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Green:Net: Saul Griffith on the Reality of Carbon Responsibility

Saul Griffith was the bearer of bad news at our Green:Net conference today. A nicer way to put it would be to say he gave us a reality check — and you have to admit his pretty charts and loads of data were tremendously informative and practical. I’d recommend checking out the video when it comes out.

saulgriffithslideGriffith tasked himself with laying out the global carbon emission problem and giving clear and precise (and completely insane!) descriptions for how to turn things around.

If you look at the world’s capability to produce energy, there are some pretty big mismatches, Griffith pointed out. Even taking all of the wave energy of every wave in the world would amount to only one-fifth or sixth of humanity’s power needs, he said. Whereas there’s 85,000 TW of surface solar potential and 3,600 TW of winds.

Griffith’s target is 12 TW in renewable carbon energy by 2033. But to get to that total would require immense and immediate effort, including:

  • starting tomorrow, 100 meters squared of solar cells would have to be produced every second for the next 25 years.
  • also 50 meters squared of solar thermal meters
  • 13 -megawatt wind turbine installed every 25 minutes for next 25 years
  • 1 full-scale nuclear power plant every week for the next 25 years
  • 300 MW worth of steam turbines every day
  • 1250 meters squared of algae every second for the next 25 years

Griffith: “That should scare you. But it’s possible.”

He calls this massive hypothetical energy production place “Renewistan” — “a country that doesn’t exist yet, but I hope to be king of.”

On a personal level, Griffith proposed that the current recession could jump-start a decline from a peak of individual energy use in 2008. It takes 67 pounds of oil, 63 pounds of coal, and 12 pounds of gas to produce the 11,400 watts per day Americans use. Meeting the world average of 2255 watts per day would require a humongous lifestyle change, but there’s a lot of things that can be tweaked, like video conferencing in lieu of flying.

With only a smidgen of an attempt to end on a high note, Griffith closed with earlier speaker Jonathan Koomey‘s equation for the state of the world’s carbon. “There’s a known and reasonably predictable amount of carbon we can burn before it’s all over.”

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