid in childhood. When Griffith and his sister were growing up, family vacations were spent traveling the continent in an old Land Rover stacked with photography equipment, visiting remote islands and swimming with turtles. His mother is a wildlife artist and printmaker, his father a retired professor.
“We were always aware of social issues,” he said. His mom, Pamela Griffith, was an early feminist and Greenpeace activist, donating her art to save the whales. His father, Ross Griffith, was a director of a nonprofit charity for disadvantaged children, helping establish a multimillion-dollar business turning unwanted used clothing into fabrics for heat and sound insulation.
As a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a Ph.D. in 2004, Griffith and another student created Howtoons — a comic series that teaches children to transform everyday objects into simple inventions, including electric motors. In one cartoon, a boy imagines a future where he could travel to school by zip line — a pulley suspended on a cable connecting two poles — avoiding the “big ol’ stinking school bus of yesterday.”
“Even then I recognized him as an unconventional thinker, full of world-changing ideas,” said Shuguang Zhang, one of his professors at M.I.T. “Saul started to think of personal impact on energy early before it ever entered most people’s consciousness.”
Not all of his ventures have been successful. In 2006, Griffith co-founded a kite-powered wind-energy company called Makani Power, based at an old naval air station in San Francisco Bay. The idea was to build giant kites that could fly high enough to reach the strongest, steadiest winds, producing more reliable power.
Unfortunately for Makani’s backers, the cost of producing energy from conventional turbines fell sharply, as more and larger turbines came onto the market. Makani’s kites could not compete. Google X, which acquired the company in 2013, shut it down in 2020.
It offered a valuable lesson for Griffith on the importance of scale: “There are two ways to reduce the cost of energy. One is inventing the better mousetraps; the other is producing mousetraps in gob-smacking quantities.”
A turning point in his thinking was an Energy Department study that Otherlab was contracted to do in 2018.
Griffith has been obsessed with energy data for two decades: “Every engineer wants to know how the machine works.” But by taking a deeper dive into historical energy use patterns, Griffith said, the team made a startling discovery: The United States, they believed, could reach its climate goals and consume less than half the energy it does now without forcing Americans to downsize their homes or cars, take public transit or become vegan. And the way to do it was to electrify everything.
Last year, Griffith started a policy group called “Rewiring America” to push the idea of mass electrification. They have been talking to lawmakers in Washington, including Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) who introduced a resolution in the Senate on May 18 that is inspired by Griffith’s ideas and calls for widespread electrification of American homes and businesses and new financing to help pay for it.
The technology “is already there” to support mass electrification. The country needs investments, industry cooperation and workforce training to help the effort succeed, Heinrich said at a news conference.
Back in Australia, Griffith gazes out the window each morning and counts the solar cells on roofs in his neighborhood. Two more homes started their installations in early April.
He has done the math on what is needed to reach his goal in America: There are about 250 million gasoline-powered cars to electrify, some 90 million rooftops to fit with solar panels and about 120 million households with gas hot water heaters and furnaces that need replacing. And, because a big part of the solution is in your driveway, on your roof and in your basement, he said, his electrification plan could create jobs in every U.S. Zip code.
“I’m a scientist, engineer, inventor and father who wants to leave my kids a better world,” he said. “The data convinces me that it is still rational to have hope.”
washingtonpost.com, 28 May 2021