‘Sun Truck’ comes to Seaford

Movie, TV set food service inspires new technology

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The black and green utility truck looked like any other service vehicle as students ambled into the parking lot at Seaford High School on a sunny Wednesday morning last week. Drawn to the free bagels and beverages, they didn’t appear at first to notice the truck’s owner, Neil Robbins, or his guests, who included New York Islanders great Bob Nystrom and environmental activist Emellie O’Brien.

But then the roughly 50 ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders from two sections of marine biology and Advanced Placement environmental sciences turned their attention to Robbins, his guests and his truck.

The cutting-edge food-service truck is 100 percent solar-powered, he explained, from the engine to the refrigeration and stoves. The solar panels on top of the truck send energy to an array of lithium batteries. The energy then passes through an inverter that changes the direct current from the sun into the alternating current necessary to run the truck’s appliances.

Robbins didn’t set out to become an “eco-warrior,” he said. His company, the New York City-based Brody’sCraftServices, primarily serves the movie and television industries, keeping casts and crews fed, and he simply wanted to run his truck nonstop during filming. But the gas generators used by most craft services are too loud, and have to be shut down during takes.

Robbins knew that lithium batteries would enable him to run the truck more or less constantly, but such uninterrupted use can cause the batteries to overheat. And “when they overheat, they explode,” he said simply.

To address this problem, Robbins consulted Clearwater, Fla.-based Lithionics Battery, a company specializing in leading-edge battery technology. Lithionics created a battery using iron-phosphate technology that neither overheats nor explodes, Robbins said. “The batteries can run at a maximum of 250 degrees” Fahrenheit, he said. If they reach that temperature — a rarity — the system shuts down.

Usually, his truck can now run nonstop. “It’s been running for three weeks now, and I never shut it off,” he said.

His first lithium array was set up in a trailer that he towed behind his truck. It was an improvement over the loud generators on his previous vehicles, but it was also cumbersome, and took up more room on a film set than he wanted.

Eventually, Lithionics and SUNY Stony Brook’s Center for Energy Research were able to help Robbins shed the trailer in favor of the sleeker, self-contained Sun Truck the students toured last week.

Feeding cast and crew members on a big set is no small task, and Robbins was joined a dozen years ago by Glenn Lorentzon, whom he describes as “a passionate Green.” He also crossed paths with Emellie O’Brien, founder and chief executive officer of Earth Angel, an organization dedicated to reducing the movie industry’s carbon footprint.

Unlike Robbins, O’Brien had always hoped to carve out a niche as a green crusader making documentary films cataloguing environmental destruction and the results of global warming. But as the 2011 New York University film school graduate worked on such hits as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” she saw firsthand the enormous carbon footprint that every film or television production left.

The actors have to be flown to their destinations, O’Brien said, “and tens of thousands of single-use beverage containers are used during shootings, which average more than 50 days for feature films and about 90 days for one season of a television series,” she explained.

In 2018 alone, her company, Brooklyn-based Earth Angel, helped such iconic brands as Disney, HBO, Netflix and Showtime reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by more than 3.5 million pounds; the number of single-use beverage containers by nearly 600,000 and the amount of garbage sent to landfills by more than 750 tons; and shrink the average carbon footprint per production by nearly 25 percent.

O’Brien’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last year, she was named one of Inc. magazine’s “30 Under 30” rising stars, and was tapped as an inaugural fellow by the Tony Burch Foundation. The 10 Burch fellowships, which are accompanied by $10,000 cash honoraria, aim to help young woman entrepreneurs build networks and take their businesses to the next level.

Rounding out the morning’s presentation, students listened to N.Y. Islanders Hall of Famer and outdoorsman Bob Nystrom share his experiences as an advocate for environmental issues.

The Swedish-born Nystrom immigrated to Canada with his family at the age of 4, and grew up in rural surroundings. He said that in his most recent visit to his boyhood home, massive deforestation had already taken place. An avid mountaineer, he also spoke of the effects of global warming on glaciers, such as the ice caps atop Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, and Russia’s Mount Elbrus — sometimes referred to as “the world’s highest outhouse” because of the mounds of refuse and human waste that can be found there.

“If the glaciers continue to melt at this rate,” Nystrom told the students, “they’ll be completely gone in 10 or 20 years.”