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‘Switch’ Examines Energy Crisis

Asst. News Editor

Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

Boston College hosted a screening on Thursday, Oct. 11 of the documentary Switch, which aims to give a balanced report of the world’s options for a more sustainable energy source in the future.

Scott Tinker, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an internationally known energy expert, traveled the world for two years and interviewed other experts in 11 countries to learn about everything from coal to steam to nuclear sources of energy in the hopes of discovering an answer to the world’s energy crisis.

Tinker measures the efficiency of each source of energy by calculating how many people it could power per year. He estimated that on average, a person uses 20 million watt-hours per year. This includes the gasoline and electricity a person uses, the energy used to power public buildings he or she goes into, and the energy used to make and ship food and other products such as clothing.

Tinker’s journey started close to home, at the Bell Ayre coal mine in Wyoming. Bell Ayre is the largest coalmine in the world and can power 3.6 million people per year. Coal is the cheapest source of energy in the world. According to United States Undersecretary of Energy Steve Koonin, coal accounts for about half of the energy in the U.S.

Though he said there is still plenty left, the biggest issue with coal is not its abundance, but rather its effect on the environment.

When burned, coal produces carbon dioxide, which is considered a major contributor to global warming. The NRG project is looking for ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to produce what is known as clean coal, but until then, Tinker said in the film, the world must consider other options. In addition, there are currently no sources of energy than can be produced and shipped on the same scale as coal.

With each energy source discussed, Tinker takes a comprehensive look at the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Biofuels, which are made of plants such as corn and sorghum, are difficult to produce on the large scale this low-density fuel would need in order to be viable. Solar and wind energy are expensive and not very reliable, but they are totally clean options. Compressed gas, which is used to fuel public busses in Fort Worth, costs less than diesel and has lower emissions, but the initial switch can be very expensive.

France gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear energy and recycles the waste. Tinker noted, however, that after the tragedy at the Fukushima plant in Japan, people are warier than ever about embracing nuclear power despite the fact that creating it is actually less dangerous than creating energy from coal. Producing each of these on the scale needed to make an impact is also an issue. In Norway, Tinker discovered that the country gets 90 percent of its energy from water. He called it “the most successful switch in the world.”

So how can the U.S. and developing countries like India and China, which Tinker says will account for most of the world’s coal and oil use in the future, maintain a sustainable source of energy?
“The switch must be made in the way we use and understand energy,” Tinker said in the film. In addition to using a variety of renewable energy sources instead of depending on just one, Tinker emphasized that using less energy in general will not only reduce emissions, but it will also reduce the amount of energy that must actually be produced and therefore solve the problem of scale.

Switch has been hailed as the first comprehensive, unbiased documentary about the world’s energy crisis.

“While many other energy films set out with an agenda, then advocate for one energy type or another, Switch is different,” Tinker said in a press release. “We started with a question then went out to find the answers, working hard to remain unbiased and open to new ideas.”

Switch is part of an energy education program geared toward elementary, middle, and high school students that includes online videos and a curriculum co-developed with the American Geological Institute.

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