Vancouver company's green generators are pumping clean power into the film industry


It’s the end of a long day in the midst of a busy clean-energy conference and Mark Rabin is still bursting with energy — after all, energy and power generation are his business, and his efforts have brought renewable energy to the set of the latest James Bond film.

He’s the founder and CEO of Portable Electric, a Vancouver-based cleantech company that’s changing mobile power generation by offering portable renewable-energy generators called VOLTstacks. They're replacing gas and diesel generators and disrupting the status quo across an array of industries and applications, from film and television to on-the-ground disaster-relief efforts. And in Vancouver next weekend, look out for VOLTstacks at the city's Pride celebrations.

Rabin is buzzing because he's just met one of his heroes, Bertrand Piccard, who was a keynote speaker at the Clean Energy Ministerial in Vancouver, where the Canadian government hosted 2,500 government officials, experts and private-sector representatives from 25 countries this spring.

Piccard is a Swiss balloonist, entrepreneur and psychiatrist known for co-piloting the first non-stop balloon flight around the world in 1999 and for circumnavigating the world in three flights between 2015 and 2016 on a plane powered entirely by solar energy.

Rabin is inspired by Piccard’s approach, which he describes as, “Just go and make it happen and then the engineering will follow.”

“The first reaction a lot of people have when you're introducing new technologies into age-old industries, where the incumbent is, like, a hundred-year-old technology is, ‘Not possible,’” Rabin said. “Like, ‘You can't fly around the world in a solar-powered plane.’”

But like Piccard, Rabin has also bucked convention with Portable Electric.

“It’s very different from other technology companies, where they spend two or three years in the lab trying to figure out the best invention. We said, ‘Let's make a product, let's get it into people's hands and let's let the market and the customers tell us what they want,’” Rabin told National Observer.

They began powering events and festivals, including Pride celebrations and the Vancouver Mural Festival, where Rabin said they started proving their technology.

Manufactured in an 8,000-square-foot facility in Vancouver, the company’s VOLTstack mobile power stations are designed to replace traditional gas and diesel generators. They are silent and emission-free, powered by mini solar panels and lithium ion battery banks that charge in as little as 2½ hours.

The generators come in three sizes. The smallest is the 190-pound VOLTstack 2k, which delivers 250 watts of continuous power for 10 hours. It’s around two feet tall and recharges from a 120-volt wall outlet as well as solar and wind.

The 5k weighs 330 pounds, but it’s just a few inches taller and wider than its smaller counterpart. It delivers 500 watts of continuous power for 10 hours. At least one VOLTstack 5k is on its way to Burning Man in northwestern Nevada, according to a post on Portable Electric’s Facebook page.

Finally, the VOLTstack 20k is attached to a trailer and weighs 5,000 pounds. It can be customized to suit different needs for days of continuous power supply.

It’s only been about four years since Rabin had what he called the “aha” or “eureka” moment that catalyzed Portable Electric. A friend asked him to help figure out how to power a 10-kilometre walk-run — the Great Climate Race in Stanley Park — without using fossil-fuel generators. When they couldn’t find a solution, they cobbled one together and soon, Portable Electric was born.

“The very first day we opened our doors, there was somebody there waiting to rent the equipment... We haven’t looked back. We realized there was a pent-up market demand,” said Rabin, who added that solving such a pain point in the marketplace is “business 101.”

Portable Electric powers 007

One industry in particular has embraced and even helped shape the renewable generators from their early stages because of that pent-up demand: film and television.

“I originally heard about Portable Electric in its very early days, when they were still banging away in the back of the maker lab and getting their prototypes together,” said Zena Harris, who Rabin calls the “guru of sustainability and film” in Vancouver.

Harris founded Green Spark Group, which offers on-set consulting and education, training and strategy development for sustainability initiatives in the film industry. Among their clients are the television shows The X Files, The Man in the High Castle, and Legion and The Bletchley Circle. Harris is also a curator with the Sustainable Production Forum, originally launched four years ago as a collaboration between Green Spark and the Vancouver International Film Festival.