Review of Planet of the Humans

Richard Heinberg  (Post Carbon Institute)

April 27, 2020

A few days ago, Emily Atkin posted a reaction to Michael Moore’s latest film, Planet of the Humans (directed and narrated by Jeff Gibbs), in which she began by admitting that she hadn’t seen the film yet. When writers take that approach, you know there’s already blood in the water. (She has since watched the film and written an actual review. Full disclosure: I’m in the film, included as one of the “good guys.” But I don’t intend to let that fact distort my comments in this review.)

The film is controversial because it makes two big claims: first, that renewable energy is a sham; second, that big environmental organizations—by promoting solar and wind power—have sold their souls to billionaire investors.

I feel fairly confident commenting on the first of these claims, regarding renewable energy, having spent a year working with David Fridley of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to assess the prospects for a complete transition to solar and wind power.

We found that the transition to renewables is going far too slowly to make much of a difference during the crucial next couple of decades, and would be gobsmackingly expensive if we were to try replacing all fossil fuel use with solar and wind.

We also found, as the film underscores again and again, that the intermittency of sunshine and wind is a real problem—one that can only be solved with

1) energy storage (batteries, pumped hydro, or compressed air, all of which are costly in money and energy terms); or with source redundancy (building way more generation capacity than you’re likely to need at any one time, and connecting far-flung generators on a super-grid); and/or

2) demand management (which entails adapting our behavior to using energy only when it’s available). All three strategies involve trade-offs. In the energy world, there is no free lunch.

Further, the ways we use energy today are mostly adapted to the unique characteristics of fossil fuels, so a full transition to renewables will require the replacement of an extraordinary amount of infrastructure in our food system, manufacturing, building heating, the construction industry, and on and on.

Altogether, the only realistic way to make the transition in industrial countries like the US is to begin reducing overall energy usage substantially, eventually running the economy on a quarter, a fifth, or maybe even a tenth of current energy.

Is it true that mainstream enviros have oversold renewables? Yes. They have portrayed the transition away from fossil fuels as mostly a political problem; the implication in many of their communications is that, if we somehow come up with the money and the political will, we can replace oil with solar and continue living much as we do today, though with a clear climate conscience. That’s an illusion that deserves shattering.

But the film does make some silly mistakes. Gibbs claims that a solar panel will generate less energy than it took to build the panel. That’s a misleading claim. Many teams of researchers have addressed the question of energy return on energy invested for solar power, and even the most pessimistic results (with which I mostly agree) say that the technology can yield a marginal energy gain.

Much of that gain goes away if we have to “pay” for the energy investment entailed in providing batteries or redundant capacity.

Wind power generally has a better energy payback than solar, but the location of turbines matters a great deal and ideal sites are limited in number.

Assessing solar and wind power calls for complicated energy accounting, but the film reduces that complexity to a blanket, binary dismissal.

The film is low on nuance, but our global climate and energy dilemma is all shades of gray. Gibbs seems to say that renewables are a complete waste of time. I would say, they are best seen as a marginal transitional strategy for industrial societies.

Given climate change and the fact that fossil fuels are depleting, finite resources, it appears, if we want to maintain any sort of electrical energy infrastructure in the future, it will have to be powered by renewables—hydro, wind, or solar.

As many studies have confirmed, the nuclear power industry has little realistic prospect of revival. The future will be renewable; there simply isn’t any other option. What is very much in question, however, is the kind of society renewable energy can support.

The fact is that we’ve already bet our entire future on electricity and electronics. Communications and information processing and storage have all been digitized. That means, if the grid goes down, we’ve lost civilization altogether.

I think we cannot maintain global grids at current scale without fossil fuels, but I can envision the possibility of a process of triage whereby, as population and resource consumption shrink, the digital world does as well, until it’s small enough to be powered by renewable electricity that can be generated with minimal and acceptable environmental damage.

I agree with Gibbs, however, that renewables are realistically incapable of maintaining our current levels of energy usage, especially in rich countries like the US. Transitioning to electric cars may be a useful small-scale and short-term strategy for reducing oil consumption (I drive one myself), but limits to lithium and other raw materials used in building e-cars mean, we really need to think about how to get rid of personal cars altogether.

