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Long time, no blog

16 Jan
I love PR (public relations)

I love PR (public relations) (Photo credit: Jerry Silfwer)


Well, it’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, and much has happened in the past several months. First, as I joyously noted in my last post, the book is done. But when I wrote that, the book wasn’t exactly “done” done. I had a draft of the manuscript but hadn’t gone through it carefully to make needed revisions.


Now, I’m happy to report, the book really is done. St. Martin’s recently showed me the cover they have in mind, which, I’m very happy to say, is pretty awesome. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I won’t post an image or say too much about what the cover looks like. Suffice it to say that the St. Martin’s graphic design folks know what they’re doing.


Now that I’m no longer actually writing the book, it’s time to begin thinking about how to best market and promote it. To that end I’ve been compiling lists of contacts, renewable energy organizations, and basically of anyone who might be able to help get word out about the book and why people should read it.


To be honest, one of the most difficult parts of writing the book was dealing with the nagging thought constantly in the back of my mind that people don’t read a lot of non-fiction of this sort. Or, at least, non-fiction books like this tend to not sell many copies. Not that selling as many copies as possible is the only thing that matters … but it matters. Like any author, I want lots of people to read (and like) my work. But now that the book is done and I’ve begun thinking about marketing and promotion, I’m more optimistic about the prospects of the book doing at least marginally well. Despite the sucky economy, renewable energy continues to be a relevant topic. And judging by the large number of college-level courses and programs on alternative energy, there’s lots of general public interest. So … I’m hopeful.


Anyhow, if anyone reads this post and knows anyone in the media or has any suggestions for contacts, I’m all ears (and eyes).


Who cares about energy?

21 Jan

I’m sitting in my studio/cell, as usual, working on the book, mired in one of those necessary periods where in order to write the next bit I have to do a lot of reading and thinking. Always good to learn more, but also frustrating because it seem unproductive, even thought it’s not.

During these times my mind often turns to big picture things, like who’s going to be interested in this book. This speaks to an even larger question: namely, who care about energy?

To a degree, everyone cares. Energy is universal, ubiquitous. We all use it and can’t live without it. But energy is so deeply engrained into the fabric of modern existence that, outside of those who don’t have access to modern types of energy (which describes many people, actually), we normally don’t think about it or care how it works or where it comes from. We only care that it’s available on demand at prices we can reasonably afford.

Now, this does not describe everyone. For hundreds of millions of people living in poor or developing countries, energy is a constant, in-your-face problem.  Too many unfortunate souls are all too aware of the importance of reliable power, due mainly to the fact that they lack it.

So I certainly don’t mean to complain about the easy access to reliable power enjoyed by those of us fortunate enough to live in industrialized and post-industrial countries. I don’t want to have to worry or think too hard about where my power comes from. I just want to flick on the light, power up my iPhone, and watch stuff on Hulu whenever I want, no questions asked.

But still, we’re at a moment when energy has become more visible for more people, for a variety of reasons. Climate change, national security, the recent BP oil spill — the list goes on. These things are in the air and seem to matter to an every wider group of people.

And yet it’s hard (for me, at least) to gauge just how wide that circle is, at to what extent the average person really wants to know more about how energy works and why it matters. I care about this in general, because I think it’s important, but also for professional reasons. I want people to buy and read my book, after all, and part of making that happen is figuring out how to let people know about it and get them excited.  Most of the people who read about energy and follow energy blogs and the like tend to be industry insiders and/or environmental types.  Most of what’s written about energy is either very technical or very business oriented. There’s almost nothing along the lines of what I’m doing, which is trying to provide some context and place renewable energy issues in a larger narrative and historical context. In a way, that’s good. I’m doing something new. But in a way it’s worrisome because I don’t want my readership to be limited to a small audience of techies and industry players.

How Awesome is Google Books?

8 Dec
Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Seriously, is there a way to quantify the awesomeness of Google Books? I say no.  Its awesomeness is infinite.

For example, I’m working on a chapter on wind power, at the moment writing a short section on wind energy in the ancient world. A book I’m using as my lodestone, Wind Energy in America by Robert Righter (I have the actual, physical book in hand) has a short section on 10th century Persian horizontal windmills.  Now, in the old, pre-advanced Internet day (yes, I’m old enough to remember those dark times), learning more about Persian mills would have meant going to the library, hope the computers there would cough up the correct reference number, and then comb the stacks, hoping the book was in the right place. This would take most of the day.

