Response to Saul Griffith’s “The Wires That Bind”

This correspondence was originally published in the June 2023 edition of the Quarterly Essay, in response to the March 2023 edition by Saul Griffith.

While the pivotal role of electrification in decarbonisation has been understood for decades, it has rarely been described as vividly or enthusiastically as by Saul Griffith in The Wires That Bind. Griffith recognises that electrification is a story, at its heart, not about decarbonisation but about cleaning the air in our kitchens and streets, improving the liveability of our homes and communities, and “keeping wealth in our households and communities” – and nation. In short, electrification is a story about a better future.

While attuned to this human story of electrification, Griffith is, at heart, an engineer so it’s no surprise that The Wires That Bind is packed full of figures. Emissions are carved up, the grid is mapped and fossil machines are counted. This achieves Griffith’s goal of “clarity about the job in front of us” and complements his persuasive case for electrifying everything. The question that remains is: how can the transition best be accelerated and steered towards just and enduring outcomes?

Part of the answer is the substitution of fossil machines with electric machines and subsidies to expedite this, as advocated by Griffith and Rewiring Australia. But these substitutions are insufficient (and oddly conservative given Griffith’s reputation for out-there ideas). What’s more, while straight substitution has fuelled the fastest transitions in history, it has invariably led to new, sometimes worse, problems. The example given of cars replacing horses (which was also motivated by a pollution problem – that originating from horses’ backsides) is a salient example: cars went on to drive global warming, respiratory diseases, obesity, road accidents, social isolation and the mass consumption of resources and real estate. As Griffith points out, the substitution of our fossil cars with electric Hummers could exacerbate more of these harms.

So how else can the transition be effected? Our research suggests four interrelated approaches: (re)building trust, focusing on collective values over individual responsibility, reducing demand, and empowering a broader set of stakeholders.

First and foremost, we need to move beyond our myopic focus on markets and machines to instead focus on trust – not technology or taxes. For, as Chilli Heeler explained it to her daughters Bluey and Bingo, “if there’s no trust, none of this [the world] is possible . . . No libraries, no roads, no power lines.”

Markets don’t foster trust. Market mechanisms such as evening peak pricing have not changed when families eat – nor should they. Their greatest success has been to send pensioners to bed at 4 p.m. to shiver under blankets instead of running their heaters. The Wires That Bind plots how twenty-five years of energy sector privatisation in Australia has fuelled hyper-inflation of prices. What’s harder to plot and harder yet to undo is the consequent hyper-deflation of trust in the sector.

To give just one example of a non-market initiative that would earn back trust, governments (or the energy sector) could provide households with a cost-free energy allowance to cover their essential needs, including refrigeration and cooking. An elegant model could link this consumption with government-owned renewables generation.

Technology, likewise, neither creates trust nor replaces it. The rise of cryptocurrency scams and collapses is a timely reminder that you ultimately need to trust the humans on the other end of algorithms. For the energy sector, this should temper visions of trustless, blockchain-facilitated peer-to-peer trading and the Home Energy Management Systems that Griffith presumes will become ubiquitous. Research, such as the Digital Energy Futures project, keeps finding broad rejection of smart technologies and tariff-based incentives: people prefer hands-on control and to shift their demand by shifting routines.

The second approach, which also works towards building trust, switches the focus from individual responsibility (as a market participant or climate citizen) to collective values. As Griffith puts it, “the challenges of climate change need a politics of the collective more than a politics of the individual.” One way to put this into practice would be to conceive of the grid as a “common good.” This points us to lessons from managing other common resources, such as water. Drought-time water reductions, for instance, are not achieved through financial contracts or automated tap-closing devices but through social contracts of solidarity. Temporary electricity demand reductions, which are invaluable during periods of low renewables generation or peak demand, could be pursued through similar means.

Rooftop solar systems could be monitored in the way rural fire brigades monitor their community’s water tanks and dams. These solar systems today have greater combined power capacity than the biggest generator in the country – they are truly, as Griffith notes, critical national infrastructure. But there are no processes in place for monitoring their performance or managing their maintenance. This critical gap would be best filled by local or state governments, network companies or a not-for-profit, not by individuals – we don’t, after all, make individuals responsible for maintaining roads or the NBN.

The commons framing also highlights the risk of “free riding,” which can arise when turbulent transitions throw costs and benefits into the air. As an example, households who install solar and/or disconnect from gas are reducing their contribution to the upkeep of the electricity and gas networks without altering the total cost of maintaining these networks. This increases the burden on remaining customers, who are increasingly those facing barriers to make such upgrades. In contrast to Griffith’s description, increased use of the electricity network will likewise leave the total maintenance costs unchanged, but it may alter their distribution. The huge opportunity for saving is to decommission the gas network completely.

