Keep Cool Wrapped

Hi folx,

Hope you’re enjoying the holiday season. Today’s newsletter rounds up my favorite content from 2023. If you’re looking for more content for your holiday downtime, travel, or to catch up on things you missed in the barrage of Keep Cool content from the year, well, here you go!

P.S., if you want even more words, I penned a (non-climate-related) story in the inimitable pages of Dirt, one of my favorite digital cultural magazines. You can check it out here

KEEP COOL WRAPPED

✍️ 5(+) newsletters

Hitch your wagon to a star

A rendering of Range Energy’s electric trailer technology (courtesy of Range)

One of the coolest companies I learned about this year (and got to visit in person) is Range Energy. Electrification of vehicles was a big story in 2023, as sales of EVs in the U.S. eclipsed 1M vehicles for the first time, and states like California rolled out new targets to phase out internal combustion engine sales by 2035. 

Electrifying light-duty vehicles is one thing. Electrifying heavy-duty vehicles, like 18-wheelers, is a whole ‘nother ball game. Range Energy is making headway on this problem in a unique way. While other OEMs, like Tesla, work to make electric ‘tractors,’ Range Energy is electrifying the trailers, i.e., the part of the truck that hitches to the tractor. Here’s the lede:

Technically the subject line for this email should have said hitch your star to a wagon. In a world where everyone focuses on electric engines and switching fuel sources, Range Energy is building an electrified trailer. They’re turning the wagon into the star.

Nor are they just putting a battery pack in the trailer. They’re building a trailer that assists with propulsion (one might even go so far as to say drives), creating torque and traction. 

Notably, the utility of an electric trailer isn’t confined to use with an electric tractor. The first electric trucks are just starting to roll out onto the road; it will be a while before Tesla Semis or competitor trucks haul freight up and down the interstate. 

Until then, Range Energy’s electric trailers can also hook up to the diesel tractors we’ve all gotten used to seeing, offering 40%+ fuel efficiency gains (and corresponding emissions reductions) in the process…

→ Read here and / or listen to our podcast episode with the CEO, Ali Javidan

Apocalypse later. Adaptation now.

In 2024, you'll see more writing in Keep Cool from folks not named Nick. We started this effort in late 2023 by featuring a thesis from Alex Laplaza on why it's time for climate practitioners, including founders, operators, and especially investors, to get excited about climate adaptation as an investable, important, attractive climate tech category. 

The thesis begins by stating simply that climate adaptation needs a rebrand. Most folks think of infrastructure like sea walls when adaptation comes up in conversation. But the category subsumes much more than that.

It then explores why investors write off adaptation as a problem for policy and infrastructure. It is those things, but it's also an opportunity to invent, reinvent, and deploy new technology with many benefits (and potentially attractive, venture-scale returns) on a significant scale. Plus, most adaptive climate tech solutions are intertwined with mitigating climate change in general.

As Alex wrote, "If decarbonization is the new industrialization, adaptation is the new modernization."

→ Read here

Blame the wind

2023 wasn’t all roses for energy and climate technologies. Specifically, the wind energy industry had a rough go of it. In this piece, I vented some frustration around how obfuscated the discourse surrounding the industry’s struggle is. Put simply, I got angry that companies in the wind energy business don’t just state clearly what the f*cking problem is.

A wind turbine with a broken rotor post-storm. 2023 was a bit of a ‘storm’ for wind energy in general (Shutterstock)

This setup plunged us into an analysis that’s equal parts about language, abstractions, the stories we tell, and what the actual headwinds in wind energy are. Here’s a quote:

Inflation. Supply chain issues. Permitting issues. 

All of these catch-alls are taken as perfectly reasonable explanations for why deploying renewable energy and other climate solutions is slower than desired right now. Say them at the office water cooler, and you sound like you’re in the know. You sound like you’re privy to the climate tech ‘common knowledge.’ 

The problem is, absent additional detail, abstractions like these tell us nothing about what’s actually going on. “Supply chain issues” is a perfect example. Do you know what that means? I don’t really. 

