In his third appearance on the podcast (his most recent was May 31, 2022), Emmet Penney, the editor of Grid Brief, and host of the Nuclear Barbarians podcast, talks about “environmental apocalypticism,” the staggering complexity of America’s electric grid, and why writing about electricity and energy has been intellectually humbling. (Recorded January 17, 2024.)
0:13 - Robert Bryce
Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Power Hungry Podcast. I'm Robert. On this podcast, we talk about energy, power, innovation, and politics. And I'm pleased to welcome back my friend Emmett Penny. He is the editor of Grid Brief. Emmet, welcome back to the Power Hungry Podcast for your third appearance. Welcome back.
0:33 - Emmet Penney
Thanks. Good to be here.
0:35 - Robert Bryce
Now, you've been on the podcast before. You know the drill. Guests introduce themselves. You have 60 seconds. Go.
0:43 - Emmet Penney
Okay, so yeah,
0:46 - Robert Bryce
And I'm. Timing and I'm timing you now.
0:46 - Emmet Penney
I know you're timing.
0:48 - Emmet Penney
Quit eating into my time. I'm the editor-in-chief of a daily energy newsletter called Grid Brief. I spend the rest of my time looking into the history of American energy infrastructure, particularly the grid, and writing about that and cultural issues like what to do about environmental apocalypticism. And I also run the Nuclear Barbarians Substack, which is mostly a podcast and every once in a while has some of my writing on it. So that's me.
1:21 - Robert Bryce
Great. I actually, it was less than 60 seconds. So attaboy.
1:27 - Emmet Penney
Under the wire.
1:29 - Robert Bryce
Environmental apocalypticism. There's. A lot. Of,
1:32 - Emmet Penney
1:33 - Robert Bryce
A lot of syllables there.
1:34 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, I'm surprised I got that one out. As I started on that word, I was like, oh, this could go any way by the time I finished saying this.
1:44 - Robert Bryce
What is it and why is it so attractive? Because we see that a lot. Let's start there. I want to talk about the grid and a lot of other things, but let's start with that. Environmental apocalypticism. Talk about that. Why is it so attractive? What is it and why is it so attractive?
1:59 - Emmet Penney
So I, I mean, I think people are, I would assume if they listen to Powerhungry, they have seen stuff like You know, I joke that the climate apocalypse is like nuclear fusion. Every year it's 10 to 20 years away. You know? And that's, I think, a talking point. It's fallen a little bit less out of favor now, but it's still there. I mean, I think the New York Times just interviewed the geographer and writer Andreas Malm, who is infamous for writing the book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which inspired a very bad movie of the same title.
2:37 - Emmet Penney
And it's the idea that we are causing so much destruction to the environment. Incurring so much extreme weather through climate harm, I guess is a phrase they would use, that it's going to endanger our life here on Earth at a massive scale. And I think that's attractive for a few reasons. So first of all, I think people Have a crisis of meaning in their lives, but sort of pervasively across the developed world and that manifests for different people in different ways. I think one of the more popular ways is the idea of climate apocalypticism, because it furnishes your entire life with ethical ordering principles and things to do.
3:29 - Emmet Penney
Even what grocery bag you choose to take home or don't take home suddenly is freighted with this ethical weight it didn't have before. And it becomes something around which you can order your life. And the crisis of meaning, I think, is really a crisis of ethics. People feel like they don't have a common bond of operating principles around which to orient their lives. And our political system, a liberal democracy, has many, many benefits. But one of its downsides is that it doesn't tell people what the meaning of their lives is.
4:07 - Emmet Penney
So that's a great opportunity if you're intrepid and you want to do that, or you emerge from a religious community that's already helping you do that. But if you are secular, sort of deracinated, rootless a little bit, then you're going to need something else. And so people glom onto that. I will also say that there are also some historical elements to it that are really important. It's not like we're the first people to invent the apocalypse as a a North Star around which to conceive of the meaning of our time.
4:38 - Emmet Penney
The Holy Roman Empire did that. The idea was that when the Holy Roman Empire collapsed, so the world would end. That would be the Ashkaton. That would be the end of everything. You can imagine their disenchantment and surprise when that didn't pan out. So it also seems to be somewhat of just a human tick. But I think it's dangerous because First of all, I don't think living in a state of crisis permanently is psychologically healthy for anybody. I think it's clear that it has, studies have been coming out, a deleterious impact on Youth who feel like they have no future, you know, So I think it's destabilizing.
5:18 - Emmet Penney
I think what people want out of it is a certain type of motivation, but what they actually get out of it is a sense of isolation and, you know. Almost,
5:25 - Robert Bryce
Nil and Nile and nihilism, right? Yeah.
5:28 - Emmet Penney
5:29 - Robert Bryce
There's no meaning for our lives because we're facing this apocalypse. And I like, but that crisis of meaning, crisis of ethics. As you're talking about this, I'm also, you know, to me, as I think about this, because I think it's a really, interesting set of discussions, right, about and ideas around why are we at this point in our culture. And I see this rise of this in environmentalism, climatism, happening at the very, concurring with this decline in churchgoing, decline in traditional religious belief.
6:01 - Robert Bryce
Does that rhyme with what you think about this, the loss of the church in a lot of family life or the centrality of faith and traditional religion? Particularly for younger people and that's been replaced by this need to believe in in climatism and the the the overlap of I'm not the first to point this out is very similar very obvious in terms of the idea of sin and we've sinned and we have to repent and if we don't we're going to all burn in hell right there's very similar a lot of overlap here but is that decline in traditional religious belief do you do you think that is part of the part of what's at play here.
6:37 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, I could definitely see that being part of it. I think one thing I'd want to avoid in making that claim is that there's a one-to-one replacement level.
6:45 - Robert Bryce
Yeah, fair enough.
6:47 - Emmet Penney
You know, and by that I don't just mean like population wise one to one like the exact same people who are living in a without the church or the people who are interested in climate apocalypticism, though I do think there's probably a big overlap in that Venn diagram. But just the ideological framework of environmentalism is, I mean, way less rich, way less coherent, you know, and doesn't actually have any sort of I would say aspirations beyond mere survival. I think that's one of the most depressing parts of it.
7:26 - Emmet Penney
It is a world without flourishing. I think it's the political vision of insects. The best you can do is survive.
7:39 - Robert Bryce
Well, that's it. I thought about it in a similar way that there's this, it's a, catastrophe cult with little, little opportunity for redemption, right? That is the, in the Christian ethos, right? It's well, you will be redeemed, right? You, if you do it, you didn't do, you comport yourself properly, you'll go to heaven and you'll, there's a reward for you, right? If you believe and you, and you act in the right way, whereas with the climatism, it seems there, the overriding kind of, view is, well, we're just screwed.
8:07 - Robert Bryce
And, you know, we can only.
8:09 - Emmet Penney
Can never end, right? That's the important thing about the climate crisis is the climate crisis can't ever end. Just psychologically, structurally, it can't. They can't solve the problem that they're trying to figure out.
8:24 - Robert Bryce
Or if it does, we're all living with 40 acres and a mule, then we've gone back to the civilization has halted, or modern civilization has halted, right? Jumped ahead here, but what do you mean when it can't end? I don't understand what you're saying.
8:39 - Robert Bryce
8:39 - Emmet Penney
If we see it,
8:40 - Emmet Penney
So I guess the major claim I'm making here is that it's not actually about the environment or climate. It's about filling the whole of meaning and ethics. And because it's doing that, this problem can't ever be solved. Not because people don't want to solve it, not because they aren't sincere, but because solving it would destroy their world.
