Category Archives: feature story

Energy in the movies

The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome

1979’s The China Syndrome was produced at a time when the nuclear industry lacked stringent safety and oversight protocols. The screenwriters took a cue from news headlines to write their fictional thriller. But when a partial meltdown occurred at the Three-Mile Island nuclear facility a few days after the release of the film, the movie came to stand for the evils of nuclear power in the mind of the public. Despite subsequent overhauls of nuclear regulation, long-term opinion has continued to be influenced by the movie in ways the film-makers never dreamed of. In similar fashion, when looking at how energy is treated in films, we can see snapshots of not only our historic relationship with the resources that power our world but the viewpoints that helped shape public opinion as well.

The Electric House

Consider 1922’s Buster Keaton short comedy The Electric House. The movie was made when electricity was beginning to emerge as a common source of power. Households across America were being electrified and many viewed the new technology with guarded anticipation. Throughout the movie, Keaton used electrical gadgetry to great comic effect; he visually balances a line between whimsical (and attractive) efficiency and unexpected results. This played well to moviegoers, who were fascinated by the promise of these labor-saving devices but also a bit fearful of how they’d actually work. Today, of course, we’re still enamored with electrical gadgets and still worried they may take over our lives (hence using the term “Crackberry” for a Blackberry cell phone).

Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) shows a very different view of energy. From the opening images of clean and efficient pistons or the wonders of a modern energized city to the hellish sequences of enslaved power workers, it is clear Lang is conflicted about the role of technology. Despite its promise to transform life, energy comes at a cost. In the midst of an industrial accident, for instance, the hero of the film sees an electrical generator change into the ancient god Moloch, who requires costly sacrifice. And in the famous transformation sequence, rings of electricity pulsate around a robot, transforming it into a woman that misleads workers into destroying the systems that maintain them. Lang seems to be issuing a warning: we can never master energy, only serve it. Such a negative view would appear time and time again in the following decades.

Matewan movie poster

Although it’s a stable energy source and a source of jobs for many Americans, coal has seldom been portrayed in a favorable manner by screen writers. From How Green Was My Valley (1941) to Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Matewan (1987), the industry is portrayed as dirty, dangerous, corrupt, and in favor of profiteering over community involvement. Not only is coal shown as environmentally degrading, but as an impetus towards the need for unions and protection for workers. If Metropolis showed the hellish situation of energy workers, coal movies pushed the need for reform. Despite our continued reliance on it, coal, of course, does come with huge environmental and health costs.

Nuclear energy has also had poor representation in recent films. The China Syndrome (1979) was mentioned earlier, but The Day the Earth Stood Still(1951), which voiced the fear of the universe after humans developed atomic power, and Silkwood (1984), a whistle-blower film about a nuclear fuel rod manufacturing plant, were equally influential in voicing concerns about the nuclear industry. Back to the Future (1985), on the other hand, showed a positive spin in that society, over time, can develop more advanced and simpler technological solutions, such as nuclear fusion. In the movie, a tremendous amount of electricity is generated by a banana peel and some other garbage scraps in what looks like an average kitchen appliance. Nuclear fusion, by the way, still lacks a design for a viable commercial fusion energy plant despite more than 50 years of research. We’re a long way away from a power plant the size of a Mr. Coffee.

Syriana movie poster

Oil, of course, became a national focus after WWII and has become a particularly hot topic in recent films. Although it was initially portrayed favorably, the rampant petroleum development of the post-war period led to films like Wages of Fear (1953), in which the lives of four men are sacrificed to the needs of an oil well blow-out. Likewise, Giant (1956) visually portrays the contamination of an upscale family by the dirty business of oil. Later apocalyptic films like Mad Max (1979) or The Road (2009) portray the imagined results of our current addiction to fossil fuels. More complicated representations are seen in Syriana (2005) or The Kingdom (2007), that show the public the corruption, intrigue, social unrest, and confusion created by global oil markets. The positive role of oil offering freedom, as in “road” movies like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Easy Rider (1969), has changed to oil as a political weapon, such as the burning of the Iraqi fields in Jarhead (2005). Oil is shown as wealth, as seen in the corporate takeovers in Network (1976), and it is a source of corruption and degradation, as experienced by Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in There Will Be Blood (2007). Despite the fairly mundane day-to-day work of an average oil company worker, the villainous and corrupt Texan or Saudi Arabian oilman is as enduring a cliche as the image of the American cowboy.

WALL-E movie poster

Finally, there are futuristic films, like Star Wars (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Wall-E (2008), Star Trek (2009), or Tron: Legacy (2010) that envision future sources of power. Wall-E, in particular, contrasts the outmoded system of solar collection, as performed by the robot Wall-E in his world of trash-filled over-consumption, with the futuristic, unexplained power source used by the robot Eve and her world of cleanly efficient space travel, with its equally dangerous tendency towards over-consumption. And films like Monsters, Inc. (2001) demonstrate a need for energy, no matter what the cost (in this case, from the screams of children).

