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Volts

Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!) www.volts.wtf

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Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!) www.volts.wtf

The extraordinary potential value of enhanced geothermal power

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Geothermal power has conventionally been viewed as a baseload, always-on resource, like nuclear. But new research suggests it could play a much more dynamic & valuable role on the grid than that -- and expand much faster & farther than previously estimated. I chat with one the co-authors.



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Sep 30 2022

1hr 4mins

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Learning curves will lead to extremely cheap clean energy

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A newly published research paper out of Oxford suggests that a rapid energy transition will not "cost" anything -- it will save nearly a trillion dollars relative to the no-transition case. And the faster we move, the more money we save. I talk with complex-systems scientist and co-author Doyne Farmer about his optimistic projections.



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Sep 28 2022

1hr 4mins

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Focusing on the climate actions that can make a real difference

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Two veteran climate experts -- analyst Hal Harvey & journalist Justin Gillis -- have released a new book that seeks to home in on the climate policies that offer the most impact for the least effort. I talk with them about learning curves, performance standards, industrial policy, & more. 



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Sep 13 2022

1hr 4mins

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The long, sordid (ongoing) tale of California's biggest utility

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Reporter Katherine Blunt was still new to The Wall Street Journal when 2018’s devastating Camp Fire broke out in California and she was swept into the biggest story of her career. Alongside colleagues Russell Gold and Rebecca Smith, she wrote a series of pieces on the ongoing travails of Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, the utility whose power lines had started at the Camp Fire.

The Journal's coverage was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize, and Blunt has now expanded it into a new book: California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas & Electric — and What It Means for America's Power Grid. It is a rollicking tour through PG&E’s decades-long series of disasters and their roots in the early 20th century.

I am a longtime critic of utilities, but even I was stunned to see all of PG&E’s incompetence and malfeasance gathered together in one place, alongside its well-meaning but serially failed attempts to put things right. It’s a story of failure and redemption, except the redemption keeps being interrupted by more failure.

I couldn't put the book down, so I am eager to talk to Blunt about how the utility’s travails began, why is has struggled so mightily to take control of its fate, and what might come next for the electricity sector’s favorite punching bag.

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Sep 09 2022

52mins

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What's up with Manchin's plan to reform energy permitting?

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As part of his price for agreeing to pass the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, Senator Joe Manchin extracted a promise from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to pass a "sidecar deal” addressing the issue of permitting reform.

Earthjustice president Abigail Dillen thinks it's a bad deal. I called her to talk through her reservations about the deal, her larger take on permitting reform, and her thoughts on how to build the renewable energy needed to address climate change.



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Sep 07 2022

54mins

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The many social and psychological benefits of low-car cities

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A few years ago, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett and their two children moved from Vancouver, Canada, to Delft, a small city in the Netherlands where 80% of journeys are taken by foot, bicycle, or public transit. Their new book, Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives, is about what it's like to live in a truly low-car city, and how other cities can capture some of the same benefits.

Reading the book was a joy for me -- it reinforced so many of my priors! -- so I was excited to talk to Melissa and Chris about how to design streets for people, the connection between urban infrastructure and social trust, the flourishing that Dutch children enjoy, and the myriad evils of cars.



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Aug 29 2022

1hr 9mins

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Talking through the Inflation Reduction Act with Don't Look Up director Adam McKay

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Recently, director Adam McKay — familiar to the climate community for his recent movie Don't Look Up, which he came on Volts to discuss — made a series of comments on Twitter critical of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Democrats’ newly passed tax, health-care, and climate bill.

As is so often the case on Twitter, an extremely heated and unilluminating brouhaha ensued. It turns out that particular platform is not a great place for a good-faith discussion.

I reached out to McKay about the bill and we thought it might be fun, just for kicks, to do another pod, to address his various questions and reservations. Volts listeners have heard me and other energy wonks talk about the bill quite a bit, but I thought it might be interesting to hear it hashed over with someone coming at it from a slightly different perspective.

Anyway, if you have appetite for more IRA talk, it was a fun hour and I think you'll enjoy it!

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Aug 25 2022

57mins

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Diving further into the Inflation Reduction Act: Part Two

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In this episode, energy modeler and expert Jesse Jenkins is back yet again, completing our two-part discussion of the details of the Inflation Reduction Act. This time around, we get into the tax credits, the green bank, the methane fee, and much more.



