If I had a kid preparing for college, I would suggest he major in electrical engineering. The future of this field looks bright to me for the ironic reason that the future of Earth looks bleak. Climate change is a serious threat in this century, sooner rather than later, and the best way to deal with it now is to ‘electrically power everything’.
That’s simple advice from a smart man, Saul Griffith, the 2007 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the “genius grant.” He applied his genius to the problem of climate change in an animated little book called “Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future” (MIT Press, 2021).
It is essential to supply our modern society almost entirely with electricity and to generate all this electricity from renewable resources such as wind and solar.
Two serious problems stand in our way. First, to supply so much electricity will require not only replacing all of our existing fossil fuel-fired power plants with ones running on renewable energy sources, but also tripling the amount of electricity we currently produce.
Second, we need to make this transformation now, but many of the machinery and power sources to be replaced are capital goods and durable goods. That is, they are expensive and last a long time. Nobody really wants to replace them before we get our money’s worth.
These issues are suited to Griffith’s genius as an entrepreneur and engineer and his vision of a rather cheerful optimist, not a common description for many people trying to meet the challenge of climate change.
He is also an inventor and knows firsthand how essential financial support is.
Like many others who feel the urgency and enormity of the challenge of climate change, Griffith is inspired by the New Deal. But it does more than invoke the warm glow of Franklin Roosevelt’s old slogan. The opening words of the book are: “This is an emergency as grave as war itself” – President Roosevelt’s characterization of the Great Depression. And Griffith seems even more inspired by the subsequent mobilization of the “Arsenal of Democracy” for World War II. It highlights New Deal and wartime agencies and programs that offer model solutions to modern-day problems posed by climate change.
Simply put, many of us are not able or willing to go electric right now. I bought a new gas furnace for my house three years ago. It has over a decade of life in it. I’m worried about the planet, okay, but should I buy another furnace later? There are a myriad of decisions like that. People will ask, should I replace my new SUV with an all-electric vehicle right now? And where will I find the money?
In response, Griffith invokes the New Deal programs. Agencies such as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation rescued families in financial difficulty and preserved their middle-class status. The Electric Home and Farm Authority funded kitchen appliances for entry into middle class convenience. And so on. Similar government loan programs could hasten the retreat from our modern fossil fuel-powered world.
I’ve been to many meetings on climate change, but I don’t recall any discussion of low interest government loans at any of them. Saul Griffith, with his visionary but generally practical approach to the problem of climate change deserves our attention.
Mark E. Neely, Jr. is a member of the State College chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.