Odds are, the person using that phrase doesn’t know exactly what they’re saying either. It’s a perfect stand-in phrase; it sounds like it explains everything without explaining anything at all.

→ Read here 

Biodiversity galore

I wrote four pieces on the topic of biodiversity this year. Something I’ve had to do as I get deeper into covering climate tech is to iteratively remind myself that: 

  • Greenhouse gas emissions are about more than the power sector and transportation 

  • Global warming is about more than just CO2 (greenhouse gasses in general) 

  • Climate change is about more than global warming.

The Pacific yew tree, i.e., the progenitor of Taxol, a billion-dollar-per-year drug (Shutterstock

Biodiversity as a topic is an excellent example of this. There are many drivers of biodiversity loss globally that threaten most global economies. Global warming is just one of many; invasive species, land use change, over-exploitation, and other types of pollution are arguably more important. Across a few pieces this year, we unpacked a) why biodiversity matters, b) what needs to happen to reverse biodiversity loss, and c) why this is a great opportunity for humans to both mitigate harm and score ‘wins’ environmentally and economically.

→ Read here for a primer on why biodiversity matters

→ Read here for why preserving biodiversity is an economic imperative

→ Read here for perspective on progress being made to tackle biodiversity loss

Taking a step back

This was one of the most important pieces for me this year on the personal front. In it, I articulated some ideas about why and how I do what I do. Does writing about climate tech and energy matter? Does media matter? What does conscientious media work look like?

Here's one example:

...attention is a form of capital allocation. There's a finite amount of attention that people can pay to things in the world, the same way there's some finiteness surrounding things like human capital (labor hours and people's expertise) and financial capital. 

If I produce media that absorbs a certain amount of people's attention, it behooves me to be thoughtful about whether I'm directing people's attention toward something worthwhile.

I could write about every iterative EV battery manufacturing investment, but that could lead people to conclude that we're making a massive amount of progress holistically solving climate issues. In reality, there are thousands of other decarbonization challenges, many of which are underserved and undercovered, like, say, nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer use, that people may never read an article about. 

What's lost if I don't write the nitrous oxide article? There may be one reader in my audience of 20,000 who's uniquely well-suited to work on that problem. I don't know. Capital allocation is notoriously tricky and involves an incredible amount of tradeoffs at any given time.

Big thanks to Art Lapinsh, who hosted the piece on his newsletter and asked trenchant questions that helped me uncork insights and ideas I hadn't previously articulated.

→ Read here

🎙️ 5 podcasts

Embracing complexity in soil measurement (and beyond)

In a more recent podcast, I got the chance to dive deep both on a dope climate technology – Yard Stick PBC’s soil spectroscopy probes – and CEO Chris Tolles’ perspective on embracing a non-dualistic approach to building climate tech companies and tackling climate challenges.

What do I mean by the latter? This excerpt from our conversation may offer you an idea:

Chris: That's another area in which soil is exciting for me because in some ways it can kind of do like cultural political judo of talking about soil health or erosion rather than soil carbon… many soil scientists, I think, would very vociferously argue that soil health really should be the goal, and that climate solutions will inherently be a part of that. I find that compelling and inspiring, and it's really helpful in a country where a good portion of our people and legislators need to be very careful with the way they talk about climate change…

Nick: Yeah, that's such an interesting kind of tension. Maybe tension isn't the right word, but it is an interesting question I always come back to is, you know, do we use carbon… as a beachhead to commercialize technologies and get folks excited about things that then ultimately do offer benefits beyond carbon? Or is there a trap in there? And should we always be leading with the more holistic view? I don't know. 

Chris: I think about that every day. I don't have a good answer. That is a central identity challenge and therefore opportunity for Yard Stick. I feel that every single day we do anything. I think you're a fool if you think there's a simple answer. I hugely respect folks that come down hard on either side of that, and I hope that I'm also trying to explore a world in which it's a false binary, and that zero-sum thinking is a feature of a bad worldview. I agree there's trade-offs, of course. I promise you, I run a company where I appreciate limited resources. And nonetheless, I think it's incredibly important to press into that tension because that's the real stuff…

Nick: …Yeah, as you already kind of hinted at earlier, when we manage for single variables, that tends to be where we get in trouble in the first place. 