9:01 - Robert Bryce
That that belief, well, the God shaped hole in our hearts, right? Then who was the one who came up with that? I heard Jonathan Haidt use it, but I don't think he was the one who originated it. Right. But there's, you can't, you can't ever cure this, because if you do, then there's no other belief system to replace it.
9:17 - Emmet Penney
I mean, what's there?
9:20 - Robert Bryce
At root, it's that we humans are bad, that we humans have overstepped, that we've left the garden, right? That we've done too much, we've lived too well, and we're going to have to pay.
9:29 - Emmet Penney
I mean, I'm reading E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful right now. And I mean, he's basically very clear on that. I mean, that book is a very sort of shockingly culturally conservative book in some ways. Like really what he's asking for is a return to more ancient wisdom and ancient ethics. What he wants is an economy that has, you know, machine parts and tools that are at the human scale because he sees that as more convivial for human liberty and things like that. So to me, like he's not even solving the resource scarcity or pollution problems he's talking about.
10:07 - Emmet Penney
He's really trying to solve problems for people's lack of meaning and guidance and also for certain dehumanizing aspects of work, quote unquote, or whatever. I think that The best way to look at how the environment gets treated here, and this isn't true for every single person who participates in environmentalism, obviously. I don't want to paint with too broad a brush or be too unfair. But I think that the concerns about climate or the environment or whatever are basically just like justificatory window dressing.
10:43 - Emmet Penney
To add weight to what they're really trying to solve. And the reason that they pick something like climate or whatever is because it's in the language of authority in the secularized developed world, which is the language of science. Now it might be scientism, that's fine, right? We can make that distinction, but that's still the lingua franca, right? That's the coin of the realm. That is what we see as the major adjudicating ideology for whether something is true or false. So you can't say, I think through the revealed truth of the Bible that life ought to be ordered this way, or, you know, some other, pick any other, you know, major religion.
11:28 - Emmet Penney
What you can say is the science is in,
11:32 - Robert Bryce
And it's not denied and you cannot be denied. And if you. Deny.
11:34 - Emmet Penney
And it. Can't be.
11:35 - Robert Bryce
11:36 - Emmet Penney
Because it's the truth.
11:37 - Robert Bryce
Right. Yeah. Because it's the ultimate truth. But isn't it then the scientist being is replacing the priest. Right. It's still the same kind of same kind of top down kind of idea. No.
11:48 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, well, they're being sort of, what is the phrase, press ganged into the priesthood. I mean, there are some activist scientists, but a lot of them, or some of them that I've talked to, don't want to be in that role. That's not how they see what they're doing. They understand that that's not what science is, and that's not science's job. Actually, it can't do that. Right? You can't derive an ought from an is in that way. And they're very careful about that. So what I think is interesting is that it basically says, the scientists are saying this, and It's not clear to me that, first of all, the scientists are really saying some of these things.
12:26 - Emmet Penney
They're making empirical claims about the world and then people are deriving these things from them and then wanting to borrow the truthiness of science as people feel it. You know. So I, I think it's a very puzzling and bizarre modality of thought that seems to mostly make people incredibly sad and scared, which I can only imagine doesn't lead to state of the art decision making at scale.
13:00 - Robert Bryce
Nicely under underplayed there I does not lead to optimum outcomes, but still at root is a requirement for some kind of authoritarian overview right or authoritarian. Action to not allow you to have a gas stove, not allow you to have a Ford pickup with an internal combustion engine. You have to have an electric vehicle. These are, in fact, mandates in the state of California, these other things that are underway. Well, I'm glad to explore that because I know you come at the you're now an energy writer, I would say, and editor of Goodbrief, but you come to all of this from humanities, great books, classics standpoint, right?
13:47 - Robert Bryce
That's your. Education. And your history.
13:47 - Emmet Penney
That's. Right, yeah.
13:49 - Robert Bryce
So your understanding, your approach to it is very different, I think, from a lot of other writers. I come with my own background in fine arts as well. But, you know, but I've been at it a while. And so I can kind of talk the language. But let's, let's get back to Grid Brief. And you've been doing this now for how old is the publication? Two years?
14:09 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, God, is it two years already? Yeah, it's about to be two years. We started when the Ukraine war began, like a week before.
14:17 - Robert Bryce
Uh-huh, so February, so that's two years ago, just about. And you were last on the podcast in, was it May of 20, May 31st of 2022. So, but what have you, you've been editing it for a while, and you and I talked about this before we started recording. Thinking about electricity and I've written a book about it. I thought about it a lot. I talk about it. I, you know, lecture on it, but I still don't feel like I understand it very well. I mean, I'm, I say that very, it would not, not false humility, but real humility because it's so incredibly complicated.
14:52 - Robert Bryce
How do you, how do you view your own education in your editing this publication and you're, and you know, and, and an authority, right. Or you're presenting yourself as having some authority. Do you feel like you're starting to understand it? How do you view your education if you're on a scale of one to 10 and you know everything and you're at one and you're just a neophyte?
15:14 - Robert Bryce
What number would you ascribe to yourself?
15:17 - Emmet Penney
Dude, maybe two at this point. I don't know. I mean, I think.
15:22 - Robert Bryce
Maybe four, right? Because it's just so big and vast. And so just so incredibly complicated.
15:28 - Emmet Penney
I mean, it also makes you incredibly skeptical of people who are acting like they're tens. You know, I think that's the that's the main thing was one of the main benefits I've gotten from working on it is I'm like, well, I don't know, like, what that situation is, but I know that that guy can't be right about what he says that it is, you know, like, that's so that's been helpful. I will say that. You know, when I got sober, that was an incredible lesson in spiritual humility. And I will say that working at Good Grief, which is a news digest for the most part, you know, we do some other stuff over there too, and I do the whole thing lock, stock, and barrel, you know, every day, is that it has been intellectually humbling at the same level.
16:14 - Emmet Penney
You know, I think I went into this at the start of the Ukraine war, and one of the things that a lot of people sort of in our orbit were saying, and I think I also said this myself, is like commodities are back, commodities are king, energy runs everything. And that's still true. I don't want to say that those things aren't important, but I think I over drank from that cup. You know, I did that, if I'm going to be completely honest, is I sort of bought into that narrative because it made up for my lack of knowledge in economics.
16:51 - Emmet Penney
And I was like, well, here's a domain I already know something about and I can grab onto it. And there seems to be this crisis where people are making stupid decisions about energy. And that's true, that did happen. And all these unforeseen consequences are happening. What if this is sort of the master key to understanding all of this? And in watching the way that, you know, Germany did a lot of fuel swapping to coal and all sorts of things. Some economists did some great work on that that disproved certain things that I had really believed were going on in the German economy.
17:21 - Emmet Penney
I realized that I basically just don't know anywhere near as much as I thought, and that I was sort of covering up for a lack of knowledge in a different domain by, I think, being overconfident. And some of that stuff, when you're writing in public or when you're, you know, doing any of this stuff, you have to learn real time. And that's painful. Right. Like that's your name in the byline. It doesn't mean that I like I think I misrepresented reality, but I think anybody who's. Been. In this.
17:51 - Emmet Penney
17:50 - Robert Bryce
Yeah, it's. Not that. You necessarily, It's not necessarily that you misrepresented its, that you didn't the understanding wasn't quite enough. You weren't right.
