A review of Planet of the Humans, directed by Jeff Gibbs, Executive Producer: Michael Moore.
by Timmon Wallis
It can be refreshing to watch a true believer taking a deeper look at their own sacred cows. But in his rush to be open-minded about his long-cherished environmental beliefs, Jeff Gibbs has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. He lumps solar and wind power, which hold substantial promise despite their drawbacks, together with the bogus-but-profitable “solutions” biomass and biofuels (ethanol). And he offers no new solutions, only a bleak reminder that our species’ recent exploitation of fossil fuels has both enabled our exponential growth and sealed our fate.
Biomass and ethanol
It is hugely disingenuous, and frankly misleading, to hide in the credits at the end of a movie the fact that two of the leading organizations being damned in the movie for their support of biomass as a “green” energy source (350.org and Sierra Club) do not, in fact, support biomass any more. Bill McKibben deserves an apology for being misrepresented in this film, even if he was a supporter of biomass at one point in his career and equivocal about it at other points since then. Everything Planet of the Humans has to say about biomass itself, however, is true.
Biomass is a massive con trick that has been hailed, like nuclear power, as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels. Planet of the Humans does not attempt to address the scandal of nuclear power, but it does tackle biomass head on as the fake solution it is – in most cases spewing out more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the coal plants it may have replaced.
There have been other documentaries, like Burned, that expose the scandal of biomass. If Planet of the Humans had stuck to biomass as its target, it would have at least been a useful addition to that genre, raising public awareness about a false solution to the climate crisis that we should all be wary of supporting.
Instead of focusing on biomass, however, Planet of the Humans sets out to tar all green alternatives with the same disdainful brush. A whole array of solar panels is described by one man as being barely enough to power a 1200-watt toaster. Another person says his panels are only 8% efficient, and to get the efficient ones would cost him “$1 million per square inch.” These and other claims in the film are false and hugely misleading.
The efficiency of solar panels has been steadily rising while their price has been steadily falling. If you are able to stop the film and look closely at the array that “could barely power a toaster,” you will see that it consists of 60 solar panels, each rated at around 300 watts, for a total rating of 18.30 kW (18,300 watts). That’s a lot more than a toaster’s worth.
The “only 8% efficient” array in Lansing, Michigan, may have consisted of very old and inefficient solar panels, but a modern solar farm of that size (approximately 250 panels, each rated at 300 watts) would generate at least twice as much electricity as the speaker was claiming, at a tiny fraction of the cost he was quoting ($1 million per square inch).
Many solar farms now contain thousands of panels, not just a few hundred, and can power entire communities. And there are now more than 2 million of these farms across the US, with a total capacity of 77 GW (77 billion watts). That may still be only a small percentage of the nation’s total electricity needs, but it is much more than you would think from watching this movie.
Planet of the Humans goes on to suggest that, like solar power, wind will never be able to produce enough electricity to meet our demands. It quotes an expert from Germany saying that the contribution of wind and other renewables to German electricity production is still small in comparison with coal and other fossil fuels. This is incorrect.
What the movie showed to back up this claim was a pie chart showing, not German electricity sources, but German energy sources. This includes natural gas used for heating buildings, petroleum products used for transportation, and other industrial uses of energy. Wind may only account for a small percentage of Germany’s overall energy needs, but it produces nearly 30% of its electricity, and that is important.
Other European countries, including the UK, Spain, and Portugal, are now getting more than 20% of their electricity from wind. And Denmark produced 47% of its total electricity in 2019 from wind. These hugely significant and rapidly increasing amounts of electricity coming from wind are not mentioned in the movie.
Intermittency and storage
It is, of course, true that solar power only generates electricity when the sun is shining, and wind power only generates electricity when the wind is blowing – a problem known as “intermittency.” However, there is a graphic shown in Planet of the Humans that purports to back up a claim made in the movie that no amount of battery storage could possibly store the solar and wind power needed to ensure there are no gaps in the electricity supply. This graphic is also misleading, as it again compares current storage capacity to overall energy needs worldwide rather than to the actual need for storage in the electricity sector itself, which is the only measure that is relevant here.
The US currently has about 800 million watt-hours (MWh) of utility-scale battery storage in total. This will rise substantially by next year, when a single battery unit capable of storing 900 MWh of electricity comes online in Florida. By 2024, battery storage capacity in the US is expected to reach 14,000 MWh. We will need much more than this to meet current and future electricity needs, but it is not impossible to imagine doing so.
In fact, there are many other solutions to the problem of intermittency, apart from battery storage. Hydro-electric power is one of the most important renewable sources of electricity and has been around for many decades. By controlling the flow of water out of reservoirs, and by using excess energy to pump water back into reservoirs, energy can, in effect, be “stored” for later use when it is needed.
It is stated correctly in the movie that the Ivanpah concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in California requires a natural gas power source to start it up every morning. Other CSP plants do not, however. And newer CSP designs, like the one operating at Crescent Dunes solar plant in Nevada since 2009, use molten salt to store enough of the sun’s heat to keep the generators running all night long. That cuts out the need for fossil fuels and the need for battery storage.
Geo-thermal, wave and tidal power sources also have enormous potential for producing electricity to fill the gaps that may be left by solar and wind power. Re-designing the electricity grid to make it more efficient (a so-called “smart” power grid) can make a big difference to leveling out the supply and demand of electricity, as can making use of electric car batteries to provide electricity to homes at night, and other novel approaches to this problem.
