Preface. This documentary was made by Jeff Gibbs, a writer and environmentalist, with Michael Moore as the executive producer. This movie is worth watching, and an entertaining and quick way to understand why rebuildable “renewables” are neither green or a solution for replacing fossil fuels.
I watched the movie and then read 20 criticisms of it. None were any good, it is as if the reviewers had watched an entirely different movie. Most yell names at it and call it Bullshit, rather than offer legitimate criticisms as to what was wrong and criticize it for things it never said. A lot of howling can be heard, like an ox who’s been gored. McKibben is super angry about his portrayal. Here is Gibbs response to Bill McKibben.
All of the dozens of critiques zero in on something trivially incorrect, like some remark that solar panels only last 10 years. I do wish the film makers had left out questionable bits, but none of the attacks on this movie address the main points:
- Renewables aren’t replacing natural gas and coal plants because they’re needed as backup since not enough energy storage exists, especially not batteries.
- Renewables require stunning amounts of fossil fuels to generate the high heat to smelt metal ores. Nothing I have ever written or could write is as effective and stunning in conveying the ginormous amount of fossils needed to construct renewable contraptions than the sequence of dozens of metals being smelted (I wish the movie had also shown the fossils to mine the ore, transport it to the smelter, crush it, fabricate into pieces, ship and truck transport of pieces to assembly factory, truck transport to final destination, and so on).
- Electricity in Germany and elsewhere is a tiny fraction of OVERALL energy use.
The only legitimate criticism, if it is every offered, would need to come from scientists, who understand that you can’t rant, rave, and call a film names, you have to actually state what was wrong and cite peer-reviewed evidence to back it up. You can’t cherry-pick some random fact that makes wind or solar look good as rebuttal.
The Guardian is more reasonable, but accuses the film of not offering a solution, and asks what about nuclear power. It’s not fair to say a 100 minute film should have covered nuclear and dozens of other topics.
So far the best reviews that have many points I didn’t mention are by Robert Brice (here), Richard Heinberg (here), McClennen at Salon (here), and episode 24 Banana town of the delightful podcast “Crazy Town” (here).
I’ve been writing about peak oil, the coming energy crisis, and the other death by a thousand cuts that will eventually lead to collapse of the world’s fossil-fueled civilization since 2001. Which sadly means going back to the wood based energy and infrastructure societies of the past. The film sure got it right that burning biomass and making biofuels are quite destructive.
And finally, William Rees, professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote me to point out that even if renewables were ‘the answer’, even if we could contrive a cheap plentiful substitute for fossil fuels — it would be a catastrophe. We would simply use the energy bounty to completely dismember the Earth.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
Michael Moore. 2020. Planet of the Humans. Youtube.com
Gibbs starts out by asking “Why are we still addicted to fossil fuels? So I began to follow the green energy movement.”
He went to a solar fair that ran on solar power until it rained, then biodiesel generators were turned on, which didn’t work, so they plugged into the electric grid. Other “green” events later in the movie running on solar power are actually using diesel generators and the grid.
Famous, rich, powerful people support Greenness. Obama gave hope that the green movement would ramp up. Al Gore shared ideas with Obama, Sir Richard Branson invested in renewables. So did Vinod Khosla, major banks, investment groups, and Bloomberg gave $50 million to the Sierra club to fight coal.
Then he shows how that “green” technology may not be. GM introduced a new line of electric vehicles, the Volt in Lansing Michigan. Gibbs point out that much of the electricity in this region is produced with coal, which isn’t very green. Electric cars need rare earth metals, which often contain radioactive material in the areas they’re mined, and that has to be disposed of somehow. And many minerals that require massive amounts of energy to mine, smelt, and fabricate
Then he shows a huge field with solar panels that the owner said could power 10 homes at best. Critics of the movie dismiss this saying the latest solar panels are far more powerful, but even if five times better, if it takes this large an area to power just 50 homes when the sun is shining, it’s not hard to imagine the millions of acres of panels required to power a city.
