A Spray of Silver Bullets: ‘NOVA: Power Surge’

As the program’s opening images show how most other shows concerning climate change and energy crisis begin, PBS’s NOVA: Power Surge poses the question “Can technology defeat global warming?” It then goes on to show the Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, who in addition to being the head of a company that leads an industry that relies on fossil fuels and contributes heavily to global warming, is also firmly committed to finding—and possibly funding—existing and emerging clean energy solutions.

The fact that Branson is offering $25 million to the idea that has the best hope of solving the energy crisis is used as an introduction to several different possible solutions. Because, it’s pointed out repeatedly, there is no one magic bullet that is going to solve all the energy and climate issues instantly. It’s instead going to take a combination—or several combinations—of new and existing technologies and steps to arrest and perhaps undo the damage modern humanity has caused. This is illustrated by “The Wedge Game” in which various color-coded wedges representing solutions like solar, conservation and efficiency, nuclear, etc., are combined to fill in a game board that represents the amount by which we need to reduce our collective carbon footprint in order to preserve an environmental balance and prevent a climatic catastrophe.

Power Surge spends a fair portion of the program illustrating facts about current energy consumption and typical carbon footprints. For example, the average US household accounts for 14 metric tons of carbon per year, 50 percent of US electricity is still generated by coal (80 percent of electricity in China comes from coal), and at least one third of energy consumption in the US is transportation. Then viewers are shown a number of technologies already in place (solar panel factories on the cutting edge of efficiency in China, carbon capture and storage plants in the Sahara, giant wind farms in the US), and a few emerging technologies that show immense promise (artificial “trees” that function as high-powered scrubbers to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere, a bio-fuel that is “brewed” like beer).

With worldwide energy demand projected to triple by the end of the century, it’s clear that we need to find and implement solutions as quickly as possible. Power Surge emphasizes that this is not just for reasons related to climate change, but also because energy innovations are key to the next economic boom. The country or company that comes up with the most economical, most successful ideas on how to save the planet while simultaneously satisfying our growing energy needs is going to be the new world economic leader.

China has already produced billionaires in the field of solar energy innovation. New, safer nuclear reactor designs are being implemented (particularly in the wake of Japan’s disaster), which are more uniform in design, easier to build, and which rely on a water-filled cooler and natural gravity, so that “going offline” isn’t an issue because they don’t use electricity to keep the core intact. Even experts once skeptical of nuclear energy are aware that it’s one of the most promising options in reducing both energy consumption and carbon output.

NOVA: Power Surge covers a lot of information in its 60 minute running time, so much of it isn’t as in-depth as some might wish. Nor are there extra features on the DVD to help fill out these areas. Throughout the show, however, there are references to further information on NOVA‘s website and other sites, and even if it’s just skimming the surface, it’s a fascinating look at the technological possibilities for reversing climate change and creating new energy sources.

RATING 6 / 10