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‘Switch’ screened as part of energy series

W&J pulled a switch in its Energy Lecture Series Tuesday night, featuring a documentary instead of a speaker.


“Switch” lit up Yost Auditorium, however, energizing the smaller-than-usual audience with its professional portrayal of energy – specifically, the transition from coal and oil to less-traditional sources of electricity. It was the third in a five-session series.


“We probably can make coal clean, but we probably can’t afford to,” said Scott W. Tinker, the narrator and linchpin of the 98-minute film.


That was one of his many observations while traveling around the world, interviewing experts while exploring energy sources in regions where they proliferate. Tinker is a geologist, researcher and professor at the University of Texas, where he also runs the Bureau of Economic Geology.


His objective was to examine all energy sources and form conclusions about each, without rating them on a best-to-worst scale. The documentary is part of an education endeavor, the Switch Energy Project (



Movie night at the Burnett Center showcased a slick flick, directed by Harry Lynch, produced and distributed by Arcos Films, and winner of numerous awards since its 2012 release.


The camera work is fabulous – even though Tinker probably gets too much face time. The pace is fast and the subject matter engrossing, with Tinker asking pointed questions and eliciting candid responses. Filming and post-production took three years.


Be aware that this occurred before the oil and gas industry accelerated over the past two years.


“Switch” starts with a splash, literally, at a hydropower facility in Norway.


“Norway gets energy from water – lots and lots of water,” Tinker intoned.


He toured Belle Ayr coal mine in Wyoming with Shane Durgin, president and general manager of Alpha Coal West. It is an open pit with low-sulfur, sub-bituminous coal.


Coal may be nefarious environmentally, compared with other sources, but Durgin asserted it remains viable.


“Someone is getting coal every day,” he said. “The United States is getting half its electricity from coal every year.”


Tinker was impressed by the potential of compressed natural gas in the transportation industry’s conclusion about compressed natural gas is it’s “a valuable resource, but it won’t replace oil.”


Solar, wind and nuclear energy also are profiled, with Tinker extolling their virtues but lamenting their detriments.


He said “transmission is the big issue” with solar and wind, and that those resources “are intermittent” – sunshine and wind aren’t always available.


“We need something to fill their gaps. Natural gas” can do so.


He said nuclear power is beneficial, except for startup costs, and is relatively inexpensive. But the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Tinker added, continues to spark fears about nuclear power.


His blanket conclusion: “Everything has its dangers … nothing is perfect.”


Afterward, W&J professor Mark Swift and student Jack Myint supervised a brief but spirited question-and-answer flurry.


Washington & Jefferson College’s energy series will take an 11-week hiatus before resuming Feb. 4 with “Energy Trends in North America.” Sarah O. Ladislaw, director and senior fellow of the Energy and National Security Program, will speak.


The fifth and final program of the school year will be March 10, “Energy Trends in Latin America and the Caribbean.” It will feature Jorge Pinon, director of the University of Texas’ Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.


Both sessions, just recently announced, will begin at 7 p.m. in Yost Auditorium.



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