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Aug 19 2022

1hr 12mins

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Diving further into the Inflation Reduction Act: Part One

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In this episode, professor and energy expert Jesse Jenkins returns to the pod to dig further into the details of the Inflation Reduction Act. We discuss what the models can and can't tell us, the ugly fossil-fuel leases embedded in the bill, and what to think about the carbon capture provisions.



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Aug 17 2022

1hr 7mins

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Some thoughts on the Inflation Reduction Act

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In this episode, it’s just me by my lonesome, sharing some thoughts about the history and context of the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate legislation ever passed by the US Congress.



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Aug 12 2022

58mins

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Volts podcast: how to get urban improvements done quickly

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When it comes to reducing transportation emissions, two main ideas compete for mindshare in the climate space. First is switching out internal combustion engine vehicles for electric vehicles. Second is improving the built environment to make walking, biking, and public transit easier, to reduce the amount of miles traveled in cars and trucks altogether.

The conventional wisdom is that the former is faster. There are a few key policy levers that can be pulled to get massive numbers of EVs on the roads, whereas urban improvements proceed one at a time, each facing its own bespoke set of challenges.

But there are people out there at the city level working to increase the speed of those improvements. One of them is Warren Logan, currently a partner at Lighthouse Public Affairs, but before that, policy director of mobility in the Oakland, California, mayor's office, a senior transportation planner for San Francisco, and an intern in the transportation office at Berkeley, California.

In his time working on transportation projects, Logan has given a lot of thought to, and done a lot of work on, improving city processes to make safety and walkability improvements faster and less capital-intensive. He wants cities to free themselves up to make fast, cheap changes that can have big impacts without an enormous investment of time and money.

As listeners will have noticed, I have been somewhat obsessed lately with urban design and transportation issues. I hope you will indulge me in another conversation about the nature of resistance to urban improvements, the kinds of changes that can be made quickly to dramatically improve safety, and the larger need to avoid over-reliance on EVs.

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Aug 10 2022

1hr 10mins

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Volts podcast: when transmission planning actually goes well

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Volts subscribers are well aware that the US, like most places, badly needs more long-distance power lines. Such lines unlock the potential of regions where renewable energy is abundant but people are scarce. They lower system costs for all customers on the grid. They make the grid more reliable and resilient.

However, it is incredibly difficult to build these lines. The process is a bureaucratic tangle, with ubiquitous controversies over how to allocate costs and benefits, and the pace of building is woefully short of what will be needed to help the US hit its carbon emissions targets.

But a ray of sunshine pierced that generally gloomy situation last week, when the market monitor of the midwest wholesale electricity market — the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO — announced the results of its Long-Range Transmission Planning Initiative. It laid out a roadmap that would involve $10 billion worth of investment in some 2,000 miles of new transmission lines, which MISO anticipates could unlock more than 50 gigawatts of pent-up renewable energy.

To someone like me, so accustomed to stories of failure around transmission, it came as a bit of a bolt from the blue. But it is, in fact, the result of years of long, steady work by advocates, stakeholders, and experts — including my guest today.

Lauren Azar is a longtime attorney and consultant working in the electricity industry. During her time as a lawyer, she has also worked as a senior advisor to the US secretary of energy on electricity grid issues, a commissioner on the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, and president of the Organization of MISO States, which was deeply involved in the last round of transmission planning in MISO. There's nobody in a better position to explain what has just happened in MISO and what it means for the larger field of transmission planning, so I'm extremely excited to welcome her on to the pod today.

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Aug 08 2022

48mins

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Volts podcast: what to make of the Democrats' last-minute climate bill

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In this episode, two Volts favorites — Princeton professor Jesse Jenkins and UC Santa Barbara professor Leah Stokes — join me discuss the Inflation Reduction Act, the somewhat miraculous last-minute agreement between Senators Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer. It represents the tattered remains of Build Back Better, but many if not most of the climate and clean energy provisions remain intact. We discuss what's in the bill and reasons to be excited about it.



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Aug 03 2022

1hr 25mins

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Volts podcast: a music festival that treads lightly on the earth

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Listeners, today at Volts we've got something a little different, a little off our beaten path. It’s an episode about one of my favorite music festivals. It might not seem obvious to you why you should care about a small music festival in the far northwest of the country, but I think if you are patient and listen for a little bit, you'll get a sense of why I’m spending time on it (beyond self-indulgence).

By the time 2011 rolled around, I was more or less done with music festivals. I love live music and have been to many great concerts, but most festival experiences were so hectic, stressful, crowded, dirty, and exploitative that it just no longer seemed worth the effort. (That has only gotten more true in intervening years.) So I was a little skeptical when a friend told me about the Pickathon festival, held every year about 20 miles outside of Portland, Oregon.

