Will the United States ever meet its energy needs with renewable energy? Or is "the land of the free and the home of the brave" doomed to remain addicted to fossil fuels?
It is a topic that begs for clarity, given the myriad conflicting public, corporate and political interests that swirl about it in a dense rhetorical fog that tends to blur our focus beyond any satisfactory conclusion.
So let's give full marks to filmmaker James Redford – son of actor/environmentalist Robert Redford and grandson of a long-time Chevron worker – for the considerable personal energy that he expends to burn off much of the confusion in his engaging new documentary, Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution, which airs on Sunday.
Redford, like any good reporter, knows there is no substitute for applying shoe leather to pavement and actually getting out there to talk to people to find out what is really going on – and doing so with a mind open to all possibilities.
To this end, Redford embarks on an absorbing personal journey into the dawn of the clean-energy era as it creates jobs, turns profits and makes communities stronger and healthier across the US.
“For those of us who are concerned about climate change, the question is: what’s the solution? And you can’t get very far into that conversation without looking at renewable energy. So I did,” the 55-year-old says. “And what I found very quickly is that some really interesting and encouraging things were happening that most Americans didn’t know about.
“I journeyed through the landscape across this country to really take a look at exactly what’s happening with renewable in America, and what it means for all of us moving forward.”
During his road trip, unlikely entrepreneurs emerge in communities from Georgetown, Texas, to Buffalo, New York, to reveal pioneering clean-energy solutions. Redford's personable on-screen presence and genuine curiosity gives us the vicarious experience of discovering, alongside him, just how clean energy works and what it means for us on a personal level.
Happening also delves into the spirit of our times as it explores human resilience, social justice and whether we can embrace the future with hope in our hearts.
Prominent citizens who lend gravitas to the cinematic proceedings include Oscar-nominated actor, filmmaker, social activist and solar advocate Mark Ruffalo; Matthew Nordan, Redford's adviser and energy start-up investor; Dave Ramm, chairman and chief executive of BrightSource Energy; and Ray Mabus, who served as US Secretary of the Navy from 2009 until earlier this year and US ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1994 to 1996).
More and more companies are demanding renewable sources and want to go green, Ruffalo says. “Walmart, Google, Apple, Crayola, Johnson & Johnson – all of these companies have moved to 100 per cent renewable energy.”
“Unfortunately,” Redford adds, “there are some old and powerful interests standing in the way” of the energy revolution.
Particularly vexing – and gripping on the screen – is the people-versus-the-state conflict in Nevada, a sorry situation where homeowners who have installed solar panels to save energy and give back to the power grid are being throttled financially by a bureaucracy that makes no sense.
As one pro-solar politician attests: “We have more sunshine in Nevada than they have heat in hell, and it’s a sin if we don’t do something with it.”
Redford's discoveries include the fact that the solar industry in the US employs more people than Google, Apple and Facebook combined, along with a clean-energy facility under construction that will put more people to work than the steel plant that formerly occupied the site and polluted the community. Post-production on Happening proved the toughest part of the filmmaker's odyssey.
“This was the hardest thing, because we decided at the very beginning to try a lot of things to make this film not another boring environmental documentary. And it involved a lot of shticks, a lot of tricks, a lot of right turns and left turns along the way. And editing it down from a two-and-a-half hour rough cut to a 72-minute final was really hard.”
Despite the ongoing pushback from corporate and political interests who still benefit from fossil-fuel profits, Redford finds himself optimistic for the future.
“This is the dawn of the clean energy era. It’s just better, cheaper, inevitable,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time and we can either drag our feet the way we are currently – and it will take longer and the world will be a little less habitable and less pleasant. Or we can get our act together and it won’t be quite as awful.”
So when will renewable energy eclipse fossil-fuel consumption?
“That’s entirely up to us.”
Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution has its premiere today at 11pm on OSN First HD Home of HBO