Much more research and development is needed to improve and advance battery storage and other approaches to solving the intermittency problem. However, huge progress is being made in this direction and it is simply incorrect to state, as several people do in the movie, that renewable energy can “never” meet the electricity needs of this country without gas-fired or coal-fired plants providing the back-up when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Yes, when you charge up the battery in your electric car with electricity coming from a coal-fired generating plant, you are running your electric car on fossil fuels. But there is no inherent reason why an electric car has to be powered with electricity generated from coal. It can be powered with electricity generated from wind or solar or hydro or wave or geothermal power. And in that case, you are not running your electric car on fossil fuels. You are running it on renewable energy.
Electric cars, like windmills and solar panels, are also made out of raw materials that have to be mined out of the ground, refined, molded into shape, and put together into a finished product. All of that currently involves the use of fossil fuels, since our entire economy is based on fossil fuels.
Does that mean we can never rid ourselves of that fossil fuel input and move to a fossil-free future? Of course not. We have no choice, if we want our species to survive, but to move to a fossil-free future. That is the bottom line. We now know that if we continue to power our global economy with fossil fuels, we will turn this planet into an unlivable wasteland. So we have to move off our dependence on fossil fuels. There is no other option.
Making the transition is always messy
Planet of the Humans is factually correct in pointing out that everything we might have thought of as “green” actually turns out to be tainted to some extent or other by association with fossil fuels. But that is hardly surprising, since literally everything we build, buy, or trade has had some kind of fossil fuel input involved in it, from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the chairs we sit on, to the houses we live in, to the books we read, to the phones we talk on.
There is no getting around the fact that fossil fuels are involved in the production, transportation and installation of every “green” alternative that’s out there. And we cannot move from a fossil fuel economy to a fossil-free economy unless we actually take steps to do so. That involves a transition period, when things are still not as we intend them to be by the end of the transition period.
Anyone who has ever moved house knows about the “transition” period. You want your new house to be completely set up and functioning the day you walk into it, but it rarely works like that. Your mail is still going to the old house. Maybe half your things are still at the old house, or in storage, or in boxes. Your bank still has your old address, and so do all your friends. Your car is at the new house, but registered at the old house.
So where do you live? Are you at the new address or not? Have you “left” the old address or not? Is Michael Moore going to make a documentary pointing out that you claim to live at the new house when in fact all the evidence suggests that you still live at the old house?
Come on, people, it’s a transition! Why is that so difficult to understand? Yes, it’s going to be imperfect, confusing, maybe even contradictory. But are you seriously going to stay put at your old house because you can’t move into the new one “perfectly,” all at once, without any lingering doubt that part of you might still be living in the old house for a certain period of time?
Harping on about electric cars and windmills and solar panels still being dependent on fossil fuels is actually doing us all a huge disservice. Because that is not the point. The point is we have to be moving our economy to electric cars and windmills and solar panels. And we also have to be moving our economy onto fossil-free cement and steel, fossil-free ships and planes and trucks, fossil-free (and child labor-free) mining and manufacturing. These things are not optional. They are the essential ingredients of our survival on this planet.
Good to question AND good to find answers
Planet of the Humans does a great job of asking questions and challenging assumptions. Yes, we need to hold our political leaders accountable. We also need to hold the leaders of our environmental movement accountable. We need to be suspicious when big business billionaires, like the Koch Brothers, are getting in on the act of “greening” the economy. And we need to be constantly aware of the dangers of being co-opted, bought out, or otherwise compromised by those whose real interests are making money, not saving the planet.
But we also need to be better than Jeff Gibbs has been in this movie at finding the answers and discerning fact from fiction. “Fake news” is built on people who claim to be “experts,” using anecdotal evidence, or no evidence at all, to make sweeping generalizations and other unfounded claims that are not backed up by a wider consensus of informed opinion. Unfortunately, there is a lot of that in this movie.
For example, despite what this movie claims, there is no inherent reason why the cement and steel used in a windmill has to be made from burning coal. There are already experimental processes for producing cement that do not require the use of coal. There are already plants producing steel without the use of coal. And there are alternatives to cement for holding up heavy structures like windmills, as well as alternatives to steel for making windmill blades and other parts.
There are also many types of solar cells being produced, including solar cells that do not require the use of coal in their production. So the claim, made several times in the movie, that solar and wind are “not a replacement” for fossil fuels, but merely an extension of them, is incorrect. Yes, we can do better than we are at the moment – and we have to. But calling the idea of moving to solar and wind powered electricity and electric vehicles to save the planet a “delusion,” and saying they are no better than fossil fuels, is itself delusional.
What way forward?
At the heart of Planet of the Humans is the basic premise that humans cannot continue a path of infinite “growth” on a finite planet. That much is indisputable. But what does it mean? Does it mean that all industrialization is bad? Does it mean that replacing fossil fuels with an all-electric economy fueled by wind and sun is not achievable or not desirable? Does it mean that there is no solution to global warming, apart from killing off a large part of the world’s population?
We are at a critical juncture in human history. Who we elect to run this country for the next four years, and what we decide to do about the climate crisis during that time, may well seal the fate of billions of people. We cannot afford to get this wrong. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists across the world agree that we must halve our global carbon emissions over the next 10 years to have any hope of averting a climate catastrophe. There is only one way to do that in the time available, and that is by moving as swiftly as possible to renewable forms of electricity and to electric vehicles and heating.
A movie that purports to care about the environment and the future of humanity and yet seeks to undermine support for the very things we must do to save this planet, and ourselves, is worse than a disappointment. It’s reckless.