For one thing … “Pickathon”? Sounds like one of those twangy festivals with crunchy hippies playing mandolins and banjos. That is not my bag. But he assured me that the lineup is diverse, from all genres, focused on acts that are about to break bigger.

He talked me into going. And listener, it blew my mind.

For one thing, the land itself is gorgeous — it is held at Pendarvis Farm, a sprawling area of pastureland and wooded hills that is used only once a year for gatherings, only for Pickathon.

Every attendee camps (the festival lasts three days), but not in some crowded parking lot. Rather, there is a whole network of trails running through the woods, with established camping spots that have been used and reused since 1999 when the festival started.

Then there’s the crowd. It wasn't jam-packed. You could always get food or drink with very little line. You could always see the band, no matter which band you wanted to see. There were tons and tons of families and children and almost no backward-baseball-cap bros. It felt oddly wholesome.

But perhaps the strongest impression I took away that first weekend was how weirdly, anomalously clean the festival was. One staple of festival life is giant, overflowing trash cans, with food wrappings and disposable cups strewn everywhere. At Pickathon there was none of that. There was virtually no visible trash. Water was free, available at spigots across the grounds.

It all struck me as so intensely human, so humane, that I fell in love and attended almost every year thereafter. (Here’s a 2013 story I did for Grist and a 2017 story I did for Vox, in which I interviewed 20 artists in three days.)

Pickathon is back this year after a two-year hiatus, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk with festival founder Zale Schoenborn about how the festival has evolved since 1999, what's next on the sustainability front, and what's new at the festival this year. Even if you don't happen to live in the Pacific Northwest and can't attend, I think you'll enjoy hearing from someone who has put so much thought into into bringing humans together to commune and celebrate in a socially and environmentally sustainable way.

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Jul 29 2022

1hr 5mins

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Volts podcast: how Biden can address climate change through executive action

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It now seems fairly clear that no climate legislation is going to pass this Congress before the midterm elections. After the midterms, Democrats are highly unlikely to retain control of both houses, so there likely will not be any federal climate legislation in the US for many years to come. This is, obviously, to the country's immense shame.

That means Biden finds himself in the same situation that Obama ended up in: if he wants anything at all to get done on climate change during his term, he's going to have to do it himself, through executive action. He has already begun announcing some executive orders.

However, there is a case to be made that the president has the power to do much, much more. Two senior attorneys at the Center for Biological Diversity — Jean Su, director of CBD’s energy justice program, and Maya Golden-Krasner, deputy director of its Climate Law Institute — have been aggressively making that case for the past three years, laying out a broad suite of actions available to a president and accompanying them with arguments rooting those powers in statutory authority.

They've just released a new report called “The Climate President’s Emergency Powers,” which digs into what it would mean for Biden to declare a state of emergency over climate change and what sort of statutory powers that would grant him.

In this moment of utter legislative failure, I wanted to talk to Su and Golden-Krasner about the kind of things Biden is capable of doing, which actions he ought to prioritize, how he should think about the hostile Supreme Court, and the political optics of governing so aggressively and unilaterally.

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Jul 25 2022

58mins

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Volts podcast: David Wallace-Wells on the ravages of air pollution

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Back in 2020, I wrote an article about some eye-popping new research on air pollution which found that the damage it is doing to human health is roughly twice as bad as previously thought, and moreover, that the economic benefits of pollution reduction vastly outweigh the costs of transitioning to clean energy.

It seemed to me then that the findings should have gotten more attention in the press, and I wasn't the only person who thought so. Journalist David Wallace-Wells, who made a splash a few years ago with his terrifying book on climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth, also dove in to new air pollution research and produced a magisterial overview for the London Review of Books last year. Recently he revisited the subject for his New York Times newsletter, asking why social mobilization against climate change, which promises millions of deaths in decades, is so much greater than mobilization against air pollution, which kills 10 million a year today.

It's a challenging question, and I'm not certain I have a great answer, so I wanted to talk to David about it — what the new research says about the mind-boggling scope and scale of air pollution’s damage to human welfare, how we ought to think about it relative to climate change, and what scares him most about the process of normalization that allows us to live with 10 million deaths a year.

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Jul 18 2022

56mins

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Volts podcast: Lori Lodes on climate activism and the path forward

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It is a dark time for climate activists. The immense hope they felt at the introduction of the original Build Back Better bill has curdled. It is still possible that some kind of deal might emerge from the Senate in this final month, but if it does it will be a pale shadow of what it once was.

Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated Supreme Court has just taken away one of the EPA's principal tools for addressing greenhouse gases. And that is, of course, only one tiny sliver of the damage that the court has done and is continuing to do. A Supreme Court that is hostile to climate action seems fated to be a fact of life for at least a generation.

It is not clear what climate activists could have done differently to avert these grim outcomes. And it is not at all clear how they should proceed from here. They have no way of encouraging West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to be a decent human being and once the reconciliation bill is done, the midterms will be upon us, and all signs point toward disastrous Democratic losses that will take legislation off the table entirely.

What should climate activists be doing right now? How should they be maintaining hope and momentum?

To discuss these difficult questions, I contacted Lori Lodes, the head of the nonprofit advocacy organization Climate Power, which was created by John Podesta and others in the run-up to the 2020 election to ensure that climate had a place on the Democratic agenda. Lodes is a veteran of several difficult Democratic fights going back to Obamacare and is a self-proclaimed lover of political combat, so I was eager to hear from her on what climate activists should be doing, how they should feel about whatever emerges from the Build Back Better negotiations, and how they should move forward in a world where federal action has become all but impossible.

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Jul 06 2022

57mins

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Volts podcast: Jay Duffy on the Supreme Court's EPA decision

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On June 30th, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in the case of West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency. There was a great deal of dread in the climate community in advance of the ruling, and a great deal of hyperbolic coverage in its wake. But what did it actually say?

Volts listeners will already be familiar with the case thanks to a pod I did on it a few months ago with Jack Lienke and Kirti Datla, and they will recall that it was somewhat bizarre for the court to take this case at all, since it regards a set of regulations that never were and never will be put into effect. Rather, the court seemed eager to pass judgment on the legal justification that it anticipates EPA might use when regulating greenhouse gases under Biden. It was, in other words, an advisory opinion, which the Supreme Court is not supposed to do.

Nonetheless, it took the case and now it has ruled. The headline is that the majority opinion is not as bad as many anticipated, especially in the wake of the unhinged Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. This was a Chief Justice Roberts special, carefully parsed and hedged.

To get clear on what the ruling does and doesn't actually say, I contacted one of the lawyers on the case, Jay Duffy of the Clean Air Task Force. Duffy was responsible for several of the key briefs and arguments in the case, so I thought he would have a good read, not only on what the Roberts decision says, but what it portends for subsequent cases.

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Jul 04 2022

56mins

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Volts podcast: Charles Marohn on unsustainable suburbs

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Charles Marohn — “Chuck” to his friends — grew up in a small town in Minnesota and later became an urban planner and traffic engineer in the state. After a few years, he began noticing that the projects he was building were hurting the towns he was putting them in — subtracting more tax value than they added, forcing everyone into cars, breaking apart communities and saddling them with unsustainable long-term liabilities.

He began recording his observations on a blog called Strong Towns. It quickly caught on, and over the years, Strong Towns has grown into a full-fledged nonprofit with an educational curriculum, an awards program, and a rich network of local chapters working to improve the towns where they are located.

Marohn has since written several books, most recently 2021’s Confessions of a Recovering Engineer and 2019’s Strong Towns. Intellectually, he sits somewhat orthogonally to most of the contemporary urbanist community. He’s an avowed conservative and opposes many of the state and federal solutions to the housing crisis favored by today’s YIMBYs.

But there is arguably no one alive in America who has done more to get people thinking about what makes for a healthy community and how the US can begin to repair its abysmal late-20th-century land-use choices. I was excited to talk to Marohn about why suburbs are money-losers, the right way to think about NIMBYs and local control, and why the city planning profession is so resistant to reform.

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Jun 29 2022

1hr 11mins

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Another note to readers

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Readers, I am keenly aware that you subscribed to this newsletter to get articles and podcasts about clean energy, not to hear about my life and travails. And I’ve already sent you one life-and-travails message this year. So I debated with myself a long time about whether to send this one, especially given all the other horrible stuff happening in the world.

But, in the end, there is an unavoidable intimacy to this format and that is one of the things I like about it. I don’t have any bosses or advertisers or funders to report to — there’s just me, trying to create good content, and (some of) you, paying for it. Given that life events are currently affecting my ability to work, I feel I owe you some explanation.

Attentive readers may recall that I’m supposed to be in Italy right now, vacationing with my family to celebrate my oldest son’s high school graduation and impending departure to college.

As fate would have it, that vacation has been canceled. Why? Well, part of it is that, as followers of my tweets may already know, my entire family has Covid at the moment. But the other part, which I haven’t yet shared, is that I also have cancer.