The first step in tackling distributional questions is to define who’s in and who’s out of the community/commons. I strongly believe in the principle of considering communities with the greatest diversity and number of constituents. Only within broad communities can inequities be redressed. This principle runs counter to the popular trend of localism, which Griffith’s suburb- and postcode-based initiatives play into, and instead emphasises the role of network companies and governments, which represent large and diverse swathes of the country. An outstanding example of this is the “postage stamp” model of paying for electricity, under which all the customers of a network pay the same price, despite the cost of serving rural customers at the end of long lines being many times greater than the cost of serving urban customers.

After personally spending years bringing solar to the roofs of apartments and rentals, I now believe the most equitable and effective approach gives these customers access to cheap and green grid electricity. Similarly, I believe there are efficiency, environmental and equity advantages to grid-scale storage, such as hydropower stations and batteries at wind farms, rather than Griffith’s vision of 5 million household batteries. Grid-scale storage lets diverse customer behavior average itself out, before responding to residual imbalances of supply and demand. This efficiency reduces the amount of batteries required and the shared nature of grid assets avoids inequity risks. Additionally, the need for dedicated short-term storage assets will be greatly diminished in 100 per cent renewable grids because of the abundance of long-term storage assets that have been built to cover multi-day stretches with low renewables generation.

The third approach to the energy transition is greater investment in the “demand side,” which, despite representing the raison d’être of the energy system, has been overshadowed by supply-side initiatives. The Wires That Bind overlooks the foundational role of non-electrical ways of fulfilling human needs. Insulation, ventilation and thermal mass can create more comfortable buildings at lower carbon, material and financial costs than the latest, greatest air-conditioner. Reconfiguring urban layouts and infrastructure to place work and services within a 15-minute commute via active and public transport will create happier, healthy and more socially connected communities than merely swapping drivetrains. Perhaps the slogan can be elongated to “eliminate, then electrify everything”?

The defining challenge of demand-side actions is that they take place where people live and work. This raises the complexity and stakes of implementation and maintenance. Australia’s unrivalled roll-out of rooftop solar provides two salient lessons in this regard. The first is that leaving implementation to the market invites what Griffiths politely describes as a “perpetual stream of ‘buy solar now!’ advertising,” as well as some companies pursuing more predatory sales techniques and a race to the bottom on cost and quality of components and services – what industry insiders call “crap solar.”

The second lesson is that social expectations and technical standards should be defined in preparation for ubiquitous uptake. This would mitigate the confusions and frustrations that have followed repeated modifications to solar system functionalities. As electric vehicle sales accelerate, our research on vehicle-to-grid technology has demonstrated how this technology, and the flexibility offered by vehicle charging in general, will be an illusion unless there is a behavioural shift from filling cars as rarely as possible to plugging electric vehicles in whenever parked.

The fourth approach is to empower a much broader set of stakeholders “within the framework of existing institutions.” One aspect of this is action by nimble communities, for which The Wires That Bind makes an impassioned case. But while there are exciting developments in this space, I believe a just transition ultimately requires our larger institutions to earn back our trust and then to lead.

For energy sector institutions the issues are remit and ideology. The bodies making and enforcing the rules currently see their fundamental objective as market efficiency and their sole tool as market competition. Regulation is therefore framed around containment (“ring fencing”) – restricting network companies to reacting to customer actions – rather than proactive enablement. Griffith is right that the “regulatory environment is as important as the physical one” – I was taught this by incurring $120,000 of legal work to enable the first installation of a solar and storage system (costing $80,000) in an Australian apartment. “Regulatory sandboxes” are a laudable innovation but changes to regulatory governance must go deeper.

Two institutions whose role in electrification – as champions or blockers – is often overlooked are rental property managers and tradespeople. Property managers are the underappreciated glue that holds together Australia’s three million rental arrangements. With training, resourcing and culture change, they could play a potent role in planning and managing electrification upgrades (at least upon failure of existing appliances) and having these features understood and valued buy property buyers and renters. Similarly, tradespeople are the boots-on-the-ground authority on whether or not (in their opinion) it is feasible to electrify, disconnect from gas, insulate and otherwise retrofit properties.

The electrification and decarbonisation transitions are lively, uncertain processes with abundant path-dependencies. We will never know precisely how to best navigate them, but the four approaches discussed here – prioritising trust over technology and taxes, governing for the common good, eliminating demand as well as electrifying it, and empowering more stakeholders – provide some direction. Taken together, they remind us that it is not the wires that bind people together, but rather the bonds of community that are materialised in the grid’s wires.