The new Michael Moore documentary, “Planet of the Humans,” describes itself as a “frontal assault on the sacred cows of the U.S. environmental movement,” and has its sights set on blowing up the clean energy industry. Yet instead of offering a fact-based evaluation of clean energy technologies, the film uses outdated information to peddle a range of anti-clean energy talking points, and reaches dangerously misinformed conclusions.
The film follows director Jeff Gibbs around the U.S., visiting various clean energy sites, from old wind turbines to deserted solar fields, as he ostensibly learns that these technologies, as well as biomass and electric vehicles, are just as bad as the fossil fuel infrastructure that they would replace. Exclusively focusing on the drawbacks of clean energy technologies without even considering their ability to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other pollutants, Gibbs concludes that since these technologies cannot possibly be the answer to limiting climate change, then curtailing population growth and consumption are the only answers.
It is grossly inappropriate, morally and technically, to conclude that limiting economic growth is the only way out of climate change. Outdated and flat-out false attacks on technological solutions to climate change ignore the tremendous progress and potential of the clean energy sector, both domestically and in developing countries. Despite the film’s conclusions, human ingenuity has been central to the progress already made in the clean technology sector, and continuing to support these technologies is essential if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
An ancient and shallow critique of clean energy
The lack of analytical rigor and reason-supported observations in the film is truly astonishing. As John Rogers and Leah Stokes point out in their critiques, listening to some of the so-called “facts” presented by Gibbs makes one think that this film was made a decade ago. the The arcane feel of the movie is on full display when Gibbs tours a solar farm in Lansing, Mich., where a member of the city’s Board of Water and Light mentions that those solar modules have an efficiency of “just under 8 percent.” Attempting to make a similar point, the director tours a solar trade show only to find out that “solar panels are built to last only 10 years.” Unless the director has not done a quick Google search on the solar power sector in the last 10 years, then the inclusion of these statements is purely made in bad faith. The majority of solar panels today have an efficiency rating of between 15 and 20 percent, with many residential solar panels breaking the 20 percent mark. As for the lifespan of solar panels, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently found that the median degradation rate, i.e., the reduction of solar panel output over time, is about 0.5 percent per year, which means that after 20 years the solar module could still produce approximately 90 percent of the electricity it produced in the year it was installed. Because of this, most solar systems come with warranties of at least 20 years. The list of poor and outdated information extends to the documentary’s treatment of electric vehicles.
One scene filmed about a decade ago shows the rollout of the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid vehicle that began production in 2010. Although the vehicle itself may be electric, Gibbs points out that it is being charged by a local utility that runs almost completely on coal, and argues that because of this the environmental benefits of EVs are purely illusory. Researchers have actually analyzed this specific issue and have found that there is a clear emissions benefit to driving an EV over an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. As the Union of Concerned Scientists notes, even when accounting for emissions produced by charging the vehicles, EVs produce significantly lower GHG emissions than traditional ICE vehicles. This result holds in areas of the U.S. that still heavily rely on fossil fuels for electric power. Even studies accounting for GHG emissions associated with the manufacturing of these vehicles find that EVs produce 50 percent fewer GHG emissions per kilometer traveled than ICE vehicles, ranging from 28 percent less in areas still reliant on fossil fuels, and up to 72 percent less in areas with high renewable energy penetration. The environmental benefit of EVs will only increase as utilities continue to reduce their emissions by increasing the share of renewable and other low-carbon power sources. But on the subject of utilities’ ability to reduce their emissions, the film’s ignorance is on full display.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the misinformation contained in the documentary is an exchange with Ozzie Zehner, an author and the producer of the film, who claims, “You use more fossil fuels [manufacturing renewables infrastructure] than you’re getting benefit from. You would have been better off burning the fossil fuels in the first place instead of playing pretend.” This is just demonstrably false. This idea gets at the issue of life-cycle emissions of power plants, which takes into account the carbon emissions of every stage of a power plant, including upstream emissions from extraction and materials manufacturing. Study after study has found that the carbon footprint for wind, solar, and nuclear power is significantly smaller per unit of electricity than the carbon footprint of fossil fuel generating sources. Even when accounting for downstream emissions of power plants, including project decommissioning and part disposal/recycling, lifecycle emissions from a coal power plant are about 62 times per unit of electricity that of a wind plant, and 21 times that of a utility-scale solar plant. So while it is true that the carbon footprint of renewable energy is not zero, and that the manufacturing of these technologies requires mining and other industrial activities, it is not up for debate that renewable energy technologies produce significantly fewer GHG emissions over their lifetime than their fossil fuel counterparts.
