When your job involves occasionally illustrating the collapse of companies with a stock image of a skull, there’s a risk that, one day, the skull comes for you.
That day arrived last month, instantly changing us journalists from the chroniclers of corporate demise to the chronicled. The outpouring from long-time readers got me thinking about what it was about Greentech Media that forged such an emotional bond over such wonky subject matter.
From 2007 onward, this publication paid attention to solar, batteries and distributed energy when they were insignificant players in a vast and old-fashioned power industry. Startups that we covered as bootstrapped longshots have since become billion-dollar companies. Others turned billion-dollar valuations into scraps sold off at auction.
The way to stay relevant through such a transition is by getting invested in fundamental trends, not specific technologies, business models or companies. And that requires practicing what Philip Seymour Hoffman advised as rock journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous: “You want to be a true friend to them? Be honest and unmerciful.”
Maintaining that critical distance struck me, as a new hire nearly five years ago, as a little bit terrifying. Why would people keep talking to us after we revealed the flaws in their glossy technologies, unveiled major layoffs or identified shortcomings in state policy? But we did those things, and people kept pitching us stories. Breaking the news of one company’s demise did not preclude covering its leaders’ next venture.
GTM confronted the ghosts of the solar industry, as the author did in this 2016 Halloween costume. (Photo courtesy of Julian Spector)
End of an era
Whatever follows from GTM’s demise won’t exactly replace it, because the clean energy industry has grown far beyond its state when GTM began.
This stuff is big business now. Zero-carbon sources will supply 84 percent of new U.S. power plant capacity in 2021. President Joe Biden campaigned on investing more in clean energy infrastructure and jobs than anyone ever has. Most major U.S. utilities have pledged to eliminate carbon emissions. Numerous states have too. Electric cars made Elon Musk the richest person in the world, for a moment at least, and Detroit has also bet on its future being electric.
These facts could arouse a sneaking suspicion that covering this tremendous moment in human history is a worthwhile endeavor. But the form it takes going forward would have to be different. It isn’t the Wild West anymore.
I saw that evolution firsthand in energy storage, which is crucial to the success of the clean energy transition. On my first day on the job during the summer of 2016, CEO Scott Clavenna and editor Stephen Lacey sat me down and told me I’d cover energy storage. I’d heard of it but had never successfully pitched a story on the topic, since it was so far removed from things that were actually happening at meaningful scale.
Since we had a diversified business model of news, research and events, my next move was sitting down with in-house storage experts Ravi Manghani and Brett Simon for a crash course on their latest proprietary research. Then I went to work.
Back then, I could easily spend more hours prospecting vaguely interesting stories than actually writing them. Few other outlets covered the emerging energy storage sector, thwarting the time-honored journalistic method of chasing subjects your peers just covered.
But soon, energy storage started to matter.
A turning point was the grassroots resistance to a proposed gas plant on the beach in Oxnard, California. We at GTM were afforded wide latitude to nerd out over details that more general publications wouldn’t have time for. In this case, I dug into the state’s analysis with GTM Research leader Shayle Kann and reported that the use of outdated and therefore inaccurate pricing data made clean energy options look radically more expensive than the new gas plant.
That story became evidence in a regulatory proceeding that resulted in the cancellation of the gas plant in favor of one of the largest batteries in the world.
These days, it seems like a new biggest battery pops up monthly, and storage technology competes in too many states to watch each one as closely as I could when it was pretty much just California. The battery build-out itself increasingly merges with renewables and even transportation planning; the old silos have become outdated, like Cold War relics dotting the Great Plains. It’s time to bust out of the bunkers.
To my esteemed colleagues
I want to thank some people on my way out the door.
First, to Clavenna, Lacey and Eric Wesoff for trusting that I could be sufficiently skeptical of corporate talking points to be useful on the team.
To former colleague Julia Pyper, for showing that it is possible to make excellent clean energy journalism on your own.
To Jeff St. John, for modeling how to fully inhabit a beat as complex as the decentralized grid.
To Emma Foehringer Merchant, for asking the questions of solar companies that any mature industry needs to answer.
To John Parnell, for showing how far one journalist can go in covering the entire continent of Europe singlehandedly.
To Nicholas Rinaldi, for proving that people will pay good money to read our work.
To copy editor Michelle Vessel, for ensuring our haste never compromised our clarity, and quietly fixing things when it did.
To longtime reporter and leader of Creative Strategies Katie Tweed, for preserving the collective memory of the company formerly known as GTM.
My colleagues from the GTM Research and Events side are too numerous and wonderful to name. Thank you for all the fruitful conversations, and for letting me channel my lapsed theater major skills onto the stage of your industry conferences. And I’m honored to have put my investigative faculties to work to get you into the most delectable culinary destinations of any city we found ourselves in over the years.
To the professors who told me they assigned our writing and the grad students who read it, the 14-year archives will live on, according to reporting by the L.A. Times. To the energy professionals and executives who shared that they got their bearings in the industry from reading GTM, I hope you find a new trusted source for your daily news cravings. Finally, thank you to all of our readers, for proving that incisive, independent journalism on a crucial subject can create a sustainable business model in a turbulent media landscape.
I don’t have a new business email address to share with you, yet. But for anyone looking to hear about my next moves, follow me on Twitter @JulianSpector and subscribe to Bright Ideas, my free weekly newsletter on the rise of clean energy.
I’m going to miss this gig. But you can’t start a new chapter until you end the old one.