Article author Eddie Saint-Jean
Planet of the Humans, produced by Michael Moore and directed by Jeff Gibbs, has attracted a tsunami of criticism from environmentalists and climate activists after attacking green energy. The filmmakers adopt a very tribal Them vs Us position throughout the film which clouds much of their findings (Them = the corporate world they accuse of taking over the green energy movement). “They are not our friends.” says Gibbs, with the foreboding tone of one expecting a Martian invasion. In a post-screening interview Moore chips in, *There’s no working with the Devil.”
Some of Moore’s critics can also be accused of being too attached to their ‘environmental tribe ‘ to analyse the facts impartially. Tribalism dressed up as impartial debate is a real concern in a subject as sensitive and important as this, so this review will be a little different. No over-emotional rants. No thinly-veiled attacks. No asking for the film to be pulled – just a concise bullet-point examination of the facts.
- Point 1 – Renewable energy relies on a fossil fuel power grid.
In the documentary, Federal Energy Commissioner, Phillip Moeller, is interviewed at the launch of the Chevy Volt electric car about the reliability of renewable energy and he claims fossil fuel grids and back up generators are required to keep wind and solar energy output steady when the weather fluctuates.
Even though the film’s info on solar and wind power back up sources and batteries are a decade old but presented as if relevant today, renewable energy does substantially rely on a fossil fuel grid because electricity generated from wind and solar is not produced in sufficient amounts and is not stable as a standalone source during weather fluctuations. So “In order to handle the huge variability of solar and wind on the grid they will have to burn natural gas.” according to energy analyst and environmental policy writer Michael Shellenberger, who was not in the film but is a spokesperson on clean energy.
A large number of solar and wind farms only produce optimal amounts of electricity 30% of the time so a consistent source such as fossil fuel or nuclear is needed when renewable energy is in fluctuation-mode: when the sun goes down or the wind isn’t blowing. But these are just teething problems which come with any new and heavy-duty infrastructure technology.
Europe’s Continental European Electric Grid is the biggest in the world and successfully dealing with this problem. Nations are linked with grid connector cables where they can swap energy as needed during intermittent and low output periods. By 2050, it will have evolved into a European Super Grid capable of delivering 100 per cent renewable energy.
Sunny southern Spain can export some of its surplus solar energy to neighbouring countries while windy nations such as the UK can export wind and import Spain”s solar surplus when needed. The geographic and meteorological differences between states mean that one nation’s low energy periods can be fed by the peaks of others.
It’s important to remember that the world is entirely fossil fuel dependant right now and a transition period is inevitable. There’s no quick fix. Research shows that the above issues can be solved in time by a gradual upgrade of power grids. However, there are already four countries who have already achieved 100 percent renewable power grids (Iceland, Paraguay, Costa Rica and Norway) and three others that are close (Norway, Austria, Brazil and Denmark.)
Expect developments in battery technology that allow energy storage for use during these weather fluctuations. At the moment, it would take mammoth lithium-ion battery farms to store enough energy to power a whole city in this way. The world’s biggest battery array is Tesla’s 100-megawatt array in Australia but that can only power 30,000 homes for an hour, so we aren’t at the stage where we can power a city for more than a few minutes. That is unless we build eyesore battery cities which would themselves be a blot on the environment.
The mining and manufacture of these ever-increasing batteries (in size and amount) present their own eco, human rights and labour challenges. Also, there is concern over the substantial cost and low battery life compared to the economics and consistency of gas and coal-powered grids.
However, Tesla is planning an even bigger battery facility in the Moss Landing Plant in Monterey, California which will go some way to fixing this energy storage problem. This 567-megawatt storage will be the world’s biggest (10 times bigger than Tesla’s Australian battery facility) and will provide enough storage to power 27,000 homes for a month or “every home in San Francisco for six hours,” according to Tesla.
It will help balance wind and solar power on the grid during intermittent periods caused by weather changes and peaks in demand and will replace the current gas plant at Moss Landing. They hope to complete it by the end of 2020. But that’s not all. A number of other global energy firms are hot on their heels with competing storage capacities available within the next few years.
The film’s producers claim that bigger and better batteries will not solve the problem of getting more unpredictable variable renewable energy (wind and solar) onto the grid, but that remains to be seen. Certainly, a mix of clean energy options and, yes, some gas alongside batteries might keep the baseload constant and help manage surges in power demand. There are many nations leading the march towards 100% renewable energy who have shown it is possible and are moving in the right direction. The UK has high levels of variable renewables in its power system – as high as 85% when measured against system demand. Ultimately, renewables need to be integrated into the system to handle peak demand during intermittency.
Alternatively, Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) is one of the many new tech solutions which may revolutionise battery storage in the renewables sector and give energy on demand – even during unpredictable weather. It may turn out to be a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to conventional lithium batteries.
Also, there has been yet another exciting development in the green-tech sector – Molten Salt Storage. The Cresent Dunes Solar Energy Facility in the Nevada desert uses molten salt technology to produce 24-hour solar energy even at night when the sun isn’t shining.
