Interview produced by Sharon Hartzell.
Innovation in technology and media go hand-in-hand for Kimberly Williams, Media Rise sponsor and co-founder of the Solar Fuels Institute, a global consortium of researchers dedicated to solving the energy crisis. Williams is also President of the Board of Directors for Mountainfilm, an annual documentary festival held in Telluride, CO. Media Rise recently spoke with Williams about what drives her interest in both alternative energy technology and media for social impact.
Media Rise: Tell us about your work at the Solar Fuels Institute. How did you come to found the Institute? What’s the most exciting research in alternative energy at this time?
Kimberly Williams: I was very intrigued with the early stages of the research into alternative energy, knowing it could go in so many directions. I was impressed with leading world scientists in the field; they had a collaborative nature that was unique among scientists.
The most exciting research right now in alternative energy is related to hydrogen. Hydrogen cars, hydrogen fuel cells…companies that produce hydrogen products are doing very well. The flip side is carbon, and carbon recycling. A lot of scientists want to suck the carbon out of the air, or remove it at the site of emissions, and do something with it, so it doesn’t just enter the air and contribute to global warming.
MR: What is the most interesting and challenging aspect of the work that you do at SOFI?
KW: The most fascinating thing about all of this is figuring out how we can get these new, revolutionary, scientific products in the hands of consumers. That’s the giant bridge. When you’re in a lab you’re working on the chemistry, you’re working on the science, and it’s very difficult to take that and move it into consumer markets. The challenge is making it cost effective. A lot of people don’t understand how much of their technology comes from universities, but someone always has to move it from the lab and into people’s hands.
MR: How did you become interested in media and film, and particularly in Media Rise?
KW: Telluride Mountainfilm is a documentary film festival, similar to Media Rise. The common thread between Mountain Film and Media Rise is accelerating social change and social impact. The common difficulty is measuring our real impact. We can do everything possible to educate people, to help shape society toward ideals such as compassion, empathy and respect, but how do we measure it? I’m coming to Media Rise largely for that reason – to understand how we can measure social change.
MR: What role does the media play in advancing alternative energy research, particularly at the Solar Fuels Institute? Can Media Rise help advance this mission?
KW: That became a real bone of contention at SOFI. The scientists did not want to dumb down their research or use social media; they wanted to rely on publications and interviews. Still, I think there are a lot of scientists with advocacy and social media potential, and getting them to Media Rise to participate in a workshop together could be powerful. That’s exactly what Media Rise does – it creates collaborations, creates a product, and asks people to focus on the values surrounding that product. Many people need that help and that creative space.
→ View updates from the latest research at the SOFI VideoLab
MR: What environmental storytelling have you found particularly effective, from your experience at Telluride Mountainfilm?
KW: When thinking about success stories in this arena, two things come to mind from our festival this year. Racing Extinction was one film. We had some people who were offended by how dramatic the film was, but the real impact was that people were seeing live video behind the scenes [of endangered species destruction], and there were real villains presented.
The winner of our film festival was called Unbranded, about a group of boys riding horses from Mexico to the Canadian Border. For me, I just enjoyed the story. People love animal stories. People just naturally relate to certain things – we want to keep producing media that capitalizes on what we know people love and enjoy, and protagonists and characters do that for us.
MR: Can film advance our progress towards implementing sustainable energy sources? If you could make a “renewable energy” film, what would it look like?
KW: Many people are realizing that the funding is inadequate and that we’re never going to reach these solutions without getting funding. If someone were to make a movie about people who are changing the amount of money going into solar energy research, I think that would be impactful. Energy technology is going to be a huge profit base for a lot of people in the future. What I would like to do is take a person like Bill Gates, or Elon Musk – an emerging leading investor – and explore their frustrations and fears. They know that global policies and carbon taxes are not going to solve this problem as much as technology will. The film could have them visiting universities, interviewing people who can talk about how this technology is emerging – people seeking collaboration, discovery. It would be about the minds behind how we bring the money together, and exploring how exciting that process would be.