"Rapid and total decarbonization" of the U.S. economy, by tripling the size of the electric grid and replacing nearly every fuel-burning machine with an electric one, would create 25 million U.S. jobs, according to a new report.
It was written by San Francisco-based energy researchers Saul Griffith and Sam Calisch, who argue that both climate change and the wave of coronavirus unemployment can be solved with an all-out, multitrillion-dollar effort like the one that helped America win World War II.
The report’s assumptions are bound to make many energy experts shake their heads in disbelief: America would double the size of its nuclear fleet, triple or quadruple the capacity of the electric grid and count on $3 trillion of new government spending. But the plan needs no new technology breakthroughs, doesn’t require any coal or natural gas plants to retire early, and asks for no changes in consumer behavior, according to Griffith, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. graduate who has launched numerous energy ventures.
He says it’s time to look at the energy transition as something that could create both massive employment and abundant cheap energy, unlike the "scarcity mindset" that has guided U.S. energy policy since the 1970s.
"You can’t just keep upping the mileage on cars and solve climate change," he said in an interview.
The report, "Mobilizing for a Zero-Carbon America," goes far beyond the energy prescriptions of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has called for zeroing out the emissions of the electric grid by 2035.
While it has the same deadline — 2035 — Griffith’s plan would eliminate emissions not just from the grid, but also from most of the rest of the economy, including transportation, industry and buildings.
That idea is already meeting with doubters, such as Dustin Meyer, head of the market development group at the American Petroleum Institute, which advocates for the oil and gas industry.
"That’s a very, very aggressive timeline," said Meyer. "That makes the challenge of decarbonization that much more difficult."
He pointed out that natural gas power plants play a crucial role in balancing out the grid — both minute by minute and season to season — a problem that Griffith’s plan does not directly address.
Griffith’s plan would carve out only a small role for combustive fuels, and none of them from fossils. The grid would need to be expanded because almost everything would run on electricity, and making it so would require a great many workers.
"That will need millions of miles of new and upgraded transmission and distribution to get to the end user. Finally on the demand side, we’ll need to electrify our 250 million vehicles, 130 million households, 6 million trucks, all of manufacturing and industrial processes, and 5.5 million commercial buildings covering 90 billion square feet," the report said.
The report is backed by Rewiring America, a new project under the umbrella of the Windward Fund, a nonprofit that supports environmental causes. Rewiring America is led by Griffith, 46, and by Alex Laskey, 43, who co-founded Opower, an energy efficiency firm that four years ago was sold to Oracle Corp.
Griffith said he wrote the report to supply a missing part of the clean-energy transition: What could be gained from a clean-energy revolution, including jobs?
"Traditional environmentalists and youth movement, they have the right aspirations, but they won’t know what to demand because no one has painted a picture in their minds of what is possible," Griffith said.
‘Simple to imagine’
The crucial ingredient of Rewiring America’s proposal is to electrify nearly everything by its next generation.
"This is fairly simple to imagine: when someone’s car reaches retirement age, it is replaced with an electric vehicle. When a natural gas plant is retired, it is replaced with nuclear or renewables," the report said.
The plan would put the nation’s electrical system on steroids, growing it from today’s 450 gigawatts of delivered electricity to as much as 2,000 GW.
But the nation’s overall energy demand would be slashed by more than half, according to the report, because electric machines are typically more efficient than those that rely on combustion. Overall U.S. energy needs would fall from about 98 quads to about 42 quads, the report said. A "quad" is 1 quadrillion British thermal units and represents a staggering amount of energy.
Industries that can’t be electrified — long-distance flights and truck freight, mining and construction, steelmaking, farm vehicles — account for about 5 to 10 quads of energy. But under Rewiring America’s plan, those technologies wouldn’t be powered by fossil fuels, either.
Instead, they would use hydrogen or other synthetic fuels. The energy to make those fuels would be supplied by solar and wind farms and by the U.S. nuclear fleet, which would double in size from 100 GW to 200 GW, the report said.
For comparison, the only new nuclear construction project in the country, Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia, is set to add a combined 2.2 GW of capacity to the power grid when it comes online early this decade. The Southern Co. project has been troubled by cost overruns and delays (Energywire, June 26).
A great mobilization
Griffith is used to being pooh-poohed, as someone who for decades has worked at the edge of the possible.
A native of Australia, he became an entrepreneur after graduating from MIT in 2004. He is the founder of Otherlab, an invention incubator in San Francisco that has launched a dozen successful businesses in robotics, manufacturing and solar power (Energywire, June 4, 2015).
The basis for Griffith’s work is a super-chart of U.S. energy flows that the Department of Energy commissioned Otherlab to create in 2018. Called a Sankey diagram, it is drawn from dozens of U.S. government databases to create a richly detailed picture of the U.S. energy system.
The Rewiring America report calls for a "mobilization period" similar to the all-out effort to arm up for World War II that created a crest of 17.5 million jobs.
This new hive of 21st-century clean-energy activity would create 25 million jobs over an intense transition period of three to five years, which would taper to 5 million jobs to maintain the system once in place.
Currently, the U.S. energy industry employs about 1.8 million people, or 2.7 million if gas station employees are included, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited in the report.
"Aggressive decarbonization would create, rather than destroy, many millions of well-paying American jobs. These jobs will be highly distributed geographically and difficult to offshore," the report said.
The price tag for the government would be $3 trillion over 10 years, with another $17 trillion to $22 trillion supplied by private industry, according to the Rewiring America plan. The energy savings embodied in an electrified, zero-carbon economy would save American households $1,000 to $2,000 a year, it said.
"This is something like the fastest imaginable pathway to decarbonization without hobbling the economy — in fact, boosting it," the report said.