Today, hours have been compressed into minutes. Just a moment ago I came across the reference in Righter’s book, did a quick Google search for “Persian windmills,” browsed the relevant Wikipedia entry and found a footnote directing me to another book–Wind, Water, Work: Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology by Adam Lucas.  Another quick search on Google Books turned up the book, and within about 20 second I had the relevant information on my computer screen.  The whole process took no more than three minutes.

We’re so accustomed to advanced computing and the ubiquitous availability of the Internet that it’s sometimes difficult to step back and appreciate how this technology has changed the way we work, live, and even think.  But when I do take the time to reflect on this score, it’s simply astonishing.

Now, back to the book.

What I Learned Writing a Chapter About Solar Energy

22 Sep
On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...

Image via Wikipedia

So I just finished a draft of a chapter on solar energy.  Which is good.  Always good to come to the nominal end of a chunk of the book, even if it still needs polishing.

The process of diving into the world of solar energy and figuring out how to write about it was interesting. Tiring, frightening, overwhelming and sometimes tedious, too.  But always interesting.  Going in, I had a decent understanding of the basics–how solar cells work, that large solar farms were popping up around the world, that advances in solar tech were making daily headlines.  What I didn’t know was how much of what I heard about was substantial, and how much was marketing/PR bluster.  I also knew very little about the long, complicated history of solar energy.  Like most non-experts (and even many solar insiders, probably), I assumed that the solar technologies in vogue today began in the 1970s.  I was only about three or four centuries off.

Now, after 5 months of immersing myself in the history, technology, politics, and economics of solar energy, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about where solar’s been, where it is, and where it’s going.  Here’s how I put it near the end of the chapter …

If the history of solar energy innovation teaches us anything, it’s that even the most ingenious, well-designed schemes for producing cheap, reliable power from the sun face daunting roadblocks on the road to commercial success.  Yet that same history also shows us that a legacy of solar innovation marred by failed plans and dashed dreams has done little to discourage a new generation of 21st century solar pioneers from taking up the mantle and forging ahead.  If anything, new solar technologies (or, more accurately, new variations on old ideas) have mushroomed at an astonishing pace.  While I was researching this book, hardly a day went by without coming across headlines touting a new breakthrough in solar panel efficiency or the construction of “The World’s Largest Solar Farm” (of which, apparently, there are dozens).

Not that headlines tell the whole story.  After all, one goal of this book is to look beyond the headlines to get a clearer sense of what’s happening on the ground and in the lab.  After visiting working solar farms and commercial-scale solar panel factories; having visited pilot concentrating solar plants and meeting with researchers experimenting on the outer edges of solar innovation; after months spent delving into the history of solar engineering—I come away having learned a few things.

First, that the ultimate success of solar energy—the “solar revolution” that so many green activists envision—is no more assured of happening today than it was a century and a half ago when August Mouchot’s solar motor turned heads at the Paris World’s Fair.  In a world where energy consumption—driven by exploding populations and economies in China, India, and elsewhere in the developing world—is growing exponentially, solar energy, for all of its triumphs in recent years, still plays a very, very small role in meeting the planet’s demand for useable power.  And there is very little evidence that even most the astonishing advances in solar cell efficiency and power (or concentrating solar power or any other solar technology) will be able to meet a sizeable percentage of this demand. This reality is important to keep in mind when reading breathless articles in the popular press about the latest breakthrough that will supposedly change the world as we know it.[1] Because we’re in the midst of a breathtaking revolution in information technology, we’ve come to expect (and even gotten accustomed to) new technologies that appear out of nowhere and, like magic, change forever how we communicate, socialize, and even think and see the world around us.  But in the world of energy, there are no equivalents to Google or the iPad.  Unlike software and more like the auto industry, the world of energy is a complex mesh of infrastructure (oil and gas pipelines, railroads for coal transport, electricity transmission lines and so on—the vast majority of which has been built by and is geared toward fossil fuel industries), local and federal government policy, and powerful, multinational energy companies whose influence extends into virtually every sector of the global economy.  In short, solar energy, like all renewable energy technologies, will have to struggle uphill to blossom in a way that everyone I interviewed for this chapter hopes will one day happen.

And yet …

… the story of solar energy doesn’t end there.  Because the second big lesson I learned is that judging a technology or industry based only on what it isn’t, or on what it has yet to accomplish, can lead to some misguided and just plain wrong conclusions.  Compare the energy output of the world’s solar farm to that of the world’s coal-fired power plants and, yes, solar seems puny.  But consider solar technology today in contrast to where it stood only thirty years ago, when Jimmy Carter unveiled his White House solar panels, and a different story takes shape.  We may not yet live in a world where thin-film solar panels shingle every roof, or where vast solar farms have begun to displace coal-fired power plants, but the potential and widespread desire for those high-tech dreams to become reality has never been greater.  Again, in the world of renewable energy, no one technology or idea or grand vision is a sure bet.  But seen through the lens of history, and from the perspective of the dozens of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs I spoke with (and thousands more around the world), solar is on a roll the likes of which would have seemed utterly fantastic only a few decades ago.

