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It’s the end of a long day in the midst of a busy clean-energy conference and Mark Rabin is still bursting with energy — after all, energy and power generation are his business, and his efforts have brought renewable energy to the set of the latest James Bond film.
He’s the founder and CEO of Portable Electric, a Vancouver-based cleantech company that’s changing mobile power generation by offering portable renewable-energy generators called VOLTstacks. They're replacing gas and diesel generators and disrupting the status quo across an array of industries and applications, from film and television to on-the-ground disaster-relief efforts. And in Vancouver next weekend, look out for VOLTstacks at the city's Pride celebrations.
Rabin is buzzing because he's just met one of his heroes, Bertrand Piccard, who was a keynote speaker at the Clean Energy Ministerial in Vancouver, where the Canadian government hosted 2,500 government officials, experts and private-sector representatives from 25 countries this spring.
Piccard is a Swiss balloonist, entrepreneur and psychiatrist known for co-piloting the first non-stop balloon flight around the world in 1999 and for circumnavigating the world in three flights between 2015 and 2016 on a plane powered entirely by solar energy.
Rabin is inspired by Piccard’s approach, which he describes as, “Just go and make it happen and then the engineering will follow.”
“The first reaction a lot of people have when you're introducing new technologies into age-old industries, where the incumbent is, like, a hundred-year-old technology is, ‘Not possible,’” Rabin said. “Like, ‘You can't fly around the world in a solar-powered plane.’”
But like Piccard, Rabin has also bucked convention with Portable Electric.
“It’s very different from other technology companies, where they spend two or three years in the lab trying to figure out the best invention. We said, ‘Let's make a product, let's get it into people's hands and let's let the market and the customers tell us what they want,’” Rabin told National Observer.
They began powering events and festivals, including Pride celebrations and the Vancouver Mural Festival, where Rabin said they started proving their technology.
Manufactured in an 8,000-square-foot facility in Vancouver, the company’s VOLTstack mobile power stations are designed to replace traditional gas and diesel generators. They are silent and emission-free, powered by mini solar panels and lithium ion battery banks that charge in as little as 2½ hours.
The generators come in three sizes. The smallest is the 190-pound VOLTstack 2k, which delivers 250 watts of continuous power for 10 hours. It’s around two feet tall and recharges from a 120-volt wall outlet as well as solar and wind.
The 5k weighs 330 pounds, but it’s just a few inches taller and wider than its smaller counterpart. It delivers 500 watts of continuous power for 10 hours. At least one VOLTstack 5k is on its way to Burning Man in northwestern Nevada, according to a post on Portable Electric’s Facebook page.
Finally, the VOLTstack 20k is attached to a trailer and weighs 5,000 pounds. It can be customized to suit different needs for days of continuous power supply.
It’s only been about four years since Rabin had what he called the “aha” or “eureka” moment that catalyzed Portable Electric. A friend asked him to help figure out how to power a 10-kilometre walk-run — the Great Climate Race in Stanley Park — without using fossil-fuel generators. When they couldn’t find a solution, they cobbled one together and soon, Portable Electric was born.
“The very first day we opened our doors, there was somebody there waiting to rent the equipment... We haven’t looked back. We realized there was a pent-up market demand,” said Rabin, who added that solving such a pain point in the marketplace is “business 101.”
Portable Electric powers 007
One industry in particular has embraced and even helped shape the renewable generators from their early stages because of that pent-up demand: film and television.
“I originally heard about Portable Electric in its very early days, when they were still banging away in the back of the maker lab and getting their prototypes together,” said Zena Harris, who Rabin calls the “guru of sustainability and film” in Vancouver.
Harris founded Green Spark Group, which offers on-set consulting and education, training and strategy development for sustainability initiatives in the film industry. Among their clients are the television shows The X Files, The Man in the High Castle, and Legion and The Bletchley Circle. Harris is also a curator with the Sustainable Production Forum, originally launched four years ago as a collaboration between Green Spark and the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Once crew members on a production try out the VOLTstacks, Harris said, she sees sparks flying in their minds.
“They’re like, ‘Wow, I see what the future is going to look like,” she said, explaining that gas generators are usually parked around the corner and connected with long cables because of their noise and fumes. But even the largest 20k VOLTstack can be positioned directly beside a set.
