The future could be awesome. Solving climate change and improving everyone’s lives in the bargain is possible. But so far it has proven politically impossible. Our climate policies and Green New Deals are frankly not enough to hit the 2030 targets that science tells us are necessary. We will likely lose all the coral reefs, suffer intolerable ocean acidification, and set in place carbon feedbacks such as methane emissions from melting tundra, if we allow the planet to warm any more.
America can utilize its fabulous natural resources to provide abundant zero-carbon energy to all its citizens. Energy will cost less than ever before, and new jobs will be created in every zip code. We’ll enjoy cleaner air and water, rejuvenated agriculture, and better food. Once on the path to zero emissions, we’ll thrive by exporting technology and know-how to the world.
That could be the future we live in, and it is worth fighting for. This article is about envision-ing the project to decarbonize America (and the world), and the role of makers in achieving it.
It can be done. It is urgent. It is audacious. We need to stand with the children and get it done, because right now they’re the only adults in the room standing up and telling it like it is. It is a climate emergency. Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Climate Strikers aren’t extremists. They’re the only groups showing appropriate urgency.
We pissed away three decades fighting with ourselves and allowing fossil fuel companies and climate deniers to distract us. We don’t actually have “10 years” as implied by the headlines. We’ve already deployed infrastructure that will burn enough carbon to take us well past 1.5°C and maybe past 2°C. That means we need to replace every vehicle, power plant, furnace, and stovetop, with a zero carbon option, the next time it’s being replaced. We need 100% adoption and perfect execution.
Game on, makers, it’s your time to shine. Not only do you need to invent all the widgets, but you’ll need to start advocating for the right solutions, and being ambassadors for the better world we could live in.
Why Efficiency Can’t Cut It
The last time we had a major energy crisis, in the 1970s, the problem was oil imports that put the U.S. economy at the mercy of foreign cartels. At the same time, air and water pollution caused by our energy production also came to the fore, thanks to a burgeoning environmental movement inspired by books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Both political sides came together, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), and Energy Information Administration (EIA) were brought into existence by Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter. At that moment in history, it was conceivable to solve these problems by efficiency measures (to reduce foreign oil dependence) and by regulations (to control emissions).
Bipartisan technocracy (letting engineers and scientists show the way) was key to focusing policy makers and the public on the problem and the solutions. The EIA created the first Sankey diagrams analyzing the total energy flow in the United States (Above ). The problem identified in 1976 was the “IMPORTS, 15.5” component at the bottom left. Out of the 72 quads (quadrillion BTUs) of energy we used, 15.5 quads were imported. We developed the CAFE auto fuel standards, appliance standards, and an efficiency mindset to solve this problem. In concept, efficiency could still save us.
We have a new energy crisis that’s different, but we’re trying to solve it with the same old ideas. Indeed, the 2018 Sankey diagram looks basically the same as 40 years earlier. The majority of our energy sources still produce carbon dioxide as a by-product, an emission that’s causing the climate to warm with deleterious effects. We’re trying to fight this CO2 problem with efficiency and regulation. Unfortunately that plays directly into the hands of those who would continue to emit, because efficiency sounds to the voter like “less” and regulation sounds like “big government.”
You can’t “efficiency” your way to zero emissions, and voters know it. What we must do instead is substitute better technology. We don’t want less, we want an improving quality of life. We want more, faster, cleaner, healthier, better. The correct approach is to look at every single way we use energy, and find a better way to perform those services that is zero net carbon.
The fastest way to zero emissions is through electrification. Makers know this in their guts — electric machines are so much more efficient than their fossil fuel-burning counterparts that we’ll end up with more, not less, without even thinking about “efficiency,” but just by committing to electrification and infrastructure renewal.
» When you drive a car using gas, more than two-thirds of the energy is lost in burning the fuel. Electric cars powered by renewables or nuclear use less than one-third of the energy per mile of their dinosaur-powered counterparts.
» Electric heat pumps need just one-third as much energy to heat a home as a natural gas furnace.
» Using fossil fuels to make electricity means almost 60% of the energy input to the grid is wasted as heat.
When we electrify transportation and building heating and cooling, when we power the grid on renewables (and nuclear), we will need less than half of the energy input to the economy that we use today (Below). That’s the only efficiency measure you need — electrification.
Our cars could be just as big, only electric. Our homes just as large, only electric. Our economy just as big, only electrified. In fact, the electrification of everything will allow us so much extra productivity in the economy that we’ll probably be able to have more of some things. The American Dream could be better than it ever was.
Here is a defensible and believable pathway for politicians of both sides, a vision for America that’s bigger, better, faster, cooler, more powerful, and that bests the climate commitments of Paris. (Why merely meet Paris goals when we can crush them?)
Better Tech in Every Home
It won’t be easy. We need to electrify 200 million vehicles, replace 80 million furnaces and 90 million water heaters, and put solar on 100 million roofs. It is possible, and can be done at the natural rate of replacement of these items (cars on average are 13 years old, furnaces 20, asphalt shingle roofs 15). But we need to start immediately, and every one of them needs to be electric.
Not only the grid needs to be upgraded, but the infrastructure of our households as well. This brings the climate change conversation right to the kitchen table, and it’s a positive conversation too. Your house will be warmer and more comfortable when we shift to heat pumps and hydronic heating. Your cars will be faster and safer when they’re electric. Household air quality will improve, as will our health — natural gas in homes is a respiratory problem for children and pets. At the scale of the economy, costs will come down and every family will save thousands of dollars a year.