Mainstream enviros will hate this scenario, because it exposes some of their real failings. By focusing on techno-fixes, they have sidelined nearly all discussion of overpopulation and overconsumption. Maybe that’s understandable as a marketing strategy, but it’s a mistake to let marketing consultants sort truth from fiction for us.

During recent decades, the big environmental orgs wearied of telling their followers to reduce, reuse, and recycle. They came to see that global problems like climate change require systemic solutions that, in turn, require massive investment and governmental planning and oversight.

But the reality is, we need both high-level systemic change and widespread individual behavior change. That’s one of the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic: “flattening the curve” demands both central planning and leadership, and individual sacrifice.

Planet of the Humans paints environmental organizations and leaders with a broad and accusatory brush. One target is Jeremy Grantham, a billionaire investment analyst who created the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment in 1997. Grantham was already a mega-rich investor before he “got religion” on environmental issues. I’ve had several face-to-face meetings with him (full disclosure: the Grantham Foundation has provided modest funding to Post Carbon Institute, where I work) and it’s clear that he cares deeply about overpopulation and overconsumption, and he understands that economic growth is killing the planet. He’s scared for his children and grandchildren, and he genuinely wants to use whatever wealth and influence he has to change the world. To imply, as the film does, that he merely sees green tech as an investment strategy is a poorly aimed cheap shot. Bill McKibben, who is skewered even more savagely, also deserves better; he has replied to the film here.

Finally, the film leaves viewers with no sense of hope for the future. I understand why Gibbs made that choice. Too often, “hopium” is simply a drug we use to numb ourselves to the horrific reality of our situation and its causes—in which we are all complicit.

Yet, however awful the circumstance, we need a sense of human agency. In the face of the pandemic, many of us are reduced to sitting at home sewing facemasks; it seems like a paltry response to a spreading sickness that’s taking tens of thousands of lives, but it’s better than sitting on our hands and saying “Woe is me.”

The same goes for climate change: figuring out how to eat lower on the food chain, or how to get by without a car, or how to reduce home energy usage by half, or growing a garden might seem like trivial responses to such an overwhelming crisis, but they get us moving together in the right direction.

For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, Planet of the Humans is not the last word on our human predicament. Still, it starts a conversation we need to have, and it’s a film that deserves to be seen.

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Comment by Stephen Littlefield on May 3, 2020 at 8:34pm

Willem, 99% of muslim women are treated like cattle they have no say. They still practice female genital mutilation it's not the same there. I'm not advocating abything except not cutting our own throats so to speak.

Comment by Willem Post on May 3, 2020 at 4:07pm

Stephen,

You advocate white people having more children so Muslims would not dominate?
That would be a race to the bottom.

I rather advocate offering female Muslims more money, beyond normal amounts, to incentivize them to get with the program.
Money talks, even in Muslim countries.

Comment by Stephen Littlefield on May 3, 2020 at 2:59pm

Normally I agree with you Willem, but, in this case that idea in 4 or 5 generations the world would be ruled by muslims by shear numbers. They are already out populating all others by 5 to one. And by their doctrine are mandated to out procreate all others. In no way do I support my family being dominated by muslims.

Comment by Willem Post on May 3, 2020 at 2:43pm

The best way to reduce population is to minimize births.

Give a few thousand dollars to any female on earth, who VOLUNTEERS to have an operation so childbirth is not possible.

Perform about 10 million such operations per year, and the population growth will go to zero In about 10 years and then population will decrease VERY SLOWLY, to whatever level is needed, to have a thriving flora and fauna, according to simple spreadsheet analysis 

This program would be run by private NGOs, which may, or may not, receive funding from governments.

This program has nothing to do with eugenics.

This program is forward looking, because it rescues the remaining flora and fauna from continued extinction.

Life on earth is not possible without a thriving flora and fauna.

The program is totally random, based on free will.

Comment by Nancy Sosman on May 3, 2020 at 2:06pm
Comment by Nancy Sosman on May 3, 2020 at 1:53pm

John Steppling ... "More succinctly, the military is never mentioned, not ever. And the open Malthusian meme ‘we are the problem’, or what is often called ‘the overpopulation argument’ (or Pogo argument) is a profoundly reactionary and racist idea based on classic eugenics, and the one glaring omission and the other rather disturbing ideology, eclipse the genuine (though limited) truths of the film."

