A Sunny Future: Environmentally conscious cinemas make the move to solar

Features
Technology

Six years ago, Film Journal International spoke to Cinema West CEO Dave Corkill about what was, at the time, a decision that put his chain on the cutting edge of the theatrical exhibition industry: adopting solar energy at three of Cinema West’s locations. “Our investment in solar energy will end up being a good economic decision in addition to being a great one for the environment,” said Corkill at the time. “It is really too early to tell how this will pan out for us. We will do more installations but will evaluate the existing ones a little bit longer.”

Well, readers, it’s been a “little bit longer,” and six years is an eon when it comes to technology. So we felt it was high time to check back in with Corkill—and others who have become involved in the use of solar energy in movie theatres in the years since our initial piece—to ask some questions about this evolving green-energy frontier. Why is solar energy a good fit for movie theatres? What are the challenges? And why has it been slow to catch on?

And slow it has been. Cinema West still has the same three theatres using solar energy as it did in 2011: the six-screen Fairfax Theatre, 16-screen Palladio and 13-screen Livermore, all in California. Solar isn’t cheap to purchase and install, and you want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. And, as it happens, Corkill has. The financial benefits at the Fairfax, Palladio and Livermore theatres have proven large enough—and the price of solar panels has become small enough—that Cinema West plans to install solar arrays on top of three more theatres over the next 18 months.

“It’s a good time” to invest in solar, Corkill explains. “Even though many of the local credits have disappeared, the federal credits are still there. With the cost of units declining and the cost of energy increasing, [adding solar energy is] a good business decision for us. The first three installations we did we installed at the peak cost of the units. It was an opportunity to evaluate whether to move forward with more, and we decided to wait. But now we’re jumping back in.”

“It’s never been a better time to buy solar,” concurs Greg Garrison, president of Northeast Solar. “The cost of solar has gone down, and the incentives”—many of which are set to expire over the coming years—“are still there. When we started, solar was selling for [around] eight dollars a watt. Now it’s three dollars and fifty cents a watt. There’s been a dramatic drop in just six years.”

Northeast Solar handled the solar array design and installation for Massachusetts-based Amherst Cinema, a nonprofit arts and education center that screens a combination of new, repertory and special-event films. They went solar last summer, driven by—per a joint statement from executive director Carol M. Johnson, business manager Holly Greeley and general manager George Myers—“a desire to be responsible community members. We’re a mission-driven organization that hopes to make a positive impact in the world through our programming. The opportunity to decrease our carbon footprint and save money over the long term was in stride with our mission.”

Approximately 25% of Amherst Cinema’s energy needs comes from its solar array; for Cinema West’s upcoming installations, Corkill predicts that the number will be around 40%. For Cinema West, too, the decision to go solar was a combination of environmentalism—Cinema West has also been a pioneer in the use of environmentally friendly LED lights—and practical financial concerns.

Regarding the second point, Corkill argues that movie theatres are “the perfect example of who should” invest in solar energy. “We consume a lot of electricity, number one. Number two, we have big, flat roofs,” perfect for solar panels. “The [financial] return is not going to set the world on fire, but it’s not a losing proposition.”

Let’s nail down some of those practicalities. First off, explains Corkill, solar energy makes more financial sense in some markets than in others. If your theatre is in a location where traditional energy costs are high, then congratulations: Solar energy may be a good fit for you.

California-based Pacific Gas and Electric, Corkill says, has “among the highest electricity costs in the nation, and for that reason installing [solar] systems where PG&E services our theatres is a good option. However, in the Sacramento market, for instance, we’ve decided not to move forward with any more installations, because Sacramento Municipal Utility District electric rates are much lower. For that reason, we can’t generate enough power to financially subsidize the cost of the system.”

Idaho, where two of Cinema West’s 14 theatres are located, isn’t a particularly feasible option for solar, either, since “electricity costs there are among the lowest in the nation.” Contrast that with Massachusetts, which, Garrison explains, “imports all its energy. So every time there’s an increase in energy costs, there’s a decrease in our economy, our spending capabilities, and what money goes back into our community.” Solar power keeps energy—and therefore money—centered on local communities.

On top of that, the infrastructure surrounding solar energy continues to improve, with technological advancements pointing to a future where consumers can store solar energy and decide how and when to use it. Our current relationship to electricity, Garrison explains, is more or less abstract: People “turn on their lights, and at the end of the month they pay their electric bill.” But solar energy is “no longer just this thing that you put on your roof to be green and to save energy dollars. It’s actually a part of the future—the Internet of Everything… Even in areas where electrical rates aren’t all that high, [solar] still make sense for the future.”

Solar makes particular sense, argues Corkill, for independent theatres. No one says that solar is an instant moneymaker; it can cost quite a lot of money up-front, and it takes years to earn that money back. (Amherst Cinema expects to recoup its investment after five to seven years; Cinema West is aiming for closer to ten.) If you’re a chain, convincing investors and stockholders to pony up large amounts of cash can be difficult, especially when you consider that “most theatre chains lease”—not own—“their properties.” Invest in solar on a building that you own, and even (fingers crossed against bad luck) if the building’s not still a movie theatre five years down the line, solar has still increased the value of your property tremendously. If you’re an independent operator, “you don’t have a shareholder or a financial participant to put that money up for you, so you may finance it. But that financing comes to an end, and when it does, your power bills will always be lower after that, and your property will be worth more.”

Solar energy, adds Garrison, can stabilize a theatre’s energy needs—a sizeable benefit when you consider that, between lighting, air conditioning, projection costs and more, movie theatres are such large consumers of electricity. Due to Amherst Cinema’s use of solar, they’re “less impacted by fluctuations in the energy market,” Garrison explains. “If we had a three-percent increase per kilowatt hour in the cost of electricity, that can mean a big difference for them in their operating margins. Now, not so much. Because they’re producing their own power, they’re saving those dollars, and the increases don’t have nearly the effect they [otherwise would].”

There are also tax incentives, which exist on the federal and (in many cases) state level. “Whatever the cost of your solar array is, the federal government will give you 30 percent of that back in a tax credit,” Garrison says. “So it’s either a check that comes back to you as a refund, or you don’t have to pay those dollars to the federal government when your tax bill’s due.” Many states also have a “net metering” system (or something similar) in place, under which you get credit on your electrical bill for any energy your solar array puts back onto the grid.

Add to those financial incentives the increase of community goodwill—Johnson, Greeley and Myers note that the response to Amherst Cinema’s addition of solar has been “very enthusiastic and positive”—and the fact that solar panels require practically no maintenance, and you have a great fit for a large swath of theatres across the country.

Why, then, have more theatres not gone the solar route? It all comes back to money, money, money. “You have a situation now in our industry where massive capital is being poured into wholesale changes in the way we do business,” says Corkill. “New seats are the number-one thing that theatre owners are investing in, and there’s not enough capital to do everything at once,” especially if you’re a smaller theatre. Johnson, Greeley and Myers agree: “Because going solar is not inexpensive, it moves down the list.”

Audiences notice and appreciate firsthand the benefits of recliner seats, a new bar, an upgraded sound system…but “solar sits on the roof invisibly doing its thing every time the sun shines,” says Garrison. “It’s not flashy.” And, because of the high-energy needs of movie theatres, “even with a lot of panels (we have over 80, the maximum we could fit), solar can only make a small dent in your electric bill,” say Amherst’s representatives. (Their savings have been around 15%.) “Additionally, as with many other nonprofit cinemas, we have had a few recent high-ticket expenses, in particular the transition from 35mm film to digital projection.”

Further, Amherst cautions that those transitioning to solar should “prepare for resistance from your electric company.” And both Amherst and Corkill stress the importance of vetting your solar vendors thoroughly. “Do [your] research and invest in a company that’s been stable, that hasn’t grown too fast and isn’t declining,” Corkill cautions. “Make sure that company’s going to be around to service your needs.”

So…does solar have growing pains? Sure. Is it a perfect fit for every theatre? No. But add all the benefits together, argues Corkill, and “I can’t see a reason not to do it. Especially since, as a society, we have to reduce our consumption of fossil fuel. We have to rely on alternative energy in order to continue to exist. We have an obligation to our fellow man to step up and continue to pay it back. And solar power systems are a great way to do that. There are many other alternative energy savings, things that exhibitors should invest in—but solar power is the single greatest thing that an exhibitor can do to offset their carbon footprint.”