‘Switch’ explores world’s energy future
‘Switch,” as a title, does double duty. It refers both to electricity (as in “flip a switch”) and change (as in “make a switch”). Since “Switch” is a documentary about what forms the world’s energy future will likely take, the title certainly fits.
Co-writer Scott Tinker makes for a personable if bland narrator-guide for this informative if bland film. A kilowatt travelogue, it goes from Norway (hydropower) to Wyoming (coal) to Iceland (geothermal) to Louisiana (biofuels) to northern Canada (oil sands) to Denmark (wind power) to France (nuclear) to Texas (natural gas) — quite a few places in Texas, actually (Tinker teaches geology at the University of Texas at Austin).
Energy use means more than just fuel. It has as much to do with government, science, and economics. So Tinker also visits the US Department of Energy, a number of laboratories, and the New York Mercantile Exchange (boy, if only someone could figure out a way to harness the foot-pounds expended on that trading floor). Energy, in human terms, gets defined by demand as well as supply. Which means we see Tinker behind the wheel of a Tesla electric sports car and, later, a roadworthy golf cart. Vroom-vroom? Yes, but putt-putt, too.
“The challenge,” Tinker says, “is not just to adopt alternatives but to maintain the benefits of oil and coal without their disadvantages at a price we can all afford. Can it be done?” If it can, that would be about as remarkable a technological switch as the human race has pulled off.
Tinker comes across as affable, reasonable, and unfailingly curious. If he had a beard he might even qualify as cuddly. Several times in the documentary, we see him lecturing. He must be a fine teacher. More often, we see him nodding encouragement at some person he’s interviewing (Tinker tends to say “wow” a lot).
We learn that Iceland generates half of its energy from geothermal sources. Wind power provides 20 percent of Denmark’s electricity. Eighty percent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear plants. The world’s largest wind farm, all 100,000 acres of it, is in Roscoe, Texas. One of the more intriguing developments in solar power is building solar shade structures over parking lots.
Tinker’s interview subjects are technicians, business executives, scientists, government officials. One guy from the Environmental Defense Fund aside, environmental activists or others with a critical perspective are absent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It insures a tone of dispassionate seriousness and good will. Tinker’s no cheerleader; he’s quick to note problems and express the occasional doubt. “We probably could make coal clean, but we probably can’t afford to,” he observes. “The energy that we don’t use” is just as important to our energy future as the energy that we do. Nor does he neglect to mention carbon-dioxide capture and global warming.
But the absence of anti-establishment views in “Switch” does seem like a bit odd, almost infomercialish (is that a word?). The film’s generally upbeat attitude begins to feel a bit hollow. Nuclear-power opponents will likely leave the theater shaking their heads. And opponents of hydraulic fracking, whereby highly pressurized water is pumped deep underground to extract natural gas, will likely leave shaking their fists. The more important energy becomes in our lives — and with the average person annually using 20 million watt hours of energy, that’s very important — the more controversies it inspires. The way “Switch” manages to avoid controversy is both an impressive achievement and perplexing.
Harry Lynch, the documentary’s director, is scheduled to appear at a question-and-answer session for the 7 p.m. screenings on both Wednesday and Thursday.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.