Tag Archives: batteries

Electrify by Saul Griffith – a Review

I think at this point just about everyone knows someone who thinks climate change is a problem, but that it will be too expensive to fix, or that the solutions just aren’t viable. I think Saul Griffith’s new book, Electrify, is the perfect book for this audience.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but the blue foil shimmering on the white background of this cover certainly conjures images of the future. While tech bros promise techno-utopian carbon capture machines more efficient than trees, this book excels in rampant pragmatism. Griffith lays out a pathway to decarbonizing the United States transportation and power sectors with only currently existing technologies.

I don’t think I’m the target audience for this book, but I do think the plan to #ElectrifyEverything is a necessary, but not sufficient part of a solarpunk future. The catchphrase usually comes with some caveats, like probably not all industrial processes, and I do feel that solar thermal needs more love since a large percentage of energy use in the home is used for heating, but it’s a decent simplification for the bulk of our current fossil fuel applications.

Electrify can be criticized for not addressing climate justice beside a passing mention. We can’t afford to reinforce the racist and otherwise imbalanced power structures that originally lead to climate change during the energy transition. That said, this book isn’t designed to message an entire Green New Deal in one fell swoop. As someone who grew up listening to talk radio as a red state Republican (more on that later this year), I think Griffith does an excellent job of doing what we engineers do best – sticking to the facts.

He lays out a clear, but concise, explanation of how daunting climate change is, but then paints a solution by the numbers to how we can overcome it and be more prosperous by doing so. I’m not usually a big fan of all the militaristic language used to describe climate work, but the comparisons in this book to World War II mobilization are useful to put the scope of the issue into perspective. In short, reducing most of our emissions will cost a little less than it cost the US to fight WWII in terms of national GDP.

I think part of the reason climate inaction has been such an easy sell is because it feels too big for any one person to have any agency in the fight. Griffith points the way for how families, especially when bolstered with government-backed loans, can replace the pieces of equipment that generate the bulk of their carbon emissions – their car(s) and their appliances. This gets people in the door for the climate conversation.

A snowy field full of solar panels with a large wind turbine reaching toward the sky in the background. There are two buildings in the background, and one appears to be a silo or astronomy tower based on the hemispherical top.

I know centrism is a dirty word in solarpunk circles, but I don’t think we’re going to succeed in overcoming climate change or climate injustice if we decide that we can’t work with people who are coming from a different political background. Red states already generate the majority of the renewable power in the country, so that’s a starting point. The Republicans I know believe in fairness and justice, but the party and conservative talk show hosts have had decades to distort what those words mean in a political context. We aren’t going to overcome that conditioning overnight, but this book is a step in the right direction, even if it does just seem like neoliberal techno-utopianism at first blush. I feel there’s more going on here than that, but maybe I’m naive.

I am sending this book and my copy of Repair Revolution to my dad. He’s retired and does solar installs on the side since he has his certification as well as experience from wiring up his old and new houses for solar. He’s also a Trump supporter which led to some… strain in our relationship over the last few years. I’m hoping that this book will at least show how we have viable path forward to overcoming the worst effects of climate change without some massive government takeover of every industry, which is what many Republicans fear. Is it going to make him gung-ho about climate equity? No, but at least maybe he’ll be interested in talking about climate solutions instead of automatically shutting down the conversation. It’s not going to be an easy process to get to a solarpunk future, but we’ll get there, step by excruciating step. Electrify shows how the energy transition can at least be a relatively painless part of the process.

Is saving money and increasing our resiliency a way to bridge the political gap, or is storytelling the answer? I think it’s probably a mix, but let me know what you think below!


Disclaimer: If you order the book using the Indie Bound affiliate link above, I may receive a small commission.

Rethinking batteries

close up photo of batteries

Photo by Hilary Halliwell on Pexels.com

As an engineer, I’m always thinking of how to make the objects around me work better. After rereading Cradle to Cradle this year, I’ve also been considering how to balance the needs of the present and the end of an object’s life.

