A power play on energy use
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 14, 2012
“Switch,” a thorough and sober-minded documentary about the past, present and future of energy, is refreshingly free of hot air. Directed by Harry Lynch and narrated by University of Texas geologist and energy expert Scott Tinker -- who also acts as a smart and genial, if slightly wonky, on-camera tour guide -- it is almost shocking in the way it sidesteps the kind of issue advocacy made commonplace by filmmakers Michael Moore, Davis Guggenheim and the like.
Just take fracking. Google the term -- short for hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting natural gas from hard rocks -- and the top two hits that pop up argue entirely opposite points of view: It’s perfectly safe! No, it pollutes the groundwater!
Lynch’s film tries (and largely succeeds) in taking a scrupulously neutral tack between extremes. While Tinker acknowledges the controversy, and even asks a few experts about it, he avoids hyperventilating about fracking’s dangers, even as he resists making an outright defense of the process.
Still, environmental activists will probably not like the fact that there is no clear denunciation of fracking in the film.
That’s not what “Switch” is about.
Rather, the film asks in a pragmatic, scientific way what it will take to get to the point where we have weaned ourselves off our coal and oil dependency -- not entirely, but just enough so that they are no longer the world’s major source of fuel.
Picture a graph where the percentage of energy derived from fossil fuels is a line moving downward, and the percentage derived from solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal and other alternatives is on the upswing. At some point, those two lines will cross. That’s the “switch” that the film’s punning title (which also suggests a power switch) is really referring to.
The movie argues, surprisingly reasonably, that we can get there in 50 years, mainly by changing the way we think about energy. Why demonize one form of energy and place another on a pedestal?
Everything, as one expert notes, has its drawbacks. That includes wind and solar, which suffer from “intermittence” -- i.e., the sun doesn’t always come out -- and can involve large upfront costs. Others forms are dirty, inherently dangerous, unaffordable, hard to transmit or otherwise geographically unreliable. Geothermal energy, for example, doesn’t work where there aren’t, say, hot springs near the Earth’s surface. Battery technology for electric cars is, as anyone who bought one knows, still a work in progress.
“Switch” argues for a balanced approach. Why not continue to use coal and oil while developing other energy sources and technologies? In discussing some of those technologies, the movie takes an informative world tour, visiting a deep-water oil rig in the middle of the ocean, a hydro-electric plant in Norway, a French nuclear facility, a Texas wind farm and many, many other stops in between. There are no villains here, or scenes of devastation, no footage of Fukushima, though the name, understandably, comes up.
It’s documentary of the old school, without a cult of personality. (Tinker comes across as affable and sharp, but he’s no Morgan Spurlock.) The film is filled with facts and figures, but they’re human-scaled. Each form of energy is measured, not in kilowatts or miles per gallon, but by the number of people, and their devices, it’s capable of powering. That includes cars, cellphones, refrigerators and everything else.
Which bring us to the film’s real point. Tinker suggests -- in a classroom lecture near the end of the film that is the one time when “Switch” gets a little didactic -- that the best way to make sure we have enough energy is not to produce more of it, but simply to use less of it.
At the end, Tinker literally rides off into the sunset, in an electric golf cart that he just purchased for running errands and chauffeuring his kids to school.
Contains nothing objectionable.