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This article was originally published by Huffington Post and appears here as part of Canada's National Observer's collaboration with Climate Desk.

Optimistic visions of America’s climate future look dramatically different from life today. The population abandons the suburbs for dense, efficient urban housing. Personal cars give way to bikes and green public transit. Those who can make the sacrifice sweat out the summer heat, rationing the air conditioning for those who most need it.

The alternative, so goes this line of thinking, is apocalyptic chaos.

But what if Americans could drive the same miles and blast the A/C to cool single-family suburban homes all summer long and actually reduce U.S. emissions of climate-changing gases by 40 per cent? Not only is it possible, according to a new study, the average household would save up to US$2,500 a year and do it with technology that’s on the market today.

The finding, published Thursday morning, is the second major report from Saul Griffith, the physicist, MacArthur “genius grant” winner and energy researcher behind the group Rewiring America.

The group, which aims to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. by electrifying all aspects of the economy, made its debut in July with a report that found doing so would create 25 million good-paying jobs and eliminate roughly 75 per cent of the country’s carbon emissions in the next 15 years.

The conclusions ran “contrary to conventional wisdom in the energy space” but painted an “oddly optimistic” picture, Vox energy columnist Dave Roberts observed in a thorough write-up of the first report, noting that all the U.S. needed was “a serious commitment to building the necessary machines and creating a regulatory and policy environment that supports their rapid deployment.”

Griffith’s latest results could help spur the political will to make that commitment.

Two years ago, Griffith’s research outfit Otherlab won a contact from the Department of Energy to aggregate all the publicly available data on how energy is used in the U.S. economy into one model. Combining those data showed that the way decarbonization is usually discussed, as a sector-by-sector approach, is flawed. Real-life energy usage does not fit in the neat categories the federal Energy Information Administration created at its founding in the 1970s.

Electrifying a home heating system not only reduces emissions from the residential sector but also from the industrial sector that produced the old equipment and the utility sector that once provided the fuel, meaning national-scale household changes can make much larger cuts to U.S. climate pollution than previously believed.

New research shows the U.S. could rapidly decarbonize with existing technology and no real lifestyle changes. #renewableenergy

To calculate the savings in the latest report, Griffith established a baseline of energy costs per household, broken down using the Energy Information Administration’s state data, and identified the equipment required to electrify those energy uses. His team then built an “Electrification Exchange Rate” model to convert each unit of current energy services into an equivalent in an electrified world, accounting for the reality that a “fraction of a gallon of gasoline used to travel a mile today can be exchanged for a fraction of a (kilowatt-hour) for the same mile travelled in an electric vehicle.”

Then the study looked at costs. Griffith’s team calculated future electricity costs by blending the current price of electricity in each state with the financed cost of rooftop solar. They analyzed the cost savings from future total household electrical load and the upfront costs of buying all this new equipment, then estimated the yearly financing payments based on different interest rates. They then subtracted the finance payments from the annual fuel savings to determine the real savings possible for each household in each state and performed some extra calculations to account for different conditions in each state.

“The technology conversation is based on existing technology,” Griffith said. “We assume no behaviour change in the household.”

The “good” model renders the yearly cost savings at about $1,000 per household. The “great” model finds savings of up to $2,500.

“There’s this notion hanging in the air that there are sacrifices needed to be made,” said Adam Zurofsky, a constitutional lawyer who helped oversee New York state’s climate and energy portfolio and who now serves as Rewiring America’s executive director. “No, this is actually a way for us to stimulate the economy, put people back to work and put money back in people’s pockets.”

In a counterintuitive twist on what’s become green dogma on decarbonization, “it’s actually suburban households that do the best,” Griffith said.

“It might frustrate the true-efficiency environmentalists and those who believe city living is the future for everyone, but the suburbs stand to benefit the most economically,” he said.

By applying the same household model to commercial businesses, the U.S. could slash its total carbon emissions by 65 per cent. Dramatically cutting the climate pollution of the world’s No. 2 emitter alone will not keep global temperatures from climbing two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, a benchmark beyond which projections show catastrophic weather, droughts and sea-level rise. But given the economic and political might of the U.S., other countries would almost certainly follow suit, putting the world on track to avert a current warming trajectory on pace to far surpass two degrees by the end of the century.

To begin deploying electric vehicles, heating systems, cooking equipment, batteries and rooftop solar panels at scale, the White House would need to take rapid steps in the next two years to lower costs, ramp up manufacturing and streamline permitting.

This is no easy task. But federal tax credits, subsidies and rebates could do a lot of the heavy lifting, along with procurement deals from the government directly. As a model, federal authorities could look to the Federal Housing Authority and Fannie Mae, two programs President Franklin D. Roosevelt created in the 1930s amid the Great Depression.

By essentially deciding “homes were critical national infrastructure deserving of the best possible financing rates,” these programs “created the largest capital market ever to exist in the world, before or since,” the report found. Griffith wants to expand that financing guarantee from homes to electric cars, heat pumps, rooftop solar panels and batteries.

Brian Lawson and Kenesaw Burwell work on panels that the U.S. Energy Department is using to leverage a Power Purchase Agreement with Sun Edison and Xcel Energy. Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Another New Deal program, the Electric Home and Farm Agency, helped the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority offload its oversupply of electricity from hydroelectric dams to homes by providing Treasury-backed loans to buy more electric appliances. Reviving that program, which was disbanded in 1942, could provide another avenue.

