Climb By VSC: Episode 25

Published April 19th, 2023

For over 15 years, ⁠David Roberts⁠ has been exploring and writing about a variety of topics related to news and culture. From 2015 to 2020, he was with ⁠Vox,⁠ a news and culture publication for which he still occasionally writes and contributes. Previously, he was with ⁠Grist⁠, a publication focused on environmental news, and has also written for Outside. He has appeared on TV shows, radio programs, and podcasts such as All In with Chris Hayes, On the Media, Pod Save America, and Why Is This Happening? His work has been cited by numerous people, from Al Gore to US senators to pundits and media analysts, to name a few. In 2020 David left Vox to start a newsletter/podcast called ⁠Volts⁠ about clean energy & politics.

Just Get Up And Do The Work, Because Nothing Else Is Going To Cheer You Up

Jay Kapoor: Hey climbers, welcome back to another episode of Climb by VSC. I'm excited to have today on the show, David Roberts, who is the proprietor self-described of the newsletter and podcast called Volts about clean energy and politics. David, thank you so much for joining me.

David Roberts: Thanks for having me.

JK: Well, look, I'm excited to jump into quite a few things, especially the inflation Reduction Act, which I feel like we've talked about in so many of our past episodes, but tucked around it and I feel like you've been covering it for so long. There's going to be a lot of meat on that bone for us to dig into but why don't we start with you know, you've been a writer and you've been working with a lot of publications, including the Grist and box, but you left that to pursue and a career as an independent writer and podcaster. So tell me about that journey a little bit. And then what was the inspiration that led you to start Volts?

DR: Well, looking back now, it all makes complete sense. Looking back now it looks like a coherent trajectory. So I started at a very obscure tiny little environmental website called Grist where I spent 10 years basically just teaching myself learning about all this stuff and riding away in relative obscurity, and then sort of slowly built an audience and then moved over to VOCs and built more of an audience. And so then, you know, after five years of VOCs you know, like, what inspired me is that I found out it was possible, basically, like, I had a friend who started at substack. And I, you know, wrote her a million questions like, how, how is this possible? How is this real? And, you know, some of the subject team reached out to me and asked if I wanted to make the jump. And so I found out that I can run my own thing, be my own boss, and do what I want to do. And the only beauty to me is the only relationship I have is directly with readers, like readers and listeners, if they find it valuable. They pay a little bit. Yeah, they don't. They don't and there are no advertisers. There are no sponsors. There's no organization, you know, I don't speak for anyone or answer to anyone. But myself. I feel like it's a little bubble in the midst of a very stormy climate for the media right now.

JK: Yeah. I mean, it's sort of the true definition of independent, you know, writer because there are independent writers that write for multiple publications, but you know, there are always multiple mouths to feed. You talked about adding supportive and different directions, and we've seen quite a few of these sub-stacks. That starts with niche topics actually evolve into quite large followings, right? I follow one on product management, and I wouldn't have expected you know, somebody like Lenny Rucinski to have, I don't know hundreds of 1000s of subs on a topic like that.

DR: The secret is, and this is what was very eye-opening to me is you don't need a ton of you know, like when you're at Vox is constantly traffic traffic traffic, like anything that's ad-supported if you need eyeballs. You need the broadest audience possible. Yeah, that's right. That's the widest net possible. But the thing is, if you have people paying you directly for your work, with no intermediaries taking a chunk out of it, you don't need that many to make a living. You know, like once you get to, you know, say 3002 to 3000 paid subscribers, which is a relatively modest amount. That's a that's a living you know, yeah. And everything after that is just gravy so you know, what looks like Nish in the perspective of mainstream media is actually like, you know, like, if I could spend it if I could just get all the people who are excited about clean energy. That's enough to know, more than paying for my meals. So, yes, your niches. The beauty of the subject model is it enables niche audiences and niche writers and podcasters to find one another and it turns out they can do perfectly well together without any of the rest of the infrastructure.

JK: In your experience having been writing about this for two decades, almost. What do you think really drives that audience engagement like what readers are looking for when it comes to these complex topics about climate innovation and technology?

