Limits with just electrifying everything

By Lloyd Alter, May 24, 2021, Fact checked by Haley Mast

Rooftop solar on house
Steven Puetzer/ Getty Images

Saul Griffith describes himself as “an inventor and entrepreneur but was trained as an engineer.” He is co-founder and chief scientist of Rewiring America, an organization with the mission to do what it says in its name: to fight climate change by electrifying America’s households.

In his book of the same name, Griffith “argues that we can still address the threat of climate change, but only if we respond with a massive war-time mobilization effort to transform the fossil fuel economy into a fully electrified one, run on wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources.”1 In it, he says “we see a no–regrets pathway that is most easily summarized as electrify everything … now.”

I learned about Rewiring America after seeing a tweet from Passive House architect Andrew Michler and had mostly the same reaction as he did: This is not how to decarbonize America. I followed the thread from The Zero Energy Project, an organization promoting what they call “zero energy homes,” which published an interview with Sam Calisch, co-author with Griffith on a report titled “No Place Like Home: Fighting Climate Change (and Saving Money) by Electrifying America’s Households.”

The report starts with a bang:

“We have been told that solving climate change will be hard, complicated, and expensive — and that we’ll need a miracle to do it. None of that need be true.

We can fight climate change starting right in our own homes, where decisions about which fuels we use are responsible for ∼42% of our energy-related carbon emissions. But most households can’t do it by themselves. We critically need a healthy mix of sound policy, low–cost financing, industrial commitment, and steady technological progress to support climate success.”

Before and after
No Place Like Home White paper

Starting in our homes means switching from gas cooking to induction, and from gas heating to heat pumps, gas-powered cars to electric, all powered by a big array of solar panels on the roof and a big battery in the garage. So far so good; nobody is going to argue with that.

But replacing all of these appliances and vehicles is expensive—as are the panels and batteries—costing about $70,000 per house. That’s where creative financing comes in; people are already paying about $4,470 per year for heating, cooling, and electricity, so “it comes down to financed capital costs vs. fuel costs.” No argument there, either.

Meanwhile, the price of solar panels and batteries is dropping quickly, so homeowners might well save money in the end. The report notes:

“We can now see a tantalizing pathway to an economic win in every household…To get there, we need to prioritize reductions in three areas: soft costs through regulatory reform, hard costs through massive industrial scale and steady technological progress, and finance costs through government–backed loans.”

This is indeed tantalizing: a positive, forward-looking approach that generates jobs and pays its own way.

Rewiring America

The report claims that “the electrified U.S. household uses substantially less energy than current homes.” The big black chunk of savings? “One area of enormous savings is the elimination of thermoelectric losses in electricity generation”—the energy lost up the chimneys of conventional coal and gas-powered power plants. They propose converting that vast amount of lost energy to renewables and having enough electricity for everyone.

And the most wonderful aspect of this exercise is that nobody really has to change anything.

“We build a model of future household energy use, which assumes that future behaviors will be similar to current behaviors, only electrified…No “efficiency” measures such as insulation retrofits or smaller vehicles have been assumed here. These could provide additional energy savings and would need to be analyzed individually for cost benefits. Same–sized homes. Same–sized cars. Same levels of comfort. Just electric.”

This is where we begin to run into trouble. Does this actually work? I asked Monte Paulsen, a Passive House consultant with RDH Building Science in Vancouver, Canada. His immediate response:

“We’ve done the math on single-family houses in Vancouver many times. It is not currently possible to install enough solar on a typical Vancouver roof to power the house completely for a year without reducing load significantly. House and car not remotely possible.”

I responded by noting Vancouver is rainy. He said: “It’s the Palm Beach of Canada. Try this in Chicago or most of the USA.” He admitted that in some parts of the U.S. it might work, if you had a big lot, a big house with lots of roof, in a nice warm and sunny part of the country. He hoped it caught on there, thinking that it might well kick-start the market for better heat pumps and solar panels. But he wondered:

“So we’re talking about a strategy that might work for single-family homeowners in really mild climates. Great: Those folks can do this. But this paper is asking for the government to pay for it. Why should the 90+ percent of have-nots pay for the electrification of these houses?” 

This is the fundamental problem, and this is why I have so many doubts about this.

Efficiency First!

Efficiency the first renewable energy
International Passive House Association

I have to preface the following by noting this concept contradicts everything I have written, spoken about, or taught in about the last 10 years. When “Electrify Everything” became a mantra in 2018, I responded with: “Heat pumps and solar panels are all useful tools. But the first thing we have to do is use radical building efficiency toReduce Demand!” Because otherwise, you need so much more of everything. Today I prefer the International Passive House Associations cri de coeur “Efficiency First.