Sustainability got Portable Electric in the door of the film industry, but at the end of the day, Rabin said, the VOLTstack generators are increasingly popular because they can save time and money and allow for more creativity on set.
One of the VOLTstack generators was recently spotted powering an IMAX 70mm camera in a leaked image of the Bond 25 production.
A member of the Portable Electric team established a partnership with Green Voltage, an equipment-rental company and a group of what Rabin calls the top gaffers in the U.K. film industry, who became the representatives and dealers of VOLTstack there.
Now, the renewable generators are travelling around the world with Bond.
The excitement in Rabin’s voice is palpable as he searches for another paparazzi photo of Daniel Craig on location in Jamaica with one of the VOLTstacks in the background. Actually, Rabin can't recall Craig's name — it's not the celebrity he's excited about, but the adoption of Portable Electric's renewable technology by one of the highest-grossing film franchises in history.
And just a couple of weeks ago, a VOLTstack can be seen powering equipment at the beginning of a video shared on Twitter by the Bond franchise itself.
Saving emissions, time and money in film
Erica Elson is a production supervisor at the American Film Institute (AFI), which runs a graduate-level film school in L.A. Harris connected her to Rabin after Elson and her colleagues at AFI decided to boost their sustainability practices. They created a checklist based on industry best practices and started looking for resources that could help students make their productions more sustainable. Rabin travelled to L.A. and loaned the program a generator for the students to try.
“The word spread really quickly,” Elson said. “People who didn't even know that we were doing this great initiative yet were interested in using the generator.”
Elson said the generators offer particular advantages in L.A., where dry conditions can lead to fires.
“If you have a fuel generator, you need a fire-safety officer,” she said. “We’ve had a couple students do these projects that are in the middle of the woods, and they can take the (VOLTstack) generator off the truck, drag it into the woods and there's no issues, there's no danger.”
Elson said the renewable generators also offer cost savings, including eliminating the need to refuel or hire fire-safety officers in some situations.
“The cost for a safety marshal can be up to US$1,500 a day,” she said. “If you add on those ancillary costs, it's actually less expensive to rent the 5k VOLTstack than to rent a gas generator.”
In addition to saving time and money and reducing emissions, Harris of Green Spark said the generators have helped productions be more mindful of the communities they’re working in.
“The No. 1 complaint at the local or the city municipal film office — pick a city, but I think Vancouver is a good case example — is generators. You know, the noise (and) the fumes. This is a way that productions can evolve, take into consideration community concerns and also reduce their carbon footprint and improve efficiency in terms of labour,” Harris said.
Lisa Day, the L.A.-based director of 20th Century Fox’s energy initiative, said the generators are also being embraced in large part because Rabin has been open to adapting and modifying them based on feedback from the film industry.
“We talk to a lot of people who are developing new technologies and there are unfortunately quite a few who aren't willing and interested in listening to the feedback,” Day said. “We've had exactly the opposite with Mark, where from Day 1, he has taken everything people on our shows say to heart.”
Rabin describes the process as a “living lab.”
“We got the product out, and then we brought it back to the shop and started tweaking. Over a two-year period, we perfected our product and in 2018, we started selling,” he said.
Day has been working in the area of sustainability in the film industry for more than a decade as part of the Sustainable Production Alliance organized by the “green” committee of the Producers Guild of America. She said the appetite for sustainability in the film industry is strong.
“For most of us, whether it's talent or whether it's the crew on all of our film and television projects, this is something that's important to them,” Day told National Observer. “The same way they incorporate it in their home lives, they want to be able to focus in on what they do for a job and work to improve the environmental performance of production.”
Initially, Day said, sustainability efforts started with reducing waste from film productions and sets, while awareness of fuel consumption and emissions grew over time.
“The largest part of our carbon footprint on a film and television production is always fuel,” Day said, adding fuel reduction is a “huge priority” in her work.
Like Harris, Day heard about Portable Electric in the company’s early days and reached out to Rabin to see if Fox could test out a generator on set. Initially, Day said, Fox began using the generators in Vancouver-based productions including The X Files and Legion. Since then, they’ve used the VOLTstacks in L.A. and Toronto and looked at expanding to productions in New York.
