The Big Switch - Saul Griffith

01 August 2023

Perhaps my favorite book on climate-change action through electrification. Many books focus on the problems at hand, but Griffith lays out a simple, actionable plan for reducing our CO2 emissions in an economically positive way.

I’ll be reading this again.

Chapter 3 - Energy

Domestic economy energy flows (excluding exports)

  • Our domestic energy economy needs a supply of around 7000 PJ.
  • This supply is met with 1800 PJ each of coal and natural gas, and around 2400 PJ of refined oil.
  • Households represent the biggest chunk of emissions in our domestic economy: 42%.
  • The recipe for decarbonising our castles also applies to most of the commercial sector, which means low-hanging fruit of another 29% of our domestic emissions, or 71% in total.
  • Electrifying our homes will slash our emissions while saving households money on energy bills.
  • Electrifying our houses now can generate over $300 billion in household savings by 2035.

Chapter 4 - Australia’s energy options

Efficiency - Electrification of space heating

Each energy unit is converted into x units of heat…

  • Natural gas (0.90)
  • Electric resistance (0.95)
  • Wood fires (0.75)
  • Reverse-cycle air conditioners (3.80)!

Electrification of cooking

  • Gas (0.30)
  • Electric resistance (0.70)
  • Induction (0.90)

Chapter 7 - Electrifying our castles

  • The average Australian spends about $5000 a year on energy use ($3000 on vehicle fuels, $600 on gas, $1600 on electricity).
  • Perhaps the biggest incentive for Australians to take action on climate change is the hip-pocket savings that are waiting for us if we do. We have so much sunshine, and renewable technology has dropped in price so much, that climate action has become an economically advantageous move.
  • Lowest-quintile households spend 1.8 times more of the pay cheque on home energy costs.

Conventional household energy use:

  • Fuelling cars (69%)
  • Space heating (11%, 9.6kWh) (37% if excluding vehicles)
  • Water heating (8%, 6.5kWh) (24% if excluding vehicles)
  • Cooking (2%, 1.5kWh)

Electrify our castles

  • Electrified households can use less than half the energy for the same result (102kWh vs 37kWh).
  • Australia has a lot of gas water heaters (45% of current stock, another 45% are electric-resistive)
  • Helping to act on climate change becomes the best way to save money.

Chapter 9 - Why politicians and regulations matter

  • Without the right policy settings, everything else is either motivational storytelling or fancy graphs.
  • Governments have to help 1) stop subsidising the problem (i.e. fossil fuels) 2) eliminating green tape to make the task cheaper 3) focusing government money on speeding this energy transformation through pilots, incentives, rebates and subsidies that help the nascent market develop.
  • There isn’t a single street where everyone has done it, and definitely not a single suburb that is electrified and decarbonised.
  • Plus clever energy-management systems at the switchboard and easy-to-use control app on everyones’s mobile.
  • Our switchboards shouldn’t just be dumb fuses, but able to manage the solar and the vehicle charging and balance the heavy loads in the home and do their part in demand-response, voltage management and grid resilience.

Chapter 10 - Financing fossil freedom

  • One possible solution is already under trial in the US. There (and it isn’t too different in Australia), 36% of households are rented. There is less of an incentive for renters to invest in home efficiency or electrification.
  • Also in the US, 40% of households cannot cover an unexpected $400 expense. The climate-friendly models typically cost more upfront and so don’t get purchased, even if they would lead to savings over time. What has worked is the Inclusive Utility Investment.
  • The costs are absorbed on the monthly bills and through tariffs. The model program for this method is ‘Pay As You Save’.