Review by Don Wichert
Michael’s Moore’s film, Planet of the Humans directed by Jeff Gibbs, is a poorly researched and conspicuously one-sided example of advocacy journalism. The film’s release on YouTube coincided with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, prompting a well-deserved panning from many writers and reviewers with deep roots in the environmental and clean energy community.
The major shift from a world dominated by fossil fuels to one run by renewable energy is a monumental shift that cannot be made over night. Gibbs narrates a description focusing almost entirely on the slowness of this shift and on the inevitable failures of various attempts to move towards a more sustainable world. Much like evolution itself, some mutations towards this goal succeed and others don’t. It’s called “learning by doing”. Unfortunately Gibbs only describes those early experiments gone badly or interviews people who are not qualified to explain the goals and the process of development that is being considered.
Much of the reporting is one sided, not researched very well, outdated, and inaccurate and is simply inexcusable. Some examples:
- Interviews with GM officials in 2010 when the Chevy Volt was introduced. The Volt has gotten great reviews over time as a first generation Electric Vehicle that also has a gas engine. However, since it is typically recharged from the electric grid, which at the time was powered primarily by coal from the Lansing based utility in 2010; it’s portrayed as a phony sustainable alternative. No mention was made of electric cars being 85% energy efficient vs. internal engines being 15% efficient (of energy in the fuel to the wheels on the road). Since 2010, about 100,000 megawatts of coal plants have been shut down and replaced by renewable energy or natural gas. So, the grid has become greener, and therefore driving an electric vehicle has become greener over time.
- In the same ten year old footage, Gibbs interviews a Lansing Power and Light official who explains how their experimental solar electric system works. The panels are low efficiency (about 8%) and the official estimates that the football sized solar field can produce the equivalent of eleven household’s annual electricity usage. In the last ten years, solar has become more efficient and the costs have dropped dramatically. Solar is now the among the most affordable ways to generate electricity in most places in the US and the world. This is not mentioned, nor is distributed solar electric power mentioned, which uses the solar energy produced and used at the site.
- Gibbs spends a lot of time interviewing Ozzi Zehmer, author of the “Green Illusion”. Zehmer makes the outrageous claim that silicon solar cells have no silicon and instead are made of quartz, coal, and rare earth metals. It is true that some carbon is added to the solar cells in the production process, but it is subterfuge to imply that more fossil fuels are used in the process then the carbon saved by the cells over their lifetime. Many studies have shown a payback on carbon from solar cells of about two years. However, there is concern that some rare earth metals will not be enough to meet an exponential demand in the future from solar panel and other electronics. Innovation in the future may be able to resolve this apparent rare earth emerging problem.
- Gibbs interviews a “solar salesman” at a trade show who said the lifetime of solar cells is “about 10 years.” However, every solar cell manufacturer offers a 25-year guarantee on their cells to produce at least 80% of the power by year 25. Although there is output degradation of about 0.5 percent per year, it likely that solar cells will be producing power many decades past their 25 year warrantees.
- The movie then shifts to wind power and singles out one potential site on the Lowell mountain in Vermont. Gibbs interviews the group of hikers that are opposed to the 21 turbine ridgeline project because it will destroy the vista and hiking that has been there before. He does not mention the environmental review that was done for the project nor that the project was approved by a 342 to 114 vote in the local town in 2009. He does not interview anyone in the area that was in favor of the project, or mention the actual impact on hunting, hiking, sound, the fossil power that it’s replacing (or other conservation measures), or the economic impact of the project. Nope, just those against the project. Gibbs also interviews others at wind construction sites, who described the amount of concrete, steel, and weight of the wind turbine projects, as if all construction of anything was bad. Does he oppose a bridge over a creek because some steel and concrete is being used?
- Gibbs also takes a slap at hydrogen used as a fuel source for autos. Even though hydrogen is not really being considered as a near-term replacement, he gets a response from a person at a trade show that the hydrogen fuel comes from fossil fuels. He does not mention that hydrogen can be made by using electrolysis of water powered by surplus renewable energy when supply exceeds demand or that the only emissions of hydrogen combustion is water.
- The film also makes short shrift of battery technology, even though battery storage is likely to become a game changer for scaling up renewable energy. Humans are on the very beginning of a tidal wave of innovation and discovery with battery storage, with new concepts and options to store more with less weight, occurring at a rapidly increasing rate.
- Gibbs and Zehmer then go to the southwest deserts where some large scale solar thermal to electricity systems were deployed. They visit the original site of the Solar Energy Generation System I (SEGS-I), built in 1986, 34 years ago. Out of the nine systems SEGS built over this time period they focused only on the first one, where it was dismantled and apparently is being repurposed to a newer system. No attempt was made to interview the owners of the system or to show the other eight systems that are merrily producing power at one of the sunniest sites in the US. Gibbs did show some footage of yucca plants and Joshua trees being cut down for the solar array construction. No energy system is completely benign, and tradeoffs are always made. The world is a lot different than it was before the advent of farming or the industrial revolution, and ethical choices of land use can always be challenged. Manhattan, Chicago, and Madison do not look like they did 300 years ago. The projects need to file environmental impact studies before they are built, but none of that is described.
