A recipe for industrial transformation

When Tom Raftery pointed me to this gloomy assessment I had to go back and remind myself of what I found hopeful in Saul Griffith’s extraordinary energy talk at ETech.

Saul concedes a 2-degree-C rise in temperature by 2033. The question is what it will take to hold the line. He thinks we’ll need to build and deploy something like this mix of clean new energy production:

100 sq meters of solar voltaic cells per second for the next 25 years (2TW)

50 sq meters of solar thermal mirrors per second for the next 25 years (2TW)

1 100 megawatt wind turbine every 5 minutes for the next 25 years(2TW)

1 3 gigawatt nuclear plant every week for the next 25 years (3TW)

3 100 megawatt geothermal steam turbines every day for the next 25 years (2TW)

1250 sq meters of bio-fuel-producing algae every second for the next 25 years (.5TW)

Can we do it? The recipe calls for 11.5 terawatts of new (and carbon-free) power supply over the next 25 years, and we created 6 in the last 25 years. So, it’s “within the scale of what we know how to do.”

Now consider these existing capacities:

Cans. We produce 110 billion aluminum cans per year. Turned into thermal mirrors, that’s 200GW solar thermal/year. “If you make Coke and Pepsi into solar thermal companies, in 10 years you get to your 2 terawatts of solar thermal. It’s within our industrial capacity to do that.”

Phones. “Nokia makes 9 phones/second. Within Nokia + Intel + AMD there is roughly the capacity to make the needed photovoltaics.”

Cars. “GM makes 1 car every 2 minutes. GM + Ford = 1 wind turbine every 5 minutes.”

Of course it’s crazy to imagine retargeting our industrial capacity in such dramatic fashion, and turning it on a dime, isn’t it?

Not necessarily. For months I’ve been meaning to blog a segment from a Lester Brown podcast, which I can’t find now, but here’s the same point from his book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization:

In his State of the Union address on January 6, 1942, one month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt announced the country’s arms production goals. The United States, he said, was planning to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, and 6 million tons of merchant shipping. He added, “Let no man say it cannot be done.”

No one had ever seen such huge arms production numbers. But Roosevelt and his colleagues realized that the world’s largest concentration of industrial power at that time was in the U.S. automobile industry. Even during the Depression, the United States was producing 3 million or more cars a year. After his State of the Union address, Roosevelt met with automobile industry leaders and told them that the country would rely heavily on them to reach these arms production goals. Initially they wanted to continue making cars and simply add on the production of armaments. What they did not yet know was that the sale of new cars would soon be banned. From early 1942 through the end of 1944, nearly three years, there were essentially no cars produced in the United States.

In addition to a ban on the production and sale of cars for private use, residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned. Strategic goods—including tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar—were rationed beginning in 1942. Cutting back on private consumption of these goods freed up material resources that were vital to the war effort.

The year 1942 witnessed the greatest expansion of industrial output in the nation’s history—all for military use. Wartime aircraft needs were enormous. They included not only fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance planes, but also the troop and cargo transports needed to fight a war on distant fronts. From the beginning of 1942 through 1944, the United States far exceeded the initial goal of 60,000 planes, turning out a staggering 229,600 aircraft, a fleet so vast it is hard even today to visualize it. Equally impressive, by the end of the war more than 5,000 ships were added to the 1,000 or so that made up the American Merchant Fleet in 1939.

In her book No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how various firms converted. A sparkplug factory was among the first to switch to the production of machine guns. Soon a manufacturer of stoves was producing lifeboats. A merry-go-round factory was making gun mounts; a toy company was turning out compasses; a corset manufacturer was producing grenade belts; and a pinball machine plant began to make armor-piercing shells.

In retrospect, the speed of this conversion from a peacetime to a wartime economy is stunning. The harnessing of U.S. industrial power tipped the scales decisively toward the Allied Forces, reversing the tide of war. Germany and Japan, already fully extended, could not counter this effort. Winston Churchill often quoted his foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey: “The United States is like a giant boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate.”

This mobilization of resources within a matter of months demonstrates that a country and, indeed, the world can restructure the economy quickly if convinced of the need to do so. Many people—although not yet the majority—are already convinced of the need for a wholesale economic restructuring. The purpose of this book is to convince more people of this need, helping to tip the balance toward the forces of change and hope.

And FDR engineered that transformation in less time than we’ve been occupying Iraq. So as Jan 20 approaches, I find myself wondering if maybe, just maybe, the new guy can galvanize a similar response.

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16 thoughts on “A recipe for industrial transformation

  1. Would that it were so – I mean that. I just can’t help observing that O is looking smaller and smaller, his suit hanging looser and looser, in teh context of today’s and tomorrow’s problems. Perhaps that’s just me and a jaundiced eye towards politicians of all stripes today, but “they were giants in those days.” FDR’s world consisted of perhaps 25 levers of power, large and small. He mastered most. Today a president confronts an environment of – what – 1000 varying levers, large, small, crowd-relevant… and most controlled by those beyond his reach? Nearly an impossible job, but especially for soemone without a long track record of maintaining coalitions across a span of time. … but hey I could be wrong :-)

  2. Jon,
    There are a few problems with your analogy:
    (assuming for a moment that Govt even has the authority do what they did during WWII)

    1 – The “re-tooling” that occurred during WWII was not that big of difference to what they were doing at the time. They were all just sheet metal and people. Not robots and carbon composites.

