‘Planet of the Humans’: Is The Film Scientifically Accurate?
Sana Kazilbash posted on June 08, 2020 |
Michael Moore’s new documentary criticizes renewable energy sources.

Planet of the Humans has taken the environmental movement by storm. The movie was removed from YouTube (due to a copyright dispute) on May 28—but not before racking up 8.3 million views in just over a month.

The film makes a case against renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass, indicating that these technologies simply introduce new forms of environmental destruction. For instance, solar and wind farms require enormous amounts of land on which to operate, leading to the ruination of ecosystems. The intermittency of wind farms calls for massive gas plants to be constructed. Wind turbines need substantial amounts of materials such as concrete, steel and fiberglass, while the production of silicon for solar panels involves massive amounts of power from mined quartz and coal. Each climate change solution seems to create new problems, and the overall conclusion of the documentary is that humanity itself is destructive.

In this article, we take a closer look at the major claims made in the movie.

Do renewable technologies really take more energy to produce than they generate?

No. The claim that solar panels and wind turbines generate less energy in their lifetime than that taken to manufacture them has been disproved in several sources—if the lifetime considers energy used versus supplied from conception to end of useful life. The documentary implies that it has conducted a full cradle-to-grave analysis that also considers afterlife cost, i.e., the cost of tearing down, disposal, cleanup and recycling of green technology equipment and facilities. However, Planet of the Humans fails to supply any data to support its claims that renewable energy would not provide a net gain.

While it's true that considerable amounts of energy and materials are required to build solar panels and wind turbines—as illustrated in this policy brief by The Heartland Institute—the same can be said of coal-fired power stations, oil refineries and gas pipelines.

“Solar panels generate the energy required to build themselves in one to two years of operation, depending on the type of panel and location and their lifetime is about 20 years; large wind turbines in three to 12 months, depending on size of turbines and location, and their lifetime is 25 to 30 years,” says Associate Professor Mark Diesendorf, an energy systems and sustainability expert at the University of New South Wales.

This is backed up by research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on the degradation of solar panels over time. According to NREL's data, solar panels have a median degradation rate of 0.5% per year, signifying that a median panel still produces at 90% of its capability after 20 years. In fact, most solar panels these days come with warranties of at least 20 years—twice as long as the service life that Planet of the Humans states.

It appears that the film is examining the solar industry from 12 years ago, “an absolute eternity in solar development years” according to Australian energy writer Ketan Joshi. The Lansing solar array explored in the movie was actually installed as a pilot project back in 2008. Solar panels from back then were less durable and had an efficiency of 8% whereas more commercial panels now have efficiencies over 20%. The cost of solar panels has also fallen by 90% between 2010 and 2019.

Do solar and wind energy have as much of a carbon footprint as fossil fuels?

No. A deep body of research shows that wind, solar and nuclear power have much lower life-cycle emissions than natural gas and coal.

Emissions from solar and wind are not even close to those from fossil fuels. (Picture courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory.)
Emissions from solar and wind are not even close to those from fossil fuels. (Picture courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory.)

“For every [kilowatt-hour] of electricity that they generate, renewables are responsible for around 20 times less greenhouse gas emissions than coal and more than 10 times less than natural gas. These calculations account for all the lifecycle emissions including mining, construction, decommissioning, etc. for all the different types of energy,” states Zeke Hausfather, Director of Climate and Energy at the Breakthrough Institute.

The movie shows outdated footage when visiting a “solar dead zone” in Daggett, California. In reality, that same site has been replaced with upgraded solar panels which generate significantly more electricity, are cheaper, and have no site emissions. A 650-megawatt expansion is planned to be built over existing human-impacted land.

The movie features Richard York from the University of Oregon discussing how renewables barely displace existing fossil fuels. In present day, he points out that his quoted research paper is from 2012 with its most recent data point being from 2009—and that things have changed drastically in the last decade.

Are renewables able to replace fossil fuels?

Yes. Fossil fuel power plants are on the decline in Europe and the U.S., with more decommissioned than built in 2019. In South Australia, the expansion of solar and wind sources has led to the closure of all coal-fired power stations. New data from the International Renewable Energy Agency shows that solar, wind and other green technologies now supply more than one-third of the world’s power, and that almost 75% of new electricity generation capacity built in 2019 utilizes renewable energy.

