Back on the dusty road
Hey team, this is a special “Getting Laid Off” edition of Bright Ideas. For all you new subscribers, welcome, and let me say this is not how the newsletter usually goes. Here’s the agenda today:
I’ve got some thoughts on the demise of Greentech Media, the vital news source for the clean energy industry and my employer for nearly five years.
Then I share my latest quarantine pastime: catching up on vintage Mad Max films and wondering what a less petrol-obsessed version of that post-apocalyptic world could look like.
I’m heading off to wander the desert for a bit, figuratively and literally, so expect less regular publishing for the next couple weeks. I give you my word that, as soon as I can share something big and exciting with you, I will.
If you stumbled onto this without being subscribed, good for you, now join the team by clicking below.
And if you know anyone who’d like to get smarter on the clean energy revolution without committing much time or any money, tell them about Bright Ideas.
As a writer and editor at my daily college newspaper, the Duke Chronicle, I lived in the office until we got to our end-of-semester party and all the hard-earned debauchery that entailed. The senior members would always warn us beforehand: you want to write the story, not be the story.
The advice at the time had more to do with youthful alcohol consumption than journalistic ethics. But I thought about it when Greentech Media became the story, which happened last month when former editor Eric Wesoff broke the news of our demise on his blog. He illustrated the story with what long-time readers would recognize as Herman the solar obituary skull, which had cheekily adorned many a bankruptcy story on Greentechmedia.com in the heyday of the first cleantech bubble.
The following is an excerpt of my farewell reflection for that website, which you can read in full here. Keep scrolling for my thoughts on what we can learn from Mad Max.
Not what you want illustrating a story about your company. (Photo Credit: Gonzo Carles Creative Commons)
Greentech Media chronicled clean energy before it was cool
When your job involves occasionally illustrating the collapse of companies with a stock image of a skull, there’s a risk that, one day, the skull comes for you.
That day arrived last month, instantly changing us journalists from the chroniclers of corporate demise to the chronicled. The outpouring from long-time readers got me thinking about what it was about Greentech Media that forged such an emotional bond over such wonky subject matter.
From 2007 onward, this publication paid attention to solar, batteries and distributed energy when they were insignificant players in a vast and old-fashioned power industry. Startups that we covered as bootstrapped longshots have since become billion-dollar companies. Others turned billion-dollar valuations into scraps sold off at auction.
The way to stay relevant through such a transition is by getting invested in fundamental trends, not specific technologies, business models or companies. And that requires practicing what Philip Seymour Hoffman advised as rock journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous: “You want to be a true friend to them? Be honest and unmerciful.”
Maintaining that critical distance struck me, as a new hire nearly five years ago, as a little bit terrifying. Why would people keep talking to us after we revealed the flaws in their glossy technologies, unveiled major layoffs or identified shortcomings in state policy? But we did those things, and people kept pitching us stories. Breaking the news of one company’s demise did not preclude covering its leaders’ next venture.
The past is never really past, as illustrated by my 2016 Halloween outfit, the Ghost of Solyndra. It was a hit with a small percentage of the Berkeley Halloween crowd.
End of an era
Whatever follows from GTM’s demise won’t exactly replace it, because the clean energy industry has grown far beyond its state when GTM began.
This stuff is big business now. Zero-carbon sources will supply 84 percent of new U.S. power plant capacity in 2021. President Joe Biden campaigned on investing more in clean energy infrastructure and jobs than anyone ever has. Most major U.S. utilities have pledged to eliminate carbon emissions. Numerous states have too. Electric cars made Elon Musk the richest person in the world, for a moment at least, and Detroit has also bet on its future being electric.
These facts could arouse a sneaking suspicion that covering this tremendous moment in human history is a worthwhile endeavor. But the form it takes going forward would have to be different. It isn’t the Wild West anymore.
