It’s Memorial Day Weekend 2022 and three things are true:
- It’s summer, and you need something to read while sipping your Spindrift at the beach
- Phones at the beach are a bad vibe, doomscrolling at the beach is especially a bad vibe
- Like us, you are an irredeemable nerd and a voracious consumer of all energy and climate content
Hey, can we recommend some books to you? Here are a few of our team favorites:
Superpower, by Russell Gold – This story of an unstoppable force (Michael Skelley’s Clean Line Energy Partners) going up against an immovable object (the seemingly-insurmountable barriers to interstate high-voltage transmission development) is a great parable for development of any kind. It’s also a warning about the difficulty of building consensus on the ground for what our energy future should look like. It’s a quick read, and one that will stick with you for a long time.
The Grid, by Gretchen Bakke, Ph. D – If your reaction to this blog is “I’ll never have time to read all this”, start here. Is the North American electricity grid the most impressive machine ever built by mankind, or is it a rusted out ’79 Dodge Omni held together with duct tape and old guitar strings? Yes.
Networks of Power, by Thomas P Hughes – Man, this book is a slog, but the history of the first 50 years of building the electric grid in the US, Britain, and Germany is remarkably relevant. The decisions that were made in designing, regulating, and interconnecting the first electrical grids in the world are decisions that we are still living with today. You will not enjoy reading this book, but I still recommend it.
Renewable and Efficient Electric Power Systems, by Gilbert Masters – This is essentially a textbook so won’t be a page-turner, but if you want one “reference book” on your desk for de-mystifying something you come across, Masters’ classic might be the one. Anyone who comes out of the celebrated Stanford Environmental Engineering program (many important people in our industry) – and countless other M.E.’s - likely lived off this book for a couple years. I can’t remember ever picking up this book hoping to find an answer to something technical…and failing to do so.
The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner – Ok, only about 4% of this book is about renewable energy, but i) it’s a very fascinating 4%, and ii) the other 96% is extremely engrossing. The book is about the history of Bell Labs. It’s a story of innovation, collaboration, and science’s place in history. The 4% section tells the tale of the discovery of the photovoltaic effect, the subsequent development of a solar cell, and the implementation of the technology that followed. More broadly, the book reminds one of what a group of smart people are capable of when in the right setting and collaborating toward a shared goal.
Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition, by Shalanda Baker – Through storytelling and policy research, Baker presents the energy transition through the lens of the most vulnerable in our nation. She sketches the potential for a deep transformation of our energy system, one that centers people of color, indigenous people, and poor people in decision making, and outlines the steps to reach such a transformation. For those that simultaneously care about climate change and broader social equity, this is the book for you.
From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What it Means for the Future of Electricity, by Richard Munson – While this book is a little dated, having been published over 15-years ago in 2005, this book builds a strong foundation in how the U.S. electric grid came to be within a relatively compact book length. As the title implies, Munson starts the journey with Thomas Edison’s entrepreneurship in the late 1800s and ends with the Enron scandal and rolling blackouts across California, all while pointing out the holes and cracks of our electric grid along the way. It’s a great airplane read for anyone who came of age post-Enron (like myself) or if you need a refresher on the history of our electric grid.
The Last Lecture – Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, lecture given by Randy Pausch – During his lecture, Pausch says the following, “We cannot change the hand we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” These days, there are a lot of ways and reasons to believe we’ve been dealt a bad hand – climate change and its consequences being just one of many. Now, this hour-long lecture doesn’t address climate change directly, but Pausch reminds us to embrace a practical optimism, in the form of achieving childhood dreams. His lecture inspires us to lead our lives with wonder, hard-work, and compassion, and at the risk of sounding soapbox-y, I believe with these in mind, we’ll be able to play our cards right to make a difference for our futures.
The Prize, by Daniel Yergin – This sweeping Michener-style non-fiction is still the gold standard and still relevant despite its lack of coverage of the energy transition. It sets the table in terms of how our energy systems and economies were chiseled into existence by capitalist and political opportunism.
All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera – While the focus is not on the energy industry, it’s probably true that everyone in our industry should understand the basics of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. There are many books on the subject and most tend to fall into the trap of excessive moralizing. Real-life decision makers have become outlandish characters in pursuit of a page-turner. This book is different. It is dense. It is sober. And, to me, a bystander of the financial sector, it provides incredible insight. “Hell is empty; All the devils are here.”
