Switch (I) (2012)
User ReviewsReview this title
It doesn't sing the praise of just one technology, or try to demonize another. Instead, it gives an honest evaluation of each energy source, weighing pros and cons. No source is held up as the end-all be-all magic bullet, which is pretty realistic.
I do feel that it tried a little bit too hard for balance on natural gas. Natural gas is held up as a clean, green fossil fuel, but this is questionable. As they say, it emits half the CO2 that coal does, though some would say even half is too much. However, methane leaks from natural gas have raised concerns about whether natural gas can really help much with greenhouse gas reduction. Also, at one point they claim that natural gas just creates CO2 and water, with no air pollution. Not just reduced air pollution, but none at all. That's not quite true. There's very little talk of air pollution in general, or on health/mortality impacts. I dinged it -1 point for neglecting these details.
It does skip on important details at times, but this is to be expected for such a broad subject. The strength of this documentary is in the scale of what it attempts- analyzing multiple energy sources instead of just one, and putting them in the larger context of our energy needs. Despite this, there are some good details here. The visits to each facility add to this by showing you exactly what each technology is and how it works. Overall, their projections for what our energy mix will have to be if we commit to an energy transition are probably not too far from the truth. I would say a bit less natural gas, but I would be nitpicking.
It's a good documentary. The most telling thing is that they have been criticized by people from all sides, which shows that they're not slaves to any one ideology. They let you watch it and draw your own conclusions.
There are a bunch of conclusory statements made by Dr. Tinker in the course of the movie, for example, it will take decades before solar will be able to provide energy for a significant number of people. I am willing to consider this as true if there is some evidence, but there was not even a statement why he reached this conclusion, let alone evidence.
Throughout the movie, there is emphasis on the fact that natural gas produces about half the CO2 emissions compared to coal. Tinker then "addresses" the water contamination issues associated with hydro-fracking using the example of the shale formations in Texas, which are about 8000 feet deep, according to the movie, and below the level that ground water is extracted, to support the conclusion that there has been no ground water contamination from hydro-fracking. There is no mention of the Marcellus shale formation in the East US and whether there are issues with ground water there. This "documentary" feels very much like a promotion of hydro-fracking for natural gas. Was this the industry answer to "Gasland?"
He is also a big promoter of nuclear, and talks about how the disposal issue is solved in France by using vitrification. However, the issue of the amount of radiation left in mine tailings (usually higher than the radiation from uranium ore itself) wherever uranium is mined does not appear to be a concern.
It just seems that energy conservation, which is a very important aspect of our energy use, is an after thought mentioned in the last few minutes of the film. It certainly does not do a good job of describing how our energy use can be lowered - it shows what he does to his own home. How many people can afford to do this? Public buildings use much more energy than private homes and there is no mention of how to transition these buildings. A big disappointment.
Really?? A few minutes on the Alberta tar sands telling us how much untapped resources are available there and how whatever company it was, is getting this stuff out the ground. Again, not a single mention of the devastating environmental impacts, or the fact that thanks to this futile energy "source" Canada's CO2 emissions are projected to spiral upwards in the next few decades (and that does not include burning the refined oil).
Why not include a trip to Estonia, one of the few countries that actually has a history of shale mining and is now paying the price? As for the guy from Texas who apparently is oblivious to environmental impacts of fracking, may I suggest he watch the documentary "Gasland." And, yes, aren't wind turbines great? No emissions, no obnoxious fumes, and so forth. Never mind the birds and bats (see Nature, June 20, 2012). Maybe this is not much of an issue but at the very least it should have been brought up.
As I said, a completely uncritical look at various energy resources. I realize that we will have to use a mix of these resources to continue to meet energy demand, but at the very least be honest about the downside of each of these. Don't leave the viewer with the impression that there's no environmental (mostly) costs attached to each and everyone of these. If energy consumers have no qualms about ruining the Alberta landscape and wildlife to satisfy their appetite for energy then so be it - but at least show them what the impact is.
