Earlier this week I watched the SwitchEnergyProject film (www.switchenergyproject.com) for the second time. I first saw it last February when the Atlantic Geoscience Society showed it at its annual conference. This time I saw it at Wolfville’s Al Whittle Cinema/Theatre, hosted and organized by Acadia University and the Eco Kings Action Team (this being Kings County) as one of the activities during this sustainability week.
If you don’t know about this film, you should at least check its website; better, you should to watch it. I’ll give you the short version here:
The film was conceived by Scott Tinker, a geoscientist / petroleum geologist who is director of the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) in Austin (Texas, USA). The Bureau is the equivalent of the Geological Survey of Texas.
Since there is a lot of oil and gas (and lignite) in Texas, many BEG geoscientists are involved in research that pertains to fossil fuels and thus to energy questions. Many years ago, I was one of them.
SWITCH asks whether and when society will be able to make the switch from fossil-fuel-based economies to carbon-free economies. The approach that Scott Tinker takes, is novel – he calculates the energy requirement of literally everything a person uses (food, clothing, gadgets, utilities, holidays, etc.). This energy consumption per global citizen per year amounts to 20,000,000 watt hours for an average global citizen (the average US citizen uses 95,000,000 watt hours). Then he figures out how many of these 1-person-energy-demands can be supplied by different forms of energy: coal, oil, gas, hydro, solar, biomass, wind, geothermal. In this manner, he has generated is a standard to compare how well different energy sources perform.
The documentary is no great cinema – it portrays Scott traveling around the world, visiting a gigantic open pit coal mine in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, an innovative hydro dam in Norway, a geothermal plant and the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage (to be recycled!) in France, the International Energy Agency, the very articulate US assistant secretary of Energy (nice view of the Smithsonian castle in the background), a solar power plant in Spain, wind turbine fields in Denmark (offshore) and in Texas (in a depressed agricultural region – I found this section particularly inspiring), an LNG terminal in Abu Dhabi, a biomass farm in Louisiana, a Tesla car dealership somewhere and experts in all these technologies in various places around the world (among them is the newly appointed US secretary of energy Ernest Monitz before he held that position). A lot of talking heads, but they do have interesting things to say.
The short conclusion is: it’s no wonder the world is addicted to fossil fuels, because they are easy to find, easy to transport, amazingly efficient and effective, relatively cheap and plentiful. Unfortunately, as we all know, their massive use is changing climate drastically, so we have no choice but to wean ourselves from them. The documentary seeks to find out how and when we can decarbonize our energy use, a term that Scott Tinker’s predecessor at BEG, the legendary Bill Fisher, already used in the 1980s.
Decarbonization is easier said than done. The only alternative that is more efficient for generating power (excluding transportation for the moment) is nuclear energy, but society has issues with that as well. The wind and the sun are intermittent (even exorbitantly sunny places have this nasty phenomenon called ‘night’), requiring at least some form of energy storage. Both wind and solar are regionally limited, as is geothermal energy. Although more ubiquitous, fossil fuels are regionally limited too: France has none, hence it relies on nuclear energy for all its power generation; Iceland has none, which it can compensate to some extent with geothermal. Biofuels require lots of land, which is unattractive as it competes with potential food production and/or wilderness conservation. People in emerging economies (most importantly China and India but other countries on their heels) will want the same levels of comfort as we in the western world have, so global energy demand is not decreasing any time soon.
The great hope (for climate and thus for humanity) is rapidly developing new technologies that can eventually provide us with renewable energy and – to some extent – with energy storage capacity.
Scott Tinker’s calculations suggest – based on current knowledge – that the world may consume more green energy than fossil fuels by 2064 – the year of the Switch.
For some people, that’s unpalatable – i.e. way too far off in the future. It may be, for our planet and for our ever burgeoning population – it may not.
Global energy supply and demand is an immensely complicated topic. I think this documentary is an honest attempt to communicate some of these complications. I think it is a reasonably realistic portrayal of the situation even though some issues are glanced over a bit too much. I did miss a somewhat deeper discussion of the future energy needs of emerging economies and developing countries. To quote from an IEA fact sheet on Africa, for example: “more than a century after the invention of the light bulb, most of Africa still goes dark after sunset – children cannot do homework… etc.”. The documentary does mention that emerging economies and developing nations “will want the same amount of comfort that we in the West have” but there is much more to it than just comfort. I know that Scott Tinker is well aware of these challenges, but the film doesn’t quite do justice to them.
The reaction from the Wolfville audience: Mildly to severely critical.
Some people thought the film lacked credibility because it was ‘funded by the petroleum industry’ (untrue), didn’t think the film should have covered the innovative hydro-electricity project in Norway ‘because they are the world’s largest energy consumers, even larger than Canada’ (what a nonsensical argument aside from it being untrue). I did agree with the comment that the issues surrounding shale gas (i.e. hydraulic fracturing / fracking) received a somewhat superficial coverage: the film leaves us with the conclusion that the only problem with fracking is with waste water. I fear there is more to it than that.
When one of the panel members stated that “the solution to decarbonization is nicely presented in the film – it’s nuclear”, there was deafening silence. There was also deafening silence when the same expert suggested that “the best option for green energy in our area is wind energy. Are we willing to put up those turbines?” For the readers: Kings County reversed a bylaw allowing commercial wind turbines last year, handing us back in the hands of the fossil fuel industry.
There was some mention of rapid technological advances in energy storage capacity and a reference to a lecture by Daniel Nocera at Acadia University earlier in The Fall (for more on Dr. Nocera ideas, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_G._Nocera).
The discussion exclusively dealt with power generation. Transportation was never mentioned.
I was disappointed in the depth and level of discussion. Do people who attend such events largely belong to the idealistic crowd who think that we can decarbonize overnight? Sometimes I have that impression.
After the event I walked out with an acquaintance. She thought that banning commercial wind turbines was a good move “because we haven’t begun to exploit solar yet”. That may be true, but what about the short term? Wind is a thoroughly developed technology, why wait until solar is more perfect? Because we use fossil fuel in the meantime…….. I turned to walk home – she got in her car, as she lives outside of town limits, in our gorgeous rural area where property taxes are an order of magnitude lower than in town………….
Also this week I read two thoroughly researched articles on climate change: Paul Krugman’s review of William Nordhaus’s new book and Verlyn Klinkenborg’s review of Bill McKibben’s new book, both in the NY Review of Books.
Nordhaus’s book is an economic approach to the issue of climate change whereas McKibben’s book addresses moral questions. Nordhaus appears less pessimistic about our common future (sic) than McKibben. The reviewer of McKibben’s book characterizes him as a completely decent guy who is capable of still being naive.
I wonder if the Wolfville audience at the Switch film consisted largely of naive people….
Both Nordhaus and McKibben are passionately in favour of a carbon tax, which is not going to happen in the US and therefore not in the rest of the world before the US will have to set the example, which the current US political climate prevents. Scott Tinker, by the way, is also in favour of a carbon tax, as he made clear in a lecture that I attended about 3 years ago.
And that brings them together.
Klinkenborg, V. The Prophet. Review of B. McKibben “Oil and Honey: the education of an unlikely activist”, NY Review of Books, 24 October 2013
Krugman, P. Gambling with civilization. Review of W. Nordhaus “The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty and Economics for a Changing World”. NY Review of Books, 7 November 2013