May 15, 2020
Lyndon Johnson’s first meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t go well. It was June 1938. Johnson had joined the House of Representatives 14 months earlier and he needed Roosevelt to approve a federal loan for the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, a nascent outfit that aimed to provide electricity to the impoverished rural farms and ranches in Johnson’s district in the Texas Hill Country.
But when Johnson met Roosevelt, the president was distracted and the meeting ended before the young Congressman was able to ask about the loan. Johnson then turned to a friend, Tommy Corcoran, who was one of Roosevelt’s top advisers, and asked for another meeting. Corcoran agreed to do so and offered some advice: “show him what Austin will look like…Don’t argue with him, Lyndon, show him.” At his next meeting with Roosevelt, Johnson strode in with poster-size photos that showed the progress being made on the construction of the Buchanan Dam on the Colorado River, as well as images of long-distance transmission lines and an electrified rural home at night.
Roosevelt agreed on the spot. He instructed the Rural Electrification Administration to make a $1.3 million loan to the Pedernales Electric Cooperative. Today, it is the largest electric cooperative in the United States and the Texas Hill Country is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.
Johnson didn’t argue for electrification, he showed Roosevelt what it meant. And that is the strength of Scott Tinker’s new feature-length documentary, SwitchOn. Among the most maddening aspects of the ongoing debate about energy policy, renewables, and climate change is that they lack a human connection. SwitchOn succeeds because it shows how electricity and clean cooking fuels nourish humans.
Before going further, I must disclose that I have known Tinker for years and consider him a friend. Thus, I won’t pretend to be an unbiased reviewer. A few months ago, I saw an early cut of the film and gave my thoughts on how to make it better. Thus, I’m not a neutral reviewer. That said, I’ve seen a lot of bad films about energy, including most recently, Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans. I’ve also endured a myriad of terrible presentations about energy. SwitchOn goes beyond numbers and charts. It allows viewers to see what life is like in remote regions of the world that have little or no access to modern energy.
SwitchOn is a production of the Switch Energy Alliance, a non-profit that is “dedicated to inspiring an energy-educated future that is objective, nonpartisan, and sensible.” Tinker is the chairman of the alliance. He’s also the head of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas in Austin. The film is Tinker’s second documentary. The first, Switch, came out in 2012. It looked at the energy transition in developed countries.
SwitchOn, which was directed by Harry Lynch, starts in a remote region of northern Colombia in a village of the Arhuaco tribe, subsistence farmers who are living in much the same way they have for the last four or five centuries. Only about half of the tribe’s members will live to adulthood. In a voiceover, Tinker explains that the Arhuacos “still get all their energy from burning wood. And you might think they are a fairly isolated case. But in fact, there are one billion people in rural Latin America, Africa, and Asia, who live like the Arhaucos do, with no electricity or modern energy of any kind. There are another one billion people, most of them urban, with limited energy that’s often unaffordable or dangerous.” That’s the setup for the next 75 minutes of the film.
From Colombia, Tinker and his film crew bounce all over the world, to Ethiopia, Vietnam, Nepal, and Kenya. They visit dams, coal mines, and urban electric grids. Given the ongoing pandemic and lockdown, and the near-impossibility of jumping on a jetliner to go pretty much anywhere these days, the travel seems almost dizzying. Tinker estimates he and his team traveled more than 100,000 miles.
The film is well-edited and beautifully shot. The most emotionally effective segment of the film comes during the first 15 minutes or so, when Tinker visits Nepal. He stops in a home that uses biomass for cooking. In the background, you can hear some of the children in the home coughing due to the effect of indoor air pollution. The concentration of airborne particulates in the home was 15 to 20 times higher than what was found outside. In 2012, according to the World Health Organization about 1.7 million premature deaths were attributed to indoor air pollution, with much of the problem being caused by the use of biomass and poor-quality stoves.
Tinker then visits the Siddhi Memorial Hospital in Bhaktapur, to see first-hand how biomass-related pollution is impacting the health of children. He sits in on a doctor visit. A local mother has brought in her daughter, who appears to be less than two years old. The doctor explains “The child is having fever and difficulty breathing, and complaining of cough.” This was the child’s second visit. The mother explained the child had not improved since the first visit. “And now,” the doctor explained, the girl is “complaining of fast breathing.”
Throughout the doctor’s examination, the child is coughing and crying. The doctor tells Tinker that more than 60 percent of the children they see are at the hospital because of upper respiratory infections. During the exam, the camera turns to Tinker, whose eyes well with tears while watching the struggling child. I teared up, too. The girl is then taken to another part of the hospital where a pair of nurses attempt to administer oxygen as the child continues crying and coughing. “Sadly,” Tinker says in his voiceover, “children die frequently here of pneumonia.”
Untold thousands of children die in places like Nepal and India because they live in houses that don’t have electric or butane stoves. They are dying at the same time that America’s biggest environmental groups and highest-profile climate activists routinely insist that the only way we should be fueling our society is with wind and solar energy. Those groups and activists stage protests and divestment campaigns at the same time that women and children are dying of respiratory illnesses because they lack butane and a proper stove.
The film concludes with a return to Colombia where Tinker and his team install a 3.5-kilowatt solar system with 24 kilowatt-hours of battery storage in the Arhuacos’ village. The system cost about $75,000 and was enough to run a refrigerator, a few lights, and a few ceiling fans. The completion of the project provides a neat, and rather triumphant ending to the film.
A few days ago, I talked to Tinker about SwitchOn and what he hopes to accomplish with it. He replied, saying he wanted to show that “energy really does change lives. Half the world’s population is disadvantaged because they don’t have access to modern energy. This is the real inequality.” SwitchOn succeeds because it doesn’t argue about inequality or about how transformative modern energy can be, it shows it.
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