Volts was born on December 7, 2020. It recently turned two years old … and I forgot to wish it a happy birthday. I also forgot to send out my once-a-year fundraising note.
However! Better late than never.
A lot has changed since Volts turned one. For one thing, lots of new subscribers have come on board, and most of them have not heard my basic pitch about what Volts is and what I'm trying to do with it. So I'd like to share some thoughts on that and then take a look back over the last year and a look ahead to 2023.
And, yes, I’m going to ask you for money. I hope you will get something out of this post, and I hope you will consider becoming a paid subscriber.
The vision behind Volts and your role in making it possible
When I started Volts, I was pursuing a vision that I wasn't sure was even possible. But I was coming up on 50 years old, and if I wasn’t going to try it then, I was never going to try it.
The vision was this: I want to do the best work I can do, without interference, and I want to be paid for it by people who find that work valuable. I want nothing between me and the audience: no ads, no sponsors, no employers, no institutional backers. Just me and you.
As several people have (with some exasperation) reminded me over the previous two years, running Volts the way I do leaves a lot of money on the table. I could monetize it by taking ads or sponsorships, by seeking institutional funding, by putting more content behind a paywall, and by pestering my audience more often with fundraising appeals and special offers.
But I just don't want to do any of that stuff. This may sound pompous, but my highest aspiration is not to make the most money possible, it is to be as useful as possible to my fellow human beings. I am not the kind of person who does things, who makes things happen — I don’t start companies or organize protests or develop technologies. I am the kind of person who observes and thinks about and analyzes things. The way I can be most useful is to arm the people who do make things happen with good information. I can help them be more useful.
So I don't want to put content behind a paywall. I want as many people as possible to have access to it.
The people who pay for Volts do so not because they receive any extra content or join any exclusive club, but because they believe the work is valuable and worth supporting — that it is useful. And those people, my paid subscribers, represent my sole source of income, the only way I can afford a computer, food on my plate, and the occasional kidney removal.
Financially speaking, this is a daft way to run a railroad, but as long as I am able to do so, I'm going to keep things this way. I have built us a little bubble here, sheltered from the storms that batter the rest of the media world, the pressure to produce clickbait and juice traffic, and the compromises that come from being employed by large media corporations.
I a true member of Gen X. As silly as it sounds in this day and age, I'm still trying not to sell out.
Anyway, Volts is a dream come true, and as long as I can make it work, I'm going to keep doing it. The more paid subscribers I have, the more confident I’ll be in the long-term stability of this enterprise and the better it will get.
So if you have learned from or been entertained by my podcasts over the last year, if they have helped you become more useful, and if you are in a financial position to do so, I hope you will consider signing up as a paid subscriber. It is a relatively modest sum — you pay less for a year of Volts than you'd pay for a nice pair of pants — but it means the difference between me continuing this work and me getting a real job.
And that is my annual fundraising plea. If all goes well, I won't bother you again until Volts turns three.
If you’re willing to stick around for a bit, I’d like to take a quick look at the past year. It has been a doozy.
The year in pods
The biggest change of the year for me personally was, as I explained in a note to subscribers early in the year, pain in my elbows, wrists, and hands that made typing for more than a minute or two impossible, or at least distractingly painful.
Consequently, I shifted my work over to podcasts. I wasn't sure how that would go — I never aspired to be a podcaster and felt wildly unprepared — but to my surprise, it has been a delight. I've had dozens of fantastic conversations and gotten lots of great feedback from listeners.
Unfortunately, despite efforts too numerous to mention here, the pain in my arms persists, so for now, the podcast will remain my primary work. My goal continues to be to return to at least some writing, which I miss dearly, and have a more balanced newsletter offering.
Also unfortunate was this summer, which featured near-simultaneous diagnoses of cancer and Covid. I did another post and pod about all that. For the record, I got over Covid and my cancerous kidney was removed successfully. As best as anyone can tell, I am free of both maladies.
On a brighter note, a couple of the last posts I was able to write were about testing an electric car and eventually buying one — a Chevy Bolt. For the record, I love it.
Politically, the year began in deep uncertainty about whether the Democrats’ big Build Back Better bill would pass. That uncertainty would drag on interminably throughout the first half of year, only to resolve, somewhat miraculously, in the passage of a climate bill in August: the Inflation Reduction Act, about which I ended up doing, ahem, five pods. It got wonky.
I covered a lot more than politics, though.
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On buildings and appliances: I talked with Panama Bartholomy about decarbonizing buildings, Rob Harmon about how to scale up energy efficiency, Andy Frank about how to sell whole-home retrofits to skeptical consumers, and Sam Calisch and Wyatt Merril about induction stoves with batteries built in and why they matter.
On clean energy: I talked with Rebecca Dell about decarbonizing heavy industry, Audrey Schulman and Zeyneb Magavi about how to replace natural gas with renewable heat, Wilson Ricks about the extraordinary potential value of enhanced geothermal power, and Doyne Farmer about how learning curves will lead to extremely cheap clean energy.
On cities: I talked to Kimberly Nicholas about the best ways to get cars out of cities, Charles Marohn about unsustainable suburbs, Warren Logan about how to get urban improvements done quickly, and Melissa and Chris Bruntlett about the many social and psychological benefits of low-car cities.
Sometimes I strayed beyond energy: I talked to director Adam McKay about the challenges of making movies about climate change, Elizabeth Popp Berman about the "economic style of thinking" that has consumed US policy, Chris Hayes about how his politics have changed since 2015, John Jost about why social change is so excruciatingly difficult, and Cory Branan about life as a traveling musician in the 21st century.
It seems like a lot when you put it all in one place. And that’s just a fraction of it!
Next year and beyond
Anyway, that's enough about 2022. I've got all kinds of stuff I want to get into in 2023. I want to continue digging into how to reduce the use of cars and their baleful influence on US land use and greenhouse gas emissions. I want to get into permitting issues and rural resistance to wind and solar projects. (Watch for something coming on that soon.)
I've got various ideas about thermal storage bubbling around in my head. I want to investigate hydrogen electrolyzers and hydrogen fuel cells, battery-enabled appliances and consumer-side energy-management software, and smart electric-vehicle charging.
I want to track the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act and keep up with the progress of enhanced geothermal and watch to see if recent legislation sparks the building of any new long-distance high-voltage transmission lines.
I want to examine climate and energy modeling and the ways we make decisions amidst uncertainty and the social and psychological influences on our collective behavior.
I've got tons to keep me busy, tons that I think will be useful to people navigating the climate fight. I hope those of you who are able will help support me in continuing this work.
Finally, before I let you go, I want to conclude by extending my heartfelt thanks to all my subscribers — those who pay, yes, but also those who don’t or can’t. You are all a gift that I do not take for granted. I am deeply conscious of the extraordinary privilege I enjoy in being able to do this work and I am endlessly grateful to you for making it possible.
I'll be back in a few days with more energy and politics. Here's to a happy, low-carbon 2023.