New Jobs in Every Zip Code
Most Green New Deals are slight in detail, and all need to be more ambitious. And they all miss the opportunity to connect climate change solutions to our households, and to a grand vision of American renewal. This is again because we mostly think about the supply side of energy: where it comes from. We need to expand that 1970s vision to include the demand side: the end uses, how we actually use energy in our homes and businesses.
Doing this vastly expands the number of jobs that will be generated, and those jobs will be in every zip code. There’s an awful lot of work in putting solar on roofs, replacing furnaces with heat pumps, and rewiring the home to charge the electric vehicles in the driveway. We need to connect all those homes with micro grids, build vehicle charging infrastructure everywhere, and connect the entire continent to move energy long distances to meet 24/7 demand. There are even more jobs in decarbonizing industry and developing climate-friendly agriculture.
We recognize that most fossil fuels (85%–90%) are mined and extracted in large, resource-rich states that tilt “red.” But it’s these states where the majority of utility-scale wind and solar will be built, because they have the land area. Some industries will lose, but those are the industries who have been lying to you and your children for decades. Entirely new industries will spring up.
If America acts first, we’ll be one of the major economies that export this clean infrastructure to the rest of the world. The U.S. needs to lead, and just as surely Japan, Germany, South Korea, and China will follow. The bigger the commitment we make to leading the world, the larger the share of the export pie we’ll hold as we produce the infrastructure of the future for the world.
U.S. Finance to Unleash the Future
There is one thing government can do that no one else can: provide the financing backdrop for this revolution. We’ve done it before. As part of the New Deal, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration to enable the government to release capital to local banks to finance housing loans. The act was amended in 1938 to create Fannie Mae. This influx of capital enabled the suburbanization and housing boom of post-WWII America by enabling far greater access to low-interest loans. Today, slashing energy bills would increase a family’s cash flow and capacity to finance their home ownership. At an 8% interest rate financing solar cells, half the money goes to financing. At 3% it’s negligible. The government could find enormous leverage in the private markets with a low-interest infrastructure “climate loan guarantee” instrument. Every voter would benefit from the lower energy bills and renewed infrastructure that results.
Solar cells, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and batteries mean that the balance of infrastructure is shifting to the consumer. Providing government insurance or home loan-quality financing will enable consumers to purchase this infrastructure and lower their energy bills — infrastructure that will mean high-quality jobs for decades. And a more distributed grid built on a profusion of interconnected micro grids will be much more resilient than today’s electric grid, just as internet infrastructure is strong because of its distribution.
The Decarbonization Revolution
Some people have likened this decarbonization project to the Apollo moonshot, others to Democracy’s Arsenal, the manufacturing buildup for World War II. Some say it’s a Manhattan Project in scientific scope. Some think it’s a new New Deal.
To have a chance of creating the future our children want and need, it is all four of these at once. The manufacturing buildup of electric vehicle production, solar plants, and wind energy is akin to Democracy’s Arsenal. Figuring out how to sequester carbon cost-effectively is a Manhattan Project (and developing clean commercial fusion energy is another). The new New Deal is the grid build-out required for such an enormous shift to an electrified economy — the transmission lines and the charging infrastructure. Want a moonshot? Figure out how to sequester carbon in better agricultural practices while feeding more people better food. Or how to decarbonize industry and use synthetic biology to replace plastics.
Mid-20th-century America was built on an audacious combination of science projects, visionary infrastructure, innovative manufacturing, and novel financing, all supported by and in partnership with government. It’s why the world looks to America to lead the decarbonization revolution — we’re the only country with a history of achieving projects this ambitious.
Makers Will Make It Happen
Waiting 4 more years to implement such a plan is likely the difference between a 1.5°C and 2°C warming of the world. That could be the difference between some coral reefs and glaciers, and none at all. A plan this audacious and American could’ve come from either political party in the mid-20th century. Perhaps it could come from either party in 2020 but I’m scared it will come from neither.
The best way to demonstrate the future by is building it. This is where makers can shine. All you early adopters, hackers, inventors, designers, and activists — now is the time to design, build, and implement the solutions for a decarbonized world around your own house, connected to your community, as shining examples for your county and state, that fit into the national picture, to create an international solution. There’s a lot to learn from each other: what works for different regions (HVAC solutions differ wildly by climate region) and population densities (carbonless transport in cities looks very different from rural areas).
It’s in our hands. Climate change is now with us, and with us forever. Honestly the challenge is to design and popularize a world and a way of living in it that doesn’t descend into climate chaos or negative feedback loops, doesn’t destroy more mammal life, marine life, or critical oxygenating rain forests, and provides a happy environment for 8 to 10 billion people to prosper.
For the first time, I think we can squint and see a solution where that decarbonized world is possible, without requiring us to invent something completely magical, like fusion. The biggest question is whether we can summon the political will, and the concerted effort, to make it happen.
Stand with Your Children
This is the first of 4 articles on makers and climate change. This one’s the big picture — why it’s urgent and why it’s about technology substitution, not efficiency.
No one knows how to get to zero carbon; it will take thousands of innovations. In future issues we’ll tackle the 3 big areas where Makers can make the change: our vehicles, our homes, and our stuff. We’ll dive deep on electric vehicles, how to electrify entire homes and why that’s even more important, and decarbonizing all our stuff (and keeping plastics out of the ocean while we’re at it).