Planet of the Humans Review

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:00 am by Administrator

The new documentary written and produced by Jeff Gibbs and promoted by Michael Moore has certainly generated a lot of heat. If we could tap into that effectively we might solve humanity’s energy crisis.

As someone that has been blogging about alternative energy and sustainability for the past 8 years I feel I have a very keen appreciation of both the points made in the film and the reaction of the outraged critics who have attacked it quite viciously.

As with all Michael Moore documentaries the film does take an extreme view which is not completely supported by the facts on the ground; but it has at its core enough kernels of truth to hopefully make people think. That’s what Michael Moore’s all about.

For example, in perhaps his most famous documentary was there any logical reason for him to drag two victims of the Columbine shooting that had bullets embedded in their bodies from that horrendous tragedy to a K-mart to claim a refund by trying to “return” the bullets? Of course not. But did that sequence make us think about the morality of selling ammunition in a department store to anyone with a 10 dollar bill or a credit card? Did it make us think, just for a moment, about what share of responsibility the merchants that profit from selling the weapons and ammunition for those weapons have when they are used to perpetrate senseless acts of violence?

In my viewing of “Planet of the Humans” there are three central themes presented.

  1. The environmental movement is misleading the general public with regards to how effective available green energy technologies such as solar and wind are when it comes to weaning an industrialized society off of fossil fuels.
  2. The environmental movement has become entangled with various billionaire investors/supporters as well as the industrial complex that has grown up around manufacturing and installing solar panels and wind turbines and companies that consume vast amounts of fossil fuel energy to transform corn into ethanol or chop down and burn forests to create biomass energy.

  3. That the only way to prevent the destruction of the planet and to reverse climate change is for humanity to drastically reduce its energy consumption. “Green” energy is not a solution. Green energy is not even “green” when full cycle costs are properly accounted for.

If one accepts the conclusions of the film then the future looks pretty much hopeless. And I think a brutally honest assessment of where we are at with the development of alternative energy sources and energy storage systems might justifiably lead us to that conclusion. But that is not where I land on this issue.

With regards to claims that the popular media and literally thousands of “green energy” and environmental web sites publish overblown and hysterically inaccurate claims of alternative energy success, I say “guilty as charged”. I myself have identified many such claims and, unlike the film, I provide data that proves they are inaccurate or, at best misleading. Examples would be exaggerations about the impact of wind energy generation in Denmark , statements that confuse “nameplate”capacity with actual production of electricity and praise for the success of the German Energiewende.

Transitioning to a sustainable energy environment will be hard work. Really hard work. And we will need every Dollar, Pound, Euro, Yen and Yuan to be applied in the most effective way possible to have any hope of achieving this goal in the next hundred years.

In 2016 Bill Gates announced the creation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition with a great deal of fanfare and optimism. He declared that there were many different paths that might lead to sustainability.

Three years later, having focused his very considerable intellect and support resources on the problem he had become much less optimistic. In a video posted in November, 2018 the interviewer made the following comment;

“a lot of people are very optimistic as you know with wind and solar, the renewables cost coming down, the batteries cost coming down – you think that’s enough?”.

Gates’ response: “That’s so disappointing!” He went on to explain just how far we are from workable solutions. Orders of magnitude. The entire interview is definitely worth watching.

My concern has always been and continues to be that commentary that blames governments for not just getting on with the deployment of readily available and effective “green” technologies misses the point entirely. There are no readily available and effective “green” technologies that can replace the combustion of fossil fuels in our steel plants, electricity generating stations and automobiles. There are solutions. Some of them are even readily available. But they are not effective in terms of the long game.

Is widespread deployment of solar and wind technology going to reduce the real time consumption of fossil fuels to generate electricity? Yes – considerably. No argument there.

Considering all of the fossil fuel inputs to manufacture, transport, and install those technologies is there a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Much more difficult to assess but I believe that there is a significant net benefit.

Will the deployment of these technologies allow us to fully retire all fossil fuel based electricity generation? No chance. Not now. Not anytime in the next 3-4 decades.