DR: Well, you know, I should say by way of preface, I should say as I started at Grist, I knew nothing about any of this. I had no environmental background. I had no knowledge of climate. I know nothing. I was a babe in the woods. I had half a Ph.D. in philosophy. That's what I started with. So, so in terms of what I learned, it's entirely self-taught and, also in terms of what I write about, it's entirely found, you know, nobody told me what to write about basically. So I've stumbled my way to my own topics and I found a few, you know, a few kinds of pieces really resonate. And interestingly, it's not always the ones that your sort of publishers and editors at Big publications think are going to hit like I've, you know, I had just had some sort of tension with bosses my whole career because I've always wanted to go nerdier I always want to go a little deeper. You know, I always want to go down to the next level. And there's this constant worry that big publications like you're going to lose people don't care about. People don't care about the tech. All these acronyms are going to scare people off and you have to start every story the same way like Bob stood on the hill and squinted at the wind turbine and the distance. Bring people in with you know, they care about people, they don't care about these acronyms. And I just like it's just not true. Like every time I've bet on going deeper, the response is immediate and overwhelmingly positive. People want to know what is really going on, how things really work, and how things really fit together. And the other half is specifically on climate. You know, the first probably 10 years I wrote about the climate I started in the early 2000s. It was an obscure issue, like in terms of US politics, a a pretty fringe issue. And all the solutions were either theoretical or super expensive or so the whole topic was very abstract. And generally, what the discussion was, the climate is big and scary and bad, and it's coming and I'm terrified. And you know, if you want solutions you want like Go marching the street or go into politics. There wasn't, you know, there was, it was just not inviting. You know, but what's changed over time? And this is what I think my listeners respond to is the issue itself, the fight against climate change, the whole thing has shifted down past the sort of activist and political class down into ordinary people. At ordinary businesses, you know, and so it's down on the shop floor now, and the engineers are at it. And so it's become less of a sort of political matter of symbolism versus counter-symbolism. And now it's like a big technical puzzle, 100,000 pieces that all of us are working together to put together and it's just fascinating. Like, there's so many little bits and pieces of our economy where you think like, well, we're using carbon doing that. Now. How do we not use carbon doing that? And every one of those, you know, steel, concrete, driving around getting to school, school buses, I mean, name it like every, every little piece of that is a puzzle that somebody's got to solve and what my listeners respond to more than anything else is in the face of that climate. dread. Nothing cheers people up more than just hearing about clever people out there solving some little piece of this problem. There are so many clever people out there right now doing so many clever things. And this to me is the antidote to climate dread as you know, it's like it's like Mr. Rogers said, when something goes wrong when there's a disaster when there's it's scary. Look for the helpers. And that's what my podcast has basically become most of now. It's just I'm looking for the helpers, all the people out there doing their clever little things, solving their little pieces of the puzzle, and just knowing that they're out there is enormously, I think, rewarding to listeners and that's what they respond to.

JK: You know, the question I was always, you know, come to this as like, how have the stakeholders changed? And he kind of got ahead of me there, which is that there are just so many more stakeholders that we're talking about industries, that for decades have been doing things a certain way, that now whether it's because there's money in it in the IRA, or because they're just looking for internal efficiencies in their business, that are now starting to pay attention to this stuff. And it leaves a lot of room for you to have those conversations.

DR: Yeah. And a corollary of that is that because fossil fuels are so cheap for so long, so many of these businesses that we're talking about have been sort of in a rut doing things the same way. For years and years and years. There's just a lot of low hanging fruit because people haven't been looking like you say, like a lot of businesses and people are just starting to sort of wake up and look around now and think like, how can we reduce? How can we do this more efficiently? How can we do this with less carbon? And because for a lot of these businesses, it's the first time anyone's ever really looked. And because technology has come along so fast like semiconductors and computing power has gotten so small now and can be put into anything that just opportunities are opened up now that weren't opened up before. So there's just you don't have to be a super genius to find some advance.

JK: And yet, we're not seeing the larger outlets, kind of covering it in that way. Even the ones that have sort of dedicated climate desks. Do you have a thought on why? You know, it's maybe easier to do it or other folks haven't tried it because it sort of feels like hey, if it's working, somebody's gonna come along and you know, do it at a larger scale.

DR: This is the thing about mainstream journalism. It's always a little bit puzzling to me. It's it's, they don't trust that their readers want the real deep story, right? But, the topic itself is technical and deep enough to do so only a niche of people are going to want to read it in the first place. So you have this weird valley of death where it's too technical for most people, but not technical enough for the people who actually want to read it. And so it ends up being sort of boring and read by no one, you know, and the only way you can get a wide readership is if you say a new battery will revolutionize the world next week. And you know, get you to get some short-term clicks for those kinds of things but I just think most big publications, they don't trust their readers and listeners enough.

