Electrify Everything
Oct 20, 2021
Season 1 | Episode 3

Electrify Everything

Welcome to the climate crisis, where saving lives might mean turning every building into a Tesla.

We know by now that we need a lot of lithium to make a lot of batteries so that we can make a green energy transition and stop using fossil fuels. So what exactly are those batteries for? Electric vehicles, sure. But we need them for so much more, because if we are going to dodge the worst effects of climate change, we are going to need to electrify everything.

Devin De Wulf poses for a portrait. De Wulf used two batteries to give his neighbors power as Hurricane Ida battered New Orleans. His house could be a model for decentralized power.
Devin De Wulf used two batteries to give his neighbors power as Hurricane Ida battered New Orleans. His house could be a model for decentralized power.

The most recent and pressing instance in which electrifying everything could have saved lives is Hurricane Ida. After Ida made landfall in Louisiana Aug. 29, over a million people lost power across the state. Almost everyone who hadn’t been able to evacuate before the storm was stuck in the sweltering aftermath.

In parts of New Orleans, the power was out for 10 days. “Every day it was easily over 110 degrees,” said New Orleans resident Devin De Wulf. “That is really challenging when you can’t cool down anywhere. Living without air conditioning, you know, it’s fatal, potentially.” 

As thousands of people in the city dealt with the heat, De Wulf’s house — powered by solar panels and two batteries — became a neighborhood charging station. There were extension cords to neighbor’s homes that powered an oxygen machine, a refrigerator and even power strips on the front porch where anyone could come by and charge their devices.

De Wulf’s home is an example of “decentralization.” Instead of just one central power grid that we’re all connected to that might not be resilient to severe storms, decentralized infrastructure is spread out block by block, building by building. 

Decentralization includes a lot of moving parts and big ideas. So we’re digging into all of it this episode, from the tech and policy necessary for whole cities to become completely electric to the joys of an electric oven.  

The first season of “How We Survive” is all about lithium and the messy business of finding climate solutions. New episodes are out every Wednesday. Be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and tell a friend if you’re enjoying the show.

“How We Survive” episode 3, “Electrify Everything” transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Molly Wood: So there’s this sci-fi book I like. Shocker, I know.

It’s called “The Peripheral,” by William Gibson.

And it’s sorta complicated but it describes an idea called the Jackpot. Basically, over several decades of extreme climate change, and other stuff like pandemics and war, most of the human population dies.

The ones who are left have the whole world to themselves – that’s the Jackpot part – and one of the characters points out that after it’s too late, they figure out all the tech they need to keep the world going and clean it up.

Nanotechnology and carbon-eating molecules and all kinds of advanced robotics and things. And this character is sad about it. Like, what if we’d figured this out sooner, you know?

So, what if we can? What if we can start doing this now?

I’m Molly Wood. This is How We Survive, a podcast from Marketplace about how finding solutions to the climate crisis is a messy business.

This is Episode 3: Electrify Everything.

We’re focused this season on lithium, a soft, light metal that everyone’s chasing as one big climate solution.

The lithium goes in batteries. Batteries for electric cars, and also batteries that will help power a Clean Energy Transition. And, not for nothing, help us survive when the grid fails. Which it will do more and more as human-caused global warming triggers catastrophic weather events.

But how might this solution actually work to help us survive storms and floods and fires, and cut carbon emissions in the process?

We’ll start with a local idea that could transform cities like New Orleans. Then, look at how to build this infrastructure nationally from entrepreneurs and policy-makers.

And we’ll try to imagine a world where our solutions don’t come along too late.

This past summer, Hurricane Ida tore through the Gulf Coast with 150 mile an hour winds.

Twenty six people died in Louisiana. Over a million people lost power

Devin De Wulf: The storm itself is one thing, the aftermath of the storm is a whole other thing.

Molly Wood: This is Devin De Wulf, a teacher, artist and community organizer. He rode out the hurricane at his home in New Orleans with his family.

Devin De Wulf: The people with means evacuate, and the people who cannot afford to evacuate will be forced to stay. In my neighborhood, half the population got out of there and half the population stayed behind.