But, what is absolutely astounding to me is that this infomercial yaks on about energy for more than 100 minutes without mentioning the single-most important factor in any discussion about energy: EROI!!!!! Or, Energy Return on Investment. How much the consumer is willing (or forced) to pay for a barrel of oil, or any other energy source, is ultimately irrelevant to the energy debate. Economics don't matter!! If it costs more energy to produce energy than we are getting out we're losing the battle. And for the tar sands, biofuels, and some of the others, the EROI is getting uncomfortably close to what many refer to as the energy cliff: EROI < 3. Once we hit that cliff, we can kiss civilization as we know it good bye.
A second way to paint a rosy picture that is very common, and also came up several times in this documentary, is to express energy reserves in terms of current consumption rates. Most people apparently have no grasp of the concept of the "power of two" or of "exponential growth." For example, yes, at current consumption levels, proved coal reserves can last a few hundred years. Factor in a 2% annual growth in energy demand, and all of a sudden these reserves are good for maybe another 50 years.
The beginning of the movie was telling. That's when Scott Tinker introduced the "energy unit" to be used throughout the movie: one year's worth of his energy consumption. Per capita energy consumption in the US is ridiculously high compared to other developed countries (e.g. western Europe), but that's not really the point. By choosing this as the basic energy unit, the focus becomes on how can we meet this energy demand? In other words, it throws out the fundamental question: to achieve a sustainable energy future, should we try to find ways to meet increasing energy demand or do we have to make fundamental changes in how developed societies operate? I'm not surprised this documentary has received much praise and awards from around the world. It conveys exactly the message that people want to hear: yes, there may be a temporary crunch in our pocketbooks but don't worry, the geologists and other scientists are working on finding alternatives that will allow you to continue driving your Toyota Highlander to the local soccer game (in case you missed it, that's the car Scott Tinker pulled out of his garage at the beginning). Maybe replace your windows with more energy-efficient ones, screw in some cfl light bulbs, and spray some insulation material in your attic, etc., but otherwise, continue pursuing the American Dream and by all means, continue to consume, consume, consume.
I'd say this infomercial represents a major victory for the energy lobby and a great disservice to the American people, or whoever else watches this stuff.
The only real solution is what Georgescu Roegen, Herman Daly, and a handful of other economists have been arguing for for some 40 years: a zero-growth economy. Heck, even Adam Smith in his 1776 Opus Magnum "The Wealth of Nations" recognized and admitted that economic growth cannot go on forever.
Most of the people of the world do not consume the mass amount of watts of energy per year the narrator assumes as a rule of thumb, based on his own life style. No one who lives on the continent of Africa, for instance,consumes even half as much as he does. For the narrator to use his personal usage as a globe-trotting, giant house living, electronic gadgets using engineer as a rule of thumb for everyone on the planet is just flabbergasting.
To not even consider reducing consumption is irresponsible. To not even address the fallacy that nature is merely a "resource" is sickening.
The crack about solar power being an "unreliable" or "intermittent" energy source almost made me choke. This part of New Mexico enjoys perfect sunny days 95% of the year. That's their idea of unreliable? Intermittent? The film suggests that the Andasol solar power station in Spain is down a significant part of the time due to inclement weather, when in fact it is not. California is building two huge solar gathering power plants in the Mojave. Does CA think solar is unreliable? There are huge parts of the world that get no rainfall EVER. Just one square mile of land receives something like 12 trillion watt-hours per square mile per year! All we need to do is figure out how to harness that!
I could not stomach the narrator's cheer leading in the nuclear power section and had to leave. There are so many reported nuclear power plant-related accidents every year, each one threatening containment, not waiting for a tornado, not needing a tornado to cause trouble. We still have not solved the permanent waste storage problem, no matter what they say.
The cost of coal is much higher than is reported, especially if you also factor in the respiratory illness children suffer in the vicinity of coal-fired power plants, such as the 2 here in the Four Corners.
Just think what will NEVER happen with solar or wind power: another Chernobyl, another Three-Mile Island, another Fukushima, another Exxon Valdez, another Deep Water Horizon, another Exxon Pegasus tar sands pipeline spill (happening right now in Arkansas), an increase in CO2 emissions, artificial earthquakes, periodic estimates about how long it will be until it runs out.