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Saul Griffith: Lofty ideas from inventor with eco ideals

  • Story Highlights
  • Australian inventor has developed high-altitude kites to generate power
  • Has won numerous awards and created online tool to measure personal CO2
  • Innovator is hopeful for the future and believes engineering can solve eco crisis
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(CNN) -- Dr. Saul Griffith is a man with a thousand ideas buzzing around his head.

Eco-design? Sounds like marketing to Saul Griffith, the inventor who favors thoughtful design.

Eco-design? Sounds like marketing to Saul Griffith, the inventor who favors thoughtful design.

The 35-year-old Australian holds multiple degrees in materials science and mechanical engineering, and is the co-founder of many innovative companies including SQUID Labs and Makani Power.

While winning numerous awards for invention, he co-authors children's comic books and contributes to Make magazine. He also recently pioneered technology that could help us mitigate climate change using high-flying kites.

CNN talked to the serial inventor about the future of green engineering, how he'd spend $1 billion and why there are many reasons to be positive.

CNN: What inspires you?

Saul Griffith: People with skills they have acquired through years of practice. It could be music, or riding unicycles; cooking well, surfing, or throwing lassos. I love the dedicated spirit behind mastering an activity. I'm also continually inspired by the amazing things that biological systems produce.

CNN: What does eco-design mean to you?

Saul Griffith: Eco-design sounds like another marketing term. I'm not sure I like any of the eco-green-sustainable design marketing terms. Genuinely thoughtful design for the world we are now in, a world where we are dealing with changing climate, is extremely careful about resource use. It is design where people have thought about the energy going into producing the product and thought about the entire life of the product -- preferably trying to make that life much longer.

CNN: Do you think engineers can solve the environmental crisis? How?

Saul Griffith: Engineers can easily solve the problem. What they need is the support of financiers and policy makers. If we were given a target, like 450 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, we know what we'd need to build to get there. With that target in mind, we could build enough wind turbines, solar cells, geothermal power stations, nuclear power plants, and fully sequestered carbon based fuels to get there. It is possible, but it isn't easy. We just have to commit to a target.

CNN: What can President Obama do to help?

Saul Griffith: Set the target for peak CO2 at 450 parts per million. Build electricity transmission infrastructure. Lower the speed limits on the nation's roads and encourage new urban transport models. Implement a pricing mechanism that makes sense for CO2 emissions.

CNN: Do you think we, as consumers, will have to make radical changes to our lifestyles?

Saul Griffith: There is no doubt we will have to change our lifestyles. You could think of it as "radical" or you could think of it as "improving". We need to lower the amount of energy we use, and I think we can easily do that while improving our lives.

As a friend of mine said to me: "It's the difference between a lifestyle that has you commuting for an hour each way on grid-locked highways versus walking hand in hand to school with your kid before riding your bike on tree-lined streets to work".

There are ways to imagine great lower energy lifestyles that are improvements and I think it has been a failure of the climate community not to emphasize the ways our lives will get a whole lot better.

CNN: Tell us about your notion of "heirloom products"?

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Saul Griffith: We all use a lot of energy to support our lifestyles. A significant portion of that energy is used in the objects we consume. We are all becoming aware of the "green consumer" and "green products", but simply making something from bamboo doesn't necessarily reduce the amount of energy it took to make it.

The simplest way to make a product use less energy is to make less of those products. How do you make less of those products? You make them last much, much longer. If you did a great job re-engineering a product so that it was "green," you probably only reduce the amount of energy to make it by half. If you design the product so it is beautiful and will last 10 times longer, it will use 10 times less energy over its lifetime.

The challenge of climate change and using less energy is to give people better quality lives while reducing our energy consumption and carbon output. I don't think it's the entire solution, but owning beautiful things that you keep and use for much longer - what I call heirloom products - is one of the ways we can do that.

CNN: Tell us about WattzOn, your online tool to track personal energy consumption? How can it help us reduce our carbon footprints?

Saul Griffith: WattzOn right now is a Web site that takes a comprehensive look at all of the places you use energy in your life. Your flying, your driving, your eating behavior, your housing, even the things that you own.

Right now it is an awareness raising tool, but we are steadily shifting it towards a tool that makes you aware of where you use your energy (and hence carbon production) and then suggests the most effective ways for you personally to lower your energy use, and improve your life.

CNN: How do you personally reduce your carbon footprint?

Saul Griffith: I'm flying a whole lot less and doing a lot more video conferencing. I'm riding my bike a whole lot more and driving less. I'm eating less meat and learning to cook great vegetarian or low-meat dishes. I'm buying a lot less stuff that I don't need.

CNN: If you could ask everyone on Earth to do one thing to mitigate climate change, what would it be?

Saul Griffith: Have an open mind to the solutions and think creatively about how we improve our communities and our lifestyles while we do it.

CNN: Your energy-generating kite project looks exciting. Can you tell us about it? And how it works?

Saul Griffith: I work with a wonderful set of engineers at Makani Power. We are pursuing generating wind power with kites. There is more wind, more frequently, the higher you get off the ground. Normal wind turbines can only go so high. We are prototyping and testing kites that fly higher than existing turbines and produce a steady and low cost stream of electricity.

The kites fly autonomously through the sky like the unmanned aerial vehicles people hear about. Turbines -- like propellers on the kite -- spin, as the kite pushes them through the air. We generate electricity with high-efficiency motors attached to those turbines, and we bring the power down to the ground on a high-strength cable. When the wind doesn't blow we can put a little energy back into the system to keep it flying, but we make much, much more while there is a breeze.

CNN: Do you think it has everyday applications?

Saul Griffith: Yes. We anticipate it will add to the renewable energy-generating solutions that we already have. We are aiming at large-scale electricity production for the grid.

CNN: What other projects are you particularly excited about? Why?

Saul Griffith: I'm excited by Aptera's electric car. I'm very excited by all of the innovation happening in electric bicycles. I'm excited to see the cost of solar photovoltaics coming down and the big projects in solar thermal electricity generation.

CNN: If you had a $1 billion to invest in planet-saving technology, where would you spend it?

Saul Griffith: Firstly, we shouldn't call it "planet-saving." The planet will be fine. It's really a conversation about how well humanity wants to live. We won't be living well at 600 parts per million of CO2 or any of the business as usual scenarios. We should focus on the real issue -- we are designing the way we will live in the future. Right now we are designing it badly by doing no design at all!

To hit a CO2 target of 450 parts per million we only need around $50 trillion. Can I have that much? If I did I'd be spending it on wind projects like Makani Power, on thermal storage solutions for solar thermal, on geothermal development, and a little on fusion research. That would be a nice option to have.

CNN: Do you feel positive about the future?

Saul Griffith: Yes. You have to be. It could be beautiful. We can do it.

Saul Griffith was talking to Matt Ford for CNN.

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