The big switch: our last best chance?

In 2007 a humble Oregon physics teacher named Greg Craven, concerned that people were too complacent about climate change, posted online “the most terrifying video you’ll ever see”, consisting mainly of his amiable face, a whiteboard and scribbled lists of options. 

“While we debate whether humans could change the climate or not, we’re at the same time running the experiment,” he said. “The kicker is, no matter what the outcome of the experiment, we’re in the test tube”. Craven’s brilliantly simple risk analysis left us with just one inescapable course: decarbonise as fast as humanly possible. 

While most people and their leaders downplayed or ignored this imperative, one who didn’t was Saul Griffith, Australian engineer, “solutionist” (his word) and writer on technology and climate. His latest book is The Big Switch.

Griffith is having an impact in corridors of power both here and in the US, where he built his career and reputation. Viewers of the ABC’s “Q&A” show on energy policy last month will have been struck by the obvious synergy between him and the rest of the panel, including Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change and Energy.

Energy and climate change have driven Griffith’s educational and business choices. Trained in the scientific principles underlying his profession, managing uncertainty and risk is fundamental to his world-view. “I respect the data. I look at the numbers,” he says.

No-one who takes on the subject of climate change – scientists, technologists, policymakers or mere observers like me – can avoid feeling pessimistic about our chances of avoiding massive upheaval locally and globally. It stands to reason that having avoided hard choices for decades we’re kidding ourselves to think everything will sort itself out.

Griffith doesn’t downplay the scale of the problem. Committed carbon – “the carbon we will emit because of the infrastructure we have already built, and the fossil fuels that infrastructure will use as it performs its service life” – already puts us beyond the “safe” warming threshold of 1.5C. 

As he sees it, normal economic rules no longer apply: “We have zero years to begin the ramp-up and production of the solutions we have today, and to implement them at the next replacement opportunity for every car, power plant, rooftop and furnace in the country.”

The resulting jobs – enough to keep people employed for decades, he says – will be high-value because they’ll be local, revolving around homes, cars and regional infrastructure.

“Massive electrification”, says Griffith, will put us well on the way to a fully decarbonised economy, replacing the gas and oil fuelled devices we currently use for heating, cooking and transport with equivalents powered by electricity, the most efficient form of energy. 

Griffith’s plan would have millions of generators (mostly home solar) instead of today’s few dozen, and millions of storage units in the form of off-duty electric vehicles, connected by a massively enhanced nationwide grid able to maintain supply under any and all conditions. 

Industrial-strength transport and industry can both be electrified once renewable generators have been created and connected at sufficient scale. Some surprising benefits are in prospect. For instance, a truck battery-swap system now on offer by an Australian company, Janus Electric, could have an important energy storage role for the national grid.

Griffith thinks on a gargantuan scale. Australia’s renewable potential, especially solar, could make us the world’s biggest producer of energy, enough to power everything we want to do here and to export to Indonesia and mainland Asia, by submarine cable or as green hydrogen. 

He has even come up with the “crazy-sounding” idea of buying all proven reserves from fossil fuel companies – “the industry with experience in massive scale energy systems” – to enable them to reinvest in new energy. “This won’t be solved without getting them to fight alongside us,” he says.

Rewarding fossil fuel companies is not my cup of tea. And while I would gladly move to an electric car if I could afford it, I like my household’s wood fire and gas stove, both of which serve us well when wind, snow, possum or some other act of God takes out our power. 

But personal objections such as mine shouldn’t stand in the way of a national plan to get that emissions graph turning downward, in the handful of years the world has left before the climate arrives in a much more dangerous place.

Greg Craven’s terrifying video notwithstanding, we’re still running that experiment 15 years later. Of all the technology “solutions” that have popped up since, Griffith’s “electrify everything” is by far the best on offer.

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