Rewiring America Jobs Report is a Blueprint for Transforming America’s Energy Economy
Adam L. Masser
We are at a tipping point. In the midst of a global pandemic, the most defining moment in American civil rights since the 1960s, and a presidential election more divisive than any in modern history, we have lost focus on the issue that will define our era: how we address climate change. If we continue the token steps and incrementalism of the past, we surely condemn future generations to a far less habitable world, with cities underwater, widespread famine and ecological catastrophe. Climate change is a completely avoidable, tragic, and irreversible man-made disaster. History will judge us harshly as the generation that lost the Earth.
I am not alone in this observation — 2020 has been called a Defining Moment for Climate Change; a Critical Year for our Future and For the Climate; or the Last, Best Chance to Save the Planet. To put it simply : we, and our planet, are in a Crisis. Recent events have born out these gloomy predictions of an environmental tipping point. This year has seen ongoing, devastating wildfires in California; and across Australia; a historically active hurricane season already underway; the slow-moving, irreversible collapse of the Greenland ice sheet; powerful derecho wind storms hitting the Midwestern US; reduced air quality; not to mention major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse. These dizzying reports demonstrate the threat climate change poses to our way of life and the global ecosystem.
Definitionally, a tipping point is an opportunity. It is the moment our actions — or willful inaction — will have the greatest impact. With a monumental effort to transform our energy economy, we can save the planet. This idea has a name — the Green New Deal — but there has not yet been consensus on exactly what it would entail.
In July, Rewiring America, led by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Saul Griffith, issued an ambitious Report which provides a framework for a coherent and effective Green New Deal. The Report, the result of Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy grant, assembles a comprehensive map of US energy generation, consumption and waste. While much of the data was already publicly available, it had never been compiled into a single, coherent picture of our energy economy, tracking all energy in the US economy from source to supply chain to end user and waste.
Having mapped US energy flows, Griffith details a plan to decarbonize the US economy, providing “an engineering account of what machines and infrastructure need to be replaced economy–wide, and on what timeline.” The report provides a plan to reduce American carbon emissions to zero is by 2035 through accelerated retiring and replacement of fossil fuel plants and consumer goods. Electrification alone can reduce America’s energy usage by over half, primarily through inherent efficiency gains, elimination of energy-intensive resource development and thermo-electric losses during fossil fuel generation. Certain difficult to decarbonize sectors (e.g., long-distance aviation and steelmaking) can be addressed via biofuels and renewably-generated hydrogen.
This isn’t science fiction: the analysis relies on no novel technologies — all machines and infrastructure proposed are currently commercially available. Critically, it also does not rely on lifestyle changes, substituting consumer-facing products and services with functionally identical replacements. Because the entire energy supply chain would be decarbonized, Griffith argues no carbon sequestration or other active decarbonizing technologies are necessary to get to zero emissions. Additional measures, such as improved building insulation and efficiency measures, better public transport and reduced consumption are not necessary for this model to work, though they could accelerate it.
Replacing the energy infrastructure of the United States will not be trivial, but there are clear parallels to America’s wartime mobilization effort in WWII — and the Report found that decarbonization of the American economy would be less expensive in comparison: “Winning the war for the Allies had a total cost of around 1.5 1939 GDPs. Transitioning to a completely decarbonized energy system probably has a cost closer to just 1 2019 GDP of $22 trillion.” The necessary funding would is not all paid by taxpayers, with the federal share at $250-$350 billion per year — less than 8% of the 2019 Federal budget of $4.4 Trillion. The remaining balance will be met by private investment, encouraged by innovative financing, regulatory policies and market forces. The massive effort to transform our energy economy is both precedented and attainable. Understanding climate change as an existential threat, a commensurate outlay to what we spent for WWII is manifestly appropriate today.
Griffith’s plan also touts significant measurable economic benefits, estimating the transition could create 25 million US jobs at its peak, 5 million of which would be permanent. Critically, these are net jobs, meaning the additional new jobs after accounting for job losses due to the transition from fossil fuels. Adopting these policies early could give the US a first mover advantage, resulting in valuable exports helping to offset the cost. Finally, the Report projects consumers will achieve annual household savings of $1,000–2,000/year. The report does not expressly consider the externalities of public health and environmental degradation caused by climate change, which collectively make the economic case even more compelling.
The Rewiring America Jobs Report is a blueprint for the Green New Deal. It provides machine-level direction on how to build a decarbonized US economy, with existing technology, while creating millions of jobs and massive economic benefits. It proves we already have the technology and roadmap to move into a carbon-free future. The effects of climate change are already devastating and the risks of inaction are incomprehensible. With the bold proposals provided by Griffith and team, there is no excuse to stand idle as our window of opportunity closes.
Adam L. Masser is a business, startups and technology attorney in NYC, with a background in emerging technologies, sustainability and macroeconomics. He has previously been published in the Fordham International Law Journal, Alleywatch, as author of a UNDP White Paper and as a researcher and contributor to the OECD IT Outlook.
All graphics from the Rewiring America Jobs Report, Griffith, Calisch & Laskey (2020).