Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Switch: It's All in the Numbers

Dr. Scott Tinker (r) examines hybrid sorghum in Switch

From our friends at DC Film Review...

Geologist Dr. Scott Tinker examines energy alternatives in Harry Lynch’s fast-moving and informative documentary Switch, a film that earns a place alongside 2009’s Food, Inc. as must-see entertainment for every person in America and perhaps the world.

Every person in America? Why so serious? Aren’t you the same person who droned on about “Classy Hoochies” in a recent review for Bachelorette? Guilty, but every now and then a film comes to my attention that literally demands to be shared with as many people as possible. Switch is one such entity. Lynch follows the engaging Tinker (literally) all over the world, as he pursues a solution to the world’s potential energy crisis (Hint, hint... It’s not a matter of if but rather when.)

Tinker prefaces his travels by declaring an affinity for numbers. Starting with the notion that 20 million watt hours represents just one person’s energy unit for a calendar year, Tinker sets sail for exciting locales such as the Gulf of Mexico, Iceland, India, the Iran/Qatar border and Spain... investigating everything from biofuels to electric cars, fracturing and even windmills. What separates Switch from so many other efforts to inform is two-fold: To begin with, Tinker is both easy-going and personable... It’s a joy to travel with him. Secondly, the sheer volume of Switch’s investigation is nothing short of remarkable. Lynch took two years to film it, and another year to edit more than 500 hours of actual footage. Trust me, you don’t get more thorough than this.

And with good reason. Energy affects every single one of us, but it took the first hour of Switch for me to realize just how much. Take oil. You think 4 bucks a gallon is criminal? Just wait. The United States uses 20 million barrels of oil per day. ‘It’s amazing how much consumption there is. Future oil will be... expensive!’ And this country has just under 315 million people. What about China and India? Imagine how much juice 2.5 billion people need. By the year 2050, those two countries alone should eclipse 3 billion. Even scarier is the apparent ignorance of creating clean energy. It costs a lot. Right now, 600 million people in India live without electricity. As the middle class increases in size, more people want cars. More cost. More energy.

Tinker remarks, ‘We probably could make coal (which currently accounts for 50% of US energy) clean, but we probably can’t afford to.’ Everything seems to boil down to dollars and cents. ‘Economics runs the whole show,’ notes former US Under Secretary of Energy Steve Koonin. He’s not kidding. Almost every viable solution that Tinker comes up with, ultimately gets shot down when cost comes up. Through it all, Tinker remains unfazed... keeping up the good fight. You get the impression that this guy could solve the whole mess if given carte blanche.

Sadly, carte blanche doesn’t exist... but shining examples are nevertheless exhibited: The film’s first line is ‘Norway. Energy so clean, you can drink it.’ Why not? Norway gets 99% of its energy from water. Denmark gets 20% of its juice from wind power. Switch is full of all kinds of interesting statistics. For example, did you know that half of this country’s coal comes from a tiny corner in Wyoming? And it’s not just numbers that prove entertaining. Lynch and Tinker cover cool explosions, dangerous underwater helicopter-rescue training and even manage to test drive a $100K Tesla packed with 7,000 batteries in the trunk (don’t tell the Energizer bunny!)

As important as it is to witness Switch, I found it difficult to stay with in its second hour (the film runs 98 minutes, but feels longer.) It goes from entertaining and informative to overwhelming... perhaps best seen in two sittings, or within a shorter, hour-long format. Attention spans are hard enough to hold with the usual Hollywood bells and whistles: Try replacing an exciting car chase with a 10 minute discussion on compressed natural gas. Unless Kate Upton is doing the talking, you’ve already lost me.

Second half doldrums aside, I feel better for having watched Switch. As Tinker says towards the end, ‘What you and I do are the most important part of our energy future.’ He’s right of course; Let’s just hope others notice.