The University of Texas at Austin
  • Making the “Switch”

    By J.B. Bird, Jackson School of Geosciences
    Published: April 23, 2012

    Abundant energy is essential to modern life, but where will future sources of energy come from? Can we continue to rely on coal and oil, which have powered our homes, cars and factories for the past 150 years? How can we move to cleaner forms of energy with lower greenhouse gas emissions?

    La Hague nuclear recycling center
    “Switch” is the first truly balanced energy film, embraced and supported by people all along the energy spectrum – fossil and renewable, academic and environmental. Join Dr. Scott Tinker on a spectacular global journey to discover a balanced path to our energy future.

    Watch the “Switch” trailer.

    In this photo, Tinker stands on 600 million people/years of nuclear waste at La Hague nuclear recycling center.

    In his feature-length documentary film “Switch,” Scott Tinker, professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences and director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at The University of Texas at Austin, sets out to answer these questions. He explores the world’s leading energy sites, from coal to solar, oil to biofuels, and seeks straight answers from the people driving energy today, international leaders of government, industry and academia.

    In the end, he lays out a path to our energy future that can move the world toward cleaner forms of energy while pragmatically sustaining the growth that has fueled the modern world.

    Viewers can catch preview screenings of the movie at screenings in select U.S. cities. Visit the schedule at the “Switch” website.

    Tinker made the movie with Austin-based documentary filmmaker Harry Lynch.

    Q&A with the Filmmakers

    Why was it important for you to make “Switch”?

    Harry Lynch (director, co-producer, co-writer): Basically, because energy makes modern life possible. It’s the most important and pervasive commodity in the world.

    Fumarole field in Iceland
    Exploring a fumarole field in Iceland, the leader in geothermal power.

    Scott Tinker (narrator, co-producer, co-writer): And energy is in a crucial transition period. We’re beginning a shift not only to renewables, but to unconventional oil and gas from shales and sands that require hydraulic fracturing, a politically controversial issue. After Fukushima some countries are re-evaluating nuclear. At the same time, global population is growing and modernizing, meaning ever-growing demand. How will we meet that? With what energy types? These are all issues we explore in Switch.

    How is this film different from other energy documentaries?

    Tinker: While many other energy films set out with an agenda, then advocate for one energy type or another, “Switch” is different. We started with a question, then went out to find the answers, working hard to remain unbiased and open to new ideas. I’ve been studying our energy transition for 10 years and working in energy for nearly 30 — and I learned many, many new things on our journey. And they’re in the film. It’s based on practical, realistic evidence from the field. Its controversy is in its balance and candor. In that respect, there is no other energy film like this.

    Lynch: With our preview audiences, we’ve seen that people from left and right, young and old, fossil and renewable, energy companies and environmental groups, are all positive on the balanced message and on the conversation it could help start. And really that’s our goal — to start a balanced national energy conversation with this film. We need that badly.

    Tinker: Basically, we want to change the way the world thinks about energy.

    Where did you go, and why?

    Lynch: Visually, we had an opportunity to bring viewers something truly extraordinary. Energy sites are almost completely unknown to people and often in remote and exotic places.

    Hybrid sorghum
    Hybrid sorghum, a next-generation biofuel crop, can grow 18 feet in one season.

    Tinker: And it was the most powerful way to investigate the subject — to actually explore energy, to understand how it’s made, so we can better understand how it is used and its future role. So we take people to Iceland for geothermal. Two hundred miles into the Gulf of Mexico to the deepest oil platform in the world. To the Andalusian high plateau for concentrating solar. Inside a mountain in Norway for hydro. Twenty-six spectacular energy locations in all.

    The film uses an interesting way to measure energy, showing how many people can be powered by an energy source. Can you explain that?

    Lynch: We realized there was no way for the viewer to really compare the different energy types and sites. Trying to rate them in megawatts or BTUs doesn’t help, because those units mean nothing to the average energy consumer. We finally realized that was the unit: the average energy consumer. We would measure each energy source by how many people it could power in a year.

    Tinker: So we added up the total energy consumption for an average global citizen for a year: their gasoline, electricity, then all the energy that goes into making and shipping all their food and products. Then, their share of all their governments’ energy, public buildings, roads. It came to an enormous figure, 20 million watt-hours per global citizen per year. Then we divided the annual output of our energy sites by that.

    Coal mine
    A mine in the Powder River Basin, the largest coal reserve in the world.

    Lynch: But again, those millions of watt-hours don’t mean anything to most viewers. So we just call that amount of energy “1.” One person’s energy use per year.

    The film seems balanced in the way it views the different energy sources, looking openly at everything from coal to solar.

