That's right, folks, it's the crossover event of the century. In today's episode I talk with veteran cleantech investor Shayle Kann, host of the Catalyst podcast, about what's getting too much hype in the clean energy world, and what's getting too little.
I’m a long time reader/listener and I wanted to share some thoughts that I had about your recent podcast overlap with Shayle Kann. My particular interest in brining this to your attention is that I think you both missed the bigger point in a discussion and the reason is the overlap between media, politics and the technical stuff.
When choosing a thing that he thought was “overhyped”, Shayle chose induction stoves. He thought that there is no point in pushing induction stoves on people since it is not much of a climate contributor. Of course, Shayle is correct, and you pushed back a bit, but I think neither of you saw the broader issue for what it is.
I’m an owner of an induction stover for 14+ years now. I love it, mostly for how well it works as a cooking surface. I’m an advocate for the tech, but mainly because it is just a good product that makes life better, not as much for environmental or health reasons. The chatter about induction stoves over the last decade that I have heard has mainly taken the tone of: he there is a new awesome product that is kinda pricy but worth it and it is really worth your consideration if you are in the market for a new stove.
But in 2023, the whole thing changed. The reason stemmed from an article published in a public health journal (https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/20/1/75) that concluded that the gas stove emissions lead to something like 20% of childhood asthma. As I still follow quite a few epidemiologist on twitter (left over from COVID days), I saw this when it came out being commented on in epi-twitter. I recall one comment, “wait till people hear about where the other 80% comes from”, alluding to the many faceted correlation with fossil fuel emissions and respiratory diseases. On January 9, a reporter from WSJ wrote an article about this and interviewed Richard Trumka, a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about it. There are 5 commissioner seats. It is a bi-partisan group and they have mainly oversize power, not policy setting, which is done through a more complicated federal process. All that does not matter, because Trumka provided the quote:
“Any option is on the table. Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.”
The author (Ari Natter) lead with a paragraph saying that a “federal agency” says a ban on gas stoves is “on the table”, which is of course true, but doing nothing is also on the table too. From Trumka’s point of view, this was an article about how the CPSC was vigilant in making products as safe, and how recent revelations about stoves will be examined like all information. Of course any option is on the table, since nobody has even looked closely at the data yet. Maybe the option is setting more stringent requirements for kitchen ventilation for new construction or something. Who knows? Anyway Natter went all in and included quote from a GOP energy lobbyist as a counter point. Trumka, obviously thinking that what he said was fine, tweeted the article when it was released, thanking Natter for the interview.
Needless to say that the right-wing press had a field day. GOP politicians were making bombastic statement. Everyone on the left ran with their tails between their legs. Trumka wrote an apology, claiming that he never meant to imply that there was any plan to ban gas stoves. But, none of that mattered. Fox had an issue and they ran with it. The ensuing months led to right-wing posturing. Articles about the millions of kids with preventable asthma were of course nowhere to be found and the only sensible response from the left was: Actually, induction stoves are great and maybe even safer. This lead to a series of commentary that went something like: “Are induction stoves as good as gas - many experts say no”.
My point here is that nobody on the left ever “pushed” induction stoves. The whole narrative was wholly invented by the RW media and the fact that it creeps into the brain of truly brilliant climate/energy experts like Shayle is really quite illustrative of the power of Fox et al’s. ability to set the agenda on almost any issue. If oil companies made lawn darts, they would probably be mandatory.
I love the pod! I think you both missed the story on gas stoves though. It's about nitrous/ nitric oxides in the breathing air causing respiratory problems in susceptible people, especially those with asthma, the elderly, etc.
This was great, and I thought that Shayle was an excellent foil for David, whom I have loved since his writing at Grist. I thought he sharpened his analysis in a few spots. I would love to hear these two deep dive into any of the topics they suggested required a separate discussion.
Loved this conversation. I would be very interested in hearing more about things being "easier and cheaper than we thought" as David often says. What problems, what industries? And compared to what priors?
Much of this conversation a subjective expectations game, so not directly tied to emissions. What it can do is push people to focus on the most promising technologies or best actions we can take. If "cheaper and easier" is a story we can demonstrate and universalize it could be very useful to spur investment and action.
I want to answer Mr. Kann's statement about mining elements used for LDV (light duty electric vehicles). They are Li, Co, C and Mn. Australia produces 41% of the world's Lithium. 53% of the world's cobalt is mined is the Democratic Republic of Congo. 21% of the world's graphite is mined in India and Brazil, 67% from China. And, 48% of the manganese is mined in South Africa and Australia (NREL, 2019). In 2016, the energy of the Li-ion batteries that these elements produced was 31GWh and only 5% of the mine capacity was used. Therefore, there does not seem to be a mine shortage.
Excellent podcast - useful insights on a broad range of topics.
I’m not sure if I’m interpreting correctly but it seemed you were surprised by Microsoft’s interest in nuclear. The Gates Foundation has been involved with SMRs for years and, I think, has its own design that it’s promoting. That might be worth checking out.
Great closing comment by Shayle, that "the not-hard-to-abate sectors" are actually still hard, and not actually taking off despite the IRA. Look at cold-climate heat pump retrofits, or the cratering of wind power, which was the biggest zero-GHG electricity source over the last few years.
Some of this comes down to American politics. Like the "over-hype" on e-stoves or "gas bans," or resources/land needed for renewables and electrification. A lot of the former was the right playing to its base, and the latter is the right both whipping up its base and "owning the libs" by hyping the victims of any tech, whether social, economic, animal, or vegetable.
The anti-renewables/electrification PR has been amazing. Pro-renewables, not so much. Three weeks ago the first big-ass American offshore wind turbine was topped off near Nantucket. Almost zero news. The best "story" I saw was a Facebook post from the Millwrights' Union. Pics of Happy Hardhats at sea! This week various SNAFUs and FUBARs get national play.
Here's a discussion item for Shayle's climate tech/investment pod, "How can the Dominion Wind project still say it will sell power to VA for $0.09/kWh, when the ones in the NE are getting into the $0.16+/kWh range?"
I’m in Camp-Shayle on most things. His point on minerals had the same motivation as the point he was making on interest rates, basically coming back to the time-value of money and the time-value of the transition (the area under the curve matters, and can be different, even if the start and end levels are the same). I think, in the particular details on minerals and replacement, the impact will be much lower than the interest rates and in his spirit of keeping things in perspective… mineral scarcity just won’t really matter that much.
What we’re hearing about interest rates is that projects aren’t possible. What we’re hearing about minerals is that specific components cost more than they’d like or they are less easily available in quantities they’d like or that replacement technologies are less well developed than they’d like. The mineral impact is one of project constraint or focus, while the interest rate is one of project denial. To my mind, the mineral block is akin to the block that existed in O&G before fracking took off, 15 years ago when everyone was calling peak oil. Someone will jump to an alternative battery chemistry or sourcing method, something with no track record, and put this concern so far into the rear-view mirror that everyone pretends it wasn’t a thing we ever worried about. The interest rate thing is very different; it shuts down the mechanism for adaptation and the transition stops because there is no capacity to work a learning curve. There are dozens of things that just get much harder with tight money, it strips the slack out of any system and lowers the threshold for any issue becoming that critical issue halting a project or program. We're just hearing about minerals because they put their hand up first and anyone can run a linear forecast out to infinity and point at how big the number gets - ignoring that the debut of new technologies changes those assumptions and relationships over time. Folks were making the same arguments against fracking 20 years ago. It turns out, that given enough incentive new pathways get developed and those pathways often end up at lower cost and/or higher volume points than regular service would have reached.
To put it into algorithmic terms: Increasing the Interest Rate reduce your perturbation distance leaving your gradient descent optimizer unable to find alternative minima. Minerals on the other hand are just one of the features influencing the levels of the function, the depth of any of the minima you do find. To find a viable business or project you just have to be able to get from where you are right now to deeper well of value (lower cost minima) and that factors in how wide the search for alternatives has to be in order to spot those options, and how much work must be done to develop those leads into superior positions. The interest rate lets you search wide and mine deep for value. The minerals are just one kind of relevant, but replaceable, value to be searching for. There can be too much of a good thing, searching too wide leaves nothing for developing the new position, but it is pretty clear right now we're having more trouble from a lack of viable options than from an overabundance of viable options.
Thanks for this pod, really interesting!
Oberlin College (in Oberlin, Ohio) is one campus that is installing something like a "geo-grid". Here's a fairly recent article about it: https://www.oberlin.edu/news/oberlins-sustainable-infrastructure-program-enters-key-phase.
I think they're about halfway through the 4-year plan.