New technologies allow productions to ditch diesel and move to battery power
By Grant Slater
The future of the film industry is electric.
Just like the Teslas that increasingly crowd California’s highways, studios and production houses are transitioning away from gas power and toward cleaner battery-powered options.
Earlier this fall, dozens of vendors packed on to the Sunset Gower Studios lot to show off the latest in electric technologies that are adapted for the needs of Hollywood.
The lot was packed with solar panels and battery packs, next-generation trailers for talent and truck-sized battery packs that can replace diesel generators, the noisy, power plants of remote shoots. Diesel generators spew fumes that account for roughly 15 percent of emissions on set.
This kind of technology barely existed five years ago, and it’s just now ready to deploy at industry scale, said IBEW 40 Business Manager Stephan Davis.
“We’ve been doing portable power on sets for a hundred years,” Davis said. “This is one of the first times that there is a really new technology that we’re going to be putting our hands on.”
Netflix and Disney partnered to fund and promote the Clean Mobile Power Initiative to decrease the 700,000 tons of greenhouse gases that emit from the entertainment industry every year. With increased investment to spur innovation from private companies, they hope to cut on-set emissions in half by 2030.
Gretchen Newsom, political coordinator for the IBEW’s Ninth District, said Hollywood needs to make sure not to leave union members behind as they press ahead toward a cleaner future.
“If they want to be successful in furthering our collective interest on green energy and fighting climate action, they need to do so with the IBEW workforce, which is skilled and trained to get the job done,” Newsom said. “We’re ready to power up their shows and their sets in a green way.”
This is a “moment for the entertainment industry to come together and support acceleration and availability of innovative clean mobile power technologies,” said Yalmaz Siddiqui, VP, Environmental Sustainability for The Walt Disney Company.
That’s easier said than done. There are high up-front costs to switch to next-generation technologies that must navigate complex procurement practices at studios and rental houses.
Right now, there is limited education and training for these new devices as a host of established companies and new start-ups race to revolutionize the film industry, and that can be a concern for union electricians.
“This is what we do. This is our niche, our corner,” said Business Representative Juan Rodriguez. “From the get-go, our members were seeing this happen. Obviously, their concern is, “Are we gonna lose our jobs?”
The union will hold events where IBEW 40 members can get introduced to new equipment and decide works best. “The fundamentals are the same,” he said.
Local 40 Member James Morse stood in front of a trailer-sized cube humming softly like an air conditioner and extolled the benefits of the CleanGen J250.
During the strikes this year, Morse started playing around with the battery technology to see how it was working and whether it could stand up to the rigors of Hollywood production.
“When everyone’s hair dryer’s on and the lights and all that stuff, it can draw a lot of power,” Morse said, and he was worried whether the batteries could handle the load.
He first used the generator replacement to run a smaller base camp that had 14 trailers. It went well, but he brought a back-up diesel generator just in case.
“You get more confident, the more days you put it on. It was consistent,” Morse said. “By the end of the week, I could leave the thing alone.”
Another IBEW 40 member, Michael Sparks, said the first sign of a big change arrived on set when producers and stars started to show up in Teslas; he needed to find a way to charge the vehicles for their drive back home.
It could take up to 30 hours to charge the cars up on traditional power, he said. So, he started his own company to make power distributors that would fast-charge electric vehicles.
“I’m trying to evolve as this starts to take off in California, because we’re trendsetters here,” Sparks said. “California is going to push the EV situation for the whole nation, and I really want to be on the forefront as it comes down the pipeline.”