JK: Makes perfect sense so we can move away from the business of covering climate media, talking about some of the stuff that's, I think, going to be interesting for a lot of our readers that are in the startup world because you know, we're always thinking about where is the opportunity, whether it's for our investors or listening or for founders that are working on this that are passionate about actually making an impact with the technologies are working on bringing some of that optimism. You've talked about the grids edge, and that being something that you're interested in stories that the grids edge that are compelling to you, as opposed to, you know, supply-side technologies. Can you help define what the grid's edge is and then why those stories are so compelling for you?

DR: Sure, I mean, you know, in broad terms, the big story is that the electricity grid for most of its lifetime for most of the last century was composed of this model where you have big power plants. And then you have big transmission lines that carry the power and then offload the power into distribution grids, where it's carried to the locals. And that was all basically a one-way flow, right? Why you can think of it in hydrological terms is just water cascading out of the power plant. Through the rivers have transmission down into the streams of distribution into homes and businesses, which were effectively dumb consumers, passive, passive consumers of this energy. And so as everyone in our world knows by now that is in the midst of radically reshuffling itself, in that those homes and businesses out at the edge of the grid down at the end of the distribution line, now are generating energy on their own; they are all becoming power plants. They also have storage, power storage, popping up in terms of home storage, or EVs, and they're just getting much much much smarter. So you have these sort of all these smart devices, smart appliances, smart whatever this and that, that can time usage, time charging, sort of coordinate the loads at the edge of the grid so that they serve the larger grid better so that they sort of become grid infrastructure. And so you know, a grid where everyone at the edge is smart and a generator and a storage mechanism and load balancing and demand response and all these other things. Is just radically, radically different from the hub and spoke one-way model and we are just at the very front end of figuring out how that works. All our not just our technology but all our practices, all our regulations, all our sort of business models, everything everything is set up around. It's still the one-way model to use the cliche, we're sort of frantically trying to rebuild the plane in flight. We're trying to keep the electricity grid going and reliable even as we switch our focus to the sort of grid edge and it's gonna be a chaotic transition and there's tons of ferment in there. There's tons of market opportunity. It is just in terms of like, figuring out the right models for this grid edge. Stuff like I just did a pod the other day on an outfit that is making induction stoves you know, you replace your gas stove with an electric induction stove, but with a battery in it a relatively large battery in the stove, which does a couple of things. One is you can get surges of power beyond what you can get from any stove today. gas or electric. Yep. So that's for cooking, too. You can cook when the power's out, right? Or you can even plug your refrigerator into your stove and you get this battery's big enough that you could theoretically run your home for a day or two on this battery and plus, you know, plus eventually that battery is going to be in communication with the grid. And the grid is going to be able to draw on that battery to store or release energy at times the grid needs so if you can just imagine that, but every appliance, every car, every every every energy using or creating or storing device, all the billions of them out on the grid edge, all being very smart, all communicating with each other all trading power directly with each other without going through the central hub that some version of that lies in our future getting from here to there is going to be a mess and there's going to be a lot of fortunes made and a lot of carcasses along the road.

JK: And ugly it is, so important because I think what a lot of our listeners don't know is how old Our grid is, how I think, let down by the lack of transmission infrastructure. We are because of nimbyism and a whole host of other reasons why we don't actually have the power lines. We need to get the power to places where it needs to go. But even beyond that, we are bringing so many of these electrification options online. But they're all drawing power from this archaic grid. So it's, it's not even just like a well this would be a nice to have for us to have some sort of bi-directional it's like this whole future vision electrification of everything cannot survive. If there is not some sort of bi-directional, you know, as you're describing a decentralization of energy.

DR: Yeah, I mean, you can argue about what the sort of optimal grid architecture is and some sort of theoretical future but in the real world, a lot of those decisions and a lot of the directions are going to be driven by just sort of semi-rational or irrational social forces or economic forces or just legacy systems or momentum of old dumb systems as you say, so a lot of I think, you know, people will argue about how much we should rely on this sort of distributed energy at the grid edge versus centralized stuff, but I think we're going to be as you say, driven in that direction, just because the central hub and spoke model is sort of breaking down. It's very, very old. It's not getting repaired fast enough. It's not getting replaced fast enough. And if you can't get a transmission line to your area, then you need to maximize the work. You get out of the energy that you can generate. And so there's just a lot of thinking going into how we can generate store use and share energy on the grid edge in the smartest possible way minimizing the need for these big transmission lines.