If that feels compelling to you, or you want to learn more about quantifying sequestered carbon in soils, give this one a listen.

→  Listen here

Fangirling for fission

Isabelle Boemeke with Macron, the French President. France is the country that gets the largest share of its electricity from nuclear fission.

I fangirled pretty hard earlier this year when I got to interview Isabelle Boemeke (fka Isodope) to talk about the state of nuclear fission globally in 2023. Isabelle is one of the world’s foremost nuclear energy advocates, having spearheaded efforts to save Diablo Canyon in California (a power plant that single-handedly provides ~9% of California’s electricity and 17% of its low-carbon electricity). More recently, she took her talents to COP28, where more than twenty countries agreed to triple installed nuclear energy capacity by 2050

In this episode, Isabelle and I chatted about how she got into nuclear energy advocacy, how she sees the role of ~influence~ and media in changing hearts and minds in service of combating climate change, and to do some good ol’ fashion nuclear misinformation myth-busting. Nuclear energy gets a lot of attention these days, but if you’re still looking for a good 0 to 1 on its history, merits, and future, this is a great listen. 

→  Listen here

What about public markets?

I don’t talk about public equity markets for climate tech and energy companies as much as one might expect, given they used to be my purview in a past life. 

That’s why I was excited to tap Shanu Mathew, Senior Vice President, Portfolio Manager/Analyst in U.S. Sustainable Equity at Lazard Asset Management. Lazard is perhaps most famous in our circles for its annual levelized cost of energy reports, which always cause a stir on social media.

In this episode we discussed how equity managers think about catching inflection points in innovation in markets, how this does and has worked for climate tech and energy investments, and how the political and cultural divide surrounding “ESG” has completely lost the plot. 

Plus, we ended with some ‘why we believe’ type content, decomposing what trends and topics keep us optimistic about systems-level changes that will improve the world.

→  Listen here

Wasted food 

Wasted food is a massive climate story that doesn’t get enough attention. In a world where we waste nearly a third of all food, the implications for climate impacts, both upstream and downstream, are massive. Upstream, an immense amount of land, energy, water, labor, and other resources are needed to grow, move, and prepare food that eventually goes to waste. Downstream, wasted food travels on diesel-fired trains to rot in landfills, where it often turns into methane emissions (not to mention not landing on hungry people’s plates).

Food waste is perhaps the best example of a system that’s entirely ‘ass backwards.’ Unfurling the layers of absurdity in the story of how and why we waste so much food is foundational education; it crystallizes how many parts of our society are a) set up to fail and b) don’t get much scrutiny because they’re out of sight, out of mind. 

Fortunately, there are companies approaching the wasted food problem head-on. Earlier this year, I got to sit down with Ryan Begin, CEO of Divert, to unpack how they’re trying to tackle both the upstream and downstream challenges associated with wasted food. Since then, Divert has also broken ground on an anaerobic digester in Turlock, California.

Make no mistake, there’s plenty of healthy debate around what Divert is doing, largely owing to the fact that they turn wasted food into renewable natural gas. There are no silver bullets in climate tech; pressing into the complex, divisive nitty-gritty is, as Chris Tolles said in another podcast (see above), the ‘real’ stuff.

→ Listen here

Airing all my stream-of-consciousness thoughts 

I also had the pleasure of joining other great podcasts this year. In one of my favorites, I was able to pack a) a bold prediction on nuclear fusion’s commercial readiness, b) the quote “Trees are the goats of Lindy,” and many more stream-of-consciousness reflections on climate tech, media, and life in general into a rip-roaring two-hour session.

The folks at the DER Task Force have an awesome, free-flowing, conversational format that lends itself well to less stuffy conversations about all things climate and energy. If you’re keen to hear me in the hot seat as opposed to my typical interviewer role, check this out.

→  Listen here 

What were your favorite pieces of content from this year? Any I missed? LMK.

See you in 2024,

– Nick

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