Speaking from San Francisco, Sydney-born inventor Saul Griffith explains how Australia can rapidly get most of the way to net zero emissions using existing technology.
- “Electrify everything” is the cheapest, fastest route to emissions cuts, experts say
- Households would replace petrol cars, gas heaters and other items with electric alternatives
- These changes would be minimally disruptive, but provide large emission reductions
Also an entrepreneur and adviser to US presidential campaigns, Dr Griffith is one of the most prominent global advocates for an approach best summed up as “electrify everything”.
“If I had to choose the country for whom electrifying everything is the best economic win in the shortest amount of time … it is Australia,” he said.
“Electrify everything is a very, very good mantra for how we will solve climate change in the next few decades.”
The general idea is to replace technologies that still run on combustion with alternatives that run on renewable electricity: swap petrol cars for electric vehicles (EVs) and gas heaters with reverse-cycle air conditioners.
By electrifying everything that can be electrified, Australia could cut its emissions by 80 per cent by 2035, according to credible estimates.
And it wouldn’t need to invent any new technology to do this.
“It is an easy slam dunk,” Dr Griffith said.
“It’s not even particularly invasive to our quality of life.
“For every other country, including America, it’s much harder and the economics are not as good.”
After years of rhetoric that emissions cuts will involve deprivation and hardship, this may all seem a bit too easy.
But thanks to the falling cost of solar and wind power, as well as lithium-ion batteries, experts say everyone can have their same cars and houses — they would just need to be electric.
The electrify everything advocacy organisation, Rewiring America, which Dr Griffith founded several years ago, is now assisting US senators, Congress and the White House in writing energy policy.
Rewiring Australia will be launched soon.
So could the approach work and what does an electrified Australia look like?
What electrification would mean for households
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Currently about one-fifth of Australia’s 10 million households have rooftop solar.
Dr Griffith estimates that would increase to about three-quarters of households.
“There’d be solar over car parks, solar on churches, in parking lots and over schools,” he said.
The other changes might be harder to spot: EVs in the garage instead of petrol cars, electric water heaters instead of gas ones, and perhaps a big household battery to store all that solar power.
The average Australian household would have to make about seven changes or new acquisitions, Dr Griffith said.
“You’ve got to get the thing on the roof, you’ve got to change the two things in the garage, you’ve got to put two vehicle chargers in the house,” he said.
“You have to electrify the water heater, electrify the space heating, and have some form of batteries in the house, as well as the vehicle batteries.
“And then probably you need to upgrade the electrical panel.”
That adds up to about 50-100 million new machines.
Outside the suburbs, there would be enormous solar and wind utility projects, many of them exporting energy to countries with less land and larger populations.
Many of these utilities would require new transmission lines.
Heavy industries would also need to switch from fossil fuels to electricity.
(Australia’s largest aluminium refinery, Tomago, announced last month it would switch from coal to renewables by the end of the decade).
What would this cost households?
Dr Griffith estimates the acquisitions would cost about $100,000 per household.
Multiplying that by Australia’s 10 million households equals $ 1 trillion.
But a lot of this is money that households would have spent anyway to replace cars, heaters and so on, Dr Griffith points out.
The only difference is they’re buying an electrical version.
“We need to make sure that the next time every one of those machines is replaced, it’s replaced with a better electric,” he said.
Most households buy a new car about every 10 years.
Big appliances like hot water heaters can last 20-30 years, but households may be encouraged to switch earlier by considering the savings generated by using cheaper electricity over gas.
“If you started replacing those machines in 10 million houses and you took until 2030 to do it — so roughly a million houses a year — by about 2024, every household that’s done that will be saving a few thousand dollars a year,” Dr Griffith said.
“By 2030, 100 per cent of homes would be saving [$5,000 or $6,000) a year on their current costs of owning cars and powering their house.”
The government could offer a system of cheap loans to help households to electrify, he proposed.
“The advantage that fossil fuels have is that they’re cheap on day one. The problem is they cost you more money to run on day two,” he said.
“The challenge for electrification is it’s expensive on day one and much cheaper to run on day two.”
‘We can get to 80pc emissions reductions by 2035’
Andrew Blakers is the director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems and one of the country’s leading experts on the process of decarbonisation.
He’s also an advocate for “electrify everything”.
“Rapid and deep cuts to greenhouse emissions are much easier than most people think,” he said.
“We can get to 80 per cent emissions reductions by 2035 and we don’t need any new technology at all.”https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/1wsfo/2/?abcnewsembedheight=800
If Australia was to match the US pledge to halve its emissions by 2030, which is broadly in line with pledges by the European Union and the United Kingdom, it would need to cut emissions to 300 megatonnes (Mt) by 2030.