Comment by Nancy Sosman on May 3, 2020 at 10:05am
Read this entire article and you will be so much smarter.... Condescending too, in NY we say "read between the lines".
Comment by Willem Post on May 3, 2020 at 9:43am

Nancy,

I did not write the essay.

I merely posted it, so you and others could comment on it.

There is no future for the earth with more people, plus endless economic growth.

Some environmentalists at Harvard U and Stanford U have stated the world population should be at most ONE billion people, so that the OTHER fauna and flora have healthy habitats in which to flourish.

And that one billion people would have to consume energy about 1/4 of what they consume now.

This has nothing to do with elitism, or black, white and yellow, or the defense department. Just Google

If humans spread wider and wider, the flora and fauna will continue to disappear, as they have for more than 150 years.

If there were only about ONE billion people, and they would use 1/4 the energy of what they use now, wind and solar and hydro could provide all the energy they would need.

There is no hope of doing that with 10 billion people gorging on goods and services.

Read this entire article and you will be so much smarter.

FORTRESS VERMONT, A MULTI-BILLION BOONDOGGLE FOISTED ONTO RATEPAYERS AND TAXPAYERS

http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/fortress-vermont-a-mult...

 

Depending on how much the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, variable/intermittent wind and solar often supply too much or too little electricity. The solution of the 100%-in-state proponents is to store unused electricity in batteries (or some other medium) and then dispatch from storage as needed, 24/7/365, to maintain ISO-NE-specified grid conditions. 

 

The 100%-in-state proponents propose a $1.2 billion down-payment on “Fortress Vermont”.

 

- About $900 million would be for new electricity storage systems, during the 2020 – 2025 period, and tens of $billions thereafter, if their plan for 100% in-state renewable electricity were implemented.

The battery capacity would be about $900 million/($375/kWh) = 2400 MWh, i.e. 600 MW delivered for 4 hours. See Notes.

 

- About $300 million would be to pay wind/solar system owners whose electricity outputs would be curtailed during high winds and very sunny days, during the 2020 – 2025 period.

 

NOTE: The NREL states the average turnkey capital cost of grid-scale, 4-hour, battery systems was $375/kWh in 2018, and projects $250/kWh for 2025, $210/kWh for 2030, and 155/kWh for 2050. Such battery systems would absorb solar during mid-day hours and release it during late-afternoon/early-evening hours. See figure ES-2

https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy19osti/73222.pdf

 

NOTE: NREL defines the 4-hour duration as the output duration of the battery, such that a 4-hour device would be able to discharge at rated capacity for 4-hours. In practice that would mean that the device would charge for more than 4 hours and would nominally hold more than its rated energy capacity in order to compensate for losses during charge and discharge.

 

FROM FORTRESS VERMONT TO FORTRESS NEW ENGLAND

 

If all of New England were as foolish as Vermont, and Fortress Vermont were to become Fortress New England, with build-outs of wind and solar everywhere, and gas and nuclear plants closed, instead of a “down-payment” of about $1.2 billion, about 122/6 x 1.2 = $24.4 billion would be required to install 122/6 x 2400 = 48,800 MW of battery storage systems during the 2020 – 2025 period. 

 

About 122/6 x 0.9 = $18.3 billion would recur every 15 years to replace the battery systems!

Additional multi-$billion "down-payments" would be required after 2025.

 

In case of a randomly occurring, 5 to 7-day wind/solar lull, about 122 billion/365 x 6d = 2 billion kWh would be consumed.

The 48,800 MWh (or 48,800,000 kWh) of storage would provide electricity to New England for only 3.5 hours of those 6 days; wood and refuse burning and hydro might provide another 1 - 3 hours.

 

All that, and more, would be shifted onto ratepayers, taxpayers and debt, to support massive build-outs of heavily subsidized cripples, called wind and solar, that could not even exist on the grid without the other generators and/or grid-scale storage systems. See URL.

http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/cost-shifting-is-the-na...

 

FORTRESS PROPONENTS OPPOSED TO LOW-COST CANADIAN HYDRO ELECTRICITY

 

FORTRESS folks, who tirelessly peddle their heavily subsidized, expensive, variable/intermittent wind/solar electricity, that requires expensive, grid-scale, storage and expensive grid augmentation/expansion, absolutely do not want low-cost competition from any source, especially if that source would be 1) low-cost, say 5.7 c/kWh, and 2) would require no storage and minimal grid augmentation/expansion.