17:58 - Robert Bryce
You. You're kind of right, but not fully right. But, but I don't I didn't follow you in terms of what you're you you you're you're describing your journey here and understanding or increasing your understanding, but I didn't quite follow you that you believe that the commodities were everything and instead it was more the inability of the system to flex or inability of the system to react.
17:58 - Emmet Penney
Wasn't refined enough.
18:20 - Emmet Penney
Well, I think I just didn't really appreciate what Christ signals do. If I'm just going to be really rock bottom on that, I didn't understand what type of information a price signal is, how it coordinates things, how it can ration things for you, how it can inspire different types of human cooperation and innovation or all of these things. The idea that just by looking at the energy flows, I could decision tree out how everything was happening from there was naive. You know, like I'm almost a little embarrassed that I saw that now that I am a year later.
18:54 - Emmet Penney
I'm sure I'm thinking things this year, that next year I'll be like, oh my God, I can't believe that. I mean, I was talking to you yesterday and we were talking about problems in the RTO system. And I said, you know, Robert, when I'm looking at the TVA, give its warning, you know, it seems like it's out of the woods here at this time today, January 17th, about 11 and 30 AM. But last night, they were worried that they were going to have the same problems they had last Christmas. And I was like, I'm starting to wonder if the problems between the RTOs and some of the monopoly utility areas aren't similar due to the nature of pipeline governance and how the gas system works, because now everybody's so dependent on that.
19:36 - Emmet Penney
And that's something I would have never said. Two years ago when we started. Great brief like that.
19:43 - Emmet Penney
And that's just because I have been paying attention to generation data and all of this stuff every single day. So I think it's also made me have a better doubt mechanism. And I've also really learned how to be more neutral in my coverage, which is something I didn't know how to do because I came into grid brief, being an opinion writer and an essayist and all these other things. I had to through just getting my reps in, figure out how to tone all of that down and to also be really measured in the claims that I make.
20:16 - Emmet Penney
I've rarely, make hard claims anymore because I mean it's daily and I don't know I I don't know and there are times when I don't know what I don't know and I think the other thing that i've learned doing grid brief is that um there are many people who probably learned the lesson that I learned and there are also many who kind of refuse to learn that lesson yeah who refuse to take in new information and retool their thinking at all. For instance, I'll just say it, Sammy Roth over at the LA Times, I just wrote this thing about how fracking is more dangerous for birds.
20:51 - Emmet Penney
I mean, like how many times is this guy going to write a piece like this? How many times is he going to write like a halfway, you know, like maybe nuclear is okay piece while like the California grid is melting down? What did California see as a spot price for like several hours the last couple of mornings at the beginning of this week? Over a thousand per megawatt hour, almost 1500 for a few hours. And we all know why that's happening. So, you know, I don't know. I'm not saying I'm better than anybody.
21:17 - Emmet Penney
I'm saying that there are people who are even maybe worse than me in some regards. I'm sure some of Samri's coverage is great. I don't read everything he does because I don't have an LA Times thing. So I'm not going to totally throw him under the bus. He seems like a sharp guy. He's very nice in a lot of ways. Sorry, Sammy. I doubt you're listening, but I just want to make sure I'm not picking a fight.
21:35 - Robert Bryce
I know, well, I saw that on Twitter. Oh, fracking is more dangerous to birds than wind turbines. Okay, well, I've written about, I mean, just a quick, I started writing about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and oil field bird kills more than 30 years ago. And so I have a long history on that. And it's just this, the demonization of the oil and gas industry and kind of, oh, well, it's only a few birds when the wind industry kills them. And yet it's all the oil, I don't know. I just, I find it all very tiresome.
22:03 - Robert Bryce
22:04 - Emmet Penney
Anybody who looks at like the black box of how they count take, right, that's what they call killing a bird for, I know you know that, but just for the audience, for wind turbines. Anybody who looks into that knows that it's totally skewed in the industries.
22:21 - Emmet Penney
Like if anything's regulatory capture, it's that.
22:24 - Robert Bryce
And They. Don't.
22:24 - Emmet Penney
You. Know, They're like, they're basically like, well, we hired a guy to walk around in a circle at the base of the turbine and he didn't find anything. So if Frank didn't find anything, how could we kill a bird?
22:34 - Robert Bryce
And Frank was out there. I mean, we sent him out there twice over the last five years. So, I mean,
22:39 - Emmet Penney
What are you even worried about? Plus we got a permit for it anyway. So.
22:43 - Robert Bryce
I know I can. Well, my cynicism about that is can scarcely be overstated. I just I find that whole. Well, I'm a longtime critic of the wind business, probably. So I don't like them. I'm sure they don't like me back. I'm OK with that. But that's that's well known. I don't want to repeat that. So, well, when you think about the So one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on the podcast, we haven't talked to we haven't been on. You haven't been on a long time. But also, as you know, at the end of the month, January 31st, the docu-series, and you're one of the stars of the new docu-series, Juice, Power, Politics, and The Grid, and it's a five part docu series.
23:18 - Robert Bryce
And you are, you know, I told you that you've created some fans already. The series isn't out, and people are already saying, oh, that Emily's great. If you think back about, I mean, we talked a little bit about Grid Brief and your own education in terms of thinking about energy and writing about energy. I mean, are there any takeaways? I mean, you talked about this, about the need to be more humble, right? And have a more humble approach to it.
23:46 - Robert Bryce
What else have you learned? What else do you, what else can you say now definitively that you couldn't say maybe two or three years ago? Or what are the lessons that you think you know now when it comes to, let's just say, the electricity and the grid? What can you say definitively that you know today about it?
24:05 - Emmet Penney
I think what I can say definitively about the grid, that's a really good question. OK, so I think The thing that I didn't really fully appreciate, right? So we all read Meredith's book.
24:19 - Emmet Penney
And Meredith makes a great point about what things like production tax credits do.
24:24 - Robert Bryce
24:27 - Emmet Penney
It wasn't until I read people like Travis Fisher, shout out Travis, and an economist friend, Matt Kelly. I don't know if he's listening, but thanks, Matt. And through conversations with them, what I really realized and saw, it was sort of like, I didn't have the words for it until I read Dan Lee's testimony last year, where he says, if you're going to make the price signal, the means by which you do resource allocation, And then you distort that price signal, you're going to get distorted resource acquisition.
25:04 - Emmet Penney
So in other words, if you say it's free or better to build wind and solar, and you get a whole bunch of wind and solar as a result, that is not going to be adequate resource sourcing to keep the lights on. And it's just axiomatic. There's no way around that. That's just how it is. And I don't think I would have seen with as much clarity. And again, this has to do with like the price signal stuff I talked before. I think once I sort of like put that all together and sort of understood the way that process can work in greater detail, just by having covered this, I really understood what a danger that is.
25:42 - Emmet Penney
So that's a really vicious cycle.
25:44 - Robert Bryce
Yeah. Well, let's talk about that because this is something we, we focus on in the docuseries about the amount of the production tax credit, investment tax credit, the amount of money that is flowing into these different, I will call them in some cases, just flat the speculators. Right. But some of them are the incumbent utility. Some are independent power producers. Some are just, you know, they are speculators. Right. And I call them climate change, carpetbaggers. Right.
26:07 - Robert Bryce
But that that ability of their ability to then build a piece of infrastructure, whether it makes sense in any given location versus another location right does Iowa really need another solar project or is it just because you can get the land in the interconnection there. There's no. Overriding sense of what is good for the entire system. Instead, it's only that one that, as Charlie Munger says, show me the incentive and I'll show you the outcome, right? So, but that distortion of the grid is now, this is one of the key issues we have to deal with, right?