JK: Well, and some of this, I think, is evolving in real-time as we have the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. We've had, you know, billions of dollars for home electrification, EB tax credits, although the way they're being applied and all that stuff we can have a much longer conversation on. But even so, right, there's stuff happening at the consumer level. And I think consumers are now waking up to the incentives they have to electrify and you know, better sort of prepare their homes to become these decentralized power cells. But then also what's happening in terms of advanced manufacturing, so that we can actually bring some of this production within the US I mean, this to me, at least, from my, you know, recollection or understanding. This is the largest electrification, you know, legislation that has been passed anywhere and across the globe. And I could be wrong about that. Maybe they're doing things in Sweden that we don't know about, but like, what, what leads to something? I think it was successfully implemented because there are a lot of promises in this bill. And I know you've been covering it for a while. I mean, what are the factors that are going to lead to this actually being a reality for the US?

DR: Well, the whole story of the IRA is, is fascinating, and I don't know that it's really well understood in the general public because, you know, this kind of the focus has been on it as a climate bill, which it certainly is it certainly is a climate-energy bill, but I would say, if I only had one way to characterize it one line, I would characterize it primarily as a piece of industrial policy. In other words, it is overwhelmingly geared at creating an A sustaining and growing domestic industries moving I mean, the thing with the Evie tax credits, however, you think of how they're going about it, the goal is quite audacious. The goal is to stand up an entire Evie supply chain in the US from almost scratch, right like we're way way way behind in terms of the minerals and the processing and manufacturing of the batteries, etc, etc. Like we have some other car factories but in terms of the supply chain, yeah, we're trying to do that from almost nothing, you know, and it's the same in several clean energy industries. So this is just an enormous astonishing eye watering amount of money that is being dumped on the domestic industry. An attempt to sort of bring manufacturing back to the US as people have been talking about for years, and it's just a really audacious and large scale effort to do that biggest, you know, biggest legislation on those lines in my lifetime easily. So the question is, you know, this, this leads to a million questions. One is, do we have in the US the administrative capacity to do this well, right, like it's one thing to come up with millions of dollars? It's another thing to spend it wisely and to know where it needs to be spent and to course correct as we go, you know, like in other countries like Germany or something like that. They'll have a government agency, whose sole purpose is sort of to be in touch with the private sector, and to know where things are moving and what their needs are. And they work very closely together on industrial policy in other countries, but in the US, we've had this sort of like, neoliberal fever these last several decades where we've just sort of pretended we don't do that. We don't do industrial policy. We just let the market do that. Which was always BS. We always did it. We just do it behind our backs without paying much attention to it. So we saw a lot of this sort of administrative capacity that you would need to know who needs money where and what's promising and what isn't, as it has kind of decayed. So it'll be a fascinating experiment over the next five to ten years.

JK: Yeah, but even if we're underestimating the cost of this, the sheer scale and the sheer volume of new investment, new companies being formed, new supply chains, you know, opportunities within that value chain for companies to be built. I mean, I think that's, you know, when when I talked to investors on the show, and I think it would have been harsh Patel from wireframe who said this is like this is going to be the greatest opportunity for wealth creation or value generation however you want to say it in our lifetimes, and perhaps the generations prior to this.

DR: 100%. These investments are going to directly affect the quality of life of Americans like Americans are going to see their houses get cleaner and more comfortable and less air pollution. I mean, it's like, you know, just think about electrifying postal vehicles just to take an example every community in the country has postal vehicles think about electrifying school buses, every community in the country has school buses, and so every community in the country is going to see very tangibly the results of these investments and the improvement like my kids are not inhaling diesel fumes anymore. So that's going to be an immense source of value. And so many things that we can't predict are going to come out of this like, you know, you can predict some of the basic building blocks of decarbonization, but just like, once solar gets even super, super cheaper. And then batteries get even super, super cheaper and smaller, like what can you do combining tiny, powerful solar with tiny powerful batteries like you can put sensing and computing power and power generation, anywhere, anywhere on a power line in the middle of a field, over your crops on your parking lot? Like this stuff is going to be so miniaturized and so cheap, it's going to become ubiquitous. And then what happens if you have Ubiquitous Energy and information all around you all the time? I don't know. But some cool shit.

JK: I mean, you come off to me as a pretty optimistic guy in this world of climate dread. And I know a lot of our listeners, even the ones that are working on really interesting technologies and climate solutions. It's hard to fight off that sense of climate anxiety. So maybe on a personal level, like how does one stave that off? Because as much as is happening, you know, you look out into the world and you don't see it happening fast enough. And we know the temperature thresholds and, you know, carbon capture targets we have to hit and it doesn't seem like we're hitting them fast enough. So how do you stave off that, that anxiety?

DR: I mean, that's a complicated question. I mean, people who know me would laugh uproariously at the idea that I'm an optimist. I mean, I spent many, many years wallowing in this doom and preaching this doom and banging on the table and trying to get people to take this coming do more seriously. And you know, I spent my time, plenty of time while doing that, and part of it is just if you're going to have a career, right? You can't. You can't just be sort of mellow dramatically tearing your garments. Again and again, day after day after day after day after day, you just psychologically can't like you're gonna burn yourself out. I've seen it. I've seen a lot of people come into this, and then go back out, just burned out because you just can't be sort of like, you know, dramatically hailing into the world. Day after day, you'll just burn yourself out. So you have to find some position of equilibrium you have to find some way of just uh, taking it as it comes. But also, I mean, as bad as things look and we are not on track. It is also the case that a lot of the worst possibilities of a lot of the high-end scenarios of truly apocalyptic species ending kind of warming have kind of been shaved off in the models like we're narrowing in on a bad but not apocalyptic trajectory. And that's, and that is a relatively big change in trajectory in just the last, you know, 10 years 1020 years. And like I say, momentum is just building and building and building so I think speed is going to be one of those things where it was Bill Gates who has always said that we overestimate change. Now we can make any year. Yeah, we make it a year we underestimate what we do in 10 years. I forget the exact figures. But that's very true here. I think when you look a year out, you're like, Oh, we're not moving fast enough. But I think you look 10 years out and there's gonna be so much momentum that the rate of change, the rate of change is going to pick up. That's the hope that's, that's the hopeful thing. And the other thing I just say is, you know, I get asked about this a lot, this climate dread thing. I just, I just say like, you know, say you did conclude that we're screwed, and climate change is going to be horrible. You still, you could still be better or worse, right? It could still be a little better or a little bit worse. Like what are you going to do? You're going to just go to bed and give up? No, you're gonna get up and fight regardless, no matter what our degree of doomed, it doesn't change what you need to do, which is just get up and do the fucking work. You know. So. You know, a lot of it's a lot of this discussion just sort of devolves into kind of the aesthetic I think, you know, just like what's my identity and how do I want to come off online? What degree of Doomer Am I you know, what team Am I on? I just do all that stuff, whatever just do the work. You know, everybody's got the beauty of this fight now. And this is you know, I was trying to convey earlier that it's opened up in a way that there are so many entree points to it now, like you can get involved in this fight from any angle, finance, technology, entrepreneurship, public administration as you name it. There's a way into this fight. So everybody's got their hands on some levers. Everybody can pull the levers that they have within reach, and that's what you need to do, whether you're nine out of 10 You know, dreadful or dreadful, whatever, you know.

JK: Wherever you are on that scale.

DR: There's work done on the scale, just get up and do the work. Nothing's going to cheer you up, like doing the work and interacting with other people who are doing the work.

JK: Yeah, well, that is David, a fantastic place to leave our conversation. Where can people find more of your cautious optimism? If they want to find it in the work that you're doing?

DR: At Volts.etf

JK: Perfect. I love that. That's a fantastic URL ending I haven’t come across. That's where you found yourself. Well, look, David, this was a fantastic conversation. I could talk to you for hours. I hope that we'll have you back on the show. Maybe as we see some of these tax credits actually passed the next tax season. I think my two biggest takeaways from the conversation today. One that the second order effects of the eye-watering amount of money as you call it, that we're spending on you know, bringing supply chain costs down by bringing them to the US by bringing production and manufacturing costs down is going to create so many more opportunities for investment and entrepreneurship and I know that's what our listeners primarily, you know, think about and care about. But then secondly, it's that this work needs to get done, you know, whether or not we are trying to hit some sort of mythical reduction target.

DR: Target this target that this degree that degree this PPM that PM, faste as possible, there's no, there's 0% chance that we're going to go too fast. So just go as fast as you can. Right.

JK: I like that. I like that. Well, thank you so much, David. We're so grateful to have you on and we hope to have you back on soon.

Thank you so much for reading our latest update from VSC Ventures Fund I. We're in the early days of our long and healthy partnership with all of you, so please reach out to us with additional questions on anything above. Thank you again for your support for our vision and our fund!

Vijay Chattha & Jay Kapoor

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