‘La Brea’ S2 aims to reduce carbon footprint with switch from diesel to battery power

The 'La Brea' S2 unit base with the Aggreko battery systems in the foreground.

NBCUniversal’s second season of La Brea, currently shooting in Melbourne, is believed to be one of the first productions globally to use a hybrid lithium-ion battery system to power its unit base – saving up to an estimated 20,000 litres of diesel fuel a month.

Unit manager Richie Young, of Red Fox Unit Services, was the driver of the production using the battery system. He tells IF it is “revolutionising” his work and believes it marks a turning point for the industry in reducing its carbon footprint.

Film and television has a significant environmental impact. For instance, UK research via the BAFTA-backed Albert suggests just one hour of television produced creates 13.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – the equivalent of running three homes with gas and electricity for a whole year.

With connections at power generator supplier Aggreko, Young heard the company would be bringing two of its prototype Hybrid Battery Banks (manufactured by POWR2) to Australia for the first time.

Having long been passionate about making the industry more sustainable, he could see how they could be used to supply power for film and TV production.

La Brea proved his first opportunity to test his theory.

Two battery units of 90KVA are set up on trucks which are charged by a diesel engine. The battery and diesel unit talk wirelessly to one another, with the engine kicking in to charge the battery once it gets to 10 per cent.

Each battery unit takes approximately two hours of diesel running time to fully charge up. In La Brea‘s case, this then powers 30 working trucks at unit base including convection ovens, air conditioners, tumble dryers, water heaters and water pumps for up to 24 hours.

The alternative would be to run diesel powered generators for that entire operation; essentially the team are now saving 22 hours of emissions per day.

Once Young and Aggreko event specialist Travis Anderson worked out how the set up could best be arranged, the next step was getting the financial controllers on board.

Currently, as the battery system is a prototype, it is about three to four times the upfront cost of diesel generator to rent. There are then further added costs for the trucks.

However, given the considerable fuel savings, Young was able to forecast that the production would save a significant amount of money in the long run by using less diesel, which currently costs around 210 cents per litre.

He estimates the carbon emission reductions per month to be around 270-290 tonnes.

“It’s a massive game changer,” he says.

“The initial costs seem daunting, but now the advantages are hugely evident. It ticks all the boxes, not just from an environmental aspect, but in the way we run unit as a whole.

“I wouldn’t want to work on another production without having this set up. It is definitely a turning point… of how we work in the film industry.”

Benefits beyond fuel and emissions savings include a reduction in crew hours, as the system can run 24/7; teams don’t have to ‘swap’ power from main unit to overnight back-up unit generators. This also means if teams like make-up and costumes want to continue working after hours, they can – unit doesn’t have to kick them out.

“Our catering department love us now because they can do a slow cooked brisket over a 12 hour cook overnight, with their ovens running,” Young says.

The battery units can run 4-5 days without assistance, and can be monitored remotely. They also have a consistent power draw, reducing power surges and therefore costs on equipment repair.

“When we’re in remote locations and we have these battery banks running over the weekends, there’s no stress; you don’t worry about it. Whereas normally on a weekend, if we’re running diesel generators, we would have to send at least one of our guys in to make sure the fuel levels were okay; nothing’s gone wrong, nothing’s caught on fire, all that sort of jazz,” Young says.

“We know it’s constantly providing power with and if anything goes wrong, it talks to the generator and the generator fires up.”

While La Brea, as a large-scale production, is using two batteries, Young says for an Australian project of a typical budget – say a 10 week production – you would likely only need one.

“I think everyone should get on it, it’s the way forward. A lot of people in our industry are a little bit scared of change, here and there. But I’ve always been pushing the green side and seeing which way we can move, with technology the way it is.

“It’s not only made production cheaper through the the fuel saving, and is great from an environmental point as well, but it’s also made our job easier, which was the surprising side of it. I wasn’t expecting that when we first looked at the set up.”

Erin Underhill, president of Universal Television notes the studio is always trying to make its projects more sustainable, including asset reuse centers, energy efficient LED set lighting, to alternative sources of power for sets.

“We are thrilled to have La Brea Season 2 utilising new and innovative technologies to green their production,” she says.

“It’s a solid step in the right direction and creates a pathway for future productions all over the world.”