Filmed on Friday January 16, 02009

Saul Griffith

Climate Change Recalculated

Inventor Saul Griffith is co-founder of Makani Power, a "do-tank" based in Alameda. He was made a MacArthur Fellow in 02007.

"It is not accurate to say we can still stop climate change," says Saul Griffith, the Bay Area inventor who received a MacArthur "genius" award in 2007.  "We are now working to stop worse climate change or much-worse-than-worse climate change."

Griffith has done the research and the math to figure out exactly what it will take for humanity to soften the impact of climate change in the next 25 years, and he lays it out in a dazzling presentation.  It is horrifying news.  The politics and technologies we have now are not up to the task.

The Terawatt World

Engineer Griffith said he was going to make the connection between personal actions and global climate change. To do that he’s been analyzing his own life in extreme detail to figure out exactly how much energy he uses and what changes might reduce the load. In 2007, when he started, he was consuming about 18,000 watts, like most Americans.

The energy budget of the average person in the world is about 2,200 watts. Some 90 percent of the carbon dioxide overload in the atmosphere was put there by the US, USSR (of old), China, Germany, Japan, and Britain. The rich countries have the most work to do.

What would it take to level off the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm)? That level supposedly would keep global warming just barely manageable at an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. There still would be massive loss of species, 100 million climate refugees, and other major stresses. The carbon dioxide level right now is 385 ppm, rising fast. Before industrialization it was 296 ppm. America’s leading climatologist, James Hanson, says we must lower the carbon dioxide level to 350 ppm if we want to keep the world we evolved in.

The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy, most of it burning fossil fuels. To level off at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to reduce the fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy, and we have to do it in 25 years or it’s too late. Currently about half a terawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources.

That would mean the following. (Here I’m drawing on notes and extrapolations I’ve written up previously from discussion with Griffith):

“Two terawatts of photovoltaic would require installing 100 square meters of 15-percent-efficient solar cells every second, second after second, for the next 25 years. (That’s about 1,200 square miles of solar cells a year, times 25 equals 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic cells.) Two terawatts of solar thermal? If it’s 30 percent efficient all told, we’ll need 50 square meters of highly reflective mirrors every second. (Some 600 square miles a year, times 25.) Half a terawatt of biofuels? Something like one Olympic swimming pools of genetically engineered algae, installed every second. (About 15,250 square miles a year, times 25.) Two terawatts of wind? That’s a 300-foot-diameter wind turbine every 5 minutes. (Install 105,000 turbines a year in good wind locations, times 25.) Two terawatts of geothermal? Build 3 100-megawatt steam turbines every day-1,095 a year, times 25. Three terawatts of new nuclear? That’s a 3-reactor, 3-gigawatt plant every week-52 a year, times 25.”

In other words, the land area dedicated to renewable energy (”Renewistan”) would occupy a space about the size of Australia to keep the carbon dioxide level at 450 ppm. To get to Hanson’s goal of 350 ppm of carbon dioxide, fossil fuel burning would have to be cut to ZERO, which means another 3 terawatts would have to come from renewables, expanding the size of Renewistan further by 26 percent.

Meanwhile for individuals, to stay at the world’s energy budget at 16 terawatts, while many of the poorest in the world might raise their standard of living to 2,200 watts, everyone now above that level would have to drop down to it. Griffith determined that most of his energy use was coming from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff, along with his diet. Now he drives the speed limit (and he has passed no one in six months), seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. He’s healthier, eats better, has more time with his family, and the stuff he has he cherishes.

Can the world actually build Renewistan? Griffith said it’s not like the Manhattan Project, it’s like the whole of World War II, only with all the antagonists on the same side this time. It’s damn near impossible, but it is necessary. And the world has to decide to do it.

Griffith’s audience was strangely exhilarated by the prospect.

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