[1]For example, I found an article published in Popular Science in 2007 hyperventilating over Nanosolar’s then-groundbreaking “PowerSheet” technology—basically semiconducting nano-ink printed on thin, flexible metal sheets.  Dan Kammen, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley, is quoted as saying that “You’ve talking about printing rolls of the stuff—printing it on the roofs of 18-wheeler trailer, printing it on garages, printing it where you want.”  Several years on, have you ever seen or heard or a solar-powered 18-wheeler?  Neither have I.  And it’s most likely not because PowerSheet solar panels don’t work as advertised.  It’s more a matter of the complexity of integrating solar panels with something like a truck.

Here goes …

3 Mar

For the past six months I’ve been reading, blogging, traveling, interviewing, recording, reading some more, thinking, blogging, and then more reading. Everything but actually sitting down to begin writing this book for real.

So now, I’ve decided, it’s time.

The hardest thing for any writer engaged in a long, research-intensive project is to know when to set aside the books and articles and interview transcripts and just start writing. Because writing is hard work–much harder than reading or doing an interview. For all its benefits, reading is essentially passive. Interviewing is more interactive, but you’re still allowing the interviewee do most of the work. But writing … crafting solid sentences and paragraphs and chapters … that’s where the true toil lies.

Writing is daunting because as soon as you start, you run up against what you don’t know. Even the most well-planned project is riddled with uncertainty. All those keen, incisive thoughts and ideas buzzing around your head? On paper they may come across as absolute twaddle. The hour-long interview you thought would yield such juicy quotes now seems dry and lifeless. All the reading and research you’ve done to prepare for this moment? It’s a blur of facts and figures and other people’s opinions.

That’s writing, and it’s often painful. And the only thing to do, the only possible way to overcome the inertia and doubt and abject fear, is to stop thinking and just start writing. It may not come easily at first, it may sputter along for a while. But if you’ve done your homework, if you’ve prepared and earned the right to begin … then eventually the narratives begins to flow, words come easily, and then you’ve got something. As difficult as writing can be, there’s no better feeling than reaching the point where it seems to be happening on its own. When you’re in a groove, there’s no better affirmation of your intelligence, skill, and self-worth.

So that’s where I am. It’s time to begin, to come to grips with what I don’t know, with where the gaps lie, and what I need to do to begin filling them in.

Wish me luck.

Just starting out …

19 Aug


I’m Jeremy, and I’m writing a book about alternative energy called “Renewable: A Reporter’s Quest to Make Sense of the Coming Revolution in Alternative Energy.”

The premise is pretty simple: whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we care or not, energy as we know it is changing.  Sure, oil, coal and natural gas still predominate.  Fossil fuels are entrenched.  But look around and you can’t help but see the unmistakable signs of changes afoot.  Where I live, in southern Indiana, highway lamps are powered by small solar panels.  A veritable fleet of Toyota Priuses (Prusi?) patrol my neighborhood.  (The newest model Prius even comes with a solar panel roof to produce enough juice to power the air conditioning.)  Wind farms are popping up all over the place.  The gas we feed out cars is already around 10% corn ethanol.

So … the energy landscape has already changed, and the pace of change is only going to increase.  And like most people, I know (or knew) only the basics of what’s going on.  Renewable energy is in the news practically every day.  Hundreds of new energy companies are jumping on the bandwagon, competing to see who’ll be the first to invent a green alternative to oil.  Government leaders spout lofty projections about how we’ll be carbon neutral within the next few decades.

But for the average Joe, it’s almost impossible to sift through the hype and get a clear sense of what’s really happening in the world of alt energy.  That’s why I’m writing the book.  Mainly because I’m curious.  One way or another, this stuff is going to affect my life.  Will it mean paying more for energy?  Less?  Is the coming revolution in alternative energy something that will happen while I remain oblivious, or will it thoroughly rock my world?  I want to know.  And I’m betting you do, too.

As I research and write the book I’ll be posting updates here.  I’ll also post links to interesting articles and other blogs.  I hope you’ll check in and leave comments.  Let’s get a conversation going about renewable energy–the good, the bad, the ugly, the pretty–everything.

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