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January 28, 2013

Making a Switch in Energy Production

A Missed Opportunity

I went to see the movie "Switch" this week, a documentary about energy production (click here to watch trailer). Geologist and University of Texas professor Scott Tinker is the narrator and we see him discover where and how energy is generated to meet the needs of our society around the world. The movie provides a lot of information. Unfortunately I do not remember most of the astonishing numbers, but a few facts stuck.

I Iearned that while 45% of energy generated in the US comes from coal, a large fraction of that coal comes from a single coal mine in Wyoming called Black Thunder (http://www.archcoal.com/aboutus/blackthunder.aspx).  For perspective, one single "Tonka truck" look-a-like costs ~4 million dollars. The Black Thunder coal mine in Wyoming contains one of the largest deposits of coal in the world and provides the U.S. with 8 percent of its total coal supply (see virtual tour of Black Thunder here).

I discovered there was a hydroelectric power plant built in a mountain in Norway taking advantage of a big waterfall and letting gravity generate power in this invisible plant, a cheap way to produce clean energy with a very small environmental footprint. Tinker discussed geothermal energy in Iceland and solar energy in Spain, but there was no hopeful message about the possibility to scale up, no technological fix that would make these clean energies dominant in our current energy portfolio. Nonetheless, we heard a Texas farmer tell us that the younger generations could now stay on their farms by installing wind turbines on the land to provide economic opportunity for their families.

The film includes interviews with environmentalists, policy makers (e.g., Dr. Steve Koonin, US Undersecretary for Energy) and industry officials.  But in all honesty I thought the environmental aspects were not emphasized as much as the rigorous conditions of work for off-shore platform workers for example. “Switch” features a short interview with Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon who tells us about the great environmental record of hydrofracking. A hydrologist colleague reminded me that the tobacco industry also told us tobacco was harmless for many decades.  My colleague pointed out that leakage along the well and surface leakage of chemicals added to the water could indeed affect water quality. I had also seen previously a documentary showing tap water in flames in houses near a fracking operation where gas leaked into residential water sources. I was disappointed not to see such images in "Switch".

We heard from French engineers how nuclear energy in France has a perfect record. No mention of power plants being turned off rapidly to protect their cores when the heat-wave of 2003 hit the country. And why can spent fuel only be treated in France and not the US where needs are dire?
Natural gas is hailed as cleaner energy than coal and a Qatari businessman tells us about a pipeline of "thermos-like" ships moving compressed liquid gas from the Gulf to western countries. The fact that the sides of the ships need to be constantly covered with running water while they are filling up because any leak on the surface of the boat could render its shell brittle did not give me the warm and fuzzy feeling this was a particularly safe solution.

The movie emphasizes the rapidly growing demand for energy in China, India and other developing countries and continues to spread the message that US emissions will be surpassed by these growing countries, soon becoming the worst emitters in the world instead of the USA. Once again per capita numbers are not discussed yet we know that a US citizen will continue to emit an order of magnitude more than crowded developing country citizens for many more years to come. The takeaway? Not particularly creative in my mind. Countries will continue to use coal and oil to meet their energy needs, and there’s little the developing world can do about it.

Through a combination of renewables and nuclear power, the film estimates the world may reach a “switch” point in 2064 when renewables and nuclear will match the use of coal and oil. The key or the tunable knob that may change the timing of the switch is energy conservation. Conserving energy will reduce the need to produce more. But instead of describing how countries can effectively reduce their consumption through forward-thinking legislation, Tinker tells us we can make a difference if we change our ways. Oil reserves will last longer if people drive less. The film ends with a short video of Dr Tinker and his family crowded in a small golf cart driving out of their posh neighborhood to go shopping, thus reducing their energy needs. A pretty wimpy finale to a movie that could have had a much more powerful message.

We already know that changing our light bulbs will not be sufficient to make a difference in the US, and driving golf carts to go grocery shopping will not either. Serious measures need to be taken and governments need to step to the plate and take bold measures to ensure changes occur:

There were lots of numbers in Switch, lots of interviews and a lot of "reality check" about our societies' inertia. I did not see nor hear much enthusiasm for creativity, hope for rapid solutions of our problems, mention of the advantages of collaborating across borders for a better world. I think the movie makers lost a great opportunity here.

About the author:
Dominique Bachelet, Ph.D.
Dominique is a Senior Climate Change Scientist at CBI. She works extensively with a variety of climate scenarios to explore climate change impacts.
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by Pamela Frost, M.S.
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by Gwynne Corrigan, M.S.
 
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