While we were driving from Goulburn, on Gundungurra land, stopping to charge at Gundagai on our way to Albury, I told Mum how I had learned a lot about Australians and their relationship with sustainability from my son’s Year 6 class project. About a year ago, he informed me (at the last minute, of course) that he had an assignment to design and build a 3D model of a sustainable house that he would take to school. As always, he was creative and bucked the desire to do anything normal. He wanted to dream big and build a floating city of 10,000 people (roughly everyone in our postcode) so that the animals and birds could have the space we currently occupy on the ground and the humans could live in the floating city above, giving nature time and space to recover. I loved the idea and helped him hack some cardboard together with Scotch tape to resemble the thing in his imagination. We calculated that you would need twelve blimps, each four times longer than the Hindenburg, to keep it aloft. Barring practical realities such as storms and lightning, “it should work.”
We took this wondrous slapstick model to school the following day. As we approached the building, I could tell from the extra traffic at drop-off and the elaborate models that were being carried in by parents (alongside their kids) that this was a project that had been taken seriously. Every model looked like twenty to forty hours of parent time had been put into it on top of all the kid time. Most architectural offices would have been proud of the detailed dioramas! What was odd, however, was how uniform the solutions were. Virtually every model home looked a lot like the homes that already dot our suburb, only with more solar on the roof, a Tesla in the garage and a chicken coop.
So that was what Australians thought sustainability is: something very similar to what they have today, only a bit nicer and with a chicken coop.
Mum laughed. But this story isn’t intended to make fun of the conformity of the Australian suburbs, but rather to acknowledge that although people want change, they want change that doesn’t disrupt everything. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Did we really think everyone would become a vegan bicycle commuter overnight? And something crucial follows from this: in real communities, climate action means fixing the buildings and infrastructure that we have. It is largely a retrofit project.
To make the transition to an all-electric economy, we have to carry away the fire and replace all the fossil-fuel machines. While some people resist these changes, the fact is that we’ve made such changes throughout history. While we drove on our road trip, I got Mum talking about her early years, helping her mother wring sheets by hand, and the excitement of the iceman coming. Her family was one of the first on their block to buy an electric refrigerator, and her grandfather still drove a horse and sulky when she was young. She and my dad bought one of the first countertop dishwashers second-hand almost fifty years ago, and my dad kept their clothes dryer working for nearly thirty years before finally buying a new (electric!) one a few years ago. The transformation to our modern conveniences was huge, and has happened in living memory. We’re in the midst of another transition now, to an all-electric future. If you had asked my mother as a little girl what she thought the future would be like, it certainly wouldn’t have involved cordless vacuums and electric dishwashers, induction cooktops and electric cars you plug in at charging stations, yet all of those changes happened.
Things change, machines change, and people like changes they can recognise, making things a bit nicer than they were. Because we must make the switch to all-electric machines, I have arrived at thinking about this energy transition as a “machines problem.” Machines break. Bearings wear out. Metal rusts. Very few of the machines that were in our lives twenty-five years ago are in our lives today. Most are long gone to the junkyard, recycled for their steel and glass.
What this means is that all the fossil-fuel machines “we can’t do without” will fail or fall apart in the next few decades and be replaced by another machine that does the same thing at least as well and probably better. That’s the change we can recognise. I find it useful to think through this changeover of machines in more detail so that as individuals, and as a society, we can get on with the job of replacing all the dirty fossil-fuel machines with a whole bunch of clean electric machines powered by renewable energy. Thinking about the machines spreads the responsibility and demonstrates our connectedness. Merely getting industry to decarbonise isn’t enough; we need industry to decarbonise while also only making clean electric machines to replace our cars and appliances. Clean electric industry needs to make clean electric things for us to incorporate into our clean electric households.
Every time a dirty fossil machine breaks, we need to replace it with a clean one. As a society, we need to write the rules and regulations to support the clean machines and disincentivise the climate-harming machines. We need to train our workforce to install and maintain these new clean machines.
In that spirit, let’s name all the machines, and count them. We need clarity about the job in front of us, a task that implicates all of us. The world we need isn’t inconceivably different from the one we are in, but it is one in which we no longer emit carbon dioxide from our human activities. If we think through all the changes that need to happen to ensure people make the right choices replacing all those machines, we will be on our way towards a better, not perfect world – a protopia.
