Did you know that Robert Redford served as executive producer for an Academy Award winning short film about solar energy in 1980?
That’s probably the least useful thing I learned watching “Happening”, but it speaks to the passion that the Redford family has for clean energy, including producer, director, and star of this documentary, James, Robert’s son.
Also, Robert is apparently much older in reality than in my mind, since at the beginning of the film I thought “oh, James must be his brother.” But I digress.
Early in the film, James puts before us the questions he seeks to answer.
First, can we make enough renewable energy to supply the world and replace fossil fuels?
Next, how would we do that?
Finally, and “most importantly,” will we?
From there the film moves along to generally answer these questions in order.
To prove the fact that we can make enough renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, he highlights some of the companies, cities, and other entities that have already done so.
For example Georgetown, Texas (also featured in “An Inconvenient Sequel” and mentioned in our review of that film), was the second city in the country to become 100% green. It’s Republican mayor led the charge because of the city’s responsibility to keep costs low for his citizens as rate-payers of the local utility, highlighting how renewable energy is not just good for the planet, but can also be more economical, especially over the long term.
Surprising to me was the fact that the United States armed forces, especially the Navy, are embracing renewable energy. Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy under President Barack Obama, says that renewable energy saves soldiers’ lives.
For instance, many soldiers die protecting the continual envoys needed to bring fuel, which is no longer necessary when using solar.
He also points out that having generators running on gas in camps makes a lot of noise, preventing soldiers from being able to hear if enemies could be sneaking up on them, and also drawing attention to their location.
At a solar convention in San Francisco, James is told by Emily Kirsch, a CEO who funds solar start-ups, that in forty-seven states, solar will soon as be as affordable as or more affordable than fossil fuels, although in some states solar is illegal or heavily restricted. She also notes that the solar industry is creating more jobs in the US than Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter combined, highlighting the variety of societal benefits from renewable energy sources.
Switching the focus from solar to hydropower, the film next explores Niagara Falls. There are dams on both the United States and Canadian sides which supply power to seven states and two provinces.
Hydro is powerful and renewable, but also has its downsides.
Large dams led to whole communities being wiped out by the water now held behind them. They also create problems for wildlife.
However, there have been some innovations in the hydro industry to minimize impacts such as these. For example near Medford, Oregon, Natel Energy has a small power station that uses the existing drop in elevation of a small canal to generate electricity without any further disturbance to the water flow.
The electricity generated there is purchased by Apple for their Oregon data center. In the US, every Apple facility runs on 100% renewable energy, contributing to their 87% renewable energy usage worldwide.
In places that do not have existing renewable energy sources on the grid, Apple builds their own, such as a large solar farm in North Carolina.
James then notes that one of the big challenges keeping us from going one hundred percent renewable is the issue of energy storage.
Since renewable energy cannot create electricity on demand the way burning fossil fuels can, there must be ways to store renewable energy when energy created exceeds the current need, to be used at times when there is more demand than energy creation. Many people across the globe are doing research on batteries and other strategies to store energy.
Good grid management is also key.
Angelina Galiteva, a board member of California ISO, the folks who manage the grid for most of California, notes the enormous potential of solar energy and the importance of efficient use and storage of solar.
“If we could capture the energy all over the world for two minutes every single day and store it, we could power the globe for a year, even the billion people who don’t currently have electricity,” she said.
So clearly, it is possible to power the world with renewable energy and people around the world are making strides in the technology needed to enable us to do so.
Which just leaves the third question: will we make the change and migrate to one hundred percent renewable energy? While the reasons to make the change seem obvious (better for the environment, less expensive), there are entrenched interests who are doing everything they can to prevent that from happening.
James goes to Nevada to share the story of the fight of many of their residents to remove the disincentives for solar that were imposed by the state public utility board in favor of NV Energy, the energy utility company given a monopoly in the state’s constitution.
Eighteen months after the decisions of the utility board, which led to an over-night crash of the growing home solar industry in Nevada, three green energy bills passed the state legislature and were signed into law by the governor, putting solar and other renewable energy sources back on an even playing field with traditional fossil fuel utilities.
Nevada State Senator Pat Spearman was particularly quote-worthy in her interviews in “Happening.” “We have more sunshine in Nevada than they have heat in hell. And it is a sin if we don’t do something with that,” she said, noting that Nevada has “three hundred and twenty-some” days of sunshine a year.
“It is a moral imperative… Everyone, wherever you are, whatever your status or station in life is, we all have a responsibility to address this issue,” she continued. “And if Washington [D.C.] will not, we will.”
For the citizens of Nevada, the answer to James’s third question is clearly a “yes.”
As for the rest of us, James has this to say at the end of the film.
“The is the dawn of the clean energy era. It’s just better, cheaper, inevitable. ‘When is it gonna happen?’ you might wonder. Well, as American citizens, voters, consumers, that is entirely up to us. We have what we need to do this, in our own cities, in our own communities, in our own homes.”
What can each of us do to ensure that complete conversion to clean energy is inevitable, and that it happens before we run out of fossils fuels and our environment is completely destroyed? That’s a question worth pondering.