As noted by the film and in most discussions about the intermittency of renewable energy sources the availability of incredibly cheap, reliable, and massively scalable energy storage systems is the key. If we had storage most of the other problems go away. Unfortunately there are no such systems available.

To provide a sense of what is required using current NREL estimates the cost to provide battery storage to replace the nighttime output from a relatively small 180 MB electricity generation plant would be on the order of a billion dollars. And that doesn’t include the cost of the solar or wind inputs required to charge those batteries.

Having said that I for one believe that we can develop energy storage systems that will meet the criteria of incredibly cheap, reliable, and massively scalable. But it will take a dedicated, generously funded and globally coordinated effort to do so – the clock is ticking.

The second theme of the movie calls into question the motivations of the environmental movement in general and specific organizations such as the Sierra Club or the 350 Organization. I do not agree with those criticisms.

Those organizations may exaggerate the value of the solutions they promote but they do not exaggerate the dangers of continuing with “Business as Usual”. Having identified technologies such as solar and wind that they believe can help us transition to a sustainable society it only makes sense that they be aligned with business interests that are implementing those technologies. The fact that those same business interests profit from the promotional and educational activities of organizations like the Sierra Club does not diminish the value of those activities. The fact that those same business interests may donate to environmental groups does not, in and of itself, corrupt those groups.

From what I have seen, the people working for environmental groups, whether as paid staff or on a volunteer basis, are motivated by a love of this planet and by fears regarding the environmental legacy we will leave for future generations. They may have too much optimism about the progress we are making and they may not appreciate all of the challenges that have to be overcome but I believe their intentions are good and their work is commendable.

Michael Moore and producer Jeff Gibbs are not distancing themselves from the environmental movement or specific “green” organizations. In a response to criticisms of the movie Michael states that he continues to have “huge admiration for all our fellow environmentalists” and states that “its only your friends that can tell you when you’re messing up.” That response is also very worthwhile watching in its entirety.

With regards to the third theme of the movie I would agree that conspicuous consumption is a big part of the sustainability problem but I do not agree that discussions about restricting population growth make any sense at all. Many if not most environmentalists and environmentally focused organizations understand the importance of and promote the traditional three “R’s”. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. And everyone accepts that the first “R” is the best “R”.

There are many initiatives at every level of society, both in developed and developing countries that are aimed at making progress on the three “R’s”. Do we still have too many dollar stores where inexpensive products are purchased in many cases only to be thrown away within a relatively short period of time? Absolutely yes! Do we allow the cheap price of goods from far off sources blind us to the negative environmental impacts of transporting consumer goods half way around the planet? Yes we do. But are we making progress on developing new recycling techniques, reducing packaging, banning single use plastics and in many other areas? Yes we are.

I hope that conversations triggered by “Planet of the Humans” will end up making people somewhat more cautious with regards to the solar and wind technologies that are currently the only “green” technologies really getting much attention. I hope they will come to the conclusion that other more consistent technologies such as geothermal and hydro-kinetics and geoexchange need a closer look. Most importantly I hope that those conversations lead to a clear understanding of the need for a much more effective global effort to develop innovative energy storage solutions. If any of those things happen then the film will have served a useful purpose in my opinion.

For my thoughts on how to transition to a truly sustainable energy environment you can check out my Sustainable Energy Manifesto.

The criticisms of “Planet of the Humans” have stated that the information presented in the film is either false, out-of-date, or irrelevant. That is simply unfair and untrue. Here are some of the key points made by the film that need to be considered carefully:

Biomass is big and bad – in practice most biomass plants burn wood products including fresh cut trees. Why does the film “obsess” about this? Josh Fox for example states that biomass is not a significant component of the energy mix and that it is “inconsequential” and not worthy of analysis. Here is a graphic from the ren21 network which does the most comprehensive assessment of renewable energy that I know of:

The graphic labels aggregate several energy sources but the text of the report clarifies that “In 2017, modern bioenergy contributed an estimated 5.0% to total final energy consumption.”

