The new documentary Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution, which premieres tonight on HBO (8:00 p.m. ET), brings good news for anyone who’s been crushed by the recent stream of headlines on climate change. Director Jamie Redford takes us on a journey to discover the green energy revolution that’s taking place in towns, cities and states across the country while underscoring issues of human resilience and social justice.
We visit places like Georgetown, Texas where the colorful Republican mayor, a self-avowed “right-wing conservative,” is leading the charge on the green revolution. Georgetown is one of the first towns in the US to run on 100-percent renewable energy. We visit an Apple facility and learn that every Apple store in America is powered by renewable energy. That should give some comfort to iPhone-addicted shoppers this season.
Redford examines how cutting-edge technology, coupled with innovative investments and political will, can have a positive impact despite a White House that denies human-made climate change. From boardrooms to town halls — and even the US Navy — people of all political stripes are finding ways to go green because it’s simply a better, more cost-efficient way to live.
We talked with Redford in this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Titi Yu: So I read somewhere that you describe yourself as the reluctant star. Why were you a reluctant star?
Jamie Redford: That’s because I haven’t done a performance like this since the eighth grade when my wig fell off. So… [laughs]
TY: Well I thought it was very effective to have you in the film.
JR: I just decided to open up my own process of discovery. I decided to take everyone along on the ride. I think there is an inherent resistance to the topic of clean energy and renewable energy. It sounds kind of boring. I thought, well, maybe this might make it a little interesting. Also, I didn’t major in science or technology so I thought if I can understand this, so can everyone else.
TY: You started the journey in your own home. You tracked your own power line to an ugly power plant that was across the bay from a wind farm. I thought it really brought it home how we all have a stake in this green energy revolution and there are many things we can all do, starting with ourselves.
JR: My goal in making Happening was to show this profound economic and cultural revolution that’s starting to unfold. It’s going to change the way we move ourselves around and the way we power our homes. It’s just starting to happen.
If you think of this as a Hollywood disaster movie and if you believe in the science of climate change, as I do, this is equivalent of an asteroid coming toward the planet and then, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” Clean energy is, if not the most important thing, certainly one of the top things we can do to keep the quality of life expectable for humans on the planet. How can something be so important and people know so little about it? So I was just trying to create that baseline story that becomes the 101 for everybody.
TY: There is a conservative green movement happening. You featured two very interesting people, Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, and Debbie Dooley of Conservatives for Energy Freedom. Can you tell us a bit more about them?
JR: One exciting fact that I found out early on is that the combination of better, more efficient technology — via wind, solar and biomass — has brought down the costs of green energy dramatically. As a result, you can win the economic argument with renewables. I thought that was incredible. What an opportunity to try and bridge the partisan divide because traditionally, the economic argument has rested more with conservatives. I think all things being equal, and we know this from polls, something like two-thirds of all Americans want clean energy. I also felt it was important in terms of the message to show that we don’t have to let partisan divide, certainly the divide in place right now in Washington DC, hold our energy policy hostage. That doesn’t have to stop us from making progress. Nevada is a good example, as the Republican governor there signed nine of the 11 green-energy bills.
TY: It seems that so much of the hope for sensible energy policy happens on the local level.
JR: I live in Marin County, outside of San Francisco. A decade ago, a bunch of citizens decided they wanted to create a public utility and purchased electricity on behalf of our citizens. They went up against Pacific Gas and Electric and they won. They have been ramping up and supplying anywhere from 50 percent renewable to 100 percent renewables. Now it’s grown to be a community collective that includes 23 municipalities in California. So it’s exploding. I think you are going to see that happening more and more. That’s good right now, because you’re not going to see a lot of enlightened leadership coming out of DC, at least not in the foreseeable future.
TY: Why is your film important now?
JR: Our fossil-fuel industry continues to enjoy billions of dollars in subsidies. We can do a lot to speed things up in terms of green energy. We want to think about how to have a better planet. It’s not just an if, it’s a when. If we just treated clean energy the way we treat the oil and gas industry, we might go back to being leaders. But right now, we are being left in the dust by India and China.
TY: So what can people do after watching your film?
JR: You can go to the website happeningthemovie.com, and there is a list of things you can do. Even if you live in an apartment, you can get your apartment together to start a community aggregate choice program. You can get everybody together to invest in a solar farm. It’s happening more and more and more states are allowing this thing called community choice aggregate that is sort of like a co-op. Even in urban areas there are great ways to pull your resources to buy green power.