The film uses Germany as an example of a country whose substantial investment in renewable energy has had little effect. However, Germany's 2019 energy charts paint a different picture of its success in developing renewable energy and maintaining a reliable grid.

Renewables generated 40% of German electricity in 2019. (Picture courtesy of Clean Energy Wire.)
Renewables generated 40% of German electricity in 2019. (Picture courtesy of Clean Energy Wire.)

But what about the need for fossil fuel backup?

Planet of the Humans fails to acknowledge that renewable energy scientists have spent the last decade addressing the intermittency of solar and wind power. While some systems have used gas turbines to bridge the gap, rechargeable battery technology and solar water heating options have also been explored. Renewable energy storage is quickly becoming a cleaner, cheaper and more widely used option.

One established energy storage solution is pumped hydro, which uses the force of moving water to drive turbines and generate electricity. The system takes excess water from dams and pumps it to a higher storage reservoir, where it has potential energy and becomes, in effect, a battery. Large-scale hydro-electric facilities typically utilize pumped storage systems whereas small-scale hydro-electric facilities use more run-of-river systems.

These methods have already proven to work. One example is New Zealand, which gets all its power from renewables backed up predominantly by hydro storage. Australia is another one, with the New South Wales government aiming to have 89% of its solar and wind power backed up by pumped hydro storage by 2040.

Well, electric vehicles have considerable emissions because they're recharged from coal-powered grids, right?

Not necessarily. The environmental benefits of electric vehicles (EVs) are increasing as their batteries become more efficient, and EVs already have lower emissions than new gas-powered cars across the U.S. While an EV's carbon footprint depends on whether its power comes from renewables or fossil, 2018 U.S. data shows that driving an EV produces significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than cars powered only by gasoline, regardless of the local power mix.

Average miles per gallon for EVs in the U.S., 2018. (Picture courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists.)
Average miles per gallon for EVs in the U.S., 2018. (Picture courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists.)

Charging up an EV is equivalent to 50 mpg for 75% of U.S. drivers, and the number is much higher in regions where clean power composes a significant portion of the power mix: 102 mpg in New England, 109 mpg in California and 191 mpg in New York State. Conversely, the average gas-powered car ran at only 24.7 mpg back in 2016.

Speaking of U.S.'s power mix, it has been improving over time anyway—thanks to accelerating coal plant closures and the decarbonization of America’s power sector (down 28% since 2007). This makes driving on electricity objectively cleaner than gasoline.

But Planet of the Humans again shows outdated footage from the launch of the Chevrolet Volt, which was rolled out 10 years ago and is very different from EVs today.

What's the deal with biomass and biofuels?

Biomass is classified under “green” energy because, from a greenhouse gas perspective, burning trees is still better than burning fossil fuels. While burning trees for energy moves carbon dioxide back into the biosphere, burning fossil fuels liberates carbon atoms that were removed from the Earth's active carbon cycle millions of years ago.

However, most environmental advocacy groups recognize the limitations of biomass as an energy source. Rainforest destruction results in loss of habitat and damage to water systems, and bioenergy fuels are known to produce significantly higher carbon emissions than fossil fuels. Ethanol biofuels from corn, soybean and sugarcane also require 400 to 750 times more land than petroleum.

While Planet of the Humans spends the majority of its time criticizing energy systems that use biomass, it doesn't mention the fact that biomass contributes to only 1.4% of U.S. energy. The film creates a false impression that bioenergy is expected to play an important role in future energy needs and oversimplifies the argument against renewable technologies by lumping biomass with wind and solar energy.

Conclusion

Planet of the Humans does correctly raise questions about rampant consumption in relation to the planet's dwindling ecosystems. However, the film ignores innovations that have been evolving over the past decade—such as, for instance, the practice of using agrophotovoltiacs to create solar farms that produce both food and electricity.

Planet of the Humans offers no real solutions apart from a commentary on the population growth problem. The documentary would have done well to touch upon alternative energy sources such as nuclear, which is known to require 16 times less material than solar panels—and create 300 times less waste.

References

1.     3 times Michael Moore's film Planet of the Humans gets the facts wrong (and 3 times it gets them right), Ian Lowe, The Conversation, May 6, 2020

2.     Inside Clean Energy: 6 Things Michael Moore's ‘Planet of the Humans’ Gets Wrong, Dan Gearino, Inside Climate News, April 30, 2020

Recommended For You