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Kutztown University celebrates Earth Week, screens documentary Switch ‘Film reveals perfect energy sources come with imperfect environmental impacts' says KU geology professor

By Esther Shanahan, KU Relations

Thursday, April 25, 2013

In his award-winning documentary, “Switch,” Dr. Scott Tinker conveys viewers around the globe, to a Norwegian hydroelectric power company, Danish fields dominated by majestic, whirling wind turbines, an Icelandic geothermal plant and a futuristic nuclear power plant in France.
Tinker, a geologist, professor at the University of Austin in Texas, Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and Director of the Advanced Energy Consortium, filmed the documentary to explore what transitioning from coal and oil to other energy sources will look like and how long It will take to make the switch.
Kutztown University held a screening of the film, which has been played at national meetings of geoscientists all over the country.
“This film reveals that we do have perfect energy sources for our society – coal and oil – but they come with imperfect environmental impacts,” said Dr. Jacob Sewall, KU professor of geology during the April 16 screening in the Boehm Science Center. “We need to implement alternative energy sources, but there is nothing individually that can replace coal and oil at the rate we currently consume energy. Society needs diverse energy sources and ‘Switch’ is unique in that it investigates and compares the benefits and drawbacks of all energy sources before reaching a conclusion.”
In one year, a person uses an amount of energy equivalent to 20,000,000 watt hours, and Tinker measures the output of energy sources in terms of how many people per year (ppy) it can power. For example, the Hellisheiđi geothermal plant in Iceland produces enough power for 90,000 ppy. Geothermal energy is clean, relying only on water and steam, and its environmental impact is minimal, but geothermal energy requires specific geological features, which are concentrated in small regions around the globe.
Hydraulic, solar and wind energy sources are similarly hindered by geographical and geological limitations. When energy is intermittent, as is the case with wind and solar energy, storing power then becomes another concern. Current methods for storing energy are imperfect at best. However, when alternative sources can be implemented, the benefits are apparent.
In Roscoe, Texas, the Roscoe Wind Farm transformed wind turbine power from a pipedream into a lucrative reality. Roscoe was an agriculturally and economically depressed area and its residents were willing to take a chance on becoming wind farmers. The “landlords,” who share ownership of the wind farm, are finally receiving a paycheck, and the turbines power 100,000 ppy. While some people find wind turbines unattractive, for people in this Texas community the sight of spinning turbines heralds a bright future for themselves and their families.
According to Tinker, the biggest switch we have to make is from traditional sources of energy, like coal and oil, to sustainable ones, because the global demand for energy is increasing. In two or three decades, the energy demands of India and China are expected to exceed the needs of U.S. and Europe combined. We need to maintain the benefits of oil and coal without their disadvantages and at a price we can all afford; but how?
First, we need to modify our consumption habits. If we use less energy today, the 50-year energy transition projected by Tinker will require fewer infrastructures and will cost substantially less.
“There needs to be a conversation about decreasing our energy demand, creating sustainable systems and understanding global impacts,” said Michelle Sayles ‘13, a KU student and president of the Environmental Action committee.
Investing more time and money into energy alternatives today could yield significant benefits in the future.
“With more funding, other energy sources will improve,” Sayles predicted. “Kutztown University is proactive about being more energy efficient; especially Rohrbach Library. Solar panels run the lights in the parking lots – that’s a start. We’re looking into more funding and have talked about applying for a Green Fund, which would provide funding for KU initiatives to reduce energy consumption and encourage sustainability projects on campus. If it were in place it could potentially attract a lot of students to the university interested in environmental initiatives.”
In the meantime, what steps can people take to begin becoming more energy efficient?
The best place to start is at home. Tinker says that buildings account for 40 percent of current energy usage and increasing insulation can drastically reduce energy use and costs. And, even though most people can’t afford a vehicle like the electric Tesla roadster, with a base price of $101,500, carpooling and walking can help reduce gas bills and fossil fuel usage.