    2 – Do not forget that because we put so much energy into making weapons we ended up with the world’s largest supply of artificial nitrogen. Which was converted into fertilizer. And I think you can make a convincing argument that the number 1 environmental problem we face now (over-use of land for farming, over-fertilization and over-use of fresh water) is the result of the govt deciding to dictate how that nitrogen was used (e.g. for farming, instead of just letting it either be sold or buried).

    3 – The govt should not be choosing the winners/losers in any markets. This is because it will ultimately choose not the best decision but who has the most influence. And sucks out all of the energy into alternatives.

    For example – there is more energy to be found from conservation than from new power generation. This conversation isn’t just limited to “everyone put CF bulbs in their house” but a range of things. For example here in the south, we could start to adopt “cool paints” that reflect IR/UV rays that can reduce external temps of the house by 100 degrees. That dramatically reduces the amount of AC you need. And for less than $100, you can add a mister to your AC unit that improves efficiency by 30%.
    And people can consider adding solar-tube lighting to homes/offices:
    This uses highly reflective tubing to allow sunlight to be used as your light – thus reducing the need for electricity during the day.

    4 – Even if you think Obama has your best interests at heart – there will *always* be those who do not (just look at Obama’s former governor :)).

    5 – Govt run industries give you old China and old India (billions of poor). While letting the market take over – gives you better conditions (India and China has seen the largest rise of people out of poverty in human history). Yes it has its ups and downs but it has higher ups and smaller downs than the alternatives.

  3. Ah, but during WWII we had a clear, human enemy, in both cases easily personified by the Axis leaders. It’s much harder to turn around an entire industrial economy to battle something with no face, especially something that a lot of people don’t believe exists.

    “Let’s Go Kill Hitler/Tojo!” is an easy slogan to get behind, especially when they’re slaughtering people who may well be your family. “It’s Getting Much Too Warm Here!” doesn’t really raise the same kind of fighting spirit.

  4. Jon, thanks for this post.

    I think a lot of us understand this is the level of effort that is required, but this is the first place I have seen where anyone has tried to lay out the kinds of short term changes required to accomplish the goal.

    Whether Obama or any other can rise to the challenge of how to motivate the world to act in this radical way is questionable, but one factor in making that happen will be a clear description of the project. This post is a step in that direction.

    Now if we can get the Talking Heads to talk about this at least in passing while they carry on about Chicago Politics.

  5. Simple acknowledging what we are all collectively capable of accomplishing is an important start. People have spoken for too long about how poor we are, how helpless we are, how incapable of change — too stupid, too resistant. This whole “economic meltdown” another face of this absurdity. What’s melting down? Did we suddenly stop being able to produce things? Have all the doctors and nurses died, leaving us incapable of providing healthcare? Have our hands all fallen off, are we a nation of useless cripples? It’s not a question of what we *can* do — we can do everything we were able to do a year ago, we can do far more than they were able to sixty years ago, it’s a matter of what we choose to do.

    Framed in those terms it’s less despairing and more a call to action: we can do what we choose to do. We are not powerless. These problems are not too large, because as large as the problems are, we are larger.

  6. “It’s much harder to turn around an entire industrial economy to battle something with no face, especially something that a lot of people don’t believe exists.”

    Yes. Fortunately it now has a face: The economic crisis. The proposed recipe is, long-term goals notwithstanding, the best possible way to bootstrap short-term prosperity.

  7. “Can ‘we’ do it?”


    Whoever asks that either hasn’t taken a good look at the demographics of “we” lately, or is in hot pursuit of winning the grand prize in a Greatest Rhetorical Question contest.

    And then there’s the quandry of what can be done when the bulk of “we” are motivated mostly by that which creates the problem(s) in the first place. Ahem.

  8. “There are a few problems with your analogy”

    Yep. The ones you cite, and doubtless many others. But it’s the best way I’ve found so far to frame the opportunity amidst our challenges.

  9. Global Warming real or not… If yes, the actual effects on the Earth mild or divesting… The true answers will not be known for many years into the future.

    There are many, just as strong reasons, most in favor of developing a strategy and program of massive proportions for clean Domestically supplied Energy.

    It would be a lot easier sell if Oil was priced back into the Stratosphere….. or perhaps taxed up to a level where folks were taking notice again.

    If little or nothing is done, with estimates of the Worlds population doubling in 40 years (Which I personally believe will ultimately be a much larger problem than Global Warming) we will be in a position where life will not be sustainable on this planet…. or life will be very different than anything we all have experienced.

    Doing token programs is not an option. We have to let our Politicians know that this problem is much larger than than ‘What can I do for me and my State.’

    I do hope that Obama lives up to his billing and is able to get our Government to step out of it’s Comfort Zone in dealing with these issues…. The over abundance of former Clinton people he’s appointed hasn’t boosted my confidence that he’s ready to break Paradigms…. But I’ll give him some time to see what he’s all about.

    And yes… Given the right direction, we are capable of achieving amazing things. Clean Energy Independence is something we can accomplish in ten years!

  10. The problem with arguments like this is that they merely extrapolate our current behaviour up the exponential curve. Many are then drawn to the conclusion that the task is either not possible or requires major major disruption…hence too hard.

    Furthermore, even if it were possible, I can’t imagine what sort of environmental impact any of the listed initiatives would have. We need to think more outside the box. Tim Flannery has some good ideas:

    “The response to climate change has focused largely on what we can do to reduce the production of emissions. But leading environmentalist Dr Tim Flannery reminds us that we should not lose sight of the tree fix. Farms and forests could become ‘enormous engines of planetary cleansing’.”

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