Fox Sports also ran a case study with the VOLTstacks at the U.S. Golf Association’s amateur tournament, which took place over six days in Pebble Beach, Calif., last year. Fox Sports’ live broadcasts can use anywhere from 20 to 80 small gas generators throughout a golf course in order to power cameras, audio-recording devices and radio-frequency (RF) equipment.
All told, four VOLTstack generators, which replaced the same number of Honda 2000 and 3000 gas generators, diverted 70 gallons of fuel and more than 1,200 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions, according to a report by Rabin.
There is still work to do, of course. Day and Elson said the VOLTstacks are typically used to replace smaller “putt-putt” gas generators or to take a portion of the load off a large diesel generator.
“We aren't necessarily reducing the number of big generators that we have yet,” Day said, “But we have been able to shift to smaller big generators if you will, or using (VOLTstacks) in remote locations, so we don't have to bring in a bigger generator for that.”
Powering communities after disaster
Powering film and events has helped Portable Electric scale up from lending out prototypes to green-power rental company to starting to sell VOLTstack units last year.
But Rabin has a larger vision, too. He wants to deploy the renewable generators wherever and whenever temporary, mobile power is needed.
When hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, Rabin said his phone started ringing off the hook. People with relatives in Puerto Rico came to the Portable Electric shop, still in its early days, asking if they could send generators to families without power.
“It broke our hearts because we just couldn't mobilize equipment, you know, like, by the time we could make equipment and ship it. That was a big lesson for us,” Rabin said.
Next time, Rabin wanted to be prepared. Portable Electric soon partnered with Stanley Black and Decker and lent 10 fully solar power stations to relief efforts for hurricane Florence in North Carolina in September last year.
“We set up little solar micro grids and powered fans and power tools, and lights. We worked with groups like the Cajun Army, who are like disaster relief vigilantes... they go out and help communities get on their feet after disasters,” Rabin said, adding that he would love to keep shipping containers with VOLTstacks and solar panels waiting in Miami in late summer, so when a hurricane hits, the equipment can be deployed to the worst-hit communities.
“We need to start to figure this out as a civilization,” Rabin said, pointing out that in addition to disasters, hundreds of millions of people are being displaced because of climate change.
“What are you going to do with them? How are we going to power this?” he asks.
Rabin answers his own question by describing a model for what he calls a “co-operative mobile energy infrastructure” that mobilizes clean technologies to solve problems on the ground, around the world, when they’re needed, rather than sitting in labs, warehouses and storage containers.
‘The boat has to be flipped over’
Portable Electric currently employs around 20 people and Rabin expects to hire another 20 to 40 people in the next year.
“These are highly skilled jobs. That's how you grow an economy,” Rabin said. “We're putting Canadian cleantech and manufacturing on the map right now.”
He’s aiming for systems change — not only in terms of portable, renewable power generation, but also elevating the Canadian cleantech sector as a whole.
“Canada is asleep at the wheel… We're still resting on our laurels from a time gone by,” Rabin said, noting that if Canada is serious about building a forward-thinking economy to be proud of, the country must start manufacturing more value-added products that support not only economic longevity, but also sustainability.
One way to do so is to leverage Canada's oilpatch, Rabin said, making oil production more efficient and using the proceeds to accelerate the new technology economy. It sounds like the “energy mix” touted by Canadian officials and the oilpatch itself during the clean-energy conference.
But Rabin's renewable generators look very different than the “I love Canadian oil” bumper stickers the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers handed out across the room from Rabin's own booth displaying VOLTstacks and solar panels.
A geologist by trade, Rabin spent more than a decade working in the oil industry. He left Alberta's oilpatch in 2013 to pursue an MBA and focused his studies on introducing renewable-energy technologies in communities in South Africa and Namibia before launching Portable Electric in 2015.
Rabin is proud of the work he did in Alberta, which he said armed him with the expertise he needed to launch Portable Electric.
“I learned a lot about business. I learned about the earth and the cosmos and our place on the planet and how we power our world.”
But the oil business is “caught on the concept of oil versus the concept of energy,” Rabin said. “Now, we know — let’s start transitioning.”
He concedes that changing policy and ingrained institutions is hard.
“Don't rock the boat. Right? You hear that a lot," he said.
“The boat has to be flipped over.”