When Avatar came out, James Cameron boasted that it would be the first solar-powered movie franchise in history. Now the director, deep-sea explorer, NASA advisor, and all around badass has turned his attention to designing cinematic-quality solar panels for the rest of us.
Cameron himself was an early adopter of solar tech: Besides switching to solar energy on his film sets, he has a 50-kilowatt array on his own Santa Barbara County property. But even he acknowledges the problems with solar panels, and one of the major hurdles keeping them from widespread adoption: They’re just kinda ugly.
“I happen to like the way solar panels look—the more the better,” Cameron told me by phone last week. “But I can appreciate the fact that not all people like them.”
The director’s quest for a better solar panel began by improving upon the aesthetics, but ended up providing a technological advantage. Due to their weight and footprint, solar panels are often designed to stay put. The panels are installed a certain way on-site to receive the peak amount of solar energy, but this optimal placement also means the panels’ performance will plummet at other times of the day. And then of course, there’s the challenge for homeowners whose roofs might not face the best direction or are made from a material that can’t easily support the heavy panels (like the clay tiles which blanket much of Southern California).
So the design needed to be able to track with the sun’s movement throughout the day, increasing productivity, and not rely on a roof’s pitch for optimized installation. “The idea was to unify form and function with this life-affirming image that anyone looking at it would instantly get,” Cameron says.
He chose a sunflower, which, aside from possessing those life-affirming qualities, also lent appropriately biomimetic inspiration: Sunflowers will turn to face the sun throughout the day.
The design began with a sketch by Cameron which was visualized by a CG modeler from Avatar, then realized by a structural engineer and fabricator. The 33-foot-tall “flowers” feature clusters of panels which are individually welded and bolted together; each 28.5-foot-wide flower includes five central panels surrounded by 14 “petals.” Cameron then worked with the solar company Sonnen on the tracking technology, which uses astronomic data to calculate the sun’s position and align the panels accordingly throughout the day.
The first Sun Flowers were installed last month on the Malibu campus of the MUSE School, a nonprofit school focused on environmental learning which was cofounded by his wife Suzy Amis Cameron (Cameron actually presented the concept to her as a birthday present in 2012).
The grid-tied system is currently generating about 260 kWh per day, which provides about 75 to 90 percent of the school’s power needs, but Cameron believes in the upcoming summer months the panels could supply the full 100 percent. (He’s looking forward to testing Tesla’s forthcoming Powerwall batteries for storage options, too.) Cameron’s team also developed a dashboard tool that allows students to monitor energy generation in the classroom, with teachers designing lesson plans around the science of solar collection.
Most of the larger solar arrays around LA consist of black rectangular voids arranged on a hillside, which have been a source of contention from neighbors who claim they’re ruining their views. The five Sun Flowers that dot the property at MUSE look almost like pieces of site-specific public art tucked into the chaparral canyon. Just the fact that the Sun Flowers are free-standing and somewhat sculptural is a big step in solar’s evolution.
And here’s the other benefit to Cameron’s design: The panels sit high above the ground and are shaped almost exactly like a beach umbrella, meaning they can also provide necessary shade to those standing below. These could be easily plopped into a sunny backyard and would also be ideal for a park—supplying power to the neighborhood.
Rather than launch a solar startup himself to put these into production, Cameron is working to make all the design documents for the Sun Flowers available to anyone. He’s filed a patent to prevent someone else from claiming authorship of the project, and once that’s procured he’ll post all the information publicly. (I would guess that one might follow him on Twitter for the details.)
In fact, this is not the first time Cameron has given away his solar-generating ideas. He designed a similar concept (a kind of hydraulic-powered folding solar panel) that could be deployed from a trailer for mobile power generation, a concept which he passed along to FEMA for use in emergency response centers.
Cameron’s call for more sustainable film production seems like an impossible dream, until you hear him talk about all the simple ways technology can help Hollywood leave a lighter footprint. Recently, Cameron has championed the use of drones over helicopters for capturing aerial footage, including organizing a drone-based camera contest in New Zealand.
With the advances in quadcopter platforms and lightweight HD cameras, drones are a no-brainer. “You can get world-class motion picture quality for a thousandth of the energy,” says Cameron. But he’s also in favor of strict FAA drone regulations—Cameron’s a helicopter pilot himself and worries that it’s only a matter of time before a drone flies through a rotor blade and kills the human inside.
Perhaps the biggest way Cameron is changing the production landscape is by building a truly “green” screen: retrofitting a suite of sound stages in Manhattan Beach, California, into an eco-friendly studio lot with renewable materials, a composting program, and its own bike share. The centerpiece is a one-megawatt rooftop solar array that he estimates will eventually reduce a production’s power bill to zero.
“It did cost us a little bit of money, but it all pays for itself,” he says. Imagine that—instead of expensive and highly inefficient location-based shoots, his nimble crews are building infinite digital worlds powered by the sun.
While Cameron’s larger goal is getting the film industry to think more responsibly, there’s no reason his ideas couldn’t spark change in the broader community. Avatar was once the top-grossing film of all-time; Cameron has a platform unmatched by other solar advocates (actually, are there any famous solar advocates? [Update: Of course, Ed Begley Jr.—maybe they can join forces]). Perhaps its only a matter of time before you’ll see Cameron’s perky Sun Flowers popping up across the country.
Follow the author on Twitter at @awalkerinLA