101 million machines …
The energy economy is typically thought of as two sides, supply and demand – where we produce and use our energy, respectively. It’s divided into five sectors: Industry, Commercial, Residential, Transport and Electricity. We can count the machines on both sides, and in all sectors.
Let’s start at the big end of town, the supply side. There are around 100 coalmines in Australia, with a few dozen loaders to move the coal to power stations and for export. It takes tens of thousands of rail cars travelling on 38,000 kilometres of freight rail lines, pulled by hundreds of locomotives, to get the coal to half a dozen ports and twenty-four coalfired power stations.
We tap 100 million tonnes of gas from around twenty-five offshore rigs and a few thousand terrestrial gasfields. There are 39,000 kilometres of large-scale gas transmission pipelines. Nine LNG terminals compress and cool the gas for export. Seven major storage facilities smooth out the supply seasonally and feed a few thousand natural-gas-fired electricity generators, as well as the 100,000 kilometres of natural gas distribution lines that bring the gas to around 7 million homes and 300,000 businesses, via a gas meter.
The demand side is the smaller machines that we own. Continuing from where we left off, another 1.5 million homes have bottled gas, and all of the gas, metered or bottled, feeds around 6 million gas heaters, 4.8 million gas water heaters, 1.9 million gas freestanding stoves, 2.8 million gas cooktops and 2.3 million gas ovens. Maybe 100,000 of our 1.2 million swimming pools and our hot tubs are heated by gas. There are around 4 million gas barbecues. It is an unpopular truth, but we know that these gas appliances have multiple negative health impacts, including increasing the rates of asthma.
We produce 131 million barrels of oil and import 842 million. Sixty oil tankers bring it to Australia, none of which we own, which represents a serious security risk. The oil travels through 3600 kilometres of pipeline to four refineries that feed thousands of tanker-trucks that deliver to 6500 petrol stations.
Those fuels feed the 20 million vehicles in our garages, 35 per cent of which are passenger vehicles, 45 per cent SUVs and crossovers, 20 per cent utes. There are an additional 500,000 rigid trucks, 105,000 articulated trucks and 97,000 buses. We have 2279 commercial aeroplanes and 9150 in our general aviation fleet. We also love our 1 million boats, and add to that tens of millions of golf carts, ATVs, jetskis, lawnmowers, whipper-snippers and dirt bikes. Industrially, we have half a dozen cement-makers and a dozen smelters and blast furnaces, as well as a few hundred thousand coal and gas boilers and burners.
If we add everything up and round up due to a few tractors we are sure to have overlooked, there are around 1 million supply-side and industrial machines, and around 60 million demand-side residential and commercial machines burning fossil fuels.
To replace all of those with electric machines, we will also need some new infrastructure. That means solar on an additional 5 to 7 million households. Batteries on around 5 million households. Ten or 20 million vehicle chargers, at least one in every garage, some on power poles and in the street, a few at local grocery stores and car parks. Every home will need a Home Energy Management System (HEMS), a dorky acronym for the computer that will manage all the flows of electrons between the things in your life. Some homes will need an upgraded switchboard to carry the extra electricity safely. In round figures, that will mean 30 to 40 million new machines in supporting roles for our electric future. Add them up and there are 101 million machines between us and a zero-emission fleet of Australian homes and small businesses.
What is hard to decarbonise?
Aviation, freight transport, industry and agriculture are described by some people as the “hard-to-decarbonise” sectors. But these machines are few. A few dozen coal loaders, a few hundred ships, a few thousand planes, a couple of blast furnaces, a few smelters, dozens of locomotives. We are told these sectors are hard to decarbonise because there isn’t a solution yet, or because it is expensive, or threatens business. But in every case the technology is on the way. I sometimes think the “hard-to-decarbonise” sectors are merely entrenched businesses that have lobby groups complaining loudly, hoping for a subsidy before they do the right thing. These industries need less subsidy than they are lining up for, and we need to consider that in fact the truly hard-to-decarbonise sector is the 101 million machines, each requiring a purchasing decision, a financing or banking moment, a supply chain and a willing workforce.
The good news is that we will replace these 101 million machines with ones that are much better. We now have EVs in every shape and size for every type of family and for every need. We have electric induction cooktops that heat faster, are easier to clean, enable more control, result in a cooler kitchen and don’t emit toxic gases inside your home. We have electric heat pump water heaters that use one-third of the energy of natural gas water heaters. We have reverse cycle air conditioners and heat pumps that can replace your oil boiler or your gas furnace, using one-third of the energy.