Molly Wood: Devin stayed because his wife is an ER doctor and she had to work.

Devin De Wulf: So we prepared the house as good as we could, you know, filled up the car with gas, plywood on everything, downloaded all the Harry Potter movies for my children.

And as it got closer to landfall, the seriousness of the storm was evident. 

Molly Wood: When Ida made landfall on August 29th, about 200,000 people were still in New Orleans.

That afternoon, most of the city went dark. And it stayed that way.

Devin De Wulf: ​​We were without power for 10 days. Every day, it was easily over 110 degrees. That is really challenging when you can’t cool down anywhere. Living without air conditioning, you know, it’s fatal, potentially.

Molly Wood: At least 10 people died just in New Orleans because of the heat.

Devin De Wulf:  The worst thing, um, what I, I personally think was the worst, was just looking at elderly people sitting in the shade kind of quietly suffering…the heat, you know, it, it took a toll on my 36 year old body, but, you know, if you’re 80 or 90 years old, that, that is really, really, really difficult to get through.

Molly Wood: Then there was a shortage of food and water.

Devin De Wulf: There are supply chain issues, no one has gasoline, um, people start to go hungry, and at the same time there’s massive food waste happening all around you. The longer you go in that situation, you start to see people on edge, losing their temper a little bit. People are more and more stressed out, they’re getting more and more desperate.

Molly Wood: But Devin did not lose power.

His house was the only one in the neighborhood where the lights stayed on, because it runs on batteries.

Devin De Wulf: Our house had solar panels and, uh, two batteries. 

Molly Wood: That’s right. You can get a big ole battery – in Devin’s case, two of them – about four feet tall. People put them on their roof or in the garage or in Devin’s case, outside.

Here’s how it works. The solar panels on Devin’s roof charge the batteries. It’s kinda like a generator, but without the gasoline. Then the batteries, which usually cost a couple thousand dollars a pop, literally power your house.

Maybe not as much as your regular electricity amount, but in Devin’s case, they kept the lights on in the house for days.

Devin De Wulf: My house went through 10 days with no power easy peasy because after the hurricane, the sun will rise again.

Molly Wood: And the sun recharges the batteries, and the lights stay on.

Devin’s house became the neighborhood charging station and literally helped save lives.

Devin De Wulf: Mr. Roy needed an oxygen machine. So I ran an extension cord from my house to his house to take care of that. I’ve got another elderly neighbor and I hooked up his refrigerator during the daylight when I had solar. And then on the front porch, I just put an extension cord connected to a power strip and just a little sign that said, you know, phone charging station open 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM every day. And easily hundreds of people came by to charge their devices.

Molly Wood: And it’s a good thing Devin had the solar panels and the home batteries, because he says outside help never came.

Devin De Wulf: There’s no police, there’s no 911, there’s no, any support of any kind. We never saw any FEMA or city government or state government show up at all. 

Molly Wood: Devin says you have to fend for yourself in almost every way. That includes generating your own backup power when the grid fails.

Devin De Wulf: So I think the smartest thing we can do in Louisiana is just start to install solar panels and batteries everywhere. 

Molly Wood: In the days after Hurricane Ida, Devin started a campaign to get solar panels and batteries installed in businesses across New Orleans.

Starting with restaurants, which he says

Devin De Wulf: Solves literally seven problems all at once.

Molly Wood: Food waste is a big one. Devin previously started a charity with his wife to feed health workers and support restaurants, so this is a big issue for him.

He says if restaurants can generate their own power when the grid goes down, they can save thousands of pounds of meat and dairy and produce.

Devin De Wulf: What we’re also doing is enabling that restaurant to feed their community. 

Molly Wood: He raised 89 thousand dollars so far from people in the community, and now has a plan to start a whole new solar company to make his idea even bigger.

Devin De Wulf: We need to empower, community by community, those people to really become the first responders and not really need outside assistance. 

Molly Wood: Devin’s plan is all about decentralization instead of relying on one big power grid that might not be prepared or well maintained or resilient to storms.