- There are criticisms of the solar power towers near Barstow, CA. I never liked this concept either: large, moving parts, low thermal efficiencies, and the need for maintenance. However, it is an example of how major infrastructures shifts occur: start out with what you know (large, thermal power plants) with those who build them (Bechtel, Westinghouse) and see what happens. These plants were started in the 1980’s, and in this case, their failures will hopefully lead to learning.
- Gibbs also attacks environmentalists for taking funding from fossil fuel interest groups like the Koch brothers and others. The optics don’t look good, but most large corporations, energy or others, have a diversified portfolio of projects with new and old technologies. Sometimes old money is a major contributor to a better world in the future like the Carnegie libraries or the Rockefeller Foundations. Gibbs targets the Green Century Fund and cherry picks several companies that have a dirty image, but fails to highlight which part of these companies are being supported in the fund.
- The film charges that any business that claims to be 100% renewably powered while remaining connected to the utility grid is engaging in deception. In point of fact, it is possible to be 100 percent renewably powered and still use some power from the grid when needed, so long as the customer offsets its draw from the grid with an equivalent amount of excess renewable energy. Until batteries are more developed, having backup sources of power, whether from the grid or other means, makes total sense. There is a picture of Tesla’s mega battery plant before the roof was covered with solar electric panels, implying that Elon Musk was lying when he said the plant would be 100 percent renewable since it would still be connected to the grid. They also showed some diesel generators being used for back-up power at an Earth Day concert.
- But Gibbs biggest gripe is with bioenergy. He never explores the major renewable premise that biomass is recent solar energy stored in plants, or that most of the biomass feedstock is from wastes that would otherwise oxidize and slowly release methane and carbon dioxide in the process. He shows the McNeil wood-fired power plant in Burlington (VT), with piles of trees and wood chips outside ready to be burned. He never explores that 95 percent of this feedstock comes from timber product residues, culls left over after other logging operations, land clearing for development, tree trimming for power lines, forest thinning, or even dedicated biomass farms for fuel. He did not interview the fuel procurement personnel or say anything about the environmental scrutiny that is required in the fuel procurement process or anything about the sustainable guidelines that must be followed.
- He also makes light of a biogas digester at a zoo that takes elephant manure to produce energy. He does not explore the concept of modern biogas digesters and how they take raw manure from large animal operations, or landfill and wastewater treatment gas and make electricity and pipeline quality gas. Nor does he say anything about the reduction in pathogens and smell from these operations and the production of biosolid fertilizers.
- The film interviews a number of people living near solid waste incinerators as part of the biomass-to-energy portfolio of bad projects. It’s true that the track record of waste-to-energy plants has been spotty at best, but this is another example where projects started in the 1980’s to hedge against the energy crisis are now no longer being built. Mistakes were made, and from them, other ways to tackle problems emerge. Figuring out how best to recycle tires, hazardous wastes, and plastics is still a major problem to be solved.
There certainly are legitimate arguments being made that we humans are having a deleterious impact on the planet: over fishing of the oceans, acidification of the oceans destroying reefs, climate change impacts of more intense and frequent storms and droughts and ecosystem shifts, ground water depletion, plastic pollution, and too many people wanting too much stuff. But in Gibbs and Moore’s eyes, the glass is not half empty, but is almost dry. He completely ignores any discussion by the vast army of individuals, governments, and companies trying to fill the glass back up with clean water. No, everything anybody does is bad and evil according to the film. That includes Al Gore, Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org), Michael Brune (ED of Sierra Club), Michael Bloomberg, whose philanthropy underwrites Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, and Dennis Hayes, coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970. According to Gibbs, all environmental leaders are phonies and have sold out for themselves and their imperfect goals.
Renewable energy is still at an early stage of development and huge progress is being made at an accelerating pace. The first auto was made in 1885 and every year new innovations are being made. It’s almost impossible to conceive what we humans will be using for energy in the years ahead, but progress is being made every day.
The beginning of the film asks about 10 people off the street how long they think humans will survive. Guesses range from about 10 years to infinity. So there are a lot of opinions, some positive and some negative. Unfortunately, this film is all negative. It was probably meant to sound like a canary call in a coal mine, but it was way too one-sidedly negative. Things may be bad, but looking over human history, as Dr. Pangloss said in Voltaire’s Candide, “it’s the best of all possible worlds.” Too bad Moore and Gibbs didn’t do a better job researching to provide a balanced and more positive perspective on getting to the best of all possible worlds.
I cringe thinking of how right-wing media will use this film to cast doubt on the value of renewable energy and the purposeful goals of those involved in trying to make a more sustainable human earth.
Don Wichert is a self-proclaimed “Energy Geek”, with college degrees in Geography, Thermal Engineering, and Energy Analysis & Policy. He worked at the Wisconsin Energy Office for 23 years as Chief of the Energy Resources Section, was Director of the Focus on Energy Renewable Energy Program for six years, and interim Director of RENEW Wisconsin, a group he founded in 1989, for 16 months. He has served on a number of national nonprofit boards, including the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, the Clean Energy States Alliance, and the Biomass Energy Research Center. He lives in Madison, WI.