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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

Documentary Review: “Happening” shows that freedom from fossil fuels is possible

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.

"Happening" (A Clean Energy Revolution)

“Hap­pen­ing” (A Clean Ener­gy Rev­o­lu­tion)
Release Year: 2017
Direc­tor: James Red­ford
Run­ning time: 1 hour, 11 min­utes
Watch trail­er

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.

“Hap­pen­ing” is cur­rent­ly avail­able to HBO sub­scribers on HBO GO. There are also pub­lic screen­ings but unfor­tu­nate­ly none are in the North­west at this point.

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