Powering Down: Q&A With Saul Griffith, Makani Power

Forget about a new gym membership or diet. The most important New Year’s resolution for 2009 may be slimming down your energy footprint. To that end, Saul Griffith and his colleagues have created WattzOn, a personal calculator that allows users to track energy consumption down to the last apple they eat.

Forget about a new gym membership or diet. The most important New Year’s resolution for 2009 may be slimming down your energy footprint. Saul Griffith, a MacArthur genius grant winner and president of Makani Power, believes that a mass movement is necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. To that end, he and his colleagues created WattzOn, a personal calculator that allows users to track energy consumption down to the last apple they eat. In addition to calculating things like travel, WattzOn also factors in less obvious contributors to our energy footprint like our possessions, food consumption and government activities on our behalf. This can bring some surprises: Griffith, who bikes to work, assumed he had a small energy footprint until WattzOn showed him he was “a planet f***er.” In This Q&A, he explains why we should scrutinize our power consumption and how this can improve our health and quality of life—even without that gym membership or fad diet.

Saul GriffithSpeaking broadly, what do you hope to accomplish with WattzOn?

A personal responsibility around energy use. It would be great for people to truly understand, have a literacy, if you will, around how much power is required to run their life, and how they could change their lifestyles and behaviors to save money and lower their energy use. It seeks to answer the question that comes at the end of a movie like An Inconvenient Truth—"But what does this mean for me? What can I do?"

What do you mean by boosting energy literacy?

Energy is invisible. Apart from the heat of the flames in an open fire that you can feel and see, there are not many cases where you see the massive flows of energy. You never actually see the gas in your gas tank; I bet few people even know how big their car's gas tank is. You never see the electrons that pass from your wall plug, but the lights magically continue to go on. What I mean by energy literacy is making energy visible to people, allowing us to see all the ways we use energy and help us reduce it sensibly, in ways that improve our life and our environment. Energy literacy means you can see the waste in disposing of a plastic bottle after you've drunk water from some place on the other side of the world.

Did you have any surprises when you conducted an audit of your personal energy use?

I was shocked at how much crap goes through my life and the embodied energy in it. I am repulsed now every time I see packaging, or some small item that serves no real purpose other than to mildly entertain me for the few moments before I throw it out.

I was also shocked to realize how much energy goes into our military and transport infrastructure. Broadly speaking, the percentage of your income that you pay in taxes is the percentage of your own personal energy use (and consequently carbon emissions) that the government decides on your behalf. For most Americans, this means 20 to 40 percent of their carbon output is done on their behalf by the government. A surprisingly large amount of this is in military infrastructure. In a truly carbon constrained world, can we really afford to fight the wars that we do and keep the level of military infrastructure that we have?  It makes you look very differently at big government. I certainly don't want my carbon spent fighting wars in Iraq or building infrastructure that will only contribute to making the climate problem harder to solve.

I was also surprised by the amount of energy used in flying. It has made me drastically change my travel habits and fly much, much less.

Are there many little things that we do with an energy cost we take for granted?

Everything you do uses energy in some way. I was surprised, for example, by how much energy it takes to deliver one can or bottle of soda or energy drink to me. If you drink one or two every day, it is the equivalent of constantly burning a 60-100Watt light bulb. Similarly, having a newspaper home delivered every day uses about the same amount of energy as a four-minute hot shower each morning.

Being able to compare all of these things is quite liberating. It lets you think about which things you do that you really enjoy, versus those things you do purely because they are habit. In an odd way my life is improving right now because of my effort to reduce my energy use. I have been eliminating habits that use energy for no good reason, and focusing on using my power budget on those things that really make me happy. For example, rather than eat low quality meat at every meal, I only eat beautiful, quality meat once a week or every two weeks. I'm also walking and riding my bicycle more and am healthier as well.

Why does WattzOn calculate our power use instead of carbon emissions?

Carbon is the lingua franca of climate change, which is good, because it is carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is the principal problem. The problem with thinking about carbon alone, however, is that it doesn't allow for a fair playing field to evaluate other things, like how much area of solar panels you would need to run your life. Using power enables you to measure all of the things you do on different timescales, the daily, the monthly, and the yearly things, and it also enables you to compare carbon based fuel sources with non-carbon based fuel sources.

The average American uses 11,000 watts of power. That's like burning one hundred and ten 100 Watt light bulbs all the time. If you think that you could put solar cells on your roof to compensate for that, likely you'd be wrong. That would mean you'd need a roof of 5,000 square feet. Very few people have that. I know I don't. That's not to say that you shouldn't put solar panels on your roof - you should. But it doesn't make the whole problem go away. You need to use less energy as well as encourage large scale renewable energy farms too.

WattzOn doesn't just calculate obvious stuff like driving or flying but also all the stuff you own—your cell phone, washing machine, air conditioner, even your books. Why tally all these possessions?

All of the physical objects, including the house you live in, represent 20 to 40 percent of your total power consumption. It takes a lot of energy to make things. If you know these things, you can change your own consumer habits for the better. Buy fewer things of higher quality and make them last longer.

Why did you structure the platform as you did with social networking, wiki and sharable database?

It's very challenging to calculate the energy in everything. I've only just scratched the surface. We made WattzOn an open platform so that we could use the collective intelligence of lots of people making estimates of the energy use of lots of things so that we could build a better resource. In this way, when another user creates a "power consumption of wooden spoon ownership" entry, I can realize that I haven't yet accounted for the three wooden spoons I own, and add that person's estimates to my personal power profile. The nice thing about being open is that people can see the assumptions and underlying math behind the site, so there are no transparency issues. If you don't like our estimates and you have better data, you can contribute that better data to our system, and everyone's estimates improve.

How do we turn a personal audit into a global solution?

You now have a better idea of how to reduce your power consumption. I think it would be reasonable for each American to aim at reducing their power consumption by 50 percent. You can very likely do that while actually improving your quality of life. That makes the challenge of building a renewable energy infrastructure for America twice as easy. Globally we need to reduce carbon output by 80-90 percent by 2050. If we all use less energy it makes that challenge easier to solve.

Energy literacy is key—if you don't know where you use your energy, you don't know what changes to make. You are left switching your incandescents for compact fluorescents. That's an important thing to do, but if you are like me, that makes less than 0.5 percent difference in your life. You need to do a lot more.

What do you think about people reducing their energy footprint as a 2009 New Year's Resolution?

In 2007 I used around 18,000 Watts of power. In 2008 I will have used about 10,000. In 2009 I'm aiming for about 7,000. This is the most important contribution you can make personally towards climate change. Become aware of your own power consumption, and reduce it. I guarantee it will save you money too.

Do you have any personal New Year's goals related to energy use?

I'm going to only shop by bicycle. I'm going to fly 50 percent less than 2008. I will ride the ferry to work more often. I will insulate my house so it requires less heat. I'm only going to buy beautiful things that I really, really need, and I'm going to care for them and maintain them and make them last a lifetime. I will install solar panels on my roof. I will do research on new wind energy technologies to make more carbon—free power available to everyone.

Many Americans believe that reducing consumption also means reducing quality of life. After cutting your energy use, do you prescribe to this view?

So far I have lost weight and become healthier. I've been spending more time with more family and more time outside in the fresh air. I've been eating better. I have less junk in my life and am appreciating the few nice things that I own a lot more. I've been doing less unnecessary travel. I can honestly say it is possible to improve your quality of life and use significantly less energy.

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