26:36 - Robert Bryce
Because we're seeing these premature closures of coal plants. Premature.
26:40 - Robert Bryce
And the goal of many of these NGO and climate activist groups to close existing natural gas plants, as well as all the existing coal plants. So we're seeing this massive disruption or massive influx of new infrastructure into the resource mix with no understanding of what this might mean over the long term. And just saying, I'm making this, I think an obvious point, but it's what I think builds on what you're just saying. That you have all these incentives. So now look what we're doing.
27:11 - Robert Bryce
We're going to have resource adequacy problems. Is am I, am I, am I restating what you are making? The right. Point. Here.
27:17 - Emmet Penney
27:47 - Robert Bryce
I like that You, you've upgraded from fork to spork. That's great. So you can eat soup now with a fork.
27:54 - Emmet Penney
27:54 - Emmet Penney
Yeah. I could, I. Could do a little bit more.
27:54 - Robert Bryce
27:55 - Robert Bryce
27:57 - Emmet Penney
So and you know, let's use one example, right? So Elon Musk, one of his companies, maybe it was Tesla or a solar company that I can't remember the name of, released that report. I know that she wrote something about it where he was just like, here's what transmission we need. You. Know it. Was some sort. Yeah,
28:14 - Robert Bryce
Oh. Yeah, Energy. Of- Energy master plan for all or something. Yeah, right.
28:18 - Emmet Penney
Right. And I was just like, okay, but this assumes that there's a level of interconnection within these areas that I know doesn't exist. And I was like, oh, I know that doesn't exist now. You know, I was like, it's not just that this is a crazy idea. It's just that there's like a whole piece of the territory missing on this map that invalidates this entire thing before it ever gets started. So it's stuff like that, right? And that's sort of being a two who can tell who's not a 10.
28:45 - Robert Bryce
And we're not talking about physical looks here. We're talking about mental capacity, understanding. Of B G Yeah, because. Well, you mentioned Dan Lee's testimony. I'm sorry, I didn't know.
29:00 - Emmet Penney
Oh, James Danley.
29:01 - Robert Bryce
Oh, James Danley's testimony. Forgive me, I misheard. Right, because his testimony was, and he, if you don't know, he was the a former former FERC, F and is Commissioner. I think he
29:11 - Emmet Penney
29:12 - Robert Bryce
I don't. Know if he's. Off the ferc commissioner. Yeah, former now,
29:12 - Emmet Penney
Former. Now. Gen.
29:18 - Robert Bryce
He just said flat out in his testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May of 2023 that we're going to face serious grid reliability problems because we're incenting too much construction of weather-dependent generation, solar and wind. And it was very declaratory. I mean, there was with no, no blinking, no, no, no hedging whatsoever. But can you follow on that? What else about that? You cite that as something kind of pivotal, and you're thinking about how you're you look at this, why was it so important?
29:53 - Emmet Penney
I think because it's solidified some of my thinking, I would say like before, right, so if you read If you read Plato's Republic, one of the things that gets talked about in the latter half of the book is the difference between knowledge and right opinion. And he sort of puts it on a sliding scale. There's sort of opinion way out on the left, and there's knowledge way out on the right. And right opinion is pretty close to knowledge, but it's not the same thing. You're correct. You might be correct for not the best reasons, or you're just lucky that your opinion is correct.
30:29 - Emmet Penney
And then knowledge is when you're like, okay, I've like ascertained that this thing is really fundamentally true. Like I said, axiomatically, it's almost like the Pythagorean theorem. You're like, well, given these, this thing happens, right? Like this is just, it's not negotiable in this way. You would need like a whole different... Level of assumptions or an entirely different geometry to generate a different thing. And I think that that was sort of the maneuver that I made there, whereas I had some sort of right opinions.
31:00 - Emmet Penney
And now I'm like, okay, so it seems like the major governing issue for the RTOs is what to do about subsidies. And I'm not saying that we should just have ZACs or whatever, like zero energy credits as a replacement for renewable energy credits or PTCs or whatever, so that we can include nuclear. My favorite one is I'm like, I think the only way that this works Actually, the only way that this will work is without subsidies. The monopoly areas are their own thing and they have their own incentives.
31:29 - Emmet Penney
But if we're going to run this market, it has to be subsidy free. And is it possible in the governance model that we have created for these RTOs to actually do that? And if the answer is no, then it's going to fail.
31:43 - Robert Bryce
So if I'll rephrase what you just said, that by putting the thumb on the scale, the investment tax credit, production tax credit for solar and wind, that they are going, they are so completely distorting the restructured markets or the deregulated markets that those markets will fail.
32:02 - Emmet Penney
You know, and all markets fail at some point. That happens in life. There's no perfect market where those things never happen. Only in different economic models do they not fail. And that's because history is iterative. So you know, at what scale they fail or what types of problems they are, and then how that failure is interpreted are going to be the very interesting things, right? So I wrote a piece for Grid Brief towards the end of last year, where I think it was called The Thing That Scares Me the Most.
32:36 - Emmet Penney
And I talked about, and you've written about this, the FERC and NERC report on Storm Elliot and the hundreds of thousands that could have been left without gas in New York. And I said, obviously, the human toll of that freaks me out. Obviously, you don't even have to say that. I was. Like,
32:51 - Robert Bryce
32:51 - Emmet Penney
What scares me additionally, in a deeper way, keeps me up at night, are the second and third order things that fall out of that. Because I participate in the media business now, I get this, where New York, liberal city, media headquarters of the world, especially news media, right? All you're going to hear if something like that happens, if the gas system fails, is climate, climate, fossil climate. From the media.
33:17 - Emmet Penney
33:17 - Robert Bryce
In that order. Climate also climate. Fossil climate, right?
33:19 - Emmet Penney
And that's the only way they're going to do it. They're going to say, we just need to electrify everything. And then that'll shift the burden onto an already gas reliant and fragile electricity system without really solving any underlying redundancy issues or things like that, or any, you know, like incentives issues in pipeline contracts or how all of that works, you know, all the nitty gritty in there, which I'm only just beginning to understand. And I think-.
33:45 - Robert Bryce
And the blame shifts on to the corporations, right? It's, oh, it's Con Ed failed us. Con Ed failed us. The pipeline companies, they didn't do it. You know, it's the, it's the fault of the energy deliverers, not the policy that was behind all of this.
33:57 - Emmet Penney
And you'll see that over and over again.
33:59 - Robert Bryce
33:59 - Emmet Penney
And you'll see that over and over again, right? So. You know, like if the, and then if the power market fails, After that, it's going to be the same thing. So it's like, how do we break out of the cycle? And honestly, sometimes the RTOs are not being helpful. You know, like MISO put out the other day, like, oh, we had record well, yeah, you had record wind output before it got super cold. And demand increased, wind died down, and coal and natural gas ramped up to save it. So who cares if you set the record?
34:36 - Emmet Penney
That was before game time. It's sort of like, well, I'm the best during practice. It's like, good for you, we're in the playoffs.
34:46 - Robert Bryce
Reggie Jackson is Mr. August. No, you want him to be able to hit home runs in October. You great. I'm glad you hit a bunch of home runs in August. That's great. I love August, nice and hot, you know, but in the World Series when it's chilly and you're in the ballpark and it's strike two, we need you to home run right now so we can win the game. But the failure though, let's talk about the idea of what failure is because I, you know, One of the things that motivates me and one of the reasons why I did this docu-series, and I've said this before, is Winter Storm Yuri, where I got blacked out here in Austin for 40, Lauren and I did, for 48 hours.
