Saul Griffith: What’s the way forward for energy efficiency in the U.S.?

April 17, 2018, 1:13 a.m.

On Monday afternoon, in a continuation of “The Energy Seminar” series at NVIDIA Auditorium, MIT Ph.D. and Otherlab founder Saul Griffith presented on historical patterns of energy use in the United States and what he sees as the path toward a more sustainable human lifestyle in the future.

Griffith said that, over the past six months, he has read “about 60,000 pages of footnotes” on energy use in the U.S.

“I wanted to understand what we understand about energy,” Griffith said. “A lot of what we think we know about energy is wrong for very strange reasons that are hidden in footnotes in the 1970s.”

Griffith’s research and development firm, Otherlab, works on innovations such as renewable energy, robotics and computational design tools. Otherlab’s recent collaborators include Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Google, NASA, Ford, Motorola and IDEO. Griffith also noted his experience founding other companies, some of which operate in the renewable energy sector.

Griffith began by giving historical context to the energy crisis. He noted that a 1965 study commissioned by former President Lyndon B. Johnson resulted in the first mention of atmospheric carbon dioxide in a government document. Griffith then recounted the 1970s energy crisis and initiatives by Richard Nixon that eventually led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.

Next, Griffith presented Sankey diagrams — which are useful in mapping energy transfers — that depicted the amount of energy used by different types of households, businesses and other sectors.

He noted that the United States uses approximately 100 “quads” of energy per year. He also traced U.S. energy imports accounting for an additional 11 quads of energy annually, comprised largely of products related to Russian natural gas and coal from Asia and Africa.

“In a sense, this explains the Trump administration’s frustration with trade,” Griffith said. “This is an enormous expense of the U.S. economy.”

Griffith compiled the different elements of U.S. energy use on one flow chart that showed the energy used by the country as a whole. He expressed frustration over his inability to isolate data from the steel industry, chemical industry and petrochemical industry because the government allows these industries to retain such statistics as trade secrets.

“I used to think it was because they didn’t want us to know who’s making munitions, but it’s actually because they didn’t want us to know who’s making fertilizers,” Griffith said.

Griffith pointed out that Canada, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico are the biggest sources of U.S. oil, in that order. He also explained that data for U.S. fossil fuel production shows that 87 percent of oil, 89 percent of natural gas and 88 percent of coal are produced in conservative-leaning states.

“You want to understand why these states keep up the fight for [fossil fuels]? It is their economy,” Griffith said. “You can flip that on its head and make it good news. The reason those states have all of the energy is because they’re the giant states, so if you map solar and wind resources they also win that on giant margins.”

Griffith concluded his presentation by projecting how modifying people’s life habits could change the makeup of the U.S. energy usage flow diagram. He warned the audience of possible misconceptions regarding sustainable lifestyles.

“I’m very frustrated with the [idea that] if we all buy Teslas or use stainless steel water bottles and get LEDs, then the problem is solved,” Griffith said. “This is pretty untrue.”

Griffith also noted that some studies on vegetarianism can mislead readers into viewing meat as more energy intensive than it is, because the studies measure food production costs by kilograms rather than calories. The amount of calories in a kilogram of food can vary widely: For instance, one kilogram of lettuce contains 139 calories, while one kilogram of beef contains 2,506 calories. Still, Griffith noted, vegetarianism proves more sustainable.

“It’s about five times less better than the headlines try to teach us,” Griffith said. “So I think this gives us a different perspective on how to solve the problem. Yes, we need to make good purchasing decisions, but what we really need to do is consider how we have built our society and how … we embody good energy decisions in our everyday lives.”

Griffith also touched on different motives for working toward sustainability and recommended that anyone involved in sustainability efforts find their own personal motivation. Griffith said his own efforts stem from his love for the natural world.

“Those people that wish to die on Mars, go for it,” Griffith said. “My biggest concern about climate change is that we’re going to make the world just a lesser place for us all to be.”

Griffith said the biggest reductions in U.S. energy use over the last 20 years have come from LEDs and cold water enzymes for washing clothes. He noted that roughly four to five quads of U.S. energy use per year is spent in the current process for turning trees into paper and newsprint; Griffith encouraged the audience to eliminate these sorts of energy expenditures through research and development.

According to Griffith, the average U.S. citizen uses 10,000 watts of energy per day but only needs 4,000. To illustrate his point, Griffith modified the U.S. Sankey diagram from earlier in his presentation by taking out what he called “stupid” energy expenditures that result from a lack of assets such as renewable energy infrastructure and electric vehicles.

Griffith said that while he thinks solar energy is moving in the right direction, wholesale industrial solar cell installations would prove much more effective than the relatively expensive rooftop installations common today. He emphasized that making the transition from 10,000 to 4,000 watts per person per day remains realistic as long as policymakers and businesses work toward long-term energy efficiency.

“[This scenario] is close enough to true today that it’s either true next year or five years or 10 years out, and I think that’s unbelievably good news for us,” Griffith said. “I think you can build an argument to anyone of any partisan politics that it can be economically advantageous to follow some plan roughly like this.”


Contact Holden Foreman at hs4man21 ‘at’


Holden Foreman '21 was the Vol. 258-59 chief technology officer. Holden was president and editor-in-chief in Vol. 257, executive editor (vice president) in Vol. 256, managing editor of news in Vol. 254 and student business director in Vol. 255.

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