How do you tell the story about how a coal plant creates electric energy?


In the fall of 2014, Datahouse Studios LLC, an Austin, Texas-based visual marketing firm, was given this task by NRG Energy. Coal-fired plants are big, complex industrial facilities. How could Datahouse turn that complexity, into something simpler? Something that could be used to explain to investors, VIP visitors and the general public?


Datahouse Owner and Creative Director Luke Gustafson said the process began much as any other. Houston-based NRG representatives made contact, invited conversation with Datahouse, and finally made the request for proposal. However, the scope, or size, of the project wasn’t clear right away. At that time, the technical information Datahouse needed to make all processes clear was incomplete.

Let there be lights:

The Animated Story of Electricity Creation

What was needed was a trip to an NRG-owned, operational coal-fired power plant. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs ­­— the engineers on site) would explain how each process worked:  from the crushers that turned coal from the trains into super-fine powder for fuel, to the fan system that fed the furnaces and filtration systems. Lastly, the superheating steam processes which run the turbines that create the electrical energy. The coal came in one end, and electrical power comes out the other. 


That’s how to explain how a coal power plant works. Datahouse followed the coal. They animated the fuel path. There were still careful steps to take. Gustafson produced rough sketches along with an initial script during the visit while working with the engineers. 

After returning to the team in Austin, Datahouse further defined story development and milestones while sharing updates on the project to NRG’s SMEs, who in turn gave feedback and validation about what worked and what needed to change.


A 3D animated video produced by Datahouse, shows this path. The plant described in the video isn’t an exact replica of the operational plant that was visited. That would not have met NRG’s needs. It is however, a completely accurate (non-site specific) representation of how a coal plant works from start to finish from an educational standpoint, in motion and in three dimensions.


One of the biggest difficulties in this production was that it had not been done before. NRG did not possess 3D models of a coal plant that Datahouse could use. The only data that existed were the original 2D CAD drawings from when the plant was built. 

Through educational research channels, Datahouse found a way to avoid starting from scratch, in the form of a LiDAR map of a power plant. Outdated and incomplete, at least the map could show where each of the processes inside the plant fit together. It could also show how large or small many parts of the plant were, relative to each other.


Still, the Datahouse team needed to produce more than 90 percent of the art assets for the animation. Starting from scratch would have increased the time and budget for the project many times over.