by Mike Ewall, Executive Director, Energy Justice Network
[See related interview here.]
If I were to write a documentary exposing the dismal state of recycling in the U.S., I'd be right to point out how much is not being recycled, how polluting recycling can be, and how inadequate it is to try to solve the waste problem. I'd be right to call for more emphasis on reducing and reusing before recycling; however, I'd also be clear that the answer is not to stop recycling and just landfill everything, or worse, incinerate it, then landfill toxic ash.
Planet of the Humans trashes wind, solar, biomass, biofuels, hydrogen, electric cars, and energy storage as if they're all terrible, without offering solutions, and without distinguishing which are inherently bad, and which are generally good and can continue to be improved. It's basically a sales pitch for Ozzie Zehner's 2012 Green Illusions book (which you can find free online here).
There is a lot that Planet of the Humans gets right. And several things they get really wrong. Sadly, the film is now being used to hype up natural gas and nuclear power.
Let's be clear.
The film was right to...
- criticize biomass, biofuels, and hydrogen;
- show that wind and solar have some problems, too;
- expose conflicted and clueless environmental groups, and "green" political and business leaders; and
- point to the need to reduce consumption, including by limiting human population.
The film got it wrong about...
- intermittent renewables needing to be backed up by fossil fuels;
- energy storage needing to match generation;
- renewables not replacing fossil fuels;
- renewables using more fossil fuels than they replace;
- ethanol being largely coal-powered;
- implying that there's something wrong with claiming to be 100% renewable while being tied to the electric grid;
- ...and more.
The film missed a lot, too. Notably...
- omitting any mention of systemic solutions;
- some "renewable" sources that are more deserving of critique than wind and solar;
- that nuclear power is not a clean solution, either; and
- that there's a thriving grassroots environmental justice movement that is worth supporting.
Before diving into all the rights, wrongs, and missings, let's quickly point out a few things:
- There are three sectors of energy consumption: electricity, transportation, and heating. The film mostly focuses on electricity, and each sector is handled with a pretty different mix of fuels. See our page on U.S. energy sources for context.
- When discussing solutions, electricity needs should be met first by conservation, then efficiency, then solar, wind, and perhaps some ocean-based solutions once they're ready. A modest amount of energy storage will be needed to balance it all. The transportation and heating fuel sectors need to be solved with conservation and efficiency first and second as well. For transportation, the rest should be electrified as much as possible. Planes and boats will be a challenge, but all land-based transportation needs to run on electricity from wind and solar. For heating, solar thermal, heat pumps, and electrification should meet as much demand as possible. Industrial heating will be a challenge and should mainly be tackled by reducing demand for energy intensive products like paper and cement. No solid fuels should be burned in any case. In overconsuming nations like the U.S., we should be cutting energy and material use at least by half.
- There's a world of difference between energy sources that require fuel and those that do not. Wind, solar, and water power are genuinely renewable, even though they have impacts. Other energy sources -- nuclear, hydrogen, and anything that involves burning anything (fossil fuels, biomass and waste incineration, biofuels) -- require a constant stream of extraction, consumption, pollution, and waste. The machines for every type of power involve mining of materials and various pollution and health impacts. However, for genuine renewables, that damage largely stops once the machine is built, and there isn't ongoing pollution per kilowatt-hour. This is the main dividing line we use to distinguish clean from dirty energy sources.
WHAT THEY GOT RIGHT
Biomass, biofuels, and hydrogen are false solutions
Energy Justice Network was featured in the section on biomass, from an interview eight years ago with our former staff member, Josh Schlossberg. Jeff Gibbs was part of our national Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, which brought together hundreds of community activists to successfully stop several dozen proposed biomass incinerators between 2006 and 2015.
I first led a community effort to stop a biomass incinerator in my home county in 1997. It wasn't even called "biomass" then, but was a "power plant to burn clean wood chips." I did my homework, and started what became a 20+ year effort to expose the problems with all forms of biomass. The company at the time had made the mistake of bragging in my local newspaper about learning how to divide and conquer community opposition and how they overcame charges of environmental racism when building a trash incinerator in a black community near Chicago.
We not only stopped that company cold within a year, but followed their Vice-President as he joined a company to promote burning poultry litter (manure plus wood shavings used as bedding). We stopped that company and similar poultry waste incinerator proposals in about 10 U.S. states, and helped people take them out in several other countries on three other continents. That company is now totally shut down, too.
In our effort, we facilitated the building of a grassroots consensus to oppose biomass in all of its forms. We documented the problems with biomass and biofuels, and mapped