Avolites: Sustainability

The FOH of Romeo Santos’ tour in 2019, showing racks for media servers, lighting control and networking, all of which require immense amounts of power.

Founder Director of lighting company Avolites, Steve Warren continues his series of articles talking to leading figures about the current state of play in the industry with a look at the growing importance of sustainability.

We conducted the interviews for this series of features at the start of March. Since then, we’ve been somewhat overtaken by events. Reading back over my notes the growing unease about what was then a developing COVID-19 situation seems almost absurdly downplayed. The industry has learned to its cost how bad a global pandemic can be since, but whatever its impact now it should not detract from the situation that interviewee after interviewee brought up in our conversations. And that is the threat of climate change and the importance of moving towards more sustainable methods of production and lighting to help combat it.

Dave Green at Realtime Environment Systems sums it all up very well. “I think everyone gets excited about big, media-grabbing headlines on AI and machine learning,” he said. “I think the disruptive technologies of the next few years will be simpler, they’ll be smaller, cheaper and most importantly they will be lower powered. To meet carbon reduction targets power consumption is going become the hot topic. Anyone who has products which are super low-powered are going to do well therefore and I believe this will be the biggest disruption to our industry.”

So, let’s park COVID-19 for a while and take a deep dive into sustainability.

Interlocking issues

There are several interlocking issues that crop up here. The most visible, if you’ll pardon the pun, is obviously lighting. Happily, though it’s also one of the ones that has had the most work done on it.

“Lighting is a long way down the road with LED fixtures. Gone are the days when you would strike your lamps at 10 o’clock in the morning and leave them on all day,” said Dave Weatherhead.

He’s not wrong about being a long way down the road either, one of the touchstones of the move to LED was Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ tour which took place as far back as 2008.

Radiohead’s Lighting and Stage Director, Andi Watson, and Tour Production Manager, Richard Young, decided they wanted to lessen the environmental impact of touring a long time before Coldplay’s Chris Martin made his famous statement on ceasing touring late last year. As Chris Ewington related: “Watson used to have a power demand of 400 amps three phase for lighting. Using LEDs this brought that down to 32 amps three phase. Radiohead pioneered this in 2008 and no one paid attention.”

The ColorReach Powercores that Radiohead used in that tour could produce over 5000 lumens of colour-changing light over 152m. We can produce the same level of brightness from giant LED screens nowadays, flooding arenas and outdoor venues with more light at less power than ever before.

We’ve come a long way since, but in many ways the use of the LEDS for ‘In Rainbows’ was only the tip of the iceberg as there were several other innovations that were introduced on that tour that help widen our examination of what we mean by sustainability.

Holistic view

“Young and Watson had an artic with a 32-tonne battery that trickle charged at festivals in the daytime and they drove the lighting off that battery at the show,” said Ewington. “The crew had folding bicycles and they’d book a hotel near the show and they would cycle back and forth on them. It’s about being rational on the amount of kit and having tighter truck packs, so you have less trucks.”

The environmental costs of transport are an obvious target for action. As Weatherhead points out, the problem is not so much the weight of the kit that’s being transported, but the volume of it; it’s the set and staging that is the real challenge as that’s the stuff that takes up the most truck space.

“If you’re going to ship a stagecoach stage around, if you’re going to leapfrog stagecoach stages on a really big production, then you’ve got 20 or 30 trucks of steel driving around, at least, just to move that stuff around,” he said. “You have to be clever about the modularity of how you build things and try and build the set out of as many reusable parts as possible and be as clever as you can be about packing it down.”

Electric trucks will help lower emissions, of course, but are a way away yet. Production on the Tesla Semi, for example, has slipped due to prioritising automobile battery production during lockdown, with the first of the $200,000 units now expected to roll next year. They will be good for between 300-500 miles depending on model and use less than 2kWh per mile. The Mercedes-Benz eActros will hit mainstream production the same year, but while there are plenty of vehicles being launched expect the tipping point for them to be a handful of years away at least.

Interestingly though, it’s not the transport costs of a production that have the main environmental impact. That role lands with the audience. According to a study that was done by Radiohead on the environmental impact of the ‘In Rainbows’ tour, truck and crew movements only accounted for 15% of carbon emissions. A massive 85% were generated by the audience getting to and from the venue.

“That suggests a future for events like, where we now have cinemas showing theatre productions, these events are on demand with Netflix or whoever and the live gigs will still take place, but fewer people will attend them in person,” said Rachael Nicholson of Backstage Academy.

It makes it a difficult balancing act for tours that want to be carbon neutral. Staying in place would seem to make the most sense at first blush, but factor in the externalities of audience movements, for example, and the balance shifts markedly. Key, you feel, will be how the legislation that enforces all this — and it is probably coming at some point, most people agree — works out its equations.

“The main thing that will have an impact on us in the next 10 years is legislation,” said Nicholson, pointing out the role that it’s already played in moving on from tungsten by way of example.

Inbuilt obsolescence

There is one final factor that we ought to look at here, which is an uncomfortable one from a manufacturer’s point of view, and that is obsolescence. Ideally, from a sustainability point of view, products need to be created with longer replacement cycles, lower power requirements, and less initial manufacturing impacts.

“In the future resources will be constrained,” said Martin’s Peter Skytte. “But we believe that if we can create tools for the industry that last longer that will also increase sustainability.”

There is a problem here though that we’ve seen before at Avolites. While we have tried to engineer as much upgradability into as many of our consoles as we can, once you get to an approximate 10-year timeframe the original product can no longer keep up; new functionality at some point is more than critical elements of the architecture can cope with.

The irony is that even if you can upgrade the processor, for example, we’ve found that people are no longer interested. After a decade of use they simply want something new.

Hopefully that attitude will start to change as more and more people look to sustainable practices. And it is worth pointing out that secondhand equipment helps drive a thriving market in emerging economies. Kit that drove the biggest shows in Europe and the US in the early 2000s can still be found doing sterling work in places like Africa or Indonesia; very little that works is thrown away once you look at the global picture.

And the global picture is very much what this is all about. We can’t downplay the impact of COVID-19, it is ravaging out industry in ways none of us dreamt of at the start of this year. But it is a temporary situation that likely does have a vaccine-shaped solution at the end of it. There is no vaccine for rising sea levels, shifting climatic zones, species extinction, population displacement, widespread crop failure, and all the other new horseman of the climate emergency apocalypse that are heading our way over the next decades.

Dave Green started us off, and he can close as well. “We are at a turning point,” he said. “We cannot go on forever with bigger and even bigger productions. None of us want to stop producing big spectacular shows, we just need to be lower powered, use less truck space, carry less weight — and we are all taking steps in this direction. We all need to take a personal responsibility to offset our carbon footprint as much as possible.”