Revving U.S. manufacturing capacity to mass-produce the machines needed to make the transition would require a federal intervention in the economy unlike anything seen since Roosevelt pressed companies into cranking out the arms and ammo that ultimately helped win World War II. That could invite pushback from the political right, which couches its opposition to curbing carbon emissions in an ideological hostility to government command over the market.

In its “field manual” for decarbonizing the economy, Rewiring America argues: “The invisible hand of markets is definitely not fast enough; it typically takes decades for a new technology to become dominant by market forces alone as it slowly increases its market share each year. A carbon tax isn’t fast enough, either. Market subsidies are not fast enough.”

But the programs outlined in the report would make the cost of electric vehicles and home equipment “so cheap that even the right will get on board,” Griffith said by phone Wednesday evening.

“This will help us turn the politics of this because it will start to sound like traditional American free marketism,” he said.

There’s nothing stopping the Trump administration from doing this other than the president’s antipathy toward climate science and fealty to the fossil fuel companies whose profits would suffer most from such a rapid transition. But these changes seem much more likely to take place if Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who has vowed to transition the country to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035, wins next month’s election.

“What the climate needs is for Biden to turn into FDR in 100 days or less,” Griffith said. Unless Biden takes those steps, he said, “we’re not going to hit a two-degree target.”

Keep reading

REAL decarbonization depends, not on domestic change but on de-fossilizing industrial production. Insofar as electrification of transportation reduces the demand for oil.gas, that will certainly affect production and GHG emissions. However, there are so many other industries totally dependent on fossil fuel energy that the electricity grid is probably incapable of supplying the necessary energy over its inefficient national power line structure. Alternative energies will have to be more localized, or even on-site specific.

Before jumping on the EV bandwagon, I suggest readers take a look at a recent article titled "The myth of electric cars" by Alexandre Milovanoff, a postdoctoral researcher in Environmental Engineering at the University of Toronto. Milovanoff writes: "It almost seems like owning an electric vehicle is a silver bullet in the fight against climate change, but it isn’t. What we should also be focused on is whether anyone should use a private vehicle at all. .... while EVs do decrease emissions, compared with conventional vehicles, we should be comparing them to buses, trains and bikes. When we do, their [EVs] potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions disappears because of their life cycle emissions and the limited number of people they carry at one time."

Milovanoff's latest research leads him to at least 7 reasons why EV's will not help us to get to zero carbon emissions.

On a personal note, two thoughts -- First, I think the aggressive promotion of EVs comes with capitalism’s unrelenting drive to keep the economy growing, which, of course, increases carbon emissions and degrades the environment. Second, the risk of COVID-19 infection may make it increasingly difficult to get people to give up their cars for public transit, Uber, or Lyft. Moreover, science suggests the risk of some deadly form of viral infection may be here to stay.

Electric cars, just like solar panels in the 1970's are very sexy. However, like almost everything sexy the reality will set in too soon of as is often the case, too late. Sexy things always come with an equal downside. Solar panels are now causing a huge environmental issue since the efficiency is significantly decreased with regard to how much electricity they produce after twenty years. So the environmental impact is front-loaded and back end loaded (Production and Destruction/Waste costs).
Electric cars carry an even larger threat to the environment than fossil fuel cars. Mining the rare earth elements alone causes mass extinction of countless species of flora and fauna but also cultural extinction since these minerals are only available in three regions of the earth. All three of them are in what used to be vibrant ecospheres are now open-pit mines. Where the vibrant life is killed off, the people turned against each other (or killed off) all for the sake of someone half a world away can 'feel good' to his teenage daughter that he is helping the environment.
All products should have a total environmental impact assessment ranking or value applied to every product (and possibly services). Based on a natural state that had changed the environment to a farm or mine or urban sprawl, as well as the refining costs of the materials on the environment, etc. Also, this value should also reflect the reclamation efforts and the environmental impact of them (what happens to an electric car after two years or twenty years, and what is the environmental impact of that?) As well, electric cars require tarmac or pavement to drive on. I've done a fair share of construction in my life using these materials and one of the first things you learn is the enormous amount of CO2 they put out as part of the curing process as the tarmac/pavement hardens. BTW - my 2004 jeep does not need roads. They are only a convenience. It drives just as well on a goat path in the mountains as it does on a road in the city and has lower emissions than anywhere in North America or Europe require.
Another consideration is that electric cars should be out-right banned for use in cities that are still powered by fossil fuels. Many towns and cities in North America run off of coal or other fossil fuels and there should be laws prohibiting the sales of electric cars in these towns since they will obviously cause a higher output of electricity in potentially charging hundreds of thousands of these cars each night and therefore fossil fuel increase to power the city.
If we want to slow down the environmental impact we are having and maybe give someone a chance at some clean air in twenty years we need to think longer-term and not just the next fiscal cycle. If people really looked at the environmental impact of electric cars they would think they are anything but sexy or environmentally friendly.
P.S. I am more than prepared to convert my jeep to another form of fuel as soon as someone comes up with one that does not destroy the environment by having billions of other people using the same fuel.