Member Spotlights: Sean Oxenbury & Kerri Coombs on Clean Energy
Members of IATSE 891 are advocating for and piloting the use of clean energy solutions to reduce the use of diesel on set — helping to lead the way on making motion picture production more sustainable.
Many people who work in the motion picture industry love a good challenge.
For those leading the way on a greener way of producing films and television, sustainable motion picture production can be seen as another chance to problem-solve and get creative.
IATSE 891’s Lighting/Electrics department has been at the forefront of green film production by choosing to use electric grid tie-ins whenever possible rather than diesel generators.
Sean Oxenbury and Kerri Coombs are two members in that department championing and piloting the use of clean energy on set.
Kerri, a member of both the Lighting and Grips Department, loves the challenge of “being handed some sort of scribble on the back of a napkin” that needs to be translated into something to be built on set.
“Film people should be well-equipped for this because every day is an overwhelming mystery of how we’re going do this,” she says.
“We just need to approach the issue of carbon emissions and waste like we do just any day and say, ‘Okay, this is a huge challenge. We're going to do one little thing at a time and eventually, the whole job will be done.’”
Reliance on diesel generators is one of biggest sources of carbon in the industry. A single feature film can spew an estimated 2,840 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – an amount that would take a forest the size of three Stanley Parks an entire year to absorb.
Both Kerri and Sean attended a Clean Energy Workshop co-hosted by the Union, Reel Green™, MBS Equipment Co., Bridge Studios, and DGC BC earlier this month. It brought together 70 people working in film and television production in BC. Participants had a chance to test try green energy technology, collaborate on clean energy strategies for replacing diesel on set, and learn about financial incentives offered by Metro Vancouver to support cleaner production.
“I think it's very important the Union hold these workshops,” says Sean, who was pleased to see a good mix of people attend, including 891 and DGC BC members, major equipment rental houses, sustainability consultants and other industry stakeholders.
“The more people that have the knowledge, the easier it is for people to actually come on board and realize we can do this, we can make a change.”
THE PATH TO ELECTRIFIED FILM SETS
Diesel generators are relied on by productions to power lighting equipment, trailers and sometimes catering. While they contribute significant carbon emissions, pollute the air workers breathe, and lead to noise complaints from neighbours, switching entirely to renewable energy for production is still a bit tricky.
The fluid nature of large-scale productions makes it hard to always accurately estimate the amount of power that will be needed. Generators that rely on clean energy batteries can only last so long before needing to be recharged, and filming locations don’t always make recharging easy.
Some big budget productions, such as Virgin River, are showing it’s possible to rely on clean energy and have a lower carbon footprint, and members like Kerri want to see more productions utilizing clean energy solutions.
“I would love to see completely electrified film sets at a level that's not just student films or indies. I want to see more stuff with some real production value using this technology, but it's going to be an incremental process,” says Kerri.
Progress is being made, however, with clean energy infrastructure slowly expanding. This month, the City of Vancouver unveiled three new clean energy kiosks in Northeast False Creek to help deliver renewable, hydro-powered energy to film sets. They’re installed in an area commonly used for film parking where as many as 200 generators are used a year.
IATSE 891 Lighting Department member Simon Hunt was there for the unveiling of new clean energy kiosks on April 13, 2023 to represent BC film and union kin who have worked hard behind the scenes on this effort since its inception.
This all follows work by BC’s film community and Creative BC to develop a Grid Power Access Map that shows existing clean energy power sources in the Lower Mainland. The map includes a tool for people working in the industry to submit information on where generators are parked.
Sean says more clean energy charging stations are needed, and Union members can help establish where to prioritize them by helping to gather data.
“If we get more people on board to input where they’re using generators on the map, cities can then take that information to realize that 50 times over the summer we have a circus parked in the exact same location, or work trucks parked in the exact same location, and they can start to look at what it would mean to put clean power infrastructure into that area.”
Beyond the need for more clean energy charging stations and infrastructure is the need for more supply.
“We do need a lot more product because there's only so many clean battery generators available,” says Sean.
For that to happen, Sean says, productions need to step up and show there’s demand.
EXPLORING A HYBRID APPROACH
Kerri has been working as a consultant to productions interested in electric generators. To fully understand the technology’s capabilities, she tested some out on a shoot for The Victim, a short film directed by IATSE 891 Script Supervisor Ruby Munro.
“I set myself the challenge of doing an exterior night shoot in the middle of a Burnaby park with no access to grid power and no diesel or gas generators,” says Kerri.
Relying on about ten portable electric generators for lighting equipment and catering, she got about six hours of shooting done with everything running on clean energy.
“To succeed I needed to talk to every department head,” she says, adding the extra collaboration allowed her to estimate every department’s power needs. Her goal is to scale up the lessons she’s learned for larger productions.
Sean’s experience with clean energy generators includes recent work on a feature film in Smithers, BC. Plunging cold temperatures meant the battery powered generators needed to be brought inside to be warmed up.
“There are limitations with some of the units, but as long as you know that information going in, you can do a little extra planning to make it work,” says Sean.
Both Kerri and Sean see a path forward in a hybrid approach.
For one film project, Sean recalls 20 diesel generators set up over several blocks downtown between the Vancouver Public Library and the Convention Centre. Some of those generators were needed just to power a few lights in a certain spot.
“That's a lot of diesel consumption, and I can guarantee you not every one of those generators is being used to capacity,” says Sean.
When diesel generators aren’t being fully used, they’re not working as efficiently, and in those situations swapping in a clean energy generator makes sense.
Kerri agrees there are opportunities to combine conventional power and electrified options.
“You can enhance the efficiency of your diesel generator by drawing off some of that surplus power in those low moments of the day to recharge your electric vehicle fleet or your electric generator or whatever kind of batteries you have.”
For Earth Day, Kerri wants 891 members to think of one thing they can do to reduce carbon emissions and waste, whether that means bringing their own coffee mug or water bottles to set.
“The impacts of unchecked carbon emissions are unthinkable if you understand the science of climate change,” says Kerri. “You just have to reduce your footprint everywhere that you can, even if it costs a little bit extra, we just all have to do it.”
Sean’s piece of advice is to not be afraid to ask questions and bring up the topic of using cleaner energy on set.
“Think outside the box. If we continue to do the same thing that we've been doing for the past 50 years, we're really not making anything better,” says Sean. “So ask yourself the question: how can I get away with less?”
Read more 891 Member Spotlights here! Help shine a light on other 891 members making BC’s motion picture community a great place to work. Email spotlight suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org and visit Ourwork.ca for more on the benefits of joining the Union.