You spread out the infrastructure, make it block by block, even house by house. In the tech world, we like to call this redundancy. Even if one system fails there are others to pick up the slack.

But for these ideas to work, it will take more than community organizers raising money to get it done in cities. It’ll take a big shift that will involve a lot of moving parts.

Including some entrepreneurs with big ideas about disrupting the way we get energy.

The kind of folks who talk like this.

Donnel Baird: By focusing on consumer experience and making it a better customer experience, like that’s how you, uh, gain the economic leverage that you needed to transform the rest of the ecosystem.

Molly Wood: This is Donnel Baird, the founder of BlocPower – a startup that finances and installs energy-efficient tech in city buildings and houses.

I’ve talked to him before and I wanted him to help explain how this all could work, because while lots of companies are selling parts of this solution, BlocPower is the only company I know of that’s doing top to bottom energy retrofits of entire buildings and houses.

Meaning that if anybody has thought through what it’ll take to make a massive transition to renewable energy, it’s Donnel. And he’s good at translating my boring obsession with batteries and electrification into real life.

Another thing to know about entrepreneurs is that they’re fond of saying things like, “We’re the Uber of X” or “we’re the Airbnb of whatever” to explain how their company works. Donnel has his own version of that.

Molly Wood: Your Twitter handle right now is, “Make every building into a Tesla.” Tell me what you mean by that.

Donnel Baird: Tesla has done a great job of taking the fossil fuel engine and fossil fuel equipment out of vehicles. And we now can do that for buildings. We now can go into a building, rip out all the fossil fuel equipment that we use for heating, for cooling, for hot water and replace it with a hundred percent electric, um, super smart cloud connected, uh, equipment that uses a hundred percent electricity, lowers costs, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and can connect to your local energy utility’s smart grid. So we now can do the same thing to buildings that we’re, we’re able to do to vehicles.

Molly Wood: What building blocks, no pun intended, need to be in place for that to happen? Like backup all the way to, you know, the smart grid for example.

Donnel Baird: In order to get to smart buildings, smart, all electric buildings on a smart grid, um, oh, God, that’s a big question, Molly. Okay. So we’re going to need a lot of new roofs to support rooftop solar. We’re going to need batteries, um, in folks’ garages and backyards. Um, we’re going to need this innovation that we think is really important, which is, uh, the all electric cold climate heat pump. Which is a terrible name, but what it is is it’s like a smart, all electric air conditioner that can also run in reverse.

And, uh, during summer it provides cold air to your home. During winter, it provides warm air to your home and it can just kind of reverse itself season to season and it’s hyper efficient and it runs on a hundred percent electricity. So if you have solar on your roof, if you have batteries to store solar electricity, uh, that’s coming off your roof, then you can use that electricity to power your home and provide heating and air conditioning and cooking, um, through these heat pumps, these electric air conditioning systems.

Molly Wood: So I know at this point you’re probably thinking, “Wow. That sounds like a lot.” And it is. And that’s just the houses. Donnel says we’ll also need to upgrade electrical wiring in houses; the utilities themselves need to transition from burning coal or gas to using wind or solar, and no pressure but –

Donnel Baird: We must do that in order to navigate the worst impacts of climate change, the sooner, the better.

Molly Wood: And so when we talked about, when we talk about electrify everything, it’s basically that plus cars?

Donnel Baird: It’s that plus cars, plus ovens. Like we gotta rip the actual gas oven out as well, plus cars. And so now everything’s electric. That’s correct. And because everything’s electric, we can, we can now power, uh, uh, these vehicles and buildings through electricity. And we want that electricity to be generated from clean, renewable sources, not fossil fuels.

Molly Wood: Yeah. Yeah. What is your sense of how many batteries this whole chain is going to take? Maybe not, you know, you don’t have to give me a number unless you have one.

Donnel Baird: I feel like I’m interviewing for like, Google or McKinsey here, Molly. 

Molly Wood: ​​I know, exactly. “Have you done the cost benefit analysis on battery installation at grid scale versus home scale?

