Are there real and plausible alternatives to our existing fossil fuel infrastructure? Two documentary films, “Revenge of the Electric Car” and “SWITCH,” offer sobering views of our options.
Director Chris Paine is back six years after he eulogized General Motors’s EV1 in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” with a determinedly positive sequel. “Revenge of the Electric Car” heralds the unlikely electric conversion of Bob Lutz, the former GM vice chairman, who famously declared global warming a “crock of sh*t.” Lutz shares the screen with Elon Musk, the PayPal millionaire turned CEO of Tesla Motors, Carlos Ghosn, the French-Brazilian CEO of Nissan, and Greg “Gadget” Abbot, a do-it-yourselfer who retrofits gasoline-powered sports cars with battery packs.
“Revenge” follows these players from 2007 to 2010, some of the worst years in automotive history, as they vie to develop and deliver a safe, production-ready electric car. Within the film’s timeline, GM files for bankruptcy, Tesla has to downsize and qualify for low-interest loans from the government, and Ghosn’s board doubts his bet will pay off. Yet the overall perspective on electric car technology is extremely optimistic. It’s not clear that GM, Tesla, or even Nissan will survive the decade, but the electric car will. In a representative moment, Abbot walks through his shop after a fire destroys everything and finds a box with a surviving transmitter. Grinning, he says, “I can build a car with this.”
“Revenge” owes a debt to the tropes of automotive marketing. The camera follows the s-curve on the hood of the Tesla Roadster; Ghosn examines a production model of the Leaf. But the film goes out of its way to suppress the retail price of the GM Volt and Nissan Leaf, vehicles marketed for the average driver that cost respectively $11,000 to $6,000 more than the average 2010 new car.
Because “Revenge” does not address the price issue, or much else beyond its quartet of interesting characters, the result is a film rich in optimism and poor in detail. Shai Agassi, CEO of electric car innovator Better Place, gets about three seconds of screen time, and there is only passing reference to Mitsubishi and Ford, and none to Toyota, each of which plans to launch an electrical vehicle in 2012. “Revenge” also ignores the dealers, a group lukewarm to EVs and without whom manufacturers cannot reach the customers.
In contrast, “SWITCH,” directed by Harry Lynch, is not coy about numbers. The film begins its balanced exploration of what it will take to wean consumers off coal and gas by asking how much energy the average person uses annually—not just in miles driven and rooms cooled, but in the energy needed to make and deliver food and consumer goods. Those 20 million watt hours serve as the baseline against which all fuel sources are measured by the amiable Scott Tinker, a geologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Leading a world tour of energy production facilities—from the Belle Ayr coalmine in Montana to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland—Tinker explores how coal and oil might be overtaken by natural gas, biofuels, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, and nuclear energy. For each fuel source, Tinker visits a plant and talks with a variety of experts. This approach gets monotonous as the film progresses, although the effect is offset by a steady flow of arresting visuals and surprising details. The potential for “clean coal” is put into perspective, for example, through a trip to the W.A. Parish power plant, where a $300 million carbon sequestration project currently captures just 2 percent of the site’s CO2 emissions.
“SWITCH” does not shy away from difficult realities. Oil produces greenhouse gas emissions, but it is also energy dense; a small amount holds a lot of power. Coal is dirty, but easy to access and use, and there is a lot of it. (It also generates about half the electricity used in the United States, a fact “Revenge” ignores—today’s electric cars are effectively running on coal.) These sources are not easy to replace: biomass needs land and significant processing before it can function like oil; wind and solar sources are intermittent, with no economic way to store surplus at scale. Higher prices for fossil fuels will not solve the problem: as oil gets more expensive, oil companies have a cost incentive to explore remote stores.
The unlikely savior that emerges in “SWITCH” is nuclear power. The film makes the case that the efficiency and scale of nuclear power generation presents the greatest opportunity to wean man from oil and coal. To tell that story, Tinker visits France, where nuclear capacity fulfills 75 percent of electricity needs. While at La Hague nuclear recycling facility in Normandy, he witnesses a spent fuel rod being processed— according to the film, 96 percent of the core elements of plutonium and uranium are reused.
The message is that nuclear power is at once less dangerous and produces less waste than people think. The point hits home when an engineer hands Tinker a one Euro coin to illustrate how much nuclear waste is produced per person per year compared to the volume of energy. The image is powerful. It’s also misleading: the French use about 40 percent less energy per capita than Americans do; and volume is an imperfect measure of the amount of radiation contained within.
Although disasters such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and most recently Fukushima have only exacerbated the public’s aversion to nuclear power, the message of “SWITCH” is that we need to embrace all low-and-no emissions fuel sources, including nuclear energy, if we are to free ourselves from fossil fuel reliance. As it is, Tinker’s tour shows that the combined projected growth in wind, solar, natural gas, and nuclear energy will overtake oil and gas only in 2050—too late, by many measures, to prevent disastrous warming. “SWITCH” is no feel-good story of new technology saving the day, but at least it’s clear what we’re up against.
“Revenge of the Electric Car” is out on DVD and available through Netflix, Amazon on Demand, and other rental outlets. SWITCH can be seen at preview screenings scheduled in major cities throughout the United States. See www.switchenergyproject.com for times and locations.