Electrify

Cory Doctorow
6 min readDec 9, 2021

Saul Griffith’s visionary, practical program for a US clean energy transition

In Electrify, the MacArthur prizewinning engineer Saul Griffith offers a detailed, optimistic and urgent roadmap for a climate-respecting energy transition that we can actually accomplish in 10–15 years.

There are a lot of popular science books out there, but the world really needs more popular engineering books — books that set out the technical parameters of our problems and the various proposed solutions, sorting the likely from the plausible to the foolish, and laying out a practical range of plans to accomplish the best of them.

The first book like this I ever read was David McKay’s superb 2009 “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air,” a life-changing book that sets out the energy transition as an engineering problem.

https://memex.craphound.com/2009/04/08/sustainable-energy-without-the-hot-air-the-freakonomics-of-conservation-climate-and-energy/

McKay describes the upper and lower bounds of the Earth’s estimated carbon budget — how much CO2 we can emit. Then he looks at the energy budget for a variety of human activities — buildings, transport, food, and so on — decomposing each into a variety of subcategories. Then he looks at the maximum theoretical renewable energy generation available to us, by category — how many solar photons strike the Earth every day? That’s your absolute solar limit. Then he gives you the knobs and dials to play with these figures — this kind of activity, plus this kind of renewable, requires this much raw material and space, and presents the following advantages and disadvantages.

The remarkable thing about MacKay’s book is that it becomes abundantly clear that while an energy transition is a lot of work, it’s eminently possible. MacKay’s book spawned a whole line of “Without the Hot Air” titles from UIT Cambridge. The latest, last year’s “Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air,” is an excellent continuation of MacKay’s legacy:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/01/06/methane-diet/#3kg-per-day

Griffith’s popular engineering book is also part of MacKay’s legacy (in case there’s any doubt, Griffith namechecks him). Electrify is far more concrete and granular than MacKay’s…

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