35:25 - Robert Bryce
And, you know, I didn't suffer hardly. We hardly suffered, right? We have a natural gas connection, so we could cook, we had hot water, we could take a shower, we had a nice fireplace, we could move to the bed in that living room, you know, it's okay. Well, we're kind of camping in the living room, you know, the worst things have happened to me, right? I'm not sleeping outside, I'm not Daniel freaking Boone here, right? You. Know we. Were okay but it made me understand the fragility of the system.
35:42 - Emmet Penney
35:47 - Robert Bryce
And it made me understand just what the problems are. But back to the idea of the failure. It seems to me the idea of the failure is not just that we have a catastrophic loss of gas or catastrophic loss of power. It's also that the failure results in excessively high prices. And that seems to me that's one of the things that's at play now, particularly in California. And Isaac Orr and Mitch Rowling just did a great report on this talking about the price increases. The failure is of this system now as a system is to deliver cheap, abundant, reliable power, right?
36:21 - Robert Bryce
And the costs are going up. Does that ring true to you that the failure is part of what the failure is the failure of the policymakers to understand the impacts of what their what their policies are to the consumer?
36:34 - Emmet Penney
Yeah. I mean, I think that there is a huge disconnect between, okay, so you and I, you've been covering this for longer than me. You rated yourself a three. I rated myself maybe even arrogantly at a two. Where do we think the average American policymaker is at? Right.
36:51 - Robert Bryce
36:52 - Emmet Penney
And then where do we think and hey look I don't I don't want to go around saying they're all stupid or whatever I don't know them. What I'm saying is it took me this amount of work to get where I am and I'm barely anywhere. And then where do we think somebody who is lobbying on behalf of their extremely climate focused. Not really physics focused in terms of the power system, NGO is. So I don't want to say all these people are evil or stupid. What I'm saying is this stuff is really hard to get to know.
37:20 - Emmet Penney
Understanding the consequences of it is equally hard, if not more. And then the other thing is you don't have good incentives for taking your time to figure it out because we're in that, to bring it back to the beginning of our discussion, crisis thinking. So it keeps us and inhibits us from actually considering that stuff. And that to me is a really frustrating trajectory. And I don't know how to like fully fix that problem. People are busy and this is complicated. You know, like you can't, it's hard to soundbite a lot of this stuff.
37:59 - Emmet Penney
Cause it just doesn't work that way. And if you do soundbite it, you're almost doing like equally bad misrepresentations. As your opponents, you know, that's really tough. It's a tough spot to be in.
38:14 - Robert Bryce
Well, and the complexity, I mean, just to talk about that a little more, is that you have the RTOs and the ISOs, right, which sit over the top of a lot of these regions. And then you have still the regulated markets, like in the Southeast and so on. And then you have the 50 state public utility commissions. You have 800 or 900 cooperatives, 2,000 publicly owned utilities, 200 investor-owned, maybe 180 investor-owned utilities, the public power entities, Bonneville, TVA, et cetera.
38:43 - Robert Bryce
I mean, the complexity of the system, it truly is staggering. I mean, it just is staggeringly complicated with, then you've got the transmission companies, you've got, and somehow, and I wrote about this on my Substack, I published it today on the, you know, trying to explain the electric grid in 10 charts, but somehow it all works. I mean, it just seems, if I step back, if you step back, I guess I'll ask it this way. Are you surprised it all works, given how complicated it is?
39:10 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, well, and especially since I've spent a lot of time to figure out what the history of it is in America, it's really amazing that it works. And it was all ad hoc. You know, like, so once you, here's a great example that blew my mind.
39:23 - Robert Bryce
There was no central planning to make the entire US grid. It all just kind of evolved into, oh, and we're going to just connect together. And now we're all connected together. Well, how may? That's crazy.
39:35 - Emmet Penney
So once they get high voltage, alternating current transmission. And once they get bigger turbines, they can do even better load balancing across areas, right? They can serve more people and they can even do, they can power pool a little bit, right? So the industry is already power pooling in, you know, by the like 1920s in certain ways, you know, just cause it's-. Wheeling, sorry.
39:56 - Robert Bryce
Wheeling, Wheeling power. Do another, yeah, right.
39:59 - Emmet Penney
39:59 - Robert Bryce
40:00 - Emmet Penney
Just cause it's easier. However, however, the road there is really messy because People didn't have electric clocks for a really long time. So you didn't know if everybody was literally, like if they had their watches set to the same time you did, there was no way to tell. If one station had the same time, like you could be in the same time zone and it could be off, right?
40:24 - Emmet Penney
So it wasn't until electric clocks were refined that balancing issues started to become more easily resolvable. And then they turned around and sold the electric clock to their constituent, to their customers, so that people were using electricity all of the time, even when they weren't at home. So talk about a self-licking ice cream cone. So I think, so when I look at things- That's my.
40:47 - Robert Bryce
Term. You know you like,
40:48 - Robert Bryce
To use it, it's. Not,
40:49 - Emmet Penney
You. Invented it.
40:50 - Robert Bryce
It's not that.
40:51 - Robert Bryce
I didn't actually. My friend Chuck Spinney, that was a Pentagon term that he popularized, that the Pentagon, they would have weapons systems and jobs that were the self-licking ice cream cone. But I like that. But sorry, go ahead.
41:03 - Emmet Penney
Yeah. And so when you look at that and you say, okay, there was no central planning. People didn't really totally understand what they were doing at first. And they didn't have any technical wherewithal to know what they were doing before they did it. And here we are. And part of that also has to do with the structure of the American Constitution, and the way interstate commerce has worked as a legal principle, and just the way in which the states are so empowered in their dealings with the federal government.
41:36 - Emmet Penney
Right, you know, and that's part of why we have the system that we have now it's sort of all spools out of that. And, yeah, it is amazing that that works, you know, I'm thankful for that every day because it is, it is wild.
41:53 - Robert Bryce
Yeah, I agree. The complexities of the system, you know, the different voltages, the different policy entities, the different regulatory entities, the different types of generation, the enormous scale of the system, how many, you know, 6.1 million miles of wire, you know, 240,000 miles of high voltage transmission. And yet somehow it all sings from the same hymnal. And it all is remarkably still reliable. But my fear, and I think this is the part that I talked about with Meredith Engwin recently for this podcast, was that no one ultimately is responsible for the reliability.
42:36 - Robert Bryce
And therein lies the big worry that I have about where this ends up, right? And this is what happened after Winter Storm. You're here in Texas. Everybody's looking around, well, why did this happen? Well, oh, blame him. Oh, well, it was the system. It was the market fail. Well, why did the market fail? Well, it was a bad market, a bad system design. But ultimately there was no, as in the vertically integrated utilities, where you could put the CEO in the dock and say, you and your company didn't provide power, why not?
43:02 - Robert Bryce
And now we're evolving into a system where the buck doesn't stop anywhere. How do you think about that?
43:11 - Emmet Penney
So I think that that's just structurally true for the RTOs. They're just built in a way where nobody has that.
43:19 - Emmet Penney
I was thinking about Who did you, you had this guy on a while, Jason Fordney. From what is it?