When I was an undergrad, I did research in energy materials, so my interest was piqued when I saw the Volta Battery concept by Koraldo Kajanaku that won the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge. Designed to be easily disassembled and made with materials that can easily be returned to technical or biological cycles, the battery is an excellent example of everyday objects that could be made better through thoughtful design.

The current ways in which we build batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines can’t get us all the way to a 100% renewable, solarpunk future. Elements such as the lithium used in cellphone batteries are rare and have some hurdles to true recyclability. Lead acid batteries, while more easily recycled, contain materials that are very hazardous to human health when not properly contained. Lithium batteries are an amazing technology, but we should be finding more readily recyclable alternatives for applications that don’t absolutely require the high energy density that a lithium chemistry affords. Aluminum, iron, nickel, and zinc could use a little more love when it comes to research and development. Nickel iron cells, for example, are likely the most robust chemistry available. They are quite heavy at the moment, but they might be one of the best options for grid backups since they don’t require the coddling that other technologies do. For the tidalpunks out there, you might want to check out ocean batteries.

More diversity of battery chemistries could lead to more energy democracy in energy storage. Communities could build the chemistry that uses the most local resources to back up their renewables. When paired with more sustainably designed windmills or solar thermal plants, we could do a lot more with a lot fewer rare earth minerals. Mechanical approaches to energy storage are also an attractive option. As is often the refrain with sustainable design, there is no silver bullet, we need many different solutions to fit the many different use-cases in existence. The 20th century was concerned with trying to shoehorn all our problems into a fossil fuel-shaped hole. The 21st will be defined by a diverse and beautiful ecosystem of solutions.

Is there an everyday object that you wish was designed more thoughtfully? Let us know below!

Solarpunk transformative living

Solarpunks should definitely check out LifeEdited, started by Treehugger founder Graham Hill. Their first prototype apartment was built in NYC to see how much life you could get out of a relatively tiny apartment. They managed to reduce their impact on the environment by fitting a 2-bedroom apartment with room to serve a dinner party of ten in a 420 square foot space!

After an even smaller second apartment, they’ve designed an entire off-grid house with solar panels, battery backup, composting toilets, and since it’s in Maui, plenty of room for surfboards. While all three projects had substantial funding, the underlying techniques used to enhance the spaces are applicable anywhere and and serve as a great inspiration on how to more efficiently use the space you have.

LIFE EDITED_MAUI_JAN2018_IMG_8645LifeEdited Maui

All of the furniture in the apartments and house is multi-purpose. In a place like New York City, where price per square foot is so high, even for renting, the high price of a transforming Murphy bed/couch from Resource Furniture would quickly pay for itself, although if you’re more inclined to DIY, then you can find Murphy bed kits for $200-300 without the mattress.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Transforming tables and folding chairs are often easier and cheaper to get. We have a dining table with leaf that we can remove when we want to save space. This gives us enough room when family visits for eating, but the ability to have a smaller table when it’s just two or three of us. My parents have a gate-leg table for family visits with chairs that fold up and fit inside the table so it only takes a small amount of room unless needed. A gate leg table and a Murphy bed would be great if you like having friends over for dinner but live in a small space.

LIFE EDITED_MAUI_JAN2018_IMG_1120

I shouldn’t find the composting toilet in the bathroom to be the most exciting feature, but I do.

Composting toilets eschew the current trend of flush toilets by treating waste in a waterless or low water manner, composting the waste instead of using clean water to flush it miles away to a treatment facility. I’ve mostly seen them used in off-grid cabins and tiny houses to date, but hope that systems with remote waste collection will allow for usage in more urban environments in the future. Especially in the U.S. where we treat all of our water to drinking water quality (a whole post in itself), using clean water to flush waste back to be treated again is just silly.

Do you have any cool pieces of transforming furniture? Have you used a composting toilet? Let us know about any pluses or pitfalls below, and thanks for stopping by!


via LifeEdited

Photographs by Shawn Hannah

A few Murphy bed DIY kits/plans (I have no affiliation with any of the following; just thought they might be helpful to start your search if you’re interested.)

And a set of plans for a gate-leg table and chairs: http://woodarchivist.com/3259-folding-table-chairs-set-plans/