Specifically, I have a relatively rare cancer called urothelial carcinoma — a 4.5-cm mass in my right kidney cavity. It was identified via a CT scan about a month ago. A few weeks ago, I had a procedure: a right ureteroscopy with biopsy and ureteral stent insertion. They also fired some lasers at the mass, which I found oddly gratifying.

The good news is that, somewhat to everyone’s surprise, the biopsy indicates that the cancer is low-grade. The bad news is that the mass is so big that it’s got to come out regardless; my surgical options are no different than if it were high-grade.

Because it has gotten so big, trying to laser it to pieces could take two, three, or even more full surgeries, followed by a lifetime of vigilance, since this type of cancer tends to recur in surrounding tissue via the “field effect.” Recurrence in my kidney or ureter would be bad; recurrence in my bladder (which I only have one of) would be worse.

The other option is just to have my right kidney taken out entirely, which is what I’m scheduled to do next month — what the official documentation refers to as a “nephroureterectomy, robot-assisted,” which I also find oddly gratifying. I like having robots and lasers on my side.

Having a kidney out is not a small thing — it’s a serious surgery — but there are very good chances of full recovery. People lose or donate kidneys all the time and go on to live long, healthy lives. My colleague at Vox, Dylan Matthews, donated one of his kidneys out of pure altruism and wrote a detailed account, which has been a great comfort to me.

To be clear: I’m in no pain. The cancer itself is causing me no symptoms outside of hematuria (bloody urine), which admittedly is no fun, but it was the only way this thing got caught. A tumor in your kidney lining (as opposed to the cavity, where mine is) can grow for a long time and cause no symptoms at all. It’s a good thing my tumor made a ruckus.

Suffice it to say, in the vast hellscape of possible cancers, I could have done a lot worse. I am, in the grand scheme of things, quite lucky.

That said, losing the vacation is a real bummer. For one thing, it was all set up: the plane tickets were bought; the lodgings were booked; the train tickets were reserved; the cars were rented; the tours and outings were all lined up. It was going to be magic. But what really hurts my heart is not getting to send my son off with some indelible memories of his final summer with us. I wanted that time with him so badly.

As a sad, sweet gesture, Mrs. Volts made us reservations at an Italian restaurant in Seattle for last Monday night — the night we were supposed to leave for Italy — but then, over the weekend, the older boy tested positive for Covid. He isolated immediately, but the next day I tested positive and the day after that, Mrs. Volts and the younger boy.

To summarize: rather than nibbling gelato and sipping espresso at a street-side cafe in Florence, we are at the end of a week spent slumping around our house, coughing and snorting and unable to do much but watch TV. (The Old Man is really good.)

One additional downer: remember a while back I told you about my aching wrists and elbows? Yeah, that’s worse than ever. I can type for short bursts, but holding my hands steady in any position for more than about 30 seconds brings sharp pain. This means I can’t really sustain concentrated work on longer writing. I can basically … tweet. And given that tweeting is already what I do when I’m anxious, I’ve been tweeting a lot lately. It’s not great.

I tried some voice control and transcription programs, but I found them weirdly enervating. It is exhausting to talk all the time! But I’m going to have another go at them, since this doesn’t seem to be going away and I still can’t think of a practical way to take six months away from a keyboard to let them rest.

Anyway. I have lived, on balance, an extraordinarily fortunate and privileged life, and I’m still living one, but I tell you — when it rains, it pours.

I will get my kidney out; Covid will pass; I will figure out how to deal with the tendonitis. Some day soon this will all be behind me and I will get back to full productivity, including writing the long explanatory articles that I desperately miss writing. I want to bring in more guest pieces, do more deep dives, and set up some regular features and themes.

But in the meantime, while I am navigating this crapstorm, there might be some slow weeks and months around here. I’m going to try to keep up the podcasting, but it may be a bit more sporadic.

As I said last time, if anyone feels like they’re not getting what they signed up for and wants to unsubscribe, I understand and do not begrudge. Subscriber growth slowed considerably when I shifted from writing to podcasting, as I suspected it might, but it hasn’t yet ever gone down. Y’all have stuck with me and I can not tell you how grateful and humbled I am to have you all here.

In the meantime, my prognosis is good. My health-care providers are good. My insurance is good. My wife is a superhero. I don’t need or want for anything. I just thought I should let y’all know where I’m at. Volts is one of the things that keeps me going, so thank you for reading and listening and just being out there.

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Jun 27 2022

8mins

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