Donnel Baird: It’s a lot. And I think there’s, uh, I think there are questions as to, are there enough raw materials to provide the raw materials that were required, will be required? I mean, we know, right, we know there’s 129 million buildings in America. And so 250, 250,000 buildings are like skyscrapers, right? And then 5 million buildings are like, medium sized buildings, like small businesses, church or synagogue or mosque, Catholic school, private school, you know, public school. There’s these medium-sized buildings that are not skyscrapers, but they’re bigger than your average home, right. So that’s 5.25 million buildings right there. And then the remaining 124 million or so are single family homes, right? A couple of factories, but mostly single family homes and, and we’re, we’re going to need batteries at all of those buildings, right? If not multiple batteries at all of these buildings. And you will need more batteries along, uh, the distribution line or transmission line between, uh, centralized, uh, power production, plants, power plants, and home. 

And so it’s going to be lots and lots and lots of batteries. And, you know, it’s going to take a lot of lithium, a lot of cobalt, um, to, to, to make all those batteries. And then, you know, a lot of construction workers to install them and maintain them and all that kind of stuff. So it’s a, it’s a big overhaul. 

Molly Wood: Yeah, definitely. Well, and then that gets to the speed question, right? There are lots of steps here. We’ve been visiting lithium mines where there’s, you know, a million sort of obstacles. It’s like a new mine or a geothermal extraction technology is, is a 10 year undertaking. And you have to have communities that want it. Like I wonder when you look at all of these, um, things that have to go into this transition, how do you feel about our speed?

Donnel Baird: We’re going too slow. Um, there, there’s like, what we need to do and then there’s what’s possible. And then there’s, there’s what we’re actually doing. So what we’re actually doing is way too slow. Beyond that, I would say, how should I say, our company at bottom is focused on identifying American cities that are ready to electrify the entire city. All the buildings, all the cars, right? And, and our view as like a, an aggressive, ambitious, ambitious millennial company is like, we need to electrify 3, 4, 5 American cities in the next four to six years, and generate a data dataset that can be shared with all cities around the world on, hey, this is the blueprint for you to electrify all of your buildings and all of your vehicles in your city. 

Molly Wood: Now again, at this point you’re probably thinking this sounds not that possible, but Donnel says several cities have passed laws saying they’ll be on 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 or 2040, like Atlanta and New York.

But also, that there are a few cities that do want to electrify everything, including Ithaca, New York.

Donnel Baird: What we really want to see is a bunch of mayors joining the mayor of Ithaca, uh, Ithaca, New York and saying, we are going to electrify this entire city, all of the buildings, all of the cars, and we’re going to do it in four and a half years, right? That’s, that’s where we need to be. So it’s technologically possible. Is it hard? Yeah, it’s hard, but it’s possible. And so we, we need some people to like, show some courage and start to get this done.

Molly Wood: Ok, so that’s the like big picture, high-level, electrification story. But what does it mean, let’s say, if you de-carbonize your house this way?

Molly Wood: Yeah, um, just a super practical question about an electrified home or building. What’s, you know, what is it? What is it like? What does it feel like, what’s different from, you know, how your stove works now? I know people are like, freaked out about losing their gas stoves.

Donnel Baird: It’s, it’s so much sweeter, Molly. It’s so sweet. 

Molly Wood: I mean, I’m not surprised to hear you say that, but tell me more.

Donnel Baird: First of all, it’s much, much more comfortable in an all electric home, right. Because you have your heating and cooling equipment in different zones of the house. See now, there’s always this part of your house that’s always like, much colder or much hotter than everywhere else in the house, no matter how you change the thermostat it just doesn’t change. Well an all electric building, because it’s more modular and just like, the heating and cooling is distributed throughout the building, um, your building is like, much more comfortable so that’s one. Two, electric, uh, heating and cooling systems in house, um, can actually ingest air pollution and actually ingest like, COVID-19 and clean the air as they circulate it and heat it and cool it. 