He interviews an environmental health and safety employee where a wind plant might be installed on a mountain loved for its beauty and hiking, who points out that the turbines will still require a backup fossil power plant idling 100% of the time on stand-by to step in when the wind dies and ramp down when it surges, using more energy on stand-by than if just kept running. The forested mountain also protects the watershed, but not any longer if it is deforested for turbines.
The point that renewables don’t replace fossils was then made more strongly by Richard York, at the University of Oregon, who published an article in Nature Climate Change titled “Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?” that showed green energy did not replace fossil fuels. I just looked at the article, it’s much worse than that: “each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.” So renewables add to energy generation, but aren’t replacing fossil generation.
On top of that, fossils were used to mine the materials of wind and solar, crush the ore, smelt the metal out, fabricate it into pieces, transport each piece to the assembly factory, and deliver the wind turbine or solar panel to its destination, and ongoing maintenance. So we aren’t making a transition to something else, or kicking our addiction to fossil fuels at all. We’re just expanding the amount of electrical energy produced a tiny bit.
Coal plants certainly aren’t being replaced by solar and wind, but with much larger natural gas plants fueled by the largest expansion of fossil fuel production in American history. The Sierra Club’s “beyond coal” campaign may have helped get many coal plants closed, but it did not reduce consumption of fossil fuels.
Gibbs asks if we are so desperate to find a green solution that we don’t look closely enough at them. At U.C. Berkeley he’s shown how solar panels are made. First, quartz is dynamited out of mountains, then coal melts the silicon out of quartz at 1800 F. That is decidedly not green.
Even solar companies admitted they weren’t entirely green, since making solar panels requires mining, and only produce maximum power a few hours a day if the sun is up. Like wind, natural gas plants have to back solar up most of the time according to Philip Moeller, a Federal Energy regulatory commissioner. This is not efficient, and causes wear and tear on fossil and nuclear plants which weren’t designed to do this, shortening their lifespan and increasing maintenance costs.
Without battery storage, fossil plants have to provide baseload power and balancing power. The world uses 546,000,000 Giga BTU. All the batteries in the world can store 51 Giga BTU according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Then they degrade. Many critics castigate this without a citation to prove it false. If anything, the problem is far worse than what the film portrayed. In my book “When Trucks Stop Running”, I show how the only battery there are enough materials on earth that could be made for half a day of global electricity generation is a Sodium Sulfur (NaS) battery. Using data from the Department of Energy (DOE/EPRI 2013) energy storage handbook, I calculated that the cost of NaS batteries capable of storing 24 hours of electricity generation in the United States came to $40.77 trillion dollars, covered 923 square miles, and weighed in at a husky 450 million tons. And after 15 years you need to replace it.
Concentrated solar power (CSP) exists only in deserts. They need to burn natural gas for hours to run turbines before and after the sun comes up. They were built with fossil fuels and in my research I found that they cost about $1 billion each. The sun is renewable but the solar arrays are not. You use more fossil fuels to build these facilities than the energy they’ll ever produce. Gibbs points out that if you were to criticize a CSP plant, you’d be called evil, yet it is the evil Koch brothers who make almost every component of the glass, steel, and other parts using the most toxic and industrial processes that have ever been invented.
CSP Ivanpah takes up over 5 square miles of a beautiful desert that was destroyed to build it. Only a few years later things began falling apart.
You’ll hear that Germany has 35%, even 50% renewable power, but Germany is still Europe’s largest consumer of coal and these figures are at best the highest days of electricity generation. Not overall power use. Electricity is only 20% of energy consumption, fossils power German manufacturing, transportation, heating, and other non-electric needs. In addition, Germany has just built a large liquefied natural gas terminal to import US gas.
Elon Musk promised that his Tesla factory in Sparks, Nevada, would run off of solar, wind, and geothermal, but that is not true, the factory is connected to the electric grid. In fact, there is no factory that runs entirely off 100% renewable energy anywhere in the world.
