Tinker family, Trinity father-son duo, use film to reframe conversation on energy
by Jeremy Gerlach
Through film, Scott Tinker ’82 and son Derek Tinker ’14 can show you a powerless world: one with no cell phones, electricity, or even running water.
But the Tinkers don’t dabble in fictional dystopia—this is real life for billions of people across the globe who still live in energy poverty. And these are the stakes for the Switch Energy Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to creating free, nonpartisan films about energy’s past, present, and future.
Scott, the state geologist of Texas and University of Texas at Austin endowed geosciences professor, majored in business and geology at Trinity. He created his first film, “Switch,” in 2012 in partnership with documentary filmmaker Harry Lynch. This energy documentary, focusing on “the energy that built our world and the energy that will shape our future,”took Scott and crew to 28 locations in 11 different countries worldwide. Scott says “Switch” has become extremely popular, receiving laurels from the environmental community, energy industry and academics alike. The film has been shown to more than 15 million viewers in 50 countries, and is still used by thousands of universities.
“The star of our films is energy,” Scott says. “With ‘Switch,’ we tried to show how energy impacts our lives. Film can be a powerful tool for that, but we’ve got to be making objective, balanced films; otherwise the message will not stand the test of time.”
Now, with Derek on board as manager of operations, the Switch Energy Alliance is filming a sequel, “SwitchOn,” and has plans for a third film, “Making the Switch.”
While “Switch” focused on the pros and cons of all forms of energy, “SwitchOn” will focus on people who live without it. This project, slated for a 2019 release, is presently shooting on locations ranging from indigenous areas of Colombia to sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
“After filming ‘Switch,’ we realized we’d left out about 2.5 billion people: that’s eight United States, or a third of the world’s population,” Scott says. “So, we’re going back to look at how energy poverty affects all sorts of issues: immigration, women’s rights, education—because people can’t go to school when they have to spend the day hauling water and other resources—and it’s really a moral issue that these inequalities exist in the world.”
While the Switch Energy Alliance offers a robust series of learning programs, a 300-hour online film and video library, and additional resources open to classrooms and learners across the globe, it still faces the challenge of bringing a measured, nonpartisan voice to a world embroiled in a hyper-partisan debate over energy’s future.
“People talk about energy as old and new, good and bad, clean and dirty: would that it were so simple,” Scott says. “Any form of energy at scale is going to have a high environmental cost—even solar and wind. The next generation needs to see the full picture as they are making decisions and having conversations about energy.”
As a member of that next generation, Derek sees the Switch Energy Alliance and its digital, accessible resources as a virtual balm in an era of “fake news” and fast-paced social media hot takes.
“It pains me to see people on all segments of the energy and environmental industries lashing out, because this conversation is bigger than any of us,” Derek says. “The more people we have in this open conversation about energy, the better chance we have of understanding the cost of any future transition.”
And while Derek and Scott are engaged in the middle of a global energy dialogue, they both feel prepared for the challenge. As part of an extensive line of Tinkers who’ve attended Trinity, one might say creative problem solving is part of their DNA.
In addition to this father-son duo, Tinker Trinity alumni include Scott’s brother and his brother’s wife; his sister, her husband, and their oldest son; Scott’s first son and his wife; and Derek’s fiancée. Those numbers aren’t final, because Scott’s third son is now a rising junior at Trinity.
“Trinity is such a wonderful university—it allows you to get exposed to multiple things,” Scott says. “You can have the liberal arts experience as a science major that someone at a big university might not get—and exposure to sciences and math if you are in the humanities. For the undergraduate experience, I think it really is ideal.”
True to this sentiment, Scott actually became a geology major after meeting the late geosciences professor Ed Roy under Trinity’s iconic Murchison Tower at a first-year orientation party.
“I came to school to do pre-law and business, but Dr. Roy caught me out on the lawn and talked me into taking just one geology class—and before I knew it, we were out in the field, and I was a major,” Tinker says. “That’s the type of moment you can have at Trinity—and it was a moment that changed my life.”
Derek, a Semmes Scholar who majored in engineering science and physics at Trinity and went on to earn his master’s degree in petroleum engineering at UT-Austin, started his path a bit differently from his father.
“Coming to Trinity, I knew I wanted to work in energy,” Derek says. “This place gives you great internship opportunities, and by the time I graduated, I’d had three internships in the oil field and even had a job offer from a company in Austin.”
But fate would intervene before Derek got settled in the petroleum industry. His new boss at the company happened to be a major supporter of Scott’s work on the first “Switch” film and pushed Derek to find a way to get involved with his father’s nonprofit. So, Derek landed a fellowship to support his work at Switch Energy Alliance in fall 2016 and hasn’t looked back since.
For Scott, working with his son has been a dream come true.
“This is just something you can never plan for, or even allow yourself to hope for, but it’s a remarkable experience. I learn so much just from watching him and his excitement,” Scott says. “Now and then Derek humors me—I might share an idea with him, on a rare occasion, that he hasn’t thought of already!”
Over the course of filming “SwitchOn,” the pair has had plenty of time to learn together. While filming in an area of Colombia populated by indigenous peoples, for example, the Switch Energy Alliance crew went “off the grid” for nine days.
“No cell phones, no running water, nothing to do but work and quietly contemplate,” Scott says.
This might sound like a setup for a typical father-son camping trip, but experiences like these have been anything but ordinary for the duo.
“On the Colombian trip, we went to a tribal village that had requested help,” Derek says. “They are a vibrant, happy people, but feel their culture may be dying. With their permission, we installed a small solar array to bring electricity to the village.”
“Seeing how people live without energy,” Scott adds, “opens your eyes to the privileges we were born into. And the point of the film we’re making isn’t asking people to beat themselves up about that, but to bring awareness to the inequities that energy poverty creates.”
And the central message of the upcoming “SwitchOn” film won’t just be engaging areas of energy poverty, Scott says, but doing this in a respectful, sustainable way.
“We can’t just show up, drop a few solar panels in a village and say, ‘Look, we did this!’” Scott explains. “Energy has to be introduced into a village, area, or region in a way that that community can accept, understand, and sustain.”
Scott and Derek make no promises that energy poverty can be solved overnight, by one film, or even by one generation.
“Transitioning, adapting our energy production to meet everybody’s needs, is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Derek says.
“These are not simple times in front of us,” Tinker adds. “Sometimes, I feel students I work with have a sense of hope being gone—but hope is not gone; hope is alive and well, and that’s the underlying message of what these films are saying.”