For art's sake

Arcola Theatre makes an artistic difference and pioneers with environmentally responsible measures.
Arcola features low energy LEDs from PixelRange.
Arcola features low energy LEDs from PixelRange.


Arcola Theatre makes an artistic difference and pioneers with environmentally responsible measures.

Far from its previous days as a textile factory, the building now formally known as the Arcola Theatre, one of London’s leading independent venues, is on-track to become the world’s first carbon neutral theatre.

In a move to integrate itself into the eco-friendly landscape Arcola Theatre last year launched an ambitious plan to upgrade it’s existing facilities, while focusing on energy demand reduction and on-site energy generation.

To facilitate the process Arcola Energy was formed last year to act as a semi-independent body within Arcola Theatre to oversee the development and integration of environmentally friendly technology, including biomass heating, solar panels and fuel cells within the venue.

The plan realises Arcola as the first centre for new energy technology in the arts, which houses an on-site (Arcola Energy), dedicated work space for engineers to develop initiatives that will tackle climate change.

The theatre’s executive director, Dr Ben Todd, said Arcola Energy was a hub for new thinking and cross-fertilisation between art and science, bringing together artistic, entrepreneurial and technological creativity.

During the recent launch of the The Mayor of London’s Green Theatre: Taking Action on Climate Change, which was unveiled at the 2008 PLASA Show, Todd took the chance to speak about his experiences of ‘going green’.

He informed attendees at the launch that Arcola was driving technological change through the use of its hydrogen fuel cell. While Todd admitted it may not be the most cost effective exercise, he said it demonstrated to the broader community what was possible.

As part of the theatre’s plan to reduce its carbon emissions it installed an IdaTech ElectraGen fuel cell, supplied by the London Hydrogen Partnership, to power the cafe/bar lighting and selected main house shows.

Arcola’s installation of the system also provided the platform for the world’s first theatre production powered by a fuel cell earlier this year, Simple8’s Living Unknown Soldier.

The 5kW fuel cell operates almost silently, producing nothing but electricity and clean water. It takes pride of place in the theatre’s foyer and provides a spur for discussion about the benefits and challenges of this ‘ground breaking’ technology.

Todd said another ‘key’ driving factor behind Arcola’s environmental initiatives was to bring about behavioural change in regards to venue design and installation processes.

He highlighted the further initiatives Arcola had sought to implement and change in its processes, including the installation of LEDs within the venue’s facilities and the reduction in energy allowances it made available to lighting directors.

“When you tell a lighting designer he or she has 5K to light a show using the fuel cell they have to rethink their usual approach – a great way to motivate artists to think about what they are doing, how they do it and how they can change it for the better,” Todd claimed.

Within the venue’s bar/cafe area, low energy LED lighting fixtures have been installed and supplied by PixelRange.

Todd said the LED lighting system had reduced the total area’s energy consumption to less than 500W, a saving of 60% that he claimed also helped motivated lighting designers to reduce their main house lighting energy consumption by 60%.

“Small but significant changes in operations can deliver immediate CO2 and financial benefits. Such actions are crucial to motivating and demonstrating that more radical sustainability visions can be realised – theatre has a crucial role in acting fast to show that change is possible and positive…” Todd stated.

He also stressed sustainability was part and parcel of looking at world equity and social justice, not just the nuts and bolts of energy usage. Additionally, he explained that the broader community could all change something for the better and that money was not, as many would have it, the issue.

Highlighting that Arcola had found clever ways to work symbiotically with suppliers, Todd informed how that assisted in maximising mutually beneficial publicity and public relations. By grabbing the headlines, he added that Arcola had raised awareness of the wider climate change issues throughout the industry and beyond.

An important first step in realising Arcola’s objectives was for it to undergo an independent assessment of its operations. From which, Todd said the creation of the policies and framework that was needed to achieve its sustainability goals was facilitated.

Last year, Arcola commissioned Element Energy to conduct a study, which evaluated the feasibility of Arcola eliminating its net emissions of carbon dioxide.

The study concluded that carbon-neutrality was feasible and would cost US$457k – 640k in capital expenditure to avoid the 54 tonnes of CO2 emissions p.a. that would otherwise be emitted.

The following approach was chosen as the most feasible path to carbon-neutrality:

Stage zero

Baseline refurbishment, including double glazing all Arcola’s windows, draught proofing the building and fitting it with a controlled ventilation system. These measures will reduce CO2 emissions from 72 tonnes to 54 tonnes p.a.

Stage one

Reduce demand for heat and electricity by 43% and 32% respectively, through sensible use of energy. This will save 30 tonnes of CO2 p.a. and cost $92k. Measures include CO2-detector-controlled ventilation and energy efficient stage lights.

Stage two

Renewable heating – a biomass boiler, which runs on wood pellets, and 3m2 of solar thermal panels will supply nearly all of the building’s remaining space heating and hot water. These will cost $33 - $48k and $4.5k - $5.5k respectively, and save a combined eight tonnes of CO2 p.a.

Stage three

Renewable electricity – a large array of solar cells will cover the building’s roof, supplying all of the theatre’s electricity needs and exporting excess to the national grid.
This will be the most expensive part of the project, costing up to $385k for basic modules and saving the remaining 16 tonnes of CO2 p.a.

It may be prudent to wait some time before installing this technology, as costs are expected to come down significantly in the next two to five years.

The resourceful initiatives the theatre has exhibited represents a major milestone not only for the theatre sector in London, but worldwide. Its measures demonstrate to the global community what is possible through theatres, suppliers and manufacturers all working together to address climate change and reduce energy use.

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