Spotlight On: Rewiring Australia founder Dr Saul Griffith

Rewiring Australia founder Dr Saul Griffith
Dr Saul Griffith (Image: Rewiring Australia)

A report released by a new energy think-tank says the key to cutting domestic emissions by one-third by 2030 and reducing Australian household energy bills comes down to one simple thing: electrification. Rewiring Australia founder Dr Saul Griffith tells Energy Source & Distribution how Australia can take the lead on climate change instead of showing up late to the table.

As the founder of Rewiring Australia and co-founder of Rewiring America, Dr Saul Griffith believes no nation is better placed to seize the opportunity for cheaper energy, self-reliance and cleaner air than Australia.

The Australian-American inventor, engineer, scientist and entrepreneur is the co-founder and CEO of OtherLab, a research and development company working on computational manufacturing and design tools. OtherLab’s R&D is guided by a vast map of energy flows in the US economy, which they use to identify key leverage points in building a more sustainable energy economy.

Dr Griffith has leveraged this energy flow mapping for Rewiring America, providing a detailed analysis for the Biden administration on how the United States can create 30 million jobs, save consumers money, boost energy resiliency, and accelerate achievement of a net zero economy. 

“I have been a communicator of energy and climate science for a long time,” Dr Griffith says.

“I’ve had an interest in energy data forever—a very nerdy interest. Years back I ended up doing a project with the Department of Energy where we mapped, in as much detail as had ever been attempted, all the energy flows in the United States. We really built that as a tool to look at big decarbonisation scenarios. 

Related article: Electrify everything: Rewiring Australia campaign

“I was looking at that map and it became obvious that our only pathway was to electrify everything—or nearly everything. Then I was watching the presidential primaries with my friend Alex Laskey, who is the founder of Opower, and we realised all of the Democrat candidates were sort of stumbling to have any positive vision for the climate future.  

“We decided there was a need for an advocacy group based in really good science and data to communicate the positive and optimistic side of what we could achieve in meeting climate targets and electrification. We did a bunch of that work with the candidates, including Biden’s team, and through that work we then got involved in helping write pieces of the reconciliation package and the climate legislation in the US.”

Now, it’s Australia’s turn. 

“I often found myself saying if you could create a perfect country, it would have Australia’s rooftop solar policy, California’s or Norway’s electric vehicle policy, and Japan’s or South Korea’s or Germany’s heat pump policy. Then, when I moved to Australia last year, I was like, yeah, Australia really is the test case in doing this first and best, and that led to starting Rewiring Australia.”

Dr Griffith says Australia’s climate discussion has become lost in a culture war, with debate circling what we have to lose rather than what we have to gain. 

“No nation is better placed to seize this opportunity for cheaper energy, self-reliance and cleaner air than Australia,” he explains.

“Australians already lead the world in harvesting solar electricity. Now we have the technology available to use it. With modest public investment in our homes, cars, and communities, we can electrify everything without sacrificing our way of life. If we embrace this shift now, we can enjoy cheaper, cleaner, healthier energy, and win the global decarbonisation race.”

Rewiring Australia’s inaugural report, Castles and Cars: savings in the suburbs through electrifying everything, presents new modelling that shows electrification could save the average household $5,000 on power and the cost of owning cars and appliances by 2030. This would be achieved by replacing conventional cars and appliances with electric vehicles, solar, batteries and efficient appliances such as heat pumps for hot water and heating and cooling.  

Electrification of small businesses and households would reduce domestic emissions by around 50 per cent by 2030. Australia is already the world leader in rooftop solar, with around three million solar households, and Dr Griffith believes this would give us a massive head start. 

The modelling uses published data that predicts dramatic cost reductions in battery, EV and efficient electric appliances. Dr Griffith and his co-authors project that the finance and running costs of a ‘rewired’ home will soon be cheaper than one with a petrol car and conventional gas and electric appliances. Millions of households are already saving with solar, storage and electric appliances. All electric homes, appliances and vehicles will be the cheapest option by mid-decade.  

The federal government has been heavily criticised for its vague net-zero strategy, which it presented at COP26 in Glasgow. I ask Dr Griffith for his take on the politics at play. “I’m personally here to call bullshit on their bullshit,” he says matter-of-factly.

The paper argues Australia could consolidate its solar lead and drive rapid decarbonisation by:

• Increased adoption of solar and increase of average rooftop solar size.

• Widespread adoption of batteries, with smart Virtual Power Plant capabilities.

• Subsidies for EVs and charging networks

• Swiftly replacing carbon intensive devices such as gas heaters, cooktops and gas water heaters with efficient devices such as induction hotplates and heat pumps through the point of purchase rebates.

The paper predicts that cumulative public investment would peak at $12 billion in 2025 before delivering savings of $40 billion per year by 2030.

“That’s a spectacular goal for the nation. Instead of struggling to even mumble net-zero by 2050, I think there’s opportunity for Australia to realise that this is going to be an enormous economic win,” Dr Griffith says.

The federal government has been heavily criticised for its vague net-zero strategy, which it presented at COP26 in Glasgow. I ask Dr Griffith for his take on the politics at play.

“I’m personally here to call bullshit on their bullshit,” he says matter-of-factly.

“I’m not afraid to, I’ve done my homework. I knew there was an opportunity to be a voice of reason in the Australian debate over this right now, and I’m not afraid to call it as I see it.”

But the ultimate power, he says, rests in the hands of the Australian people.

“We’re not going to get adequate action on climate change from any government anywhere in the world until the populous demands it. 

“The Australian public has already experienced the lowest cost of electricity in the world, in the form of their rooftop solar. We’re going to do that also for your heating systems and your kitchens, so you’ll have the lowest cost of space heating and cooling in the world, and we’ll have the lowest cost of driving. 

“And then I think we just have to remind people that all of the public beach barbecues that we love around Australia are actually electric. There’s nothing to fear here. The future already exists—we’re just not putting it all together under one roof, let alone under all our roofs.”

In terms of delivering that power, Dr Griffith says Australian utilities have an incredibly important part in the Rewiring Australia playbook.

“The reality is that we need to put triple the amount of electricity through every Australian household,” he says.

Related article: Sink or swim: Post-COP26 realities for Australia

“So, we’re not going to do that only with rooftop solar. The grid will still exist. It will be more important than ever because we’re going to need it to balance all the loads and charge all of our vehicles. The technology exists, but the experience isn’t easy yet. You’ve got to call one too many contractors to get a heat pump installed, and then you’ve got to explain to them how to do it because they’ve never done it before, so there’s huge opportunity for engineers and entrepreneurs to go and make this electrification process easy for every home. 

“There’s room to advocate for regulatory reform so that we’re not artificially increasing the cost of this project with soft cost—meaning permits and regulations that make it slower than it needs to be. So there’s room for people to engage in the public and political sphere to make this easier and cheaper for the Australian public. To electrify a single home in 2021 is not easy. But if we all play our roles in getting there, the whole country will benefit.”

And at the end of the day, few things excite us Aussies more than the thought of beating the Americans to the finish line.

“In my experience of talking to the Americans about what the Australians are doing, they raise their level of ambition. By talking to the Europeans about what the Americans are doing right, they’ve been able to raise their level of ambition. I’m working with governments on three different continents and I’m seeing that ambition begets more ambition. I’ve also modelled the economics in three different continents. Australia wins the most benefit—we win it the soonest, we should do it first. If we do, we will develop the companies that will sell that expertise to the rest of the world. If we don’t, we’ll be left behind.”