Zehner goes on to add that wind and solar cannot replace coal, and that retiring coal plants are being replaced by a massive build-out of natural gas. The film also presents the work of Richard York, a professor at the University of Oregon, whose 2012 paper argues that the addition of renewable energy has no impact on fossil fuel output. While it is true that natural gas has indeed expanded to fill in for lost coal generation, increasing shares of wind and solar power have played a pivotal role in decarbonizing the U.S. electricity sector. Electricity generation data from the Energy Information Administration shows that increased electricity generation from wind and solar power since 2008 replaced roughly one-third of the reduction in electricity from coal-fired power plants. While retired coal-fired power plants were primarily replaced by natural gas at the national level, a look at energy transitions in specific states demonstrates that renewables alone can replace electricity from retired coal plants, without expanding natural gas electricity generation.
Below is a snapshot of how Kansas’ electricity mix changed over the last two decades.
Source: How Does Your State Make Electricity?, The New York Times
And here’s the electricity generation mix from Iowa.
Source: How Does Your State Make Electricity?, The New York Times
In both these states, reductions in coal-fired power were overwhelmingly replaced by increased electricity from renewable sources. Just from these two examples we can see how the assertion from Zehler and York that renewables are not the sources replacing coal-fired electricity is highly misguided, and ignores how the electricity sector has been able to reduce CO2 emissions 28 percent since 2005, the only sector in the U.S. economy to have successfully reduced its emissions in the past decade.
The film also spends a sizable amount of time discussing the practice of burning trees for energy, which, by the way, accounted for 1 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2019 and is making up a smaller share of total renewable energy each year. While there are valid concerns associated with this form of biomass, including land used to produce these feedstocks and the emissions related to the burning of this fuel, lumping this form of energy with wind and solar technology is an oversimplification. The main difference between these renewable energy sources is that biomass does release GHG emissions when it is burned whereas there are zero emissions associated with power generation from solar and wind resources, but the film neglects to mention this.
There is no silver bullet to solving climate change. Mitigating the worst impacts of climate change is going to require a wide portfolio of clean energy technologies and strategies. We cannot simply rely on renewables to cost-effectively reduce emissions, and nuclear, geothermal, battery storage, etc. have an important role to play. That being said, renewable energy technologies provide the best way to reduce harmful GHG emissions today. Misrepresenting the progress of these technologies, or intentionally lying about these technologies, will only serve to move us backward and limit emissions reductions that can be achieved today.
The perfect feedstock for the “do nothing” movement
Although the film’s treatment of the limitations of clean energy technologies is remarkably shallow, its conclusion that people and industrial civilization itself are the problem is outright dangerous. It would be easy to dismiss these ideas as ineffective nonsense from documentarians, but a lot of the same skepticism of these new technologies is embedded with policymakers on the right. Tearing down strategies and technologies that are integral to building a more sustainable and resilient economy will set climate action back decades. Instead of looking to limit human creativity and ingenuity, we should be unleashing it.
Dynamic economies and human ingenuity are what created these technologies. Human ingenuity is what has driven precipitous price drops in the renewable energy industry, what has made these technologies more efficient, and what has caused renewable resources to grow to almost 18 percent of U.S. electricity supply. Humanity’s capacity to innovate is what is revolutionizing our transportation sector, making EVs more affordable and effective. While transitioning our energy system is going to be difficult, and far from perfect, sustaining the progress we’ve made in clean energy technology is the first step in creating the conditions we need for comprehensive climate action.
Photo by Derek Liang on Unsplash