Their salt tanks have ten times the storage of the world’s most powerful lithium battery systems currently used for renewable energy. And CSP plants (Concentrated Solar Power) such as these, found mainly in scorching deserts, do not use ANY gas to run. They use giant mirrors to reflect sunlight to be converted into electricity.
CSP solar plants with molten salt storage – photo credit Solar Reserve
Solar panel and cell efficiency
Cell and panel efficiency play their part in getting more renewable energy onto the grid and phasing out the grid’s reliance on fossil fuels. 2020 research into solar cell efficiency in lab conditions shows multi-junction solar cell technology coming out on top with 39.2% conversion efficiency. But that’s already been recently eclipsed by the 47.1% efficiency of a six-junction solar cell, which set two new world records. We just can’t keep up! Bear in mind, the solar panels featured in the Michigan plant in the documentary operated on only 8% efficiency (the film’s research was a decade old). Scientists claim 50% efficiency isn’t far off, and such percentages quickly become old news in the relentless drive for better performance.
Companies like these inevitably face commercial and infrastructure challenges but the pace of progress is unstoppable. So Moore and Gibbs are wrong to assume green energy will never grow beyond its fossil fuel base.
Note: Moore and Gibbs claim in a recent Extinction Rebellion livestream interview that it isn’t a documentary about the efficiency of solar panels, cells and battery storage. They maintain that none of this matters when there is an overriding raw material extraction issue. They claim it will take a billion tons of steel to construct the required green infrastructure to save humanity. This extraction will have a devastating effect on the environment and labour conditions in the poorest nations. We will address this in the later bullet points.
- Point 2 – Renewables do not generate enough energy to power the planet
Partly answered in the previous point, yes, still in its clunky infancy stage, renewables have many technological challenges to overcome but a third of the world’s power now comes from renewables and in the UK it was the main energy source in the first quarter of 2020, so considerable progress is being made.
The geographic and meteorological specifics of each region needs to be taken into account. For example, sunny California actually produces an EXCESS of solar energy but doesn’t have the capacity to store it. Therefore, it is wasting enough electricity to power 17,300 homes for a year. If the planet is to reach 100 per cent renewable energy then surplus-producing states such as California will have to export their surplus to regions of the USA that need it on the grid, rather than just wasting it. This cannot happen at the moment because of federal conflicts concerning who has overall control and a reluctance to hand this control to the Federal Energy Regional Commission overseen by the President.
Generally, solar and wind are very dilute, unreliable energy forms and not energy-dense enough to sustain any meaningful output without huge land clearance. 5,000 sq. metres of land needs to be cleared for the average solar or wind farm. According to latest research, bigger is better. Larger offshore wind turbines could one day power large cities without swallowing huge areas of land but these will create mammoth amounts of waste which present yet another environmental issue (covered in Point 3 later).
“So we are going to see much bigger turbines offshore in this decade, and the reason is size matters,” Rolf Kragelund, director of offshore wind at Wood Mackenzie (energy research firm)
The Sunray Solar Project already generates enough power to serve the energy needs of 11,000 homes in sunny California but solar requires 380 times more land than nuclear to produce comparative amounts of electricity. Wind farms produce only 2.5 watts per square metre of electricity to nuclear’s 1,000 watts per sq metre. A huge price to pay for the disruption and even extinction of endangered plant and animal species. By some estimates, a quarter of the UK would have to be land cleared to power the nation on renewables yet recent figures show renewables as the UK’s main energy source in the first quarter of 2020 and its ‘green and pleasant land’ is largely untouched. So do renewables take up lots of space with little energy in return?
The benefits of energy density are not to be overlooked in the fight to lower environmental impact and maximise energy output. Uranium which is mined for nuclear energy is amongst the densest (high concentrations of energy with low land consumption) and solar and wind the least in the clean energy sector. So if you compare mining intensity, a small cup of uranium will provide enough power for one human’s lifetime – or one pellet of uranium equals a ton of coal in power terms.
If you’re becoming a fan of nuclear because of it’s greater efficiency and lower emissions compared to renewables, be warned – because of a proposed relaxation in the rules governing radiation waste disposal, a nuclear waste dump may be coming to a landfill near you.
And why is it that mankind was patient enough to wait for nuclear power to stumble through its clunky post-war infancy stage of development during which it threatened to blow up the planet on many occasions, yet the same patience is not shown to green-tech? Density issues aside, green energy will not give the world a Chernobyl disaster or hand a dictator firepower capable of flattening a city, so it’s a benefit worth waiting for.
It took decades for scientists and engineers to get nuclear technology right. Same with the motor car, television, mobile phone…every clunky invention which later embraced slick functionality as countless revisions, heavy investment and even infrastructure shifts hastened the speed of discovery and innovation.
Note: In a recent livestream interview with Extinction Rebellion Moore seemed impatient at the slow progress of green tech and the creeping incremental percentage increases every year. He compared this with the functionality of a computer and said that if his computer was 80% not effective he wouldn’t use it. Therein lies the film’s problem. It fails to recognise that was EXACTLY the case with computers in decades past. Those computers have been replaced by quicker, more compact, high-performance ones. It’s called technological advancement.
