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Saul Griffith

Energy Literacy 4. How to gauge whether your politicians are faking it on climate change commitments


Saul Griffith is an inventor and entrepreneur. He did his PhD at MIT in programmable matter, exploring the relationship between bits and atoms, or information and materials. Since leaving MIT, he has co-founded a number of technology companies including Optiopia, Squid Labs, Instructables, Potenco, and Makani Power.

On the day before Thanksgiving, while everyone was distracted buying (or pardoning) turkeys, the Obama team announced that the president will go to Copenhagen and promise to try to commit to a carbon reduction schedule for the United States.

(More links if you want to see the news repeat it over and over again: 1, 2, 3)

On one hand, I want to be excited about this because unless the US makes a commitment to CO2 reductions, it's exceedingly unlikely that the rest of the world will bother. On the other hand, no one should be jumping in the aisles till we look at the numbers more carefully.

It's probably useful to first update yourself on the climate science. Here's a well-written, critical, and objective summary of recent scientific results released a few months ago. It was prepared as an update between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of 2007, and IPCC AR5, which will not to be completed until 2013. The PDF of the full report is well worth reading.

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Energy Literacy 3: Energy, Power, Carbon.  The basic concepts of energy literacy.


Saul Griffith is an inventor and entrepreneur. He did his PhD at MIT in programmable matter, exploring the relationship between bits and atoms, or information and materials. Since leaving MIT, he has co-founded a number of technology companies including,,,, and

How do we measure energy and power?

If you would like to quantitatively understand the relationship between your lifestyle, global energy use, and climate change, you need to establish the language with which you can translate between these things. There are many different ways we use energy, many different ways we produce energy, and many different consequences environmentally. Power and energy are being measured around us all of the time. You get your electricity bill in kilowatt hours (kWh), your gas bill in Therms or British Thermal Units (BTUs), your car's performance is measured in horsepower, and your lightbulbs are rated in watts. To compare these things you need a common set of units, and we've already encountered 4 different units (kWh, BTU, Hp, W), and two different concepts - energy and power -- and we've only just started.

The first problem with comparing these things is that some of them (BTUs and kWh) are measures of energy consumed, and some of them (horsepower and watts) are measures of power. To add to this confusion, some of them are measures of primary energy (barrels of oil equivalent, or metric tons of coal), some are measures of net electrical power at your outlet (W), some are measures of thermal energy or heat, and some are measures of net mechanical power (Hp at the wheels of your car). To wade your way through all of this, you need an intuition for the difference between energy, and power. Energy can actually be an abstract concept, while people often have a more intuitive understanding of power-- "my car has 200 horsepower!˝

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Energy Literacy part One: Energy is invisible

Saul Griffith is an inventor and entrepreneur. He did his PhD at MIT in programmable matter, exploring the relationship between bits and atoms, or information and materials. Since leaving MIT, he has co-founded a number of technology companies including,,,, and

You might have just driven home. When you filled your car with gasoline, most likely you didn't even see the fluid as it was pumped into your gas tank. Once home, you probably turned on some lights, some music, your computer, and maybe even heat, so you could read this web page. You can't see the power running through the electrical lines that lead to your light bulb, and you don't feel it, but you do enjoy the results. Our society has made energy invisible. This invisibility makes energy convenient to use -- and the modern age is arguably wonderful as a result -- but it also makes it easy to take it for granted. Here we try to make our appetite for energy visible.

Climate change is a phenomenon we now recognize as one of the most important challenges to ever confront humanity. Like energy use, it is also mostly invisible to us, and in two important ways.  Firstly, the enormous volumes of green-house gases -- carbon dioxide, methane, CFC's etc, are quite literally invisible to our naked eyes. Secondly, the changes in climate progress so slowly that they seem invisible amidst the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. Because these consequences accumulate over decades, generations, and centuries, it is easy to not see them as pressing and urgent. Here we try to make visible these complicated and largely invisible things.

The global energy and climate conversation is about choices, both individual choices and collective choices. By choosing the amount and type of energy we consume, we are choosing the look and feel of our future. Everyone is involved in that choice. Don't be fooled: individual choices collectively have enormous effects.   A large coal power plant has a power output of 1GW (GigaWatt) which is 1 billion (1 000 000 000) Watts.  If 1 billion people reduced their power needs by just 1 watt ( About what is required to keep a compact fluorescent burning for just 1 hour a day), that's a coal fired power plant you don't need to build.  

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Guest blogger - Saul Griffith's "Energy Literacy Series"

I'm very happy to introduce our new guest blogger, Saul Griffith. He's a friend and a long time contributor to MAKE, where his Making Trouble column and Howtoons comics are reader favorites. A visit to Saul's workshop is a mind-boggling treat -- home-made bikes, giant kites, modded dune buggies, cheap eyeglass making machines, hand-held human-powered generators, and other wondrous prototype devices are all over the place. He comes closer to being a real-life Professor from Gilligan's Island than anyone I know. Saul was named a McArthur Fellow in 2007.

I'm looking forward to what Saul writes for Boing Boing over the next two weeks. I promise it will be very interesting. -- Mark


I'm guest blogging at Boing Boing! I'm excited, not only because I've long been a fan, but also because you, as readers here, are out there at the edge thinking about the future and how to build it and participate in it.

I'm failing at finishing a book (with my colleague Jim McBride who will hopefully join me in the postings) that we've been writing on climate and energy issues for what seems like forever.  As we are approaching the Copenhagen UN Climate Change conference ( on December 7th, I thought I may as well summarize the contents of my book in a 12(ish)-part series here at Boing Boing.  Sadly it already appears the world has given up hope on reaching any sort of agreement on targets at Copenhagen, which is unfortunate, but lucky for me, because the entire book is about how you might choose such a target, and how you would plan appropriate responses, personally, locally, nationally, and globally. It also will help you call bull$#!+ on people at dinner parties who espouse some fantastic new perpetual motion machine.

If you want to just read it in a book you can wait for us to get our act together, squint at pieces at, or simply read David J.C. MacKay's wonderful "Sustainability without the hot air" instead, as he is more highly functional than myself, and already got his book covering similar material for the UK out there and published.

Before the climate change deniers and skeptics run to their keyboards to write long-winded diatribes in the comments section, I'll try to ward you off by saying that you can just consider the posts as a thought experiment.  "If this climate stuff were actually true in some parallel universe, what could we do to address the problem, and what might the resultant world look like?"

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