How Business Thrives in a 'Carbon Nation'

I met Peter Byck in 2008, when he was making his documentary “Carbon Nation,” which focuses on climate-change solutions happening today from people of all occupations and political stripes -- some of whom don't even believe in climate change. (I have a cameo role in the film.) It’s an upbeat, business-focused film that aims to be non-preachy and non-partisan about how the U.S. can achieve national and energy security while promoting health and a clean environment.

On the occasion of today's release of the film’s DVD and on-demand versions, I asked Byck, "Carbon Nation's" writer and director, to reflect on the experience: what he’s learned about business, his hope for the movie, and why he remains optimistic about the potential to solve our climate challenges.

Joel Makower: What was the business message you and the “Carbon Nation” team had in mind when you started the movie?

Peter Byck: Early on in the filming, the second day in fact, we were at an American Council on an Energy-Efficient Economy conference and I was hearing how $1 spent on energy efficiency produced $2 in savings. That sounded like good business to me. We learned that Dow Chemical had spent just under $2 billion on energy-efficient programs since 1994 and had saved nearly $10 billion so far. It seemed like a no-brainer that every company would jump on this bandwagon. And it gave us hope for our movie, because we realized that if things don’t make money, don’t make business sense, they won’t really reach scale. So that was the early business message: cut energy use and save money.

Then, during the filming, and even after, as I’ve been screening the movie all over the U.S., I’ve learned how business decisions, based on energy savings, can have unexpected cascading benefits. We have a story that takes place in Roscoe, Texas. Cliff Etheredge and his son David took on the challenge of organizing 400 small cotton farms into one large tract of land, enticing Eon Energy to develop a wind farm — the world’s largest at the time. Big ranches were easy to develop, with one or two owners, but Cliff’s small cotton farm, along with his neighbors’, was seen as unworkable – too many contracts. But Cliff is a natural leader and got it done. Now, farmers who were solely dependent on their hit-or-miss cotton crops had a steady source of income, derived from the turbines: a royalty that ranged from $3,000 to $15,000 per year, per turbine. This changed lives.

That benefit was intended. The re-birth of their small downtown area makes sense, since more money was being earned. The benefit no one expected was that folks in their early 20s, who had left Roscoe for Dallas or San Antonio for work, could now find work at home – and grandparents got to live near their grandkids. Every renewable-energy or energy-efficiency story we found for “Carbon Nation” had this sort of positive human side benefit.

Makower: Did you find what you expected to find, in terms of business innovation and engagement around climate change? What surprised you most?

Byck: I’m an optimist, so I was hoping to find all sorts of business innovation. Many are still early, like thin-film solar, plastics made from carbon dioxide, algae-derived biofuels, and redesigned wind turbine blades that increase efficiency by adding humps based on those of the humpback whale.

Many of the people we found working in these fields were very concerned with climate change. It was a motivator for them. But in Alaska, we met Bernie Karl, a geothermal pioneer, creating basically what’s an air conditioner in reverse, enabling him to generate power from relatively low-temperature water – what he calls “Water that’s not as hot as McDonalds coffee” — 160-180º F, that sort of range. He got the attention of UTC Power, which provided the Carrier air conditioning equipment, and he’s saving big money on energy, cutting costs from 30 cents a kilowatt-hour down to 5 cents — and he’s hoping to reach 1 cent soon. Bernie hates smokestacks — he’s an industrial-level recycler. He’s going to do more to slow climate change than I’ll ever do.

Then came a huge surprise for me: He doesn’t think humans are the cause of global warming. At first, I was pissed and thought he should just accept that climate change is human-made. Then I realized that he was a gift for our movie, and to the world really. He’s in action, lowering carbon, reducing the use of fossil fuel, all things good for slowing climate change. He and I don’t have to agree on the climate issue. That’s okay, because as he says, “I like clean air and I like clean water. And that’s so simple.”