43:28 - Emmet Penney
Energy markets or something like that,
43:30 - Emmet Penney
Cem. Great guy,
43:31 - Emmet Penney
Love his coverage, learn a lot from him. And one of the things that he brought up and that was ramified for me in Catherine Blunt's book about PG&E is he was like, look, you have some of these like felonious entities that just don't go away. You know, like Pg amp E has killed people multiple times. You know, you know, like that's just the, that's just what's happened. So I think, where am I going with that? What I want to say is that Can the public really tell the difference between what accountability looks like in a monopoly utility if it's going to be like that versus how it works in an RTO?
44:05 - Emmet Penney
I don't know. At the ground level, it's actually hard for me to tell. So you can say like, oh, this CEO will get hurt. It's sort of like, dude, no one knows except for nerds like us who the CEO of any given utility is. How many people in America know that Jeff Lyash is the CEO of the TVA? In this country, like vanishingly few at a population level, right? So I think...
44:28 - Robert Bryce
Know you put me, if you put me on the spot, I don't think I can name a single CEO of a single utility in America.
44:37 - Emmet Penney
So that's sort of my point. It's sort of like, you know, responsibility is important even if people don't see it, but it's also really important that people see it to feel like they can have faith in the system. So maybe we just have bad incentives all around, right? You know, Here's a quote. One time somebody asked Stalin, they said, which is worse, a left-wing capitalist turn or a right-wing capitalist turn for our society? And he said, both are worse. Both of these are worse. You know.
45:09 - Emmet Penney
What's the, what's the right way? I don't know. The question I'm going towards now is because our grid is so balkanized and we might see power markets grow, certainly they're growing westward and stuff like that. The question might not be, how should this thing overall be governed? But how should these specific portions be governed in order to be most accountable? Because all of them have different weather, generation profiles, legacy, infrastructure. You know what I mean?
45:38 - Emmet Penney
Maybe that's the better question. That's also a harder series of questions to answer in a way, because it's all one size fits all. Or because it's not one size fits all. And that's what I wonder. You know, I don't I don't believe, I would say one of the things that has changed over my coverage of Grid Brief is that I think I used to be more sympathetic to the monopoly framework than I am now because that is the framework in which nuclear energy has succeeded. But if I think about the grid and not just what the generators are, like the grid is what it's supposed to be doing for society.
46:18 - Emmet Penney
I care less, frankly, about nuclear than I do for the system's success. And so I wonder you know, is that level of accountability really there? It takes a lot for a utility to A, go bankrupt and B, really feel the pain for its own consequences. And I think James Kralenstein made the excellent point on decouple a few months ago where he said, you know, some utilities are scared to invest in nuclear because it's one of the only thing that's actually successfully killed utilities in America because of cost overruns and stuff like that.
46:55 - Emmet Penney
And that just goes to show you how much pressure it takes to actually get one of these things to pay for malinvestment or whatever it is. And that's what we would see as consequences for irresponsible action, for misallocations in that. So when people say, the big difference between the monopoly and the RTO is responsibility, I'm saying, I don't feel as confident about that insertion as I used to at all.
47:23 - Robert Bryce
That's a really good point. And, you know, because I, well, Meredith made this point about this very issue, right? We were talking about whether service or whether electricity is a service or a commodity. And she said that people accuse her, well, you're just in favor of monopolies. And she said, well, no, I'm not in favor of monopolies. I am in favor of accountability. But look at PG&E, they've gone bankrupt twice, right, in the past 20 or 25 years, I forget. And has anyone, any of their executives gone to jail because of all the people that were killed because of the fire?
47:55 - Robert Bryce
Well, no. Is their service any better? Well, probably not. Are their prices any lower? No, their prices are skyrocketing. But I think your point, too, about this governance issue around the grid that now it's become so complex. The system has become so complexified. And it's going to have to be managed and continue to be managed more in a regional manner than in a national manner, even though doing it at a national level might be more sensible. That maybe that you know Alaska is it just simply because it becomes so unwieldy no one's going to be able to to be that smart to figure out how to do it all together.
48:35 - Emmet Penney
So here's a here's a question I started to ask myself. You know I used to be a socialist and very far on the left and one of the questions that you ask yourself if you're doing any sort of organizing it's like OK, what do you want. And then it's like, who else wants that? How many people? And then what is it going to take those people to get what they want? And then also, it's a democracy. The enemy gets a vote, right? So what it will take to overcome that and then maintain power so that you can actually implement what you want.
49:12 - Emmet Penney
And once you start asking yourself a series of that, you start to realize why there's so much inertia around change. And so I think it's less-. And so I think, take that,
49:21 - Robert Bryce
How difficult it is to make that change, right?
49:25 - Emmet Penney
Couple it with my ever-growing humility about how this thing actually runs. And then take a look at how fractious American politics is right now. You had H.W. Brands on. He was just like, yeah, it's always been this way, which he's right about. You know, no one's getting shot to death in duels in Congress anymore. Right. So things have gotten a little bit better since the one thousand eight hundred thirty seconds. Yeah, that could be. All.
49:49 - Robert Bryce
Although that could be helpful. And entertaining,
49:52 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, right, yeah, so.
49:54 - Robert Bryce
You know, we got MMA, why not duels? I mean, come on.
49:57 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, exactly. And so, you know, you see also everybody, each of these actors has their own calculus for their cost benefit, right? Because they're all in different roles. So I'm not saying that there's no hope or nothing can be done, but usually Steve Isser, who's a very good electricity policy historian said, this sort of goes crisis to crisis and then you muddle through. And I think that that's just how this is going to go. I want it to be a situation where I'm like, here's the answer and this is what we're all going to rally around and fight for.
50:30 - Emmet Penney
But I just don't think that that's how this is going to play out for so many different reasons. You know,
50:39 - Robert Bryce
I tend to agree I think you know and that's the thing, well I mean more broadly about American politics right that you know that. Somehow we're gonna muddle through and I had dan crenshaw on the podcast and we just published that one recently He's a represents the second district second congressional district and I said what gives you hope and he said Because I mean he ultimately said the constitution then he said, you know for 250 years people have been trying to destroy america and they haven't succeeded and it's just because the somehow, you know, the constitution the resilience of the system is so great and That's that's my kind of gut as well.
51:10 - Robert Bryce
Is that there we we have so many counterbalances in America, the diffusion of power, political power, economic power, and I think that's the very, it's reflected in the grid. The grid in many ways is a perfect reflection of America in that regard, right? That it is, and I've said that before, grids reflect the societies that they power. You go to Lebanon, the grid doesn't work, there's all kinds of corruption. Well, hey, welcome to Beirut, you know, this is the way it works here, right, whereas here in the, you know, the Texas Hill Country, well, you got Pedernales Electric Cooperative, and next door you got Bluebonnet, and then you got the city of Austin, you got, you know, it's all overlapping, and it's all these different jurisdictions, but somehow it is amazing that we, you know, and that I tend to think as well that we're going to muddle through, but I fear that we could be very close to one cat one or two catastrophic events where we have a meltdown and people lots of people will die because of this lack of kind of cohesive thinking about the system as a system, I guess would be, you know, if I'm down to my brass tacks, that's where I think about this, the inability of policymakers to think about no, we have a very complex system, we have to think about it as a system.
52:16 - Robert Bryce
But then that would require engineering thinking and we don't have that.
52:20 - Emmet Penney
You know, we don't have that. I mean, hey, we don't even have enough alignment. Right now. You know, like it's down to simple stuff like that. So how's that going to work at a policy level? I mean, you know, God, the idea of being like, okay, here's how the power market actually works. And there are people who are obviously, you know, I mean, he's taking off now from his time in the Senate, Joe Manchin, whenever he would engage with FERC, it was clear that he was very well apprised of certain power issues and stuff like that.