Even those who resist these changes – witness the fetishism of gas stoves by cooks who have never tried induction models – will come to appreciate them for their efficiency and clean technology (no changing the oil in the car). While we were driving, my mother recalled the man who would drive an ice truck to her house when she was a very little girl. She described the smell of the hemp sacks that kept the ice from melting and the leather straps and bands and the ice picks that were his tools of trade. She also remembers when most of the groceries were delivered to the houses on the street because few women drove and it was impractical to go daily to the store: everything from fresh bread to milk, even butchered rabbits shot locally during the rabbit plague. That was in Rockdale, only ten or so kilometres from Sydney’s CBD. When she was about seven, she remembers moving into a house with an electric refrigerator. The refrigerator made everything easier. The refrigerator, it should be remembered, was the first mass adoption of the very, very useful and multi-talented heat pump.
My mother told a further hilarious story about the “poo man,” who used to come and take away the contents of the septic tank, and the day he dropped the contents on the driveway and she saw her poo floating down the street on a river of household pee. Shortly after, they got a flushing toilet installed in the house, in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Apparently, barbecues were being popularised at the same time, and she remembers the joke of the day was about the fellow who, when asked how his life was going, replied, “Terrific! I now shit inside and eat outside!”
The point is that the future happens, and is happening all the time, and what was common one generation can be gone the next. Cultures last a long time, but machines are transient. We can’t let our attachment to them keep us from envisioning a different future.
The phenomenon of consumer uptake of things is understood as an adoption curve, sometimes referred to as an experience rate. Examples of adoption curves are shown in Figure 2. Consumer electronic devices such as mobile phones and colour TVs only took about twenty years to be adopted by practically all households. Things that require infrastructure, such as landline telephones, took longer because the deployment was slowed down by the necessity of stringing all the lines. Even something as practical as the flushing toilet took longer because it required modifications to our housing stock.
The second chart in Figure 2 illustrates the theoretical shapes and speed of adoption curves under different policy and regulatory circumstances. In theory, the government could mandate that tomorrow it will come and replace all gas stoves with electric ones. This is the “magic wand” scenario. We’d have zero-emission cooking nationally, overnight. But this isn’t practical: people would rebel, the supply chain would break and the workforce isn’t prepared to do it. It is already hard enough to find a tradie to electrify the kitchen.
The best you might be able to do in practice is replace it when it fails. Everything gets replaced eventually except for the few things that become museum pieces. A government could institute a ‘no new gas stove/petrol vehicle/gas heater’ policy after a certain year, say 2025. After 2025, when you went to Harvey Norman or asked a tradie to do the kitchen renovation, the only options available would be clean, zero-emission, electric ones. This would result in the 100 per cent at end-of-life replacement curve. If all the stoves last fifteen years, it would take fifteen years after that end date of 2025 to get to an almost completely zero-emission fleet of Australian stoves/cars/heaters.
In 2017, the Norwegian government instituted a no-new-fossil-fuel-vehicles-after-2025 policy. This gave people and the industry a target and enough time for infrastructure to be planned and workforce development to be done. It results in an adoption curve that looks more like the “production ramp-up, then 100 per cent replacement” curve in the second graph of the figure. Subsidies, tax incentives and rebates are other policy mechanisms that can shift the shapes of these curves.
Adoption curves describe not just consumer technologies but things like coal-fired power generation. Because coal-fired electricity generation is pretty much the worst possible thing to do climate-wise, and responsible for the largest portion of emissions, scientists, activists and now policy-makers are pursuing “early retirement” of coal. We can see how this would increase the speed of decarbonisation significantly in the curves.
I can hear the free-market conservatives shriek at the thought of all this government interference, and the libertarians at the loss of liberty involved in limiting consumer choice, but the third part of Figure 2 tells you a sobering story. If we want to hit better than 2°C as a global climate target, we’ve got to go with 100 per cent replacement at end-of-life. If we want to achieve anything like the 1.5°C outcome, which is what our coral reefs, glaciers and children demand of us, we really need a combination of early retirement of the heaviest emitters, combined with mandated replacement at end-of-life. Our cars last twenty years; our appliances about the same. If, starting this year, we had perfect replacement at end-of-life, that means it is 2043 before we are mostly zero-emission, and even so there will be some stragglers.