And then on the cooking stuff like yeah, more and more data will come out that cooking with gas stoves releases a ton of nitrogen dioxide and other toxins that are slowly poisoning people from their kitchens. And so cooking with all electric stoves will more and more be like, 10 years from now, everybody’s going to have an electric stove just from a health perspective not even from a climate perspective. Um and so more and more data’s coming out on that. 

Molly Wood: Wow. Also those induction ranges seem sick. Like they just heat up so fast.

Donnel Baird: Yeah. We have one. They’re, they’re really, they’re really great. Like it takes a week or two to adjust, but like it’s awesome. 

Molly Wood: Well it’s kind of like an electric car, right? Like it’s different, and if you are me and you grew up a car person, you’re like, it has to be a manual.

Donnel Baird: That’s right. 

Molly Wood: And then you’re in there with that electric torque and you’re like, all cars should be this car.

Donnel Baird: Yeah, you get used to it, right? It’s the future, right. So you gotta adjust, but it’s um, that’s the future. It’s good.

Molly Wood: So the future is good. And it’s great that there are entrepreneurs out there trying to figure this out, and it’d be great to have more of them. BlocPower has retrofitted over 1,000 buildings, and has done pilot projects in 24 cities and has this electrification contract with Ithaca, NY.

And another part of the blueprint is that BlocPower is also hiring people from low-income communities across the country and training them to get these high paying jobs installing clean energy equipment, to help even out the benefits of this transition.

And all of that is great and part of the ecosystem we’re going to need, but it’s still not enough. So after the break, we’re going to talk about the other thing we need, which is the government.

Because as much as we’ve talked about decentralization, when you really need something to get done, sometimes you need a push from, well, a centralized authority. You need government policy.

“Public-private partnership” is the fancy name for the ideal world where startups and companies that are making a dent in the climate crisis get help from the government, either in the form of tax breaks or financial incentives – faster permitting and less red tape, that kind of thing.

Now, the Biden Administration has set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030, and committed 200 million dollars to support battery technology development in the US and its own blueprint for creating a domestic battery supply chain.

Standing in front of a row of shiny cars at a Ford Electric Vehicle Center in Detroit back in May, President Biden had this to say –

President Biden: How we handle the next 4 to 10 years is gonna determine where we are 30, 40, 50 years from now.

Molly Wood: The President was geeking out about electric cars in Detroit, in a room full of union car guys, with the nation’s oldest automakers in attendance.

Biden: The future of the auto industry is electric.

And it’ll bring jobs, he said.

President Biden: The real question is whether we’ll lead or fall behind in the race to the future. Whether we’ll build these vehicles and the batteries that go in them here in the United States or rely on other countries.

But respectfully speaking, that’s just the President talking. To find out what the government is doing, we called up the woman President Biden put in charge of this clean energy transition.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. First, the easy part: yes, we agree,

Jennifer Granholm: We have to set the policy in place now so that we can get to movement. Um, you know, some of this takes a while, takes a while to build out transmission grids, for example. But the United States, if we’re going to get to this goal of a hundred percent clean electricity, we basically have to almost double the capacity on our transmission grid so that we can add the renewable energy that we need, so that we can make the grid resilient, so that we can incorporate electrification of vehicles, electrification of the built environment. So there is just a lot that has to happen, which is why the policy piece has to happen right now. 

Molly Wood: Specifically, the secretary said yes, the U.S. needs to spend money to upgrade the transmission grid, like she and Donnel both talked about, to build charging stations for electric vehicles, to give more tax credits for clean energy and get utilities to buy into that clean energy transition and not make customers pay for it.

And also, to create this domestic battery supply chain that involves lithium extraction and hopefully, even battery manufacturing in the United States.

But it’s not just about all those costs and challenges. Just like with electrification, Granholm says there’s a big upside to this transition. If we can create that domestic supply chain, there’s a lot of money to be made.

Jennifer Granholm: Here’s the other thing that I think is really important, is that globally there is a, it’s going to be by 2030, a $23 trillion global market for the products that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, globally, because of all of these countries signing onto the Paris Accords. They’re all going to want these solutions. And so the question is where are these products going to be made? Where are they going to be invented, where are they’re going to be deployed? And the president has said, look, other countries are significantly partnering or even owning these assets. We’ve got economic competitors who are out there pulling the rug out from under us. We’re going to get in the game here. We’re not going to stand by and allow these jobs to go to other countries. And that’s why he’s been very aggressive about building out the technologies and the supply chains in America. 