52:55 - Emmet Penney
But that's also because he's on a Senate committee that is supposed to inculcate that level of expertise in senators, not house reps, by the way. And that is always how it's supposed to be, right? That is the, you know, to be redundant, the senatorial aspect of the Senate is.
53:13 - Emmet Penney
It's supposed to be more senior in all sorts of ways, which isn't to say that house committees don't matter or whatever, but the way people rotate in and out of the house, it's just not the same type of thing. So I think that it's possible to get some motivated policymakers. I think it might be possible to have a motivated activist presidential cabinet for stronger appointees like the NRC and perhaps even FERC or whatever to do some of the stuff. But again, it's not going to be command control.
53:45 - Emmet Penney
All these states have their own energy policy or sorry, environmental policy acts, like their own version of NEPA. They all have their own renewable portfolio standards.
53:56 - Robert Bryce
And cities and towns. And you know,
53:58 - Emmet Penney
Cities in town,
53:59 - Robert Bryce
Berkeley, California, Austin, Texas, we got a climate policy here, you know, okay, so how is that all going to work? But That.
54:05 - Emmet Penney
Right, and All has to get that all has to get worked out somehow. So I think that there are a lot of obstacles. And I think we are at the beginning of this conversation. This is the beginning of the conversation about America's power grid. This is a five to 15 year conversation. At. Least,
54:27 - Robert Bryce
How. The grid,
54:27 - Emmet Penney
54:28 - Robert Bryce
About how the grid has matured and how we want to shape it in the future to make it more reliable.
54:32 - Robert Bryce
And also, I think how we fit nuclear into that equation, because I've been,
54:37 - Robert Bryce
I think, like you, adamantly pro-nuclear, but I am very sober about the prospects, and especially now with let's call it what it is, the failure of NuScale to get that project built with UAMPs in Idaho. And now just look at their stock price, right? You know they're down you know they were at $10 or $12 at the beginning of 2023. Now they're at $2 and change. They just laid off 40% of their workers. There's a real possibility that NuScale goes bankrupt, right? That this is going to be one of the casualties on the road toward this new nuclear paradigm, that there are going to be casualties, and it's going to be bloody.
55:14 - Robert Bryce
Because it's not going to be cheap,
55:16 - Robert Bryce
Simple or easy. And that just the reality of it.
55:19 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, I mean, I, you know, it's that was really tough to watch, you know, what happened there. And it made sense, like, these are all, you know, I took a pretty close look at that situation. And, you know, for a bunch of rural utilities, even if they're all putting it in together, you know, it made sense that they were gun shy about what the overages were going to be and what they could even afford to plow into that array base. Yeah, you know, I admit that it made complete sense. And that's what made that hard to watch.
55:45 - Robert Bryce
Yeah, new scale today is at two dollars and eight cents that's down 4% today, it's down 80% for the year. The year to date, or well, yeah, over the last one year, it's down 80%. Went public at $10 in 2020, and now trading for two bucks and change.
56:05 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, that's, that's, that's gut wrenching. So Yeah, I mean, I think.
56:09 - Robert Bryce
This. Is. But this. Is part of the casualties of the system that we live in,
56:10 - Emmet Penney
Think. That's gonna. Be.
56:13 - Robert Bryce
Right? This is the capitalist nature. This is the capitalist system. And they're going to have to try and make it in these markets where the government isn't going to necessarily press the scale in their favor. And that was, you know, this is.
56:29 - Emmet Penney
56:29 - Robert Bryce
But I think. It's. Going to take more robust government backing.
56:29 - Emmet Penney
I mean. I. You.
56:32 - Robert Bryce
I think it's very clear.
56:35 - Emmet Penney
It depends on what shape that backing takes. So I talked to some people while I was going on with NuScale, and it's not like the Inflation Reduction Act isn't generous to nuclear, right? They're willing to cover half of a lot of stuff. You know, the I R A hass a lott of stuff that people haven't even worked out how to make or unlock for them. So maybe there is a robust level of government backing there for that type of thing. And it just hasn't been like lawyered out enough where people know how to access it, or whatever.
57:02 - Emmet Penney
Again, I'm going to have to plead humility on how that works, because I'm not in those conversations. And I still don't understand everything that's in that bill. And I don't think anybody in the industry does.
57:11 - Emmet Penney
So before I say there's not enough government backing,
57:14 - Emmet Penney
There might be. And I mean, we're even seeing now I was reading something the other day, because they didn't secure permitting reform, as they promised Joe Manchin that they would after passage of the IRA, plenty of these projects are just going to die on the vine. They're never going to happen because no amount of subsidy is going to overcome how expensive it is to build any goddamn thing in this country.
57:39 - Robert Bryce
Or overcome local opposition. Also,
57:42 - Emmet Penney
Why should tax dollars go towards just like hiring a ton of lawyers? That sucks. I don't want to like my politics these days is just decreasing the power and importance of the legal profession in America. Like, how do we do that? You know?
57:59 - Robert Bryce
Yeah, get started. Hey. I so we've been talking for nearly an hour. And again, my guest is my friend, Emmett Penney, who has already gained fans for his appearance in the docuseries, the upcoming docuseries, Power Politics and Juice, Power Politics and the Grid. But I wrote this down earlier. I'm going to ask you about what you're reading and what gives you hope, because that's what I always do. But You said that earlier that getting sober was spiritually humbling and that writing grid brief was an understanding energy was intellectually humbling.
58:33 - Robert Bryce
Like I know, you've been sober for a long time. It's what 10 years 12 years now.
58:40 - Emmet Penney
I think it'll be 14 in February. Yes.
58:44 - Robert Bryce
14 years next in February. If you don't mind because you I mean you volunteered this but can you talk about that because I you know my dad got sober before he died and you know that history is dear to me and and people who go through that they they come out changed um but how do you correlated those two things about spiritually humbling and intellectually humbling so you were already had kind of seen what needed to happen in terms of your own approach to your life when it came to the intellectual part of this you equated the spiritual and the intellectual humbling together.
59:17 - Robert Bryce
59:21 - Emmet Penney
Well, one thing that I learned, somebody told me a long time ago, that they had met, they'd never met anyone too dumb to get sober, but they definitely met people who were too smart.
59:36 - Robert Bryce
But the ego prevented them.
59:38 - Emmet Penney
Right, which told me that a lot of my intellectual acumen was not going to be helpful to me in that domain. And if anything needed to kind of like be ignored a little bit, I had a penchant to overthink and usually overthinking led to thinking about me because I was my favorite thing to think about. And that only made my life miserable, you know, more miserable. So I think that's sort of what I mean there. You know, I've had many humbling intellectual experiences over the course of my life.
1:00:05 - Emmet Penney
But as far as one that has been as sustained and pronounced as grid brief, that's been rare. Well, and that it is also sort of anybody who has recovered from anything, drugs, alcohol, whatever, will tell you that it has this ripple out effect over your entire life. And I've experienced that ripple out effect in covering grid brief, because now I look at any issue, could be foreign policy, and I'm like, if this is anywhere near as complicated as the grid, Then I have no idea what the fuck is going on.
1:00:41 - Emmet Penney
Pardon my French, you know, like I don't I don't know what the hell is going on here. And I could like I could have an opinion about it and that's fine. You know, first of all, who needs to hear it? Right. So it's maybe I post a lot less now because I'm like, well, I don't know. What do I know? You know, so I think it's sort of done that. And it has sort of
1:01:01 - Robert Bryce
Chinese American relationships are complicated. Relations are complicated. If it's as complicated as the American grid, I'm out.