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll – For those of us in the renewable space, this portrait of a global corporation will feel very foreign. The book is full of excruciating detail. ::Like, really, how do we know that he said that?? Oh, yeah, there are depositions.:: And the detail forwards the narrative that death by a million cuts is possible, particularly when no one is minding to the cuts. I enjoyed searching for things that our industry could learn from the success of the oil majors. For your consideration - the incumbents have embraced the notion that they are essential to modernity. As we transition to take their place, it is truly a privilege to take on that burden (and to do so in a more just and equitable manner).
Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck – Want to feel alive and angry again? Re-read the Grapes of Wrath. You will be transported back to that dry and desperate world. Only now, you see all the connections and parallels to our modern world, particularly (a) perverse economic incentives, (b) migration, (c) water systems, and (d) a multitude of inequities. Be sure to keep the jacket. It looks so cool on a nightstand.
Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn – Certainly not focused on energy, nor sustainability, this fictional story speaks to the interconnectedness of the world, the environment, the habitat and species in this shared world, and the impact that humans have on the world. The story touches on the moral and ethical relationship between varying civilizations, the “Takers” and the “Leavers”, people who believe the human race has a destined ownership, a superiority and a right to use the world to enrich ourselves, versus those that recognize that all species and resources are on equal footing and aren’t God-like. The book touches on the arrogance of man, the behavior and mindset that leads to destruction, but that we have the opportunity to change, to take responsibility, and recognize that we can still restore balance.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson – It’s exactly as the title suggests, focused on scientific subject matters, real science, not internet based alternative facts. It covers everything from chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, and does so in a manner that is both easy and enjoyable to read, more story than textbook, and gives the reader a broad view of how earth and its inhabitants came to be. Most critical takeaway is the fact that Earth is so improbable, a look at the number of physical and historical events that had to be just right, in a certain sequence of events, and how amazing it is that this place exists. One cannot help but walk away with a deeper appreciation of what we have and can’t possibly live a life that disrespects the world and environment we are a part of.
PVsyst Support Forum, by Lots of Nerds – For those of you familiar with PVsyst, having been a user through the many versions and updates, know that the “Support Forum” is a wealth of helpful information that tends to always have a topic or issue that one may be struggling with, and provides solutions or at least confirmation that the problem your facing is not necessarily user-error based. While not necessarily exciting, at least classically, most any engineering nerd has come to depend and value this resource. And in the rare event you can’t find what you’re looking for, email Andre, and it’s likely he’ll respond directly and quickly.
Bad Bets (Enron – Season 1), Wall Street Journal Podcast – I was a young kid on the other side of the country to be aware of, let alone give much attention to, the California Electricity Crisis. This podcast, narrated by the WSJ author who initially uncovered lots of the questionable things going on at Enron at the time, provides a great context of how Enron and California each found themselves in those positions—and how easily we can find ourselves there again. Yet another reminder of how difficult it is to successfully transition an industry without creating unnerving situations.
Lights Out, by Ted Koppel – This book is a light but fascinating read about (a) how incredible and reliable our nation’s electrical infrastructure is but (b) how easily that can all come crashing down and create a very scary world that we’ve never known. It’s an eye-opening reminder and appreciation of just how critical energy is to society (yes, that sounds simple, but I can assure you after reading Lights Out you will have a new appreciation for energy) and that we in the renewables space must not only create a cleaner energy system, but create one in a manner that secures and reinforces our nation’s backbone.
Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner – Everyone above has covered a lot of interesting non-fiction, so I’ll end here with two of my favorite books I read while I took a break from work in 2021. Michelle Zauner, the lead musician in the band Japanese Breakfast, beautifully writes about a period in her life when she took care of her mother who was diagnosed with cancer. I lost two close family members last summer, and following her journey was helpful for my own grieving/healing process. Many readers may find parallels to her experience growing up as a first generation Korean-American in Oregon, navigating her Korean-ness through her relationship with her parents, language, and of course, food. Crying in H Mart is an ode to the Korean dishes that anchored Zauner’s complicated relationship with her mother, and the power of food to nurture, heal, and show unconditional love.
Afterparties, by Anthony Veasna So – This is a lovely posthumous collection of short stories revolving around the Cambodian-American community in the Central Valley of California, where I grew up. Through each story, Veasna So explores deep questions about what it means to grow up Khmer in a post-genocide generation, but goes beyond survivalist literature cliches. The stories are unique windows into Khmer youth experiences in the Central Valley, from a single mother running a donut shop with her two daughters, a burnt-out badminton player running a grungy Asian market, to a young Khmer struggling to live in the Central Valley again after briefly escaping to the Bay Area. Veasna So is a queer Khmer writer whose fresh voice was sadly taken away too soon when he passed away in 2020.