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Switch: The New Documentary on Energy’s Future

How will the switch to cleaner energy sources occur?

This is the basic question Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and Allday Endowed Chair professor at The University of Texas at Austin, explores in the documentary film, Switch, which he co-produced and in which he is featured as interviewer and narrator. Attendees at this year’s SPE Annual Technical Conference & Exhibition (ATCE) enjoyed a complimentary screening of the film Monday evening, 8 October. In addition, Tinker delivered the keynote presentation at the SPE Research & Development (R&D) Technical Section annual meeting, held at ATCE the evening before.

The quest Tinker embarks upon in Switch is one of keen interest to those involved with energy R&D, because both the continued cost-effective exploitation and delivery of fossil fuels as well as the search for alternative sources of energy depend on innovations in technology.

The documentary follows Tinker as he travels the world to discuss “the switch,” giving us along the way an inside look at all the major types of energy—hydro, coal, crude oil, biofuels, natural gas, geothermal, solar, wind, and nuclear.

Geology Is Destiny

Starting with “one of the most successful energy transitions in the world…, energy so clean you can drink it,” Tinker explains that Norway’s geology is why it can generate 99% of its electrical power from hydro. In fact, a country’s geology proves critical in determining its ability to transition from electricity’s mainstay—cheap and abundant coal. As Tinker says in the film, “Take massive global fuel supply, combine it with fast, simple power generation, and you get the cheapest electricity in the world. That’s why we’re still hooked.” Getting unhooked is difficult, given our species’ large and growing presence, as well as the push for a greater proportion of people to participate in the lifestyle benefits that accrue from energy use.

The logistics of maintaining while also continuing to build a global system of transport, communication, and comfort for humans is formidable. The massive physical infrastructure changes, capital equiment costs, and economic consequences involved in a global energy switch make its pace one involving decades or centuries rather than months and years. Switch gives us insight into the physics, economics, and scale involved in current energy supply and demand. An example is given early in the film of the scale involved in keeping the world supplied with energy. The annual volume of the material moved at the Belle Ayr Mine in the US Powder River Basin—the largest coal reserve in the world—is equal to three times the volume of the entire Panama Canal. And that is just one of the mines in the Powder River Basin.

The film touches as well on the future toward which we are tending—in the end pointing people toward how they can take simple and affordable actions that can influence demand downward and play a part in making a switch possible as well as palatable.

Foundational Fuels: Crude Oil and Coal

Tinker takes viewers to the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange to discuss the price of oil. It seems, he avers, that the price of oil determines how much of it we can economically extract from the Earth. So reserves are largely dependent on oil prices.

We travel to oil’s fastest-growing frontier—the deepest offshore waters in the world—to Shell’s Perdido platform, which sits in 8,000 ft of water 200 miles south of Galveston, Texas. Perdido is located in the Gulf of Mexico, the same body of water in which BP’s Macondo accident occurred in 2010. “As we push into more challenging environments here and around the world,” narrates Tinker, “the risk will increase. Future oil supply will be hard.”

Supply, though, is just half the equation. What about demand? Switch visits the Richmond Refinery, located in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to Mike Coyle, the refinery’s manager, Richmond makes 25% of the gasoline and nearly 70% of the jet fuel for the Bay Area.

“It’s something like a power plant for transportation,” narrates Tinker, “taking the energy in oil and distributing it through gasoline.”

According to Ernie Moniz, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative and former US Undersecretary of Energy, gasoline has about four times the energy density of liquid hydrogen, which is used to fuel rockets.

“It’s a miracle,” says Richard Muller, physicist at Berkeley National Laboratory. “Think about it. You can go 350 miles on a tank of gasoline—350 miles. A whole family. In a 2-ton automobile … . And then, there’s not even any residue. There’s no ash. It’s all gone. … You just fill it up in 3 or 4 minutes. It’s truly a miracle. It’s very hard to replace.”

Tim Burchfield, process engineer at the Richmond Refinery, says that one crude-oil tanker, which holds 750,000 bbl, equals about 45 minutes of total US usage. “The world uses a tanker every 13 minutes,” narrates Tinker. “And as population increases, so will demand. Combine that with difficult supply, and future oil will be expensive.”

As Tinker travels to India for a conference, he focuses on the implications of that country’s growth in population and increase in its middle class. In India, the demand for cars and for electricity is rising far faster than in more developed economies. Within the next 20 to 30 years, India will likely have to meet the demand of those currently without electricty—the equivalent of almost twice the present population of the US, and growing.