    Tinker: Absolutely. That was a must from the beginning. Every energy source has pros and cons, benefits and challenges. We wanted to present those as fairly as possible so viewers could understand what roles the different resources play and how they fit together, today and in the future. A responsible future requires a balance of energies — there are no silver bullets.

    Is there one overarching energy issue that came out of the movie?

    Lynch: Scale. Just the sheer hugeness of everything in energy — the sheer size of energy facilities, the huge, huge processes involved in simply supplying mankind with energy.

    Tinker: That’s right. And scale introduces many challenges: Infrastructure is very large, therefore very expensive, therefore built to last for decades, therefore slow to turn over. New technologies take decades to grow to a level of saturation to make a meaningful difference. Emissions are at such a volume that they can affect global climate and ecological systems. We demand extraordinary amounts of energy.

    Lynch: And that’s why there’s also one key answer to scale.

    So, what is the answer to scale?

    Tinker: Efficiency. Energy demand is enormous, because humanity is even more so. How, and how much, energy we choose to use is the way that each of us can impact the seemingly untouchable challenges of scale.

    Norway waterfall
    Atop one of many waterfalls in Norway, where 99 percent of the electricity comes from hydro.

    Lynch: Efficiency is easily the most important learning of the entire project. If we work on efficiency, all of us, we can make a difference at scale. And we do this through education — like this project — and through changing our culture. If we can create a culture that places value on energy efficiency, we will see huge gains.

    Tinker: Efficiency makes everything better. It plays across every sector and every energy type. And it’s doable right now. Efficiency is the place to start, and we need to start today.

    The film ends by revealing a pathway to our energy future.

    Lynch: It was very important for us to offer a solution — a workable, real solution. Not just to point out problems. Not to aspire to an ideal, but unrealistic, vision. If we’re going to take viewers around the world and investigate the pros, cons and future of different energy types, we’d better show how it all fits together to form our energy transition, and exactly how and when that could happen. So we worked very hard on that forecast, based on Scott’s years of data, lots of new learning from the field, the International Energy Agency, the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Economic Geography and other forecasts.

    Tinker: It’s still just a forecast, but you see in the film the rationale it’s based on. Nearly everyone, from all along the energy spectrum — fossil, renewable and environmental — has found it reasonable. Many find it hopeful, in that if we work together, we can supply the world’s growing demand for energy. Others find it sobering in that the switch doesn’t happen as fast as they hoped it could, but that makes them motivated to do more. And we all need to do more, and I want to emphasize this again, in efficiency. We can be more efficient, smarter about how we use energy in every facet of our lives, without really even changing the way we live. What each of us does, matters.

    Home page banner photo: Fueling a tanker in Qatar, the world’s largest producer of LNG.

    • Quote 2
      Richard Bennett said on Oct. 3, 2012 at 8:50 p.m.
      I was left with a feeling of enormous problems facing our energy future. No easy answer, but two that were not explored are, adjusting our living standards (not just conservation and efficiency measures) here, and controlling world population growth , especially in developing economies. Another assumption is that the economy will decide what energy mix we will end up with in the future. I don't think we have the luxury of letting economic concerns be the arbiter of our futures.
    • Quote 2
      Richard said on Sept. 29, 2012 at 12:30 a.m.
      I saw the movie today. It was very good. Informative and reasonably comprehensive given the constraints of a single movie. A balanced presentation of the various competing sources of energy. Perhaps almost too balanced, and thus, not especially controversial. It would be great if this film leads to the conversation and cultural change that Dr. Tinker and Mr. Lynch envision, but as comfortable as this film was to watch, it may just be watched by too few and then forgotten.
    • Quote 2
      David Hoefer said on Sept. 12, 2012 at 10:27 p.m.
      Switch is one of the best documetary films I have seen. Dr. Tinker and the rest of the crew presented the subject of energy in a way that all should be able to understand. Thanh you. David Hoefer
    • Quote 2
      Julia said on July 12, 2012 at 2:34 a.m.
      To correct Osborne- The quote of 600 million people without electricity is in reference to just India's population. I just saw the movie...and I loved it! The movie was informative, thought provoking, and was saturated with global concepts with larger time ranges than most energy documentaries I have seen. I appreciated Scott Tinker's cooperation for Q&A at the end of the playing that I went to.
    • Quote 2
      Bobear said on May 21, 2012 at 4:10 p.m.
      This sounds like a very interesting documentary! Has it come out in public theatres yet?
    • Quote 2
      Rusty Osborne said on April 30, 2012 at 7:02 p.m.
      Looks interesting- can't wait to see it. However, there is a spoken error at about 00:49 in the trailer (in the film too?) where the speaker says "There are 600 million people in this COUNTRY without access to electricity"... the speaker surely meant "600 million in the world"...
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