Clearly biomass represents a significant proportion of global “renewable” energy. As such it is definitely worth taking a hard look at. The film does incorrectly suggest that Bill McKibben still supports biomass. In his response Mr. McKibben provides evidence that he is now opposed to biomass. But he came to this conclusion relatively recently, starting with an article published in September, 2016. The ironic part of this criticism of the film is that 350.org and the Sierra Club are now frequently and vigorously opposing the use of biomass – just as the film does.

Solar and Wind have to be back-stopped by fossil fuel plants – this is absolutely true. Germany has spent hundreds of billions of Euros implementing solar and wind – now equal in nameplate capacity to all the fossil fuel and nuclear plants in the country. And yet they still burn enormous quantities of coal to generate electricity and have only recently made a commitment to phase coal out by 2038. And even that plan requires that some truly reliable and renewable energy source becomes commercially viable before then.

The tiny Spanish island of El Hierro, home of an “experiment” attempting to have electricity generation be 100% renewable, has more than double the capacity of hydro and wind needed to meet peak demand. And yet in more than 5 years the longest period of time that the island could run 100% on renewables was 18 days. The diesel generator is required almost every day.

It is also true, as stated in the film, that running fossil fuel plants as “spinning reserves” is less efficient and results in proportionately more CO2 emissions.

Assertions by organizations like Apple that they are running on 100% renewable energy are false – Apple and other organizations that claim to be running on 100% renewables are connected to the same grid as everyone else and they run on the same mix of electricity generation sources as everyone else. There is absolutely nothing special about their facilities. Their claim is based upon an accounting sleight-of-hand whereby they purchase renewable energy or sponsor the building of renewable energy sources that are equivalent to the energy they use.

The problem with these statements is that they make people think that it is possible to run a large organization 100% of the time on renewables. It is not possible and there is absolutely no pathway to get to that result. There will be dark, calm nights, especially in winter, when no amount of solar and wind generation assets will meet electricity demand.

Some green energy advocates will suggest that battery developments are going to make energy storage cheap and effective. That is not the case. A recent announcement by California utilities that they would be spending $1 billion on batteries made headlines. But the quantity of battery storage being discussed, the largest in the world by a wide margin, could meet average California energy demand for about 5 minutes.

We as humans consume too many resources and capitalism’s growth requirements are unsustainable – Critics of the film have very unfairly accused the film of recommending population control and have gone on to accuse the producers of being racist as a result. This is simply not true. The film does call for a reduction of consumption of all sorts and I personally have a hard time arguing with that. Surely it is clear to everyone, especially in the developed world, that we purchase and often prematurely dispose of far too many consumer goods. The statements regarding the demand by capital markets for continuous growth in corporate revenue and earnings resonate with every investor.

The film does raise a question regarding how many humans can this planet support and at what standard of living. That is not suggesting population control but rather is asking if perhaps we are reaching the limits of sustainability.

Obviously if we all live with less then the planet can support more people. So to me this speaks more to the need for the people of the developed world to reduce their consumption of energy and goods, for us to share our wealth through increased foreign aid and more liberal immigration policies, and for us to adopt a “one world” vision in everything that we do.

Did the film get some things seriously wrong? I would say that the suggestion that wind and solar do not result in net reductions in CO2 emissions is wrong. But the identification of processes such as mining and smelting which cannot be reasonably accomplished using renewable energy today as serious issues related to the production of wind and solar technology is accurate.

The bottom line is that we are not addressing the climate crisis in any meaningful way. To take one quote from the ren21 report (page 17);

    “Despite progress in renewables uptake, energy efficiency and energy access, the world is not on track to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement or of Sustainable Development Goal 7. Global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions grew an estimated 1.7% in 2018 due to increased fossil fuel consumption.”

Taking some time to reconsider the strategies and technologies that have been at the heart of efforts to achieve a sustainable society is not a bad thing. That is what the film tries to do, albeit in overly dramatic fashion.

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