So, narrates Tinker, “Just as it did in the West, coal will power the development of China and India. But it will not be clean. Oil demand will increase. And so will risk. And so will price.”

“The challenge, then,” according to Tinker, “is not just to adopt alternatives but to maintain the benefits of coal and oil without their disadvantages. And at a price we can all afford. Can it
be done?”

What Can Replace Crude Oil?

In search of answers, Tinker explores biofuels and discovers “One of the great challenges is scale. The scale of taking a low-density fuel—a crop—and converting it into a high-density liquid.” The massive amounts of land currently needed to generate biofuels are so huge, he concludes, there is no realistic prospect of them displacing oil.

But what about another type of hydrocarbon, natural gas? While clean-burning—emitting carbon dioxide and water vapor—with the density at which it leaves the ground, natural gas must either be compressed or liquefied in order to present a viable option to gasoline. It needs to be compressed in order to fuel vehicles at distances comparable to those afforded by a tank of gasoline. It needs to be liquefied in order to fit into a tanker whose size is manageable enough to justify the cost of transporting it for export.

So compressed natural gas (CNG) represents a viable option for fleets of vehicles whose number and annual mileage justify the upfront capital cost of huge compressors. A compressor applies pressures of around 3,800 psi to reduce the volume of the natural gas such that enough energy power can be placed in a vehicle’s tank to fuel a meaningful number of miles’ travel. As Dick Rudell, chief executive officer of Fort Worth T, that city’s public transit authority, comments, “Natural gas is cheaper per mile to operate than diesel. But the biggest issue is the cost of getting into it.”

Converting public transportation vehicles to run on CNG would not have much of an impact in terms of displacing gasoline, according to Rudell. “But there are a lot of trucks out there also—the over-the-road trucks, the city trucks, all the delivery trucks,” he says. “If you took all of those vehicles and converted them to compressed natural gas, which they could because they’re fleets, you would have an impact.”

Tinker then takes us to the Surmount Oil Sands Plant in northern Canada, where steam heated by natural-gas-fired generators is funneled into the oil sands to heat the oil, which in its natural state is so viscous it has the consistency of a hockey puck. “Compared to the days of the large oil fields in the Middle East,” says Kevin Myers, senior vice president at ConocoPhillips, “it is relatively expensive.” In his estimation, for oil sands to be competitive, the price of intermediate crude needs to be about USD 60 to 70.

“If you just consider resources that you might be able to get at for costs of, say, USD 70 per barrel,” says US Undersecretary of Energy, Steve Koonin, “then we’ve got about another 4 trillion barrels of oil left in the ground to get out. And between now and 2030, we’ll use maybe a trillion barrels of oil (worldwide).”

So, concludes Tinker, “We’re not running out (of oil). As price climbs, so will supply. It looks like the main replacement for oil will be different sources of oil.”

What About Cars?

But the main reason we are so dependent on gasoline is that it fuels our transportation vehicles. Right now, we have developed so-called hybrid vehicles that run on a combination of an electric motor and a combustion engine. According to Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, the bigger the battery, the more electricity it can hold and the more gasoline the vehicle can displace. Plug-in hybrid cars can get some of their electricity from the electric power grid. The reason we don’t just jump to an all-electric-powered vehicle, Sperling contends, is that batteries are very expensive.

Moniz says electric-powered vehicles represent a “pretty good performance” option. “If you want torque,” he says, “get a battery.”

Tinker then looks into what it would take to buy a Tesla sports car. As we see him speeding along the open highway, he says, “Zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds, no noise, no transmission, no gas stations. This car isn’t just as good as a regular sports car, it’s better.”

“If I had an unlimited budget,” he contends, “I’d be driving this one home.”

In looking over the Tesla Motors website, Model S cars, in production or available close to the end of this year, are offered in 40-kWh (160 miles), 60-kWh (230 miles), and 85-kWh (300 miles) versions. Base prices range from USD 49,900 to USD 97,900 (after a USD 7,500 US federal tax credit). According to the Tesla website, the “Model S can charge from almost any outlet, anywhere. All Model S cars plug into 110- and 240-volt outlets as well as public charging stations using the included mobile connector and adapters.”

Tesla’s website maintains the company “is building a network of superchargers throughout North America. The supercharger is an industrial-grade, high-speed charger designed to replenish 150 miles of travel in about 30 minutes when applied to the 85-kWh vehicle.”