 

VT-DPS employees, on loan to the legislature, “are helping” legislators write a FORTRESS VERMONT bill that specifically limits Hydro-Quebec to about 33% of the Vermont electricity fed to grid. That way, FORTRESS folks get to play their expensive “islanding/fortress” games with the other 67%.

Comment by Nancy Sosman on May 3, 2020 at 9:12am

You must be a big bill gates fan (along with dr death Fauci, and birx, et all), their lives work is killing as many plebeians as possible, esp those with dark skin, over their altruistic concerns about "overpopulation".  As for overconsumption, how about shutting the 900+ military bases around the globe before pointing a finger at consumers. They've been sold a bill of goods by greedy parasitic corporations. Stick to the energy issues because your social attitudes are pure evil.  As for the plandemic, since you felt you needed to add that to your lack of heart, woe is me ?  Damn, how about "what just happened" and why aren't I allowed in the sunshine or able to visit my ailing grandmother or my grandchildren, or check on my blind neighbor, or how will afford to feed my family as the entire economy crashes and burns. Woe is You.

Comment by Stephen Littlefield on May 2, 2020 at 9:11pm

Seems like some thinly veiled sour grapes by someone that depends on the environmental global warming, cooling, change. Whatever it takes to pay the bills. He does hit on one point that electric cars are a limited entity that strips rare earth minerals for questionable value. His vague explanation of solar cost effectiveness is unclear of where he starts his value cost to value outcome. If it's from the mining then the cost is never overcome. And wind is a sick joke, with the destruction of the land and mountains never to be replaced there is no plus side. And whining that billionaires that seem to exhibit a god complex that puts a burden on those that aren't rich like them "Gates and Grantham" are just two, is just sad. So his is that it's his paycheck and his banner that is being soiled, it's more than a grain of salt I take this with.  

Hannah Pingree on the Maine expedited wind law

Hannah Pingree - Director of Maine's Office of Innovation and the Future

"Once the committee passed the wind energy bill on to the full House and Senate, lawmakers there didn’t even debate it. They passed it unanimously and with no discussion. House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, says legislators probably didn’t know how many turbines would be constructed in Maine."

https://pinetreewatch.org/wind-power-bandwagon-hits-bumps-in-the-road-3/

 

Maine as Third World Country:

CMP Transmission Rate Skyrockets 19.6% Due to Wind Power

 

Click here to read how the Maine ratepayer has been sold down the river by the Angus King cabal.

Maine Center For Public Interest Reporting – Three Part Series: A CRITICAL LOOK AT MAINE’S WIND ACT

******** IF LINKS BELOW DON'T WORK, GOOGLE THEM*********

(excerpts) From Part 1 – On Maine’s Wind Law “Once the committee passed the wind energy bill on to the full House and Senate, lawmakers there didn’t even debate it. They passed it unanimously and with no discussion. House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, says legislators probably didn’t know how many turbines would be constructed in Maine if the law’s goals were met." . – Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, August 2010 https://www.pinetreewatchdog.org/wind-power-bandwagon-hits-bumps-in-the-road-3/From Part 2 – On Wind and Oil Yet using wind energy doesn’t lower dependence on imported foreign oil. That’s because the majority of imported oil in Maine is used for heating and transportation. And switching our dependence from foreign oil to Maine-produced electricity isn’t likely to happen very soon, says Bartlett. “Right now, people can’t switch to electric cars and heating – if they did, we’d be in trouble.” So was one of the fundamental premises of the task force false, or at least misleading?" https://www.pinetreewatchdog.org/wind-swept-task-force-set-the-rules/From Part 3 – On Wind-Required New Transmission Lines Finally, the building of enormous, high-voltage transmission lines that the regional electricity system operator says are required to move substantial amounts of wind power to markets south of Maine was never even discussed by the task force – an omission that Mills said will come to haunt the state.“If you try to put 2,500 or 3,000 megawatts in northern or eastern Maine – oh, my god, try to build the transmission!” said Mills. “It’s not just the towers, it’s the lines – that’s when I begin to think that the goal is a little farfetched.” https://www.pinetreewatchdog.org/flaws-in-bill-like-skating-with-dull-skates/

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