1:01:08 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, I don't know, you know, I could probably learn more about that. But now I know what it takes to actually learn enough to feel like you have a handle on it, you know, and so I think that that's, that's what I meant when I when I was talking about that, you know, is that, and that also has an impact on the rest. It hasn't had an impact on the rest of my life where I'm just way, way more prudent. About what I think may or may not be the case, you know, and I don't always perfectly live up to that, especially if I get a wild hair up my ass and I'm feeling kind of squirrelly, and I want to be mad about something, you know, like, I can pop off, maybe irresponsibly, I'm human.
1:01:46 - Emmet Penney
But I think for the most part is that it has made me subject a lot of my own assumptions to more rigorous critique. And to the extent where, you know, even a year ago I was writing way more heated things about the environmental movement and I'm sort of like done doing that. So we began this conversation talking about it and I have many critiques of it, but I am done being angry. And trying to villainize people. And instead, I'm trying to understand what this thing is trying to solve, which is why I've been going back and reading canonical environmental works.
1:02:19 - Emmet Penney
So I've done Aldo Leopold, I've done Rachel Carson, now I'm doing Schumacher. I'll be moving on to whole earth catalog, Amory Lovins and Lewis Mumford next. And that's because what I've realized is that it behooves you to really know. If you want to have more than an opinion, you need to really know. And so then you need to be patient and you need to be humble and you need to understand why things resonate.
1:02:46 - Robert Bryce
I like that um so, well, the next question, what are you reading? You said you're reading Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher, published. In. Nineteen seventy one is that right? Something like that, 1970?
1:02:53 - Emmet Penney
1:03:14 - Emmet Penney
Because of the foreword he wrote to the book. So thanks, Bill. I know you're a big fan of Power Hungry and listen all the time.
1:03:22 - Robert Bryce
1:03:23 - Emmet Penney
Famously willing guest of Power Hungry, Bill McKibben. Right now, I'm reading that. I am reading The Field of Blood by Joanne Freeman, who is a great historian. It is her book on the faction and violence in Congress in the years and decades leading up to the Civil War, and then I think a little bit during the Civil War. And what I love about it is that it really relies on the diaries of the House secretary or something like that, this guy, Benjamin Frank. And so he's got all of these great He was a meticulous diarist so you have all of these great like ground level looks at John Quincy Adams and you know he was there when John Quincy Adams had his stroke and then eventually died in the house and then he was there to comfort Mary Todd Lincoln.
1:04:19 - Emmet Penney
After Lincoln was assassinated. So we saw a lot. And it's not just all based on, she's a serious historian. She's not just transcribing his diaries, right? She's doing her own work and interpretation. But it's been a great book so far. I'm getting more and more interested in that period of American politics. So that's my before bed intellectual project reading.
1:04:38 - Emmet Penney
I am finishing up Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden. Technology and the pastoral ideal in America. And my friend, John and I are doing a reading series on that for nuclear barbarians. And that's been very eye opening in terms of seeing how we have articulated and conceived of our relationship with the natural world and technology from the early days of the American Republic till about the one thousand nine hundred fifty seconds because he publishes that book, I think in about 55.
1:05:10 - Emmet Penney
So that's been very eye opening and helpful. And Is there anything else I'm reading? I've been picking my way through mostly for quotes because of my own writing, Samuel Insull's memoirs, which is a completely disorganized and kind of boring book. But every once in a while, there's something really worthwhile in there. And I love reading letters or diaries from historical figures, because I feel like you can really, you know, I wrote a very long piece about David Lilienthal.
1:05:40 - Emmet Penney
And one of the great joys of researching that piece was reading his journals, where he's like, you know, I was sitting behind FDR at church, you know, the other day. And you're like, this is crazy. To be reading somebody who was that close to history, you know, so. Yeah,
1:05:55 - Emmet Penney
1:05:56 - Robert Bryce
1:05:56 - Robert Bryce
Lilienthal, for those who don't know, was the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the early days and then was the first head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Is that right?
1:06:03 - Emmet Penney
That's right. Yeah.
1:06:06 - Robert Bryce
Ok, well, that's thanks for that book list. I knew you'd I knew you'd have an interesting one. What gives you hope?
1:06:12 - Emmet Penney
You know, so I would say what gives me hope these days is that I feel like there's no real other option in terms of how to live a life. I've lived with great levels of despair in my life and it wasn't worth it. It was never worth it. I never learned. More when I was in a place of despair. I never felt like I could do anything that was helpful in a place of despair. I never felt like my life as just my personal life was achievable when operating from places of despair. So to me, the only option is hope because that's how my forefathers, everybody, that has come before me has woken up and said, I'm going to try to do this day because I have to do this day.
1:06:59 - Emmet Penney
And it's incumbent on me to do this as the best version of myself that I can. Broad scale, what gives me hope is that I don't know what happens next. I spent a lot of time reading history now. It has a nasty way sometimes to surprise you, but also a beautiful way. And I think, Change is always possible. Here's a great example from history that has been very inspiring to me lately. It was Confederate General Longstreet. He was one of Lee's right-hand guys. A lot of people don't know this about him, but He was so taken by Grant's generosity in the Confederate defeat that he became an advocate for Black civil rights in Louisiana when he became governor and fought to make Reconstruction happen.
1:07:52 - Emmet Penney
And then eventually, I think, he actually had to leave the South because of that. I can't remember the exact story, but it cost him dearly to do that. He was seen as a betrayer, but he thought it was the right thing to do, that that was his duty. That's an amazing story to me. That is a human capacity for change and redemption that deserves long meditation.
1:08:17 - Robert Bryce
Yeah, that's interesting. Here, I'm just looking up James Longstreet, Confederate General under Lee. Yeah, that's interesting. I didn't know that history, but became an advocate for civil rights in the wake of this, I mean, essentially. During. During Reconstruction, and clearly failed,
1:08:38 - Emmet Penney
During Reconstruction, yeah, Reconstruction.
1:08:43 - Robert Bryce
Right? It took another hundred years for that to happen. Yeah, but
1:08:47 - Emmet Penney
To go from the Confederate general to doing that is no small thing. I don't know where that puts his life on balance, but to me, That level of change is just incomprehensible and gives me hope.
1:09:06 - Robert Bryce
Well, a number of battles. I'm just looking at all the things that he did during...
1:09:11 - Emmet Penney
Yeah, he was the real deal too. He was no rear echelon general. He was out there.
1:09:17 - Robert Bryce
Amazing. Well, we will stop there. I thought we'd make this a little shorter today. But, you know, as you know, when you and I get talking, Emmet, we keep going. My guest has been my friend Emmett Penny. He is the editor of Grid Brief. You can find that on gridbrief.com. He's also the host of the Nuclear Barbarians podcast. You can find that on wherever fine podcasts are found, as well as on Substack. Emmet, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for coming on the Power Hungry podcast and for being one of the stars of the upcoming, or the now out, I think we're going to release this after the podcast or after the docu-series comes out, the new docu-series, Juice, Power Politics and the Grid.
1:09:57 - Emmet Penney
Well, thanks to you for having me here and for having me in the doc, Robert. That's all you.
1:10:01 - Robert Bryce
And to all you out there in podcast land, thanks for tuning into this episode of the Power Hungry Podcast. Until next time. See ya.