The new six-part National Geographic Channel/General Electric “Breakthrough” series already has CleanTechnica on the edge of our seats, and we know what happens before the series starts unspooling on Sunday night because we were on the list for advance copies! Naturally, we started with the “Energy on the Edge” episode, so we can tell you a bit more than you’ll catch from the trailer, and we also have some other insidery information to share.
As for how a documentary series about various cutting-edge innovations could practically make us break out in a cold sweat, more on that later — and for you media followers, we’ll have something to say about that, too.
The National Geographic Breakthrough Series
To get an idea of how unusual “Breakthrough” is, let’s start with a friendly comparison to the visuals you get from news sites like CleanTechnica. Perhaps you have noticed some of the exclusive photos and videos that our writing team has personally taken from behind the walls of cleantech laboratories, factories, hydropower plants, solar farms, and many other locations around the globe. We are very proud of our efforts, many of which have been undertaken with the assist of only an iPhone or other simple handheld device.
Now imagine what we could show you if we had a full-blown production team from Hollywood’s Imagine Entertainment and Asylum Entertainment at our backs. If you’ve read our coverage on the massive Crescent Dunes concentrating solar farm, for example, prepare for a shock. “Energy on the Edge” launches you on a jaw-dropping tour of the billion-dollar facility during its final phases of construction, where you’ll range among thousands of heliostats and dive into the innermost workings of the molten salt–enabled, steam-powered generating system designed to produce solar-sourced electricity whether the sun is shining or not.
So… does it work? The episode includes footage from a startup run, and if you already know the answer, don’t give it away.
“Energy on the Edge” also takes you deep inside the bowels of NIF, the Energy Department’s National Ignition Facility, where researchers are unlocking the secrets of nuclear fusion with the help of 192 precisely calibrated lasers. For the sake of contrast, here’s what the facility looks like on the NIF website:
Gripping, right? Okay, to be honest, that’s just the lead image at the “about NIF” link. They also have a cool media gallery to check out, so go ahead and take a look, and then watch “Energy on the Edge.” There’s still simply no comparison. “Energy on the Edge” grabs you and thrusts you into the middle of an actual test-firing, where you’ll sit in the control room, transfixed on your monitor — think Apollo 13 — with literally decades of work and billions of dollars riding on your shoulders.
So… will this one work? We’re not sayin’, you have to see for yourself.
Hair-Raising Tales Of Clean Technology
If you’re wondering what’s with all the cliffhangers, that’s the whole point. National Geographic and GE enlisted veteran cinematic and sci-fi storytellers Ron Howard as executive producer and co-exec Brian Grazer for the series overall, and Akiva Goldsman for the “Energy on the Edge” episode (other Hollywood luminaries direct the other five episodes).
Last Friday, I went to GE’s offices at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York for a sneak peak and panel discussion of “Breakthrough,” where we got to hear from the folks behind the show. Naturally, part of the Hollywood angle was meant to drum up interest among members of the public who might otherwise not get particularly excited about technology.
The other part was to unpeel the layers of effort that go into scientific discovery, and show the human labor behind the long-term, collaborative effort that goes into high-risk, high-reward projects.
The risk is truly real. Aside from the reputations at stake on high-profile projects like Crescent Dunes and nuclear fusion, “Energy on the Edge” also takes you inside the life of a lone garage-scale tinkerer intent on harnessing the power of tornadoes. I know, right? Well, think vortex effect and you might be on to something.
Our lone inventor is no spring chicken, and he’s working off a legacy from a fellow tinkerer who never lived to see the idea bear fruit, so he’s literally in a race against time to shepherd his life’s work beyond the garage doors.
For another aspect of risk, “Energy on the Edge” introduces you to craft beermaker Dogfish Head Brewery. I had a nice phone conversation with Dogfish CEO Nick Benz about the company’s participation, and he explained that Dogfish caught the eye of the “Breakthrough” team through its relationship with GE, which has supplied part of an incredibly ambitious new waste-to-energy system for the company.
Our conversation with Benz focused on the operational aspects of the new system, which is designed as a twofer: it captures biogas from the brewery’s waste, and it filters the wastewater (basically, slightly soapy, diluted beer) into potable-quality water.
Benz explained the connection between the company’s affinity for the steampunk aesthetic with the new system, as expressed by the iconic steampunk treehouse outside the brewery entrance:
“…it is at the core of who we are, which is off-centered ales for off-centered people, but then it branched out to celebrate other off-center goodness, taking the path less traveled…not just being different for different’s sake, but doing different and it being really good…when enough people recognize that and want to take that journey with you, that’s what off-centeredness is really about.
“In that regard, this wastewater plant is not a visually beautiful thing. It’s pretty functional, non-moving, just a bunch of tanks and pipes. But the fact that we created a full clean water regeneration loop and a full alternative energy production loop is not as common as a lot of folks, who will do either one or the other…there are others out there but we just take it all the way.”
Biogas just happens to be one of our favorite topics (see our sister site Planetsave for more), and all the steampunk stuff was really interesting, but I have to admit that “Energy on the Edge” took the Dogfish story in an entirely different direction.
Hint: it has something to do with the “startup pains” that Benz noted during our conversation.
You can get more of a sneak peek at “Energy on the Edge” from the “Breakthrough” website, and before we get on to the next topic, let’s just note for the record — speaking of high risk — that the US Army has a similarly titled “Energy to the Edge” project that is not a video. It’s an initiative designed to provide our troops with the tactical edge inherent in energy that is scavengable, portable, and flexible — namely, renewable energy.
What About Fox?
Media watchers may recall that, just this past September, National Geographic inked a deal with 21st Century Fox that expands an 18-year relationship between the two entities. Yes, that would be the climate change–denying Rupert Murdoch Fox — although, the elder Murdoch officially passed the company torch to his son last summer.
Here’s what current Fox CEO and son James Murdoch has to say about his company’s relationship with National Geographic:
“We are privileged to have the opportunity to expand our partnership to continue to bring to audiences around the world, ‘The world and all that is in it,’ as National Geographic Society’s second president Alexander Graham Bell stated more than a century ago. We believe in the Society’s mission of bringing the world to audiences through science, education and exploration.”
That’s quite ironic, given Fox’s role in amplifying outlandish claims about climate science here in the US.
However, that perspective is certainly not at play in “Energy on the Edge.” It’s a straightup call for action, and it makes a strong case that the risk of renewable energy innovation is well worth the payoff. Hopefully Howard, Grazer, and Goldsman can open more minds to that message.
Image (screenshot) courtesy of National Geographic.
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