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Saul Griffith talks energy at Continuum

By Grant Kristofek on December 5, 2008

Last week, my friend and former classmate Saul Griffith visited Continuum’s Boston office to share some of his thoughts on energy.

Saul is a busy guy and, among other things, he runs a renewable energy startup in Alameda, California, called Makani Power. Many folks have inquired (with rightful interest) about Makani’s work with high altitude wind, but given that the company is still operating in ‘stealth’ mode, there’s not been much to share. Instead, Saul has been taking his speaking engagements as opportunities to talk about another topic close to his heart, energy literacy. He believes, as do I, that we need to reframe the conversation from being about what is politically possible to what is technically necessary.

At Continuum, Saul shared two stories with us – one global, one personal – aiming to give us a more tangible sense of our energy consumption, and of what it will take to meet that consumption in the future. He told us the global story in very big numbers, addressing the issues of climate change, global energy consumption, and fossil fuels. He shared his second story, the personal one, by focusing on the decisions we make in our everyday lives and the energy impacts that come with them. While sick in bed with the flu last winter, Saul rigorously calculated his own energy footprint, taking into account his home, his workplace, his travel and commuting, even getting into the nitty gritty detail of the stuff he owns, the food he eats, the trash that’s hauled from his house to the dump every week, and his 1/300 millionth share of the U.S. government’s energy expenditures. By combining a broad world view with his individual perspective, he clearly illustrated the magnitude of the energy challenge.

Fortunately, based on the known and calculable amounts of energy available to the planet, Saul has also developed a ‘game plan’ to address climate change. First he asked, “what is the temperature we want, and what does that imply in terms of our carbon dioxide concentration?” Currently, we’re at approximately 385ppm in the atmosphere, and increasing that at a rate of about 7GtC/yr (gigatons of carbon per year). He chose 450ppm as a target which could, based on conservative estimates, result in an approximately 2°C rise in global temperature and 10% species loss. So, with that CO2 concentration limit as a starting point, he then looked at the available energy resources from a science perspective (based on high school physics and chemistry) and compared them to humanity’s energy consumption.

He showed us rational, data-driven evidence to suggest that, although humanity uses a lot of energy, there are very large sources of non-carbon producing energy that can be tapped to meet our needs. Beating climate change will certainly be a challenge of epic proportions, requiring a scale of global cooperation larger than any humanity has undertaken (including the World Wars — think all countries on the same side, cooperating for the force of good), but Saul was nonetheless optimistic that we could meet this challenge.

For starters, one unique approach he’s undertaken is to launch a new Web site called WattzOn.com that crowdsources individuals’ data on personal power consumption. The site helps its users discover how to reduce their personal roles in climate change by giving them tools to track their own energy consumption, compare it to others’ and understand its consequences. Hopefully, it will also, over time, act like Wikipedia, and refine the quality of our understanding about our energy consumption and habits.

Climate change is a global problem, but it’s going to be solved by individuals. Saul is certainly doing his part, and we were delighted to have him here at Continuum giving us insights to help us do our part.

Image credit: Grank Kristofek

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