- Point 3 – Renewables have a worse environmental impact than fossil fuels
The aforementioned environmentalist policy writer and energy analyst Michael Shellenberger has made two powerful statements in recent years: “In the effort to try and save the climate are we destroying the environment.” and “now that we know renewables can’t save the planet are we going to keep letting them destroy it?” This shows that Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore are not alone in their concerns. But who is right?
Other reviews have painted them as nihilist and short-sighted but they open up an important debate already carried by other environmentalists. Poorly presented and unbalanced it definitely is. The film producers were accused by critics of not interviewing a single expert. That’s incorrect – they did. But not once did they give anyone a chance to present an opposing argument. Somehow, all the selected ‘experts’ backed their own views. Very selective documentary-making will not save the planet.
Well, it’s true wind turbines emit CO2 during the smelting, manufacture and transportation of the steel structures and aluminium blades, but this is paid off in five months by its carbon efficiency. Hi-tec PV (photovoltaic) solar plants have no site emissions and the average solar plant, PV or otherwise, takes four years to repay their overall environmental impact. So when you consider their life cycle is 25 years, they are around 90% pollution-free.
Stringent environmental impact reports and Life Cycle Assessments are considered before any green energy plant is given the go-ahead. It takes into account mining, manufacture etc. as well as carbon offsetting and other measures that ensure low emissions in the life cycle of energy production. Considerably lower than coal or gas.
However, climate scientist James Hansen claims solar and wind combined produce less clean electricity than nuclear. Certainly, nuclear produces 4 times less CO2 than solar. Nuclear energy-reliant France is closer to hitting its emission targets than green energy powerhouse Germany. It produces one-tenth of the C02 emissions of Germany, who are the world’s leader in renewables. France gets 92% of its electricity from clean energy sources while Germany gets 46%.
But I have already covered the ‘teething’ aspect of a renewables sector in transition. Green-tech is playing catch up with a nuclear energy sector that went into overdrive after the Second World War. The post-war global military infrastructure and atmosphere of fear ensured that nuclear had significant funding for research, development and hardware which rose even more steeply during the Cold War.
Wildlife and vegetation destruction
Another point the film makes is about destroying large swathes of nature to produce eyesore renewables farms. Hundreds of thousands of birds and over a million bats (the hoary bat is close to extinction) a year are killed by wind turbines. One could also argue that household cats kill BILLIONS of birds – but only common species and not the endangered kind. The larger birds such as owls and eagles are the ones killed in wind turbines and facing possible extinct.
Ancient deserts are being cleared for solar farms, with desert tortoises and plant species such as the 500-year-old Yucca plants in the Mojave desert uprooted while 6,000 birds a year catch fire above solar farms. That old adage about the breaking of eggs and making of omelettes?
There’s a delicate environmental equilibrium to be reached to avoid the destruction of the planet and it’s not enough to shout down the concerns of others and just hope it all sorts itself out. But a commitment to some kind of progress is better than an ostrich-like head in the sand approach – or even a documentary that asks lots of questions but offers no solutions.
Note: Hi-tec PV (photovoltaic) solar plants use less land than the increasingly outdated traditional solar plants.
Also, the film brings up the environmental impact of mining using petroleum, coal and steel for the manufacture of the toxic lead, graphite, cobalt, cadmium and chromium used in solar panels. This point is already covered in our previous discussion on Life Cycle Analysis and environmental impact assessments, however, it has to be noted that solar farms use 17 times more material than nuclear plants and produce 300 times more waste. In a drive to keep the ‘teething’ costs of solar down, cheaper imports that are less durable can prove attractive – but they sometimes only last 5 years, making the waste problem even worse.
If we are to pursue the green option at the expense of cleaner energy sources such as nuclear, we need to address the disposal of solar and wind waste after their 20-25 year life span. How do we stop them being shipped off to the Global South which is often used as a tech waste dumping ground?
- Point 4 – Biomass energy concerns
Gibbs and Moore were pilloried for their criticisms of biomass but their concerns are justified. A form of energy generated by cutting down and burning trees is not in the spirit of environmentalism – even where there is a so-called carbon cycle (trees which are specifically grown for biomass energy with their carbon emissions managed). In an age where the Amazon rainforest is burning and there are global tree-planting campaigns to save the planet, we have a so-called ‘green’ energy source which cuts down trees and produces C02. We have Moore and Gibbs calling out a biomass plant in Michigan that burns 400,000 tons of trees a year to produce electricity and the world is in uproar.
Are we expected to trust every logging company on Earth to ethically and honestly manage their carbon cycle targets and tree-felling parameters? Managed forests of this kind are difficult to fathom and even harder to have faith in but one hopes they are easier to regulate.
In truth, a five-year-old would have the environmental awareness to call them out, let alone a left-wing shockumentary maker with a bee in his bonnet. Germany is the world’s no.1 renewable nation and Europe’s leader in biofuels – the prior is commendable, the latter is lamentable even with only 5% of its electricity produced from biofuels.