Mum and I made a lot of stops on our trip, and I did a lot of speaking to general, specialist and political audiences on this topic. It was clear to me from the questions I received that my message wasn’t terribly well understood. People heard “Electrify Everything,” but then went to a place of guilt because they thought it required them to do everything yesterday. One audience member, Tim Hodgson, contacted me later. He was working on a project called “My Net Zero,” based around his own family’s commitment, and then planning, to get to zero emissions. In approximately his words:
A year ago, my family pledged net-zero 2025. We made a plan. Get solar in 2022, financed to reduce the up-front burden. Use the savings from that exercise to electrify the stove and the water heating over the next two years. Then we plan to get a battery in 2024, when the prices have dropped and the economics are better. Finally we will get an electric car in 2025, when the choices are higher and there is more supply and more second-hand options. They are all the things responsible for emissions that we have direct control over. After that we’ll focus on our banking and on composting and eating well and consuming responsibly.
Tim later admitted to me that he was waiting for the VW electric Kombi to be available in Australia before he electrified the car. I fetishise Kombis old and new, so I wasn’t going to criticise! In fact, I think his is the perfect summary for how we get the job done on time. The Kombi they wanted came as the reward at the end of the already-rewarding process of decarbonising their home.
Every Australian household needs a plan, and the plan needs to replace the things in their life that emit CO2. It doesn’t have to be done immediately, but at the natural rate at which household things break or get replaced. I have summarised this concept in Figure 3 because I think it is unbelievably important, although simple, and it gives us a framework to think about Project Decarbonise Australia – or Rewiring Australia.
Every household will go on a journey of electrification over the next two decades; we can make that project easier, and cheaper, as a nation, or we can make it harder and more expensive. We can optimise the building codes, train the workforce, provide regulatory certainty and phase-out dates that provide market certainty. We can reform the tax code around these purchases, and build these ideas into the way we design social housing and low-income assistance. We could invent schemes that use mechanisms such as those behind the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) to help everyone come along for the ride. We can make this project go faster, and get a better climate outcome, or we can let it go slower and get a worse one.
It is worth thinking about the small number of decisions that are represented in these charts – when they happen, how they happen and who participates. Very often these upgrades will be lined up with a home purchase or a major renovation. There will be tradespeople involved for all of them, even the car, given that it’ll come with a vehicle charger to be installed somewhere. The best possible time to do many of these things is when the home is built, not later as a retrofit, though – to be clear-eyed about the task – we probably will only build a million or so homes over this time, so the challenge is very much a retrofit one, as we’ve got 10 million households to get to zero. I’m in favour of designing policies similar to those of the US Inflation Reduction Act, which target these decision points and provide incentives at the moments of purchase, whether they be tax incentives, rebates or subsidies.
Before you get worried that this transition sounds big and hard – and it is – remember that we have twenty years to get those machines installed. If we just go with the status quo, we will be buying and installing 100 million machines over the next twenty years anyway. (For example, we buy cars at the rate of one million per year, or at least we did before COVID.) So you don’t need to run out and mortgage your house or take out a loan to buy all these electric things in 2023, but rather plan out the pathway for your household to become all-electric by 2025/30/35 or 2040.
When your old Camry or Volvo kicks the bucket, get an electric vehicle. That might be 2024, but it could be 2030. When the water heater goes out, make sure to replace it with a heat pump electric (or even just a resistance electric if it can do demand response). The next time you do a kitchen renovation, select an induction cooktop and electric oven. Replace the gas heaters with reverse-cycle air conditioning and not only decarbonise your winter heat but add cooling for the summer.
We don’t have to switch out all our machines tomorrow. We don’t need to feel guilty about not having ticked off the full kit yet. Because the electrification industry and supply chain isn’t at full scale yet, every time one of these updated electric machines gets purchased and installed, the products get cheaper, the supply chain matures and the machines get better.
When I am my mother’s age, I will tell stories to my grandchildren about quaint old things called carburettors and how genuinely infuriating they were, and about replacing LPG tanks when the barbecue sputtered out. I’m sure they will be flabbergasted at the idea that we once had open fires in the kitchen. I’ll recount tales of oil fires from making hot chips at home and they’ll look at me cross-eyed at the stupidity of it all.
This is an extract from Saul Griffith's Quarterly Essay, The Wires That Bind: Electrification and Community Renewal. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY