Welcome to Volts

Clean energy and politics, electrified

Hey there! My name is David Roberts and this is Volts, a newsletter about clean energy and politics. (I’m on Twitter as @drvolts and you can email me at david@volts.wtf.)

Volts comes out twice a week, give or take. It will feature analysis of the latest research, technologies, and policy debates involved in the quest to leave behind fossil fuels, along with discussions of the social and political forces shaping the clean-energy transition. It will be primarily but not exclusively focused on the United States and will occasionally feature pictures of my dogs.

One of my hopes for Volts is to build a community as fascinated by these subjects as I am. Together we can share knowledge and help one another puzzle through difficult problems. Subscribe and join us!

Until Jan. 1, 2021, all content will be free to all subscribers and everyone will be able to join discussion threads. After that, free subscribers will receive one email a week; paid subscribers will get all emails and the ability to comment on posts and join discussion threads.

If you’d like to hear (much) more about who I am, why you should care what I have to say, and what Volts aspires to be, read on!

Who am I?

I have been reading, writing, and thinking pretty intensely about this subject matter for over 15 years now. Most recently, from 2015 to 2020, I was with Vox, a news and culture publication for which I still occasionally write. Before that, I was with Grist, a publication focused on environmental news, where I was hired in 2004.

Over those 15+ years I’ve written for other publications (like Outside) and appeared on a variety of TV shows, radio programs, and podcasts, like All In with Chris Hayes and On the Media and Pod Save America and Why Is This Happening? I’ve been quoted or cited by all kinds of fancy-pants people, from Al Gore to several US senators to pundits like Michelle Goldberg and Paul Krugman and Jon Favreau and Tom Friedman to media analysts like Margaret Sullivan and Jay Rosen to climate writers like Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben and David Wallace-Wells.

The peak of my career, however, came when Nick Offerman — who played the immortal character of Ron Swanson, a libertarian in the parks department on Parks & Rec — approvingly cited a Twitter thread of mine on libertarianism.

Here’s my latest TV hit:

As for my pre-professional life, here it is in one paragraph: I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, went to a small liberal arts college in another small town in Tennessee, and then, when I graduated, lit out west. I spent a while in Montana getting an MA in Philosophy (with a minor in snowboarding), then went to work on a PhD at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton (three hours north of Calgary, which is three hours north of the border). Edmonton was too cold and academic philosophy was too bleak, so in 1999 I bailed and lit out to Seattle. After a period of professional drift but personal joy (including a wife and a child), I stumbled into the Grist job by sheer luck in 2004. (I happened to see it the first time I ever visited Craigslist.) Been writing ever since.

Now I live in Seattle with my wife, two teens, two dogs, and two cats. The end.

Why am I doing this?

I have not been canceled! Nor do I consider editing a form of tyranny. No offense to anyone who might flee to Substack for those reasons, but …

I’ve had nothing but good experiences at Vox, still count myself an avid reader, and will happily be contributing on an ongoing basis.

I’ve always just been a bit of a square peg in the round hole of professional journalism. I never went to J-school or had any kind of training or mentoring. The stilted style of Official Journalism has always been off-putting to me and I was never able to convincingly fake it. I’ve always written like I like to be written to — like a friend talking to a friend in a bar.

I came into writing through blogs and blogging and have chafed as the freewheeling spirit of the early days transitioned into a more professionalized culture. The audience has gone from loyal followers of a blog to random people who happen to see your headline drift past on social media.

In that situation, when you’re chasing social media and search clicks, you’re always writing to strangers, people Out There who may not know anything about your subject matter, your past writing, your basic political orientation, or anything else. You’re always starting from square one.

Writing for strangers isn’t all bad — it has disciplined me in many ways — but I have yearned to get back to writing for a community and engaging more in an ongoing conversation, with a little more intimacy and idiosyncrasy than is possible writing for a broad audience (or out on Twitter).

So here we are. I’m going to see if what I do is worth enough to a community of readers for them to support me directly, with no advertisements or institutions in between us. Utterly terrifying!

What is Volts going to be?

Volts is not going to be about keeping up with the news of the day. There are plenty of people and organizations who can provide that service much better than I can. There’s so much going on that trying to be even reasonably comprehensive would require hours of work and that’s not what I want to spend my hours on.

What frustrates me about most journalism, including climate and energy journalism, is that it takes a kind of middle-distance view, not close enough to truly examine and understand any particular thing and not far enough away to situate it in the big picture. You end up with a bunch of facts but little understanding.

So sometimes I go up real close. This involves getting into a level of wonky detail that editors have always told me readers don’t want — and readers have always told me they do want. Over and over again in my career, readers have affirmed that they’re willing to invest the time to get the full picture.

So when I finally got around to looking into geothermal energy, I took several weeks to investigate and wrote two 4,000-word pieces, one on geothermal power, one on geothermal heat. It takes a decent chunk of time to read 8,000 words (I’m painfully aware), but I can guarantee that if you do, you will understand geothermal energy better than 99% of the US public. And, like me, you’ll be a huge hit at parties.

And sometimes I step way back and try to wrap my head around the Big Picture, the larger narratives in which these smaller stories are embedded — like why the US information ecosystem is so broken or why the clean-energy transition is likely to be faster than energy transitions past.

And sometimes I want to write about urban design, parenting, or TV shows I like. I’ll be doing some of that, too. Also pictures of my dogs.

Finally and most importantly, Volts is going to be a community. I’ve developed a loyal band of energy nerds through my writing and my Twitter presence, but I’m excited to gather you all in one place and tap your brains. Subscribe and let’s do this!

As I am just launching this thing, I would appreciate any help you could offer spreading the news by sharing this post.