Everyone likes a good, low-carbon story

A Thought Leader Series Piece

By Peter Byck

Peter Byck

Note: Documentary filmmaker Peter Byck joined the School of Sustainability as a professor of practice this semester. His position is jointly shared with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he is now teaching students how to create their own clean energy documentaries.

Can good storytelling lead us to a low-carbon economy? And can I help students become good storytellers? These questions have led me to Arizona State University to become a joint professor of practice for the School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The Greeks had an expression that I will roughly paraphrase: “The storyteller rules society.” So the power of good storytelling is clearly not a new idea; but, storytelling has been a tough nut to crack for the folks who aspire to guide us to a low-carbon economy. I think the reason is simple enough: The scientists, engineers, and thought-leaders focused on sustainability are good at what they do; they just are not trained in storytelling. That’s why Carl Sagan became so well-known – a brilliant scientist and a fantastic storyteller – a powerful combination.

For me, documentaries are an excellent way to get a story told. Films aren’t the only storytelling game in town, to be sure, but they are incredibly accessible and easily disseminated now with the World Wide Web. And great documentaries actually change society. The Thin Blue Line proved that by using DNA, many people on death row were actually innocent. Super Size Me literally showed that too much fast food is, indeed, bad for one’s health; at least it was damaging for the filmmaker and his liver.

I continue to teach students from the School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication what it takes to make a quality documentary in my new course, Sustainability Storytelling. That being said, I’ll be happiest if they learn the craft and disciplines inherent in filmmaking so they can continue making films well after the class is complete. The students are challenged with making a short, 5-minute documentary profiling a clean energy story. This first semester is focused on Arizona’s place as a national leader in solar power and whether solar power will continue to grow. 

The story of rooftop solar and gas taxes

Arizona has just taken the lead nationally for rooftop installations per capita. This success has put a serious issue onto the front pages of the state’s newspapers. The same issue has been brewing for a few years in San Diego, which Arizona just displaced with the most residential solar. When the utilities charge their customers for electricity, they incorporate a fee for transmission line maintenance into the monthly statement. It’s not a separate charge; it’s blended in. Now, when someone has rooftop solar, they’re buying much less electricity from the utility thus the utility is collecting less money to repair the lines. The homeowner is still tethered to the grid for when they need more utility power (cloudy days, nighttime) and, importantly, so they can sell all excess power back to the utility at a retail rate. Many policy questions could be changed this fall: Will the utility be able to separate a transmission line fee from an electricity fee? Will they be able to do it at a charge that doesn’t completely undermine homeowners continuing to install solar in the first place? And will the utilities still to be required to buy back residential solar at a retail rate?

Let me give you another clean energy conundrum coming down the pike – literally. State and federal road repairs are funded with gasoline taxes. Imagine a day when a good chunk of peoples’ cars are electric – we’re not there yet, but this could change quickly in the next decade (think about how many people had cell phones in 1989). So, all those electric cars won’t be filling up, and big piles of gas tax revenue will disappear. Or will it? Will the taxes be torn from their tie to gas sales, and will they then be tied to miles driven? How will tax collectors figure out how many miles I’ll drive next year in my new Tesla Model S Sedan (I don’t own a Tesla… yet). And what about my rights to privacy – can the revenue folks figure out how many miles I drive without tracking which miles exactly that I’m driving?

Our power source

We can now actually see a near future where solar could be powering a serious slice of our homes and cars. Which leads me back to solar and utilities: Thomas Edison can be credited with helping to invent the very utility industry that’s now in such flux. He had something very prophetic to say about future energy use: “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature's inexhaustible sources of energy – sun, wind, and tide. I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Now in my first class at ASU, I look forward to the students’ take on these complex and intriguing solar issues in Arizona. I look forward to their mouths dropping when they learn how much work goes into a 5-minute film. And I really look forward to the premiere of their work this coming December.

About the author: Peter Byck has spent 26 years in the film business, working for studios and directing and editing his own documentaries, “Garbage” and “Carbon Nation.” He is collaborating with ASU to develop a series of short films for Carbon Nation 2.0, the first of which is slated to premiere at a World Bank event in December. Byck’s work and teachings focus on real-world solutions to today’s energy and land use opportunities. He received his B.F.A. in Film/Video from the California Institute of the Arts in 1986.