Molly Wood: Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about that. This season that we’re doing of this podcast is really focused on lithium and battery and the battery supply chain. Tell me about building that out in the US. It’s not without controversy to start new mining projects. Um, and then I wonder how you look at, again, moving quickly.

Jennifer Granholm: Yeah. I mean, first of all, you’re right. Um, to do any um, mining or any extraction takes a long time to both the capital investment and the permitting, et cetera. We’ve got to realize though, that we’re in a moment where we must move fast and we’ve got to do it in a responsible and sustainable way. If we do, if the United States can crack the code on mining lithium in a responsible way that respects the environment and the people, um, and the land and the water, if we can do that, then we will have created an irresistible market, not just in the United States, but globally as well.

Molly Wood: And one other thing the government can do in a situation like this, is pick winners. Remember, the first time you heard from Secretary Granholm, she told me she has some concerns about the lithium mining project at Thacker Pass, Nevada, that we’ve been looking into in earlier episodes..

But there is a lithium extraction project that her department is behind.

Jennifer Granholm: The Department of Energy has co-invested in a, in a project in Salton Sea. Um, it’s, uh, extracting lithium from geothermal brines. Um, we think that it can be done. It looks like it’s, the technology is proving out to be done in a sustainable way. That kind of technology is really, um, you know, if it proves out is really the kind of technology that I think the US can excel in, and therefore we can actually develop the full supply chain for the battery in the, in the United States.

We’re going to visit the Salton Sea in our next episode, but the thing Granholm and others like about it, is that the actual lithium extraction isn’t carbon intensive. In fact, it’s done while you’re producing renewable energy.

But even more importantly, the community in and around the region where the lithium exists wants the projects and has a big voice in how lithium extraction there is going to happen. It’s the type of project she says, that can break an old, ugly cycle.

Molly Wood: Yeah. And it, it sounds like you’re saying, too, that policy can put its thumb on the scale a little bit, that it doesn’t have to be, that we don’t have to get this resource in the same old way that we have always done things.

Jennifer Granholm: Exactly right. We do not have to get it in the same old way. In fact, we shouldn’t, we should look at ways of getting this resource because we have technology. And because we have the benefit of seeing, uh, how it’s been done in the past, where it hasn’t worked well, we can do this right.

Molly Wood: This, says Granholm, is the moment for us to act to do things in a just way, and to get our butts in gear. She didn’t say that – I’m paraphrasing – but what she did say is,

Jennifer Granholm: This is the moment and, and it’s an economic moment, an opportunity moment, but it’s also a moment for the planet and, and shame on us if we don’t seize this moment. 

Next week, the road trip continues. We’re going to visit the Salton Sea, a place that really is ripped straight from the pages of sci-fi.

And, where there is a lot of hope that this is indeed the kind of solution that’s here now, and could benefit us all.

Maria Nava-Froelich: Here in our community, the roads, the bridges, they’re falling apart. There’s food insecurity and jobs are scarce. So do we put our hopes in Lithium Valley? Yes, we do. 

Molly Wood: That’s next time, on How We Survive.

And if you have questions about any of this, what’s happening in Nevada, whether electric stoves are really that much better, thoughts on changing your life to adapt to the climate crisis…send ‘em to us. We might even answer them on this show. survive@marketplace.org.

How We Survive was created and hosted by me, Molly Wood

Grace Rubin produced this episode with help from Marque Greene and Hayley Hershman

Caitlin Esch is our senior producer

Special thanks to Peter Thomson

Scoring and sound design is by Chris Julin, mixing by Brian Allison

Sitara Nieves is our Executive Producer

Our theme music is by Wonderly

Thank you for listening! Please subscribe if you haven’t … and tell a friend.

The team

Molly Wood Host
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer
Marque Greene Associate Producer