That’s because in 2005, the benchmark year for emissions cuts, it emitted 600Mt.
By last year, emissions had fallen to about 500Mt: to halve its emissions, Australia needs to cut another 200Mt.
The easiest places to cut 200Mt are electricity, stationary energy, transport and fugitive emissions, according to Professor Blakers.
These sectors together account for more than 80 per cent of emissions and can be electrified (aside from fugitive emissions) relatively easily.
“There’s 80 per cent low-hanging fruit,” he said.
“The last 20 per cent is in the land sector and chemical and aviation — they’re hard.
“For that we need R&D. They’re things we’ll do later.”
How quickly would we need to electrify?
Professor Blakers has also calculated how quickly Australia would need to electrify.
For starters, power generation would need to be almost entirely renewable by 2030, up from the current figure of about a quarter.
On top of this, Australia would need to be generating more power to meet the extra demand of all these EVs, electric water heaters, and so on.
To do all this, we would need to double the rate at which new solar and wind generation are deployed, Professor Blakers said.
The rate needs to increase from 7 gigawatts (GW) per year in 2020 to 14GW per year in 2030.
This is very achievable, Professor Blakers said.
“This is straightforward considering that the deployment rate of solar and wind in 2015 was only 1GW,” he said.
“Prices continue to fall. Australia is a global leader and is installing solar and wind 3-5 times faster per capita than the USA, China, Japan and Europe.”
Rapidly electrifying transport and other sectors will be more of a challenge.
There are currently 20,000 EVs in Australia — a tiny proportion of the national fleet of 20 million vehicles.
That proportion isn’t going up fast: EVs make up 0.7 per cent of new car sales.
To meet that 2035 emissions cut deadline, all new vehicle sales would need to be electric by 2027, Professor Blakers said.
EVs are getting cheaper and more popular, but a shift in consumer behaviour of this scale would be remarkable.
By comparison, in the US, where EVs are more popular, President Joe Biden has set a target of making EVs half of new car sales by 2030.
‘We have the best solar resources’
But Australia can electrify more easily than the US, Dr Griffiths said.
“Everyone’s looking to America to provide leadership here, which is a giant mistake. The sum total of ambition [in the US] is not nearly good enough.”
The main reasons Australia has an advantage in electrification is its geography and relatively small population, Dr Griffiths said.
“We have the best solar resources, we have the best wind resources, we have a giant landmass so we can produce copious quantities or renewable energy — more than we need for ourselves.
“Our giant houses have very large roofs … we can generate enormous amounts of our residential and even our transportation loads off our own rooftops.”
Electrifying everything has prominent supporters within Australia.
The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) last week released a position statement calling for “the immediate deployment of existing mature, low-carbon technologies”.
Asked what particular technologies should be deployed, ATSE fellow Renate Egan, a professor of photovoltaic engineering at UNSW, said it was solar panels, electric vehicles, reverse-cycle air conditioners, and other electric technologies.
“If we maintain current deployment of renewables, we’ll reach 80 per cent renewable electrification by 2030,” she said.
“We already have the technologies we need to reduce the emissions.
“What is missing is a national policy for net zero emissions.”
What about hydrogen and CCS?
The federal government has so far refused to join other nations in committing to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, and increasing more immediate targets for reducing greenhouse gases.
The international community is pressing Prime Minister Scott Morrison to increase his ambition ahead of international talks in Glasgow in November.
Europe, the US and the UK have all pledged to approximately halve emissions by 2030, while Australia has promised cuts of 26-28 per cent.
When the Prime Minister does talk about emissions-cutting technologies, he typically refers to hydrogen energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Hydrogen energy involves refining hydrogen gas from fossil fuels (which involves emissions) or through electrolysis powered by renewable electricity (this is known as green hydrogen).
The clean-burning gas can then be used as a general substitute for natural gas.
Though promising, it’s generally seen as best suited for niche industrial applications where electrification does not work.
CCS involves capturing and storing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel power stations and energy-intensive industries. Implementing the technology has proved problematic and very expensive.
It’d be easier to just electrify everything, Professor Blakers said.
“Solar and wind generation substitutes for coal and gas generation; electric vehicles substitute for fuelled vehicles; and electric heating substitutes for gas heating.
“Life proceeds as normal for most people. The financial implications are minimal.
“Rapid and deep cuts to greenhouse emissions are much easier than most people think.”
Dr Griffith said Rewiring Australia was collaborating with organisations like Beyond Zero Emissions, as well as tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, who has advocated for electrification.
“We’re already talking with Liberal state leadership and some Labor state and federal leadership,” he said.
“We’re just trying to dangle the carrot in front of whichever party wants to run with the ball.”