Vehicle charging times can be lengthy, however. With a high-power wall connector, the car must be equipped with twin chargers and a power supply of up to 20 kW must be available. “With 20 kW of power,” the website states, “a Model S equipped with twin chargers can recover 62 miles of range per hour of charging.”

As can be seen, a switch to electric-powered automobiles for the average person will require a substantial drop in vehicle price as well as the buildup of an effective infrastructure of superchargers.

“If we’re not going to get any of our transportation energy from oil,” says Koonin in the movie, “we’re going to have to get it from somewhere else. So where are you going to get the extra electricity to run all those electric cars? When you go through the numbers, it’s a nontrivial number—25% to 30% to 40% more electricity that we have to  generate.”

How Do We Generate More Electric Power?

Tinker found himself moving from a look at transportation back toward a consideration of electricity. “Where are we going to get 40% more power?” he asks. “Coal? Or can we successfully switch to an alternative?”

He investigates geothermal, visiting the Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant in Iceland, a country that gets half its energy supply from geothermal. But geothermal sites with an energy density powerful enough to generate meaningful amounts of electricity are rare. According to physicist Muller, “The average geothermal has a power density that is 10,000 times less than solar energy.”

So, says Tinker, “Geothermal is regional, but the sun is nearly everywhere.” He then looks into various solar-power options. According to Lynn Orr and Sally Benson of the Global Climate and Energy Program at Stanford University, the cost-effectiveness of installing solar panels depends on what one now pays for electricity. If, for example, one lives in Hawaii, where electricity costs are very high, it could be cost-effective today. “On the other hand,” they point out, “if you have coal-based electricity today that you’re paying 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour, it may never be competitive.”

Tinker concludes that solar, too, is regional. “It’s affordable where sun, subsidies, and electric prices are high.” He looks into both small- and large-scale solar power plants. Diablo Valley College, California, came up with an ingenious way to generate sun-powered electricity: placing solar panels on a parking lot canopy, thus providing shade and also generating electricity. According to Jim Davis, president of Chevron Energy Solutions, “The solar produces about 50% of the campus’s peak electrical demand.”

The big question Tinker asks is “How does a community college or an education campus afford the front-end cost?”

Davis explains the financing. The campus enters into an agreement with a financial institution for long-term power purchase at a rate less than what is available through a utility. So the bank owns the asset. Then a company like Chevron would build the project and do the operation and maintenance of it on behalf of the bank.

Tinker visits two solar plants—the Abengoa PS10 solar power plant and the Andasol concentrating solar station—both in Andalusia, Spain. The former generates enough electricity to fulfill the total annual energy needs of about 1,200 people; the latter, about 16,000 people, according to a system developed by Tinker and used for roughly comparing the relative energy-generating power of each site he visits throughout the film.

The PS10 solar power plant is the world’s first commercial concentrating solar power tower, located near Seville.

The Andasol solar power station is Europe’s first commercial parabolic trough solar thermal power plant, located near Guadix. The Andasol plant uses tanks of molten salt to store heat for times when solar rays are unavailable. A full thermal reservoir holds enough heat to run the turbine for about 7.5 hours at full load.

“As promising as this technology appears,” concludes Tinker, “it’s probably decades away from being an affordable solution.”

He next visits Denmark, which has led the world in wind power for the last 40 years and now receives 20% of its electricity from wind turbines. According to Jakob Holst, chief operating officer of the Danish Windpower Association, the success of wind power took 20 years of concerted effort, with those in the beginning paying the price to build up the industry. Wind turbines, he reports, are “very reliable” and have “pretty simple components. The three-blade turbine we see around the world was pioneered and perfected here. They can be built in months and rolled out in any number.”

But, he points out, the turbines are only part of the equation. The other is the wind. Like the sun, its presence is intermittent. “The main idea,” says Anne Hojer Simonsen, deputy director of the Danish Energy Agency, “is a combination of different technologies. Diversification.”

But Denmark is a country of 5 million people. “Can we do the same thing in a much larger country?” asks Tinker.

He then visits the western part of  Texas, a state that generates about 25% of US wind capacity—with about 50% of US wind capacity generated within a 500-mile radius of Sweetwater, Texas. Cliff Etheredge, a west Texas wind farmer, looks more like an aging oil industry roustabout. “Talk about an attitude adjustment,” he says. “Now we’ve had it: 180 degrees.” As Tinker flies over the Roscoe Wind Farm, he comments, “This is a community that’s welcomed it (a wind turbine farm) with open arms. Nobody’s saying, ‘Not here. Not in my backyard.’”

