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ETech2008: Saul Griffith and personal power footprints

I’m at O’Reilly’s emerging technology conference today – it’s an amazing week-long event that brings together innovators from all over the geek universe. I’m here only a day, which is a crime, but I can guarantee it will be thoroughly blogged by many folks.

ETech is one of the more playful events out there – as we enter the keynote hall for Saul Griffith’s talk, we encounter screens covered with computer aliens. By dialing into an LA-area phone number, we’re able to control the monsters on the screen and make them shoot and kill each other. The tech appears to be from megaphone.com and looks like a wonderful way to get people interacting in a shared space.

Griffith is an amazingly polymathic intellectual. A recent winner of a Macarthur “genius” grant, he’s involved with an incredible range of activities, from cartoons that teach kids about science, to Makani Power, which looks for innovative wind power solutions. His talk focuses on energy literacy and he tells us his goal is to let us, “know what you can do, so you can do what you can.”

It’s his attempt to merge two narratives – an impersonal one about big numbers and global impacts, and a personal one about his decisions and ability to impact the planet. Like all good scientists, he starts with a model:

– Assume changes in CO2 = carbon change.
– We need to choose a temperature where we’d like to set the planet – and this has political consequences, like species extinction.
– From temperature statistics, we can figure out how much carbon we’re allowed to burn
– From allowable carbon, figure out what fuels we can burn
– Analyze new energy sources
– Calculate a new, survivable energy mix.

The goal is to work through the model that allows Saul to analyze his share and change his life around it.

We begin with carbon cycles – there’s 40,000 gigatons of carbon in the oceans, compared to 1600 in fossil fuels, 700 in vegetation or 600 in the atmosphere. The goal might be to force some carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ocean – of the 7GT we put into the atmosphere each year, the oceans sequester 2GT, which means we’re putting 5GT into the atmosphere.

That increased carbon into the atmosphere affects our temperature. The most hopeful models anyone has created envision a 2 degree increase. That’s a problem – at 2.5C increase, scientists conservatively predict 15-40% species loss. At 3.5C, we expect to see 1 to 4 billion people turned into refugees by water shortages. And we have to change very quickly – it can take 300 years for CO2 levels to stabilize, and water levels and climate changes don’t stabilize until even further on.

If we agree to a 2C rise, how much carbon can we use? Well, that depends on what you burn – goal gives you 0.85 terrawatts for the allowable levels of carbon, while you get 1.9 TW from gas, 3.8TW from petroleum, and 30 TW from nuclear – Saul argues that nuclear is not carbon free because you need to use carbon fuels to extract uranium. Average all these numbers, and you’re allowed 2 TW from carbon fuels.

That’s not very much – global power consumption was 1 TW in 1890. We now use 15 TW a year these days. That’s about 15 thousand Hoover dams.

Griffith calculates his personal power consumption in terms of watts per second – how much does it cost to run Saul, calcuated as if we were running light bulbs every second. The answer is about 25,000 watts per second – roughly the power of the stage lights currently illuminating him. Much of it comes from flying – the 105,000 miles he flew last year cost 7,462 watts per second. Driving in very efficient cars is responsible for about 1500 watts. His food is fairly high – 700 watts – most of which comes from meat and fish. Being a US citizen costs as well – Saul’s 300 millionth of the US defense budget costs 94 watts.

Using very conservative estimates, Griffith gets 14,000 watts – he believes the actual number is far closer to 25,000. Oddly, the various carbon calculators available online give him much lower numbers, clustering around 11,000. “The next Nobel prize should be in energy auditing,” because this is a really difficult thing to do.

So what would Griffith need to do to live on 2255 watts per person, what the world’s average consumption is? He gives himself a few extra wats, rounding up to 2500 – “I run an energy company, you write facebook aps, so I get some of yours.” Now he gets one flight a year to NYC, one every three years to see family in Australia, and almost no business travel. He can drive about twice a month in a hybrid, but one tenth as much stuff and use it much longer and become 6/7th vegetarian. “You can go local and organic, but it’s not clear that it helps.”

How do we build a global energy mix so that everyone doesn’t have to make these radical lifestyle changes? Well, there’s a limit to how much power is actually available – all geothermal potential is 32TW. Tidal potential is 3.5TW. All photosynthesis is 90TW – “that’s one reason why biofuels are a bad idea. They’re basically 1% efficient solar cells.” There’s 100TW in thermal gradients in the ocean, “but you don’t want to screw with it because that’s what keeps Europe from freezing.”

A new fuel mix is going to be dominated by thermal and wind power. He offers us a tiny share from biofuels, 2 TW from photovoltaics, 2 TW from solar thermal power, 2 from wind, 2 from geothermal and 3 from nuclear. Good enough. But that’s going to require a bit of work. Oh, say, 100 square meters of solar cells every second for the next 25 years. And 12 3MW wind turbines per hour. And 1 3GW nuclear plant a week for the next 25 years.

This sounds intimidating, but it’s not as hard as you might imagine. If we took every aluminum can made every day and turned them into solar concentrators, you could build this in ten years. Ford and GM create a huge number of cars – turbine production should be very realistic for them.

You can get tripped up if you’re not careful in changing your personal lifestyle. One bottled energy drink takes 4% of Saul’s new tight energy budget to cover the costs of the plastics. But he tells us that is’t possible: “If you do what we want to do already, the goals will be achieved” – eat healthy, exercise more, travel less, spend less time commuting are all ways to reduce a carbon footprint.

The folks behind Megaphone take the stage and show an amusing and buggy demo – they register 115 players on their mobile phones, then send text messages to 20 of them, instructing them to start making a particular animal noise. Around the crowd, people begin mooing and cawing like crows. Team Cat’s two members find each other, enter in each other’s phone numbers and win the prize – it’s a very cool system for gaming that doesn’t involve a screen, just realworld and mobile phone interactivity.

12 thoughts on “ETech2008: Saul Griffith and personal power footprints”

  1. Ethan- thanks for blogging this and TED. I’ve been saving your TED posts to read through later this week, and I just saw you’re at it again at yet another conference. For those of us who don’t get invites to these conferences (and wouldn’t have time to attend even if we did), your posts are very enlightening.


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  3. I saw Saul give the show once, and thought his summary of embodied energy values for different things in Watts was very good. I can’f find a table of the units and values he developed. Is there one?

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