One Billion Machines

Decarbonization, demystified

Drawings by Saul Griffith.
Impossible to read, but here’s a look at a Sankey diagram of our entire energy flow in the US. Once we understand our energy needs, we can supply them with clean energy — and save over half the primary energy because we don’t have the wasted energy in mining, refining, transporting and burning fossil fuels.
All the machines from the supply side to the demand side. We’re used to looking at energy from the supply side, but really when we look at the demand side, what we need to power in our lives, we find that we don’t need as much primary energy as we think we do because of all the energy wasted in finding, digging, refining, transporting, and burning fossil fuels.

Where does our energy go? The sectors

Waste is bad (fossil fuels have a lot of waste in finding, mining, refining, distributing, and burning energy). Efficiency is good (renewable energy is far more efficient than fossil fuels).

Where does our fossil-fuel energy come from? (supply-side)

In addition to mapping all those sectors and how much power they use, the Sankey diagrams map the types and amount of fuel that went into those sectors –the barrels of oil, the tons of coal, the millions of cubic feet of natural gas, as well as the nuclear power and renewables (wind, solar, hydro) we use. This is the supply side. On the supply side, a small number of very large machines produce our energy – power plants, mines, wells, refiners, pipelines, and heavy industrial processes. A small number of investment decisions determine how quickly they retire.

Coal

If we covered our rail tracks and their right-of-ways with industrial solar, we would produce more energy than the coal that these railways currently deliver.

Oil

We use 7,100,000,000 barrels of oil per year. That’s 300,000,000,000 gallons!

(Not-very-natural) Gas

The US uses nearly 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year. The phrase “natural gas’’ makes it sound like it’s good for the environment. It’s not. It’s a fossil fuel, made up of mostly methane, with varying amounts of other nasty chemicals.

Where does our fossil-fuel energy go? (demand)

On the other side of our gas meters or the fuel pump at the gas station are our demand-side fossil fuel-burning machines. These are the machines that, along with the supply-side machines, we must replace with ones that burn clean energy. Because nearly half of our emissions come from the machines in our homes and cars in our garages, we can fight climate change by swapping these machines for electric ones when they fail.

Road vehicles

Household appliances (demand)

On the other side of our gas meters are all of the machines that we use in our homes that we will have to replace when they are retired to meet our climate goals.

Space Heating

Water heating

Cooking machines

There are great electric alternatives for all cooking machines.

Clothes machines

Not to mention…

In addition to all those machines, we have other gas-powered machines in our homes that add up to 600 million fossil fuel-powered machines:

That’s a lot of blue flames.

To get rid of them, we’ll need new household infrastructure

Saving households money

In addition to creating jobs, the money American households will save on their energy bills will be about $1500–2000 per household per year, provided we get the right rebates and interest rates in place. Rewiring America, with a coalition of nearly 200 organizations, is currently working on passing the Zero-Emissions Home Act of 2021, sponsored by Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and 11 other Senators, to provide some rebates for the up-front costs of clean electrification.

War-time effort

In order to electrify everything — in order to take our one shot at saving the climate — we need everyone to participate in an all-out, war-time effort. This will have to be akin to the Arsenal of Democracy, the ramp-up in industrial production that allowed us to save the world from the fascists in World War II. Today the stakes are even higher, because it is all of humanity that is at risk.

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Saul Griffith

Founder / Principal Scientist at Otherlab, an energy R&D lab, and co-founder/Principal Scientist at Rewiring America, a coalition to electrify everything.