Then a dizzying series of film depicting dozens of mining operations of minerals and metal needed to make wind and solar plus the coal and other fossils required, and equipment and vehicles running on diesel that is so NOT green.
So why are bankers, industrialists and environmental leaders only focused on green technology?
Gibbs asks Sheldon Solomon at Skidmore College if perhaps to deny death, the right has religion and endless fossil fuels, the left says no worries, we have solar and wind? Yes, he confirms. We know we’re here, we don’t like that we’re animals, so we enveloped ourselves in protective beliefs of religion, cultural, and so on. Hearing points of view that contradict your comfortable illusions creates anxiety.
McNeil biomass power plant, the biggest source of renewables in Vermont, burns trees. Trees emit a great deal of CO2 and toxic metals, also not clean and green at 30 cords per hour, 400,000 tons of wood a year. It took a lot of fossils to cut them down, chip, and truck them in and this biomass plant simply couldn’t exist without fossil fuels. Made worse by using old tires, creosote, and other wastes are added, since green wood doesn’t burn well.
Environmental groups have touted for years that forests are renewable and will grow back. Sure if you wait a century. If all trees were cut down and burned they would power America for only a year.
Many universities have decided to go “green” by burning biomass. At a North Carolina college, Bruce Nilles, the director of the Sierra Clubs “Beyond Coal” project, proudly announced this. “Out of bed with coal companies, and into bed with logging companies?” Gibbs asks. Bill McKibben spoke at a college in Vermont that planned to burn wood with great favor and fervor.
To create 40 million gallons of ethanol, a project in Michigan proposed using a million tons of green wood, which would use more natural gas fertilizer to get new trees to grow to replace them than ethanol produced.
Wood chips from America are being exported all over the world. Burning wood is by far the largest “green energy” in the world. Plenty of environmentalists realize this. But leaders have promoted it at times, calling it sustainable and renewable. Though when Sierra Club, 350.org, and other leaders are asked by Gibbs directly they all dodged the question. Only one rejected them, Vandana Shiva of India.
Gibbs then addresses the profit motive. Businesses are making a lot of money hiding under the cover of “green” energy. Bloomberg, Jeremy Grantham (sells forests), Richard Branson ran an airplane on rainforest destroying coconut oil, Vinod Khosla ethanol with wood chips, and too many more to list. Several environmental leaders and groups were mentioned who promoted “green” funds that actually only put a very small amount of money into green projects and much more into non-green investments.
How is 350.org funded? McKibben says they don’t get funds from large entities. The film does not accuse him of this either, but McKibben has an angry rebuttal of the film denying it, even though the film didn’t make this accusation.
We must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet isn’t possible, we must take control away from billionaires, they are not our friends.
Many interviewed brought up population as the main issue. And the need to consume less. If we don’t, we crash, this happens to species all the time. Fossil fuels allowed our population to expand to an impact 100 times greater than only 100 years ago from population and energy consumption. Steven Running, ecologist, talked about the limits we’re reaching, including fisheries declining, farmland declining, groundwater and rivers vanishing, and numerous other limits are being reached. It is not just the CO2 destroying the planet, it’s us and everything we’re doing.
To learn more from the film makers, see the discussion at: “Planet of the Humans” Earth Day Live Stream w/ Michael Moore, Jeff Gibbs & Ozzie Zehner
Afternote: Here are some articles that rebut many of the criticisms with peer-reviewed evidence instead of random information about this-or-that and straw man arguments about something the film said but actually didn’t. Also, to expect a 100 minute film to cover EVERYTHING is absurd.
More posts about electric cars (topics include self-driving, lithium shortages, etc).
And finally, my book “When trucks stop running” makes the case that civilization ends when trucks stop. EV simply don’t matter. Here’s what would happen if trucks stopped (see links at the end for why trucks can’t be electrified, and read my book about why trucks can’t run on electricity, batteries, hydrogen, biofuels, natural gas, liquefied coal, etc):