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Netflix and Disney seek to ditch the diesel on TV and movie sets

The Clean Mobile Power Initiative, managed by Third Derivative, is hunting for companies developing emissions-free technologies for the entertainment industry.

The movie set for Netflix's The Adam Project at Jack Poole Plaza West in Vancouver

The movie set for Netflix's The Adam Project at Jack Poole Plaza West in Vancouver (January 2021). Image via Shutterstock/Farts Pfotografy

When Emma Stewart joined Netflix as its first sustainability leader in early 2021, one of the initial priorities she declared was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to the creation and production of the company’s movies and television programming. That job turned out to be tougher than expected, she told me this spring.

While the company has found workarounds — ​​using hydrogen fuel cells to power the Bridgerton set in the U.K. and mobile batteries in some locations in the U.K., Canada and the U.S. — those technologies weren’t purpose-built for the entertainment industry. So, Netflix has decided to provide some encouragement.

The new Clean Mobile Power Initiative launched last week by Third Derivative, the climate tech accelerator founded by RMI and New Energy Nexus, was created to identify five to 10 startups working on zero-emissions technologies that could power production sets. Netflix and The Walt Disney Company are funding the 18-month-long program and will also be involved in selecting and working with its participants to test the approaches.

"After decades of relying on diesel generators, transitioning to clean mobile power alternatives is a smart business move for film and television productions," Stewart said in a statement. "They’re quieter, healthier and often already cheaper over their lifetime, but they’re yet to be available in all the forms and locations our industry needs."

Diesel generators used by entertainment companies for production emit an estimated 700,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, according to figures cited by Third Derivative. 

When I spoke with Stewart about the initiative (then in the planning stages) in late March, she told me Netflix has already run at least 100 pilots of these alternative energy approaches, mostly in the U.K. and North America. "We think this infusion of clarity and nonprofit funding will help encourage innovation," she told me.

One challenge Netflix and other entertainment companies face is that they usually lease the equipment used on sets, Stewart told me. So, they need to convince rental companies to invest in technologies such as renewable powered batteries, green hydrogen fuel cells and other approaches that aren’t currently as cost-effective. 

Disney and Netflix became involved in the Clean Mobile Power Initiative together after Stewart shared her concerns and frustrations with her counterparts at the company, and she hopes other entertainment companies will eventually follow suit. "This initiative presents an opportune moment for the entertainment industry to come together and support acceleration and availability of innovative clean mobile power technologies," said Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president of environmental sustainability for The Walt Disney Co., in a statement.

Caroline Winslow, manager with Third Derivative, said the types of technologies being considered by the new initiative include energy storage devices that can be powered on site with renewables or recharged as needed with electricity from a zero emissions grid. Fuel cells using green hydrogen are also of interest, as are hybrid solutions that combine fuels cells and batteries. 

Winslow declined to disclose how much money Netflix and Disney are contributing to the program. Funding will be extended in the form of grants; neither company will invest directly in the startups as part of this program, she said.

There is room for other participants, including equipment rental houses and other entertainment companies. And over time, the technologies being tested could spill over to serve applications in adjacent sectors that rely heavily on mobile power generation, such as disaster relief or construction, Winslow said.

Applications for the program will be open at least through July, although no official deadline has been set. The selections will be finalized by early fall, Winslow said.

Editor's note: This article was updated June 29.

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