Each of these films is an artifact of its time, and each is an artifact of self-image. From brazen self-determination or social collapse to eventual energy transcendence, energy in the movies is a reflection of how we see ourselves. There are obviously many energy documentaries as well, but they usually don’t present the same kind of spin that fictional films show. Ultimately, the fables we created about ourselves decades ago are as revealing as the fables we create now.

NOTE: While researching this article, I discovered that there was a recent event in Austin TX covering the same topic. You can see their webpage here and read the twitter feed from the event here. Apparently great minds think alike 😉

Burton Richter’s blunt honest commentary on energy politics

When we interviewed Burton Richter on nuclear energy two weeks ago, just before the Japan earthquake, we ended up talking a fair bit about energy politics in the US. I always enjoy asking Burton about his views on DC and you will understand why when you listen to his views on some of the current political actions or non-actions. Who else would refer to the House Continuing Resolution as a China Advancement Bill of 2011?  He’s got a very good point there.

Check out Burton’s book Beyond Smoke and Mirrors also, and let us know what you think.

A view on nuclear power before Japan

Last Wednesday we interviewed Burton Richter, Professor Emeritus at Stanford and Nobel Laureate, and asked him about his views on the nuclear power policies in the US and energy politics in general. This was before the earthquake in Japan, and before the nuclear meltdown risks. I am sure we’ll go back to him and ask him for a response to this latest nuclear (luckily still potential) disaster.

Burton is a very outspoken and highly knowledgeable energy expert. I always enjoy talking to him and hearing his views.

Geothermal energy, the little-known resource

In Iceland and a few other countries, geothermal energy delivers a large part of the energy used for heating or cooling through geothermal heat pumps. But you may be surprised to learn that there are hundreds and thousands of buildings in the U.S. that are also hooked up to such systems. Geothermal energy is also applied at larger scales for electricity generation in various countries and, faced with rising energy demand, there has been renewed interest in developing this sustainable resource more aggressively.

But what is geothermal energy and how is it developed? Professor Roland Horne, who leads the geothermal institute at Stanford University, gives a lecture on existing and future geothermal energy systems in this Woods Institute Energy Seminar from 2007. While some of the statistics he cites are a few years out of date, his discussion remains relevant and provides an introduction to this potentially important future energy source.

Old/new ways of life unite in New Zealand’s geothermal production

New Zealand, one of my favorite countries in the world, is very determined to reduce its energy dependency. No surprise for an island nation that pays a hefty premium on imported energy because of its remote location. Luckily, New Zealand is blessed …with large natural renewable resources. It is particularly rich in geothermal energy and keen to expand its production. Many of the geothermal sites are owned by the Maori, the indigeneous people of New Zealand. The Maori have a very strong relationship to the land: they are keepers and guardians that put utmost importance on ensuring that land resources will be available for future generations to come. The exploration of geothermal energy therefore requires a careful synergy of indigenous knowledge and practices and modern day science and engineering. New Zealand is not the only country where this fascinating merge of the old and new ways of life is taking place. The Big Island of Hawaii, for example, is going through a similar process in its exploration of geothermal energy.

We talk to Dan Hikuroa, an earth scientist and Maori who is heavily involved with the geothermal energy expansion in New Zealand, about the challenges in implementing indigenous beliefs in contemporary settings.

A Green Refinery?

ConocoPhillips’ Billings refinery is located close to the downtown area of the city of Billings. The plant has therefore come under intense scrutiny regarding its emissions as well as its dealings with local residents.

The American Petroleum Institute invited a group of energy bloggers (paying for hotel and airfare) to see first-hand how this facility has managed itself as a responsible member of the community. SmartEnergy joined the group to learn about the refining process and the politics surrounding the Billings plant.

The refinery has twice been awarded EnergyStar designation by the EPA for its comparatively efficient production processes. It also established a Citizen’s Advisory Council to maintain an open dialogue between the community and ConocoPhillips. This council has been instrumental in tracking the plant’s social, economic, and environmental performance.

While the efficiency and community involvement efforts of the refinery are commendable, one concern is its reliance on oil sands, also known as bitumen or tar sands, for petroleum stock. This is a larger issue regarding America’s energy portfolio options, however, and will be addressed in a number of upcoming podcasts.

Ranching the Sun

Hawaii’s Parker Ranch is one of the largest cattle ranches in the US, and one of the few that also ranches the sun and wind. Parker ranch uses solar and wind energy for their water pumping systems. We talked with Michael “Corky” Bryan, who has the fascinating title of “Vice President of Livestock”. To him, this is just a fancy title for a cowboy. Corky shows us around the solar and wind ranch. If footage is a little shaky at times it is because we did a lot of the talking in his large white pickup truck, of course.