I was also late to the Electrify Everything party because I thought it was a subset of the Net Zero gang, writing that “it was not really about demand but about supply; buildings could still be uncomfortable energy hogs, as long as they had enough solar panels on the roof.”

This means bigger heat pumps made with more metal and more refrigerants that are powerful greenhouse gases. One of the benefits of efficiency is you can use smaller heat pumps that can use refrigerants like propane, which are limited in size for fire safety. Ignoring efficiency also misses the opportunity of delivering comfort and resilience, which as we saw in Texas recently, are nice to have.

Rooftop solar also disproportionately favors Americans in suburban homes with big roofs and leaves most people who live in apartments or denser environments out in the cold, or as Twitter observed:

Griffith and Calisch address this in passing, noting “not every household is detached single-family house with a large roof, so for many households, the question will be whether this transition will be economically viable at the cost of grid electricity.” They note the need to “find mechanisms that enable all households to afford access to these low-cost energy solutions. We do not succeed if decarbonization is limited to people with a high FICO [credit] score.”

They don’t want to leave anyone out: “We need financing mechanisms that enable everyone to participate. This financing needs to be available every time someone buys a car, a pickup truck, a water heater, a furnace or space heater, or when they are retrofitting their house with solar.”

The problem is that it is a very small proportion of the population which goes shopping like this, even if they have cheap financing. As Monte Paulsen tells Treehugger:

“This is a set of high-cost tech solutions that appear aimed at maintaining a high-consumption status quo for affluent suburbanites in North America while reducing only operational emissions. Baked into this whole approach is the unstated premise that all the rest of this lifestyle is sustainable, if only we reduce operational GHG emissions from personal transport and single-family homes with large roofs & good solar access. I doubt that’s true. Much of the rest of the emissions are dedicated to providing all the stuff being consumed in these homes and transported in these vehicles.”

Decarbonization, Sufficiency, and Behavior Change.

Clothes drying in Lisbon
Sufficiency in action in Lisbon.  Lloyd Alter

In an interview for the Zero Energy Project, Calisch said:

“There’s been a longstanding culture of “let’s just try to use a little less of tons and tons of greenhouse gasses.” That’s not a solution – we’ll still be headed into a climate crisis. The goal of the transition we described is to not require massive behavioral change on a scale that is unlikely to have widespread appeal. The transition we described will provide the same standards of comfort and reliability that people are used to enjoying in their household now.”

The Future We Want
credit: Tesla

This is The Future We Want as defined by Elon Musk, where everyone has two electric cars in the garage, a battery on the wall, and solar shingles on the roof. But it doesn’t scale: There is not enough land, not enough lithium or copper, not enough wealth, and most importantly, there is not enough time.

That’s why we bang away at efficiency, reducing our need for energy; decarbonization, where we electrify everything and reduce the embodied carbon in everything we make (and solar panels are solid embodied carbon); sufficiency, using as little as possible (like clotheslines, or e-bikes instead of electric cars); and simplicity, going after the easy stuff first, (like insulation).

Griffith and Calisch, on the other hand, claim we can have the “same–sized homes. Same–sized cars. Same levels of comfort. Just electric.”

The problem today is that many Americans don’t have decent homes. They don’t have decent cars. They don’t have comfort and reliability. The authors conclude in their white paper that “mechanisms that work for all household income levels are important in achieving the penetration required to be meaningful on climate impact.” But this actually works for such a small subset of the housing stock in the USA that such penetration is unlikely.

Perhaps I am having such a hard time understanding this all is because I have spent a decade saying the exact opposite. I thought there was a hard ceiling in the amount of carbon dioxide we can put into the atmosphere and that we have to worry about the mining, manufacturing, and upfront carbon emissions required to make all these solar panels, giant batteries, heat pumps, and electric pickup trucks. I thought business as usual was over.

I must be wrong—it is hard to find any criticism of Griffith’s optimistic approach. David Roberts wrote in Vox that this is “the story that needs to be told about tackling climate change. Not a story of privation or giving things up. Not a story of economic decline or inexorable ecological doom. A story about a better, electrified future that is already on the way.” But this is a story that is all too easy and convenient, as architect Andrew Michler noted, “a shopping trip to the Home Depot and, bang, job done.”

I desperately wish this were all true: Nobody is looking forward to “massive behavioral change on a scale that is unlikely to have widespread appeal.” But I am afraid that it is not so simple.