I saw that evolution firsthand in energy storage, which is crucial to the success of the clean energy transition. On my first day on the job during the summer of 2016, CEO Scott Clavenna and editor Stephen Lacey sat me down and told me I’d cover energy storage. I’d heard of it but had never successfully pitched a story on the topic, since it was so far removed from things that were actually happening at meaningful scale.
Since we had a diversified business model of news, research and events, my next move was sitting down with in-house storage experts Ravi Manghani and Brett Simon for a crash course on their latest proprietary research. Then I went to work.
Back then, I could easily spend more hours prospecting vaguely interesting stories than actually writing them. Few other outlets covered the emerging energy storage sector, thwarting the time-honored journalistic method of chasing subjects your peers just covered.
But soon, energy storage started to matter.
A turning point was the grassroots resistance to a proposed gas plant on the beach in Oxnard, California. We at GTM were afforded wide latitude to nerd out over details that more general publications wouldn’t have time for. In this case, I dug into the state’s analysis with GTM Research leader Shayle Kann and reported that the use of outdated and therefore inaccurate pricing data made clean energy options look radically more expensive than the new gas plant.
That story became evidence in a regulatory proceeding that resulted in the cancellation of the gas plant in favor of one of the largest batteries in the world.
These days, it seems like a new biggest battery pops up monthly, and storage technology competes in too many states to watch each one as closely as I could when it was pretty much just California. The battery build-out itself increasingly merges with renewables and even transportation planning; the old silos have become outdated, like Cold War relics dotting the Great Plains. It’s time to bust out of the bunkers.
Catch the rest of my farewell article at Greentech Media. The archives, we are told, will remain available to the public.
This week in quarantine: Mad Max and the persistence of petrol
Maybe I’ve been feeling a little apocalyptic lately.
The collapse of a long-running source of gainful employment lends itself to this sentiment, but it’s also been a year since L.A. locked down, and I’m smelling the orange blossoms that bloomed when indoor dining was first forbidden. That moment brought a peculiar anxiety, that things were going to get worse in ways we couldn’t anticipate. I soothed these thoughts last week by watching the original Mad Max movies for the first time.
If any cultural artifact captures 20th century humanity’s obsession with fossil fuels, it’s the Mad Max series. It reduces the unit of social organization to a gas guzzling muscle car. In a cinematic world where social institutions are crumbling, the harvest and distribution of gasoline only gains in centrality.
That’s not to say these movies endorse this vision; they viscerally document the “resource curse” aspect of fossil fuels. When gasoline is this precious, getting enough to meet your own needs makes you a target to the scavengers who want what you’ve got. That drives the plot of the excellent sequel, The Road Warrior, as Max helps a community try to escape from their compound with the windfall of oil they’ve sucked out of the ground.
Will we ever end up in such straits? What’s striking about the first installment is how little removed it was from contemporary Australia. The landscape was the same, people go to work at shops and diners, but the police force is losing its grip and biker gangs are getting increasingly aggressive. The next installment takes place in a considerably more declined world of desert wasteland and dusty highways; there are no more destinations, so life revolves around refueling for the endless journey.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, it seemed implausible that the mode of transportation would be anything but fossil based. Viewed today, I can’t help wondering how this sort of dark prophecy unfolds after the ascendancy of electric vehicles.
For one thing, electric cars need far less maintenance due to their fewer moving parts. That would make them easier to keep running for years after the dealerships shut down amid societal collapse. And while it’s hard to imagine today’s ubiquitous gasoline distribution networks persisting in such an environment, localized electricity production is already happening and will increase. You could lose the grid but still refill batteries from scattered microgrids.
There’s even a company called Aptera manufacturing a solar powered car for around $25,000, as profiled in detail by the Washington Post. The engineers stripped away the sources of inefficiency, producing a super light, aerodynamic vehicle that needs so little power to run that a solar roof makes a meaningful contribution. If Max had one of those, he could cruise the Outback indefinitely, leaving the diesel honey traps for others to squabble over.