During the last 4 to 5 years, says Etheredge, the area has changed from being agriculturally and economically depressed. “Now with our windmills and our opportunities here,” he says, “it’s turned our communities around.”

But, Tinker narrates, “To get 20% of US electricity from wind would require another 200,000 (wind turbines). But people might not want to look at that many turbines.”

It seems with wind power generation, the primary challenge is funelling the power from the source—windy areas tend to be remote—through high-capacity transmission lines to populations where the power will be used. So the upfront cost involves something similar to the 2,300 miles of high-capacity transmission lines to be built by year-end 2013, whereby remotely generated wind power can be distributed to Texas’ main cities—Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. The price tag: USD 5 billion or more. Plus the logistics of convincing people and dealing with county judges and county commissioners that, property by property, transmission lines should be sited across particular swaths of private land.

A place like the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas manages a huge number of transmission lines, many of which deliver intermittent power. When power generated by wind is unavailable, the grid is switched to bring on power from a conventional source.

“The amazing thing about electricity,” marvels Stanford’s Benson, “is that it’s generated at exactly the same pace that we use it. Isn’t that a miracle? I mean, what other thing is there where supply exactly meets demand?”

According to David Crane, chief executive officer of NRG Energy, “Sometimes the wind will go from several thousand megawatts to zero in less than a minute. And gas plants can’t come on within a minute, but there are many types of gas plants that can come on within 19 minutes. So the key is to encourage people to build natural gas plants that work in concert with wind and solar.”

Natural Gas: Crucial to Our Energy Future

In bringing the focus back on natural gas, Tinker deftly tackles the subject of hydraulic fracturing. Dave Leopold, operations manager at Chesapeake Energy, estimates the average amount of water needed for fracturing at 3 million gallons per well. With face mask affixed and standing over a well site, Tinker mentions that at 0.5% of the total volume of the injected fluids, about 15,000 gallons of additives are needed. While not specifically mentioning the 3 to 5 million lbs of proppant required for an average 20-stage fracturing procedure, he shows the proppant on-screen.

In the film, Victor Carillo, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, and Scott Anderson, senior policy advisor of the Environmental Defense Fund, impart the message that in their view the act of hydraulic fracturing does not affect—much less contaminate—groundwater used for drinking.

Tinker narrates, “It seems the risk is not so much with frac(tur)ing but with handling the wastewater. Hopefully, gas producers and regulators can resolve these issues so we can have access to this abundant resource.”

He also points out that in other parts of the world, conventional supplies of natural gas are growing, too. He then takes us over the Strait of Hormuz and to Qatar. Hamad Rashid Al Mohannadi, managing director of RasGas, explains, “Qatar in the last 10 years has grown from zero production (of natural gas) to about 30% of the (liquefied natural gas—LNG) world market.” He shows us a massive Q-Max ship, which contains 250,000 m3 of LNG. “We consider this as a pipeline in the sea,” says Al Mohannadi.

According to Moniz, “We may even eventually see a world market in natural gas develop as it has for oil.”

Tinker is enthusiastic about natural gas. “Low carbon (emissions), low price, and the ability to back up wind and solar mean that natural gas will likely be a vital part of our energy transition.”

The Need for Nuclear

Tinker also tries to demystify nuclear energy. “The dangers of nuclear power, although they’re real,” says Muller, “are less than the dangers of not having sufficient energy with all the problems that brings. They’re less than the dangers of coal. … All fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide. The world is worried about increasing even further the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So everything has its dangers and as we begin to appreciate that, we realize that nuclear looks better.” He points out that the main consideration is dealing with an enormous upfront capital cost.

“It is very hard to see how the world is going to meet its emissions goals,” says Koonin, “without a significant fraction in nuclear energy.”

Tinker takes us inside the La Hague Nuclear Recycling Center in France, which recycles other nuclear facilities’ used uranium. According to Christoph Neugnot, communications manager at La Hague, 96% of used uranium is reusable. The reason recycling is not typical is that most places have easy access to reserves of fresh uranium.

Neugnot says, of the recycled material the plant uses, only 5 grams of fission waste per French citizen is generated each year.

Switch’s Message

It is impossible to understand Switch’s message without experiencing its stunning and powerful visual impact, as well as hearing the voices of its diverse participants. And its conclusion is vital and mostly hopeful. It’s a film to bring family and friends to so all can gain the opportunity to see how broad and complex the issue of our energy future is—and how one can through some simple actions play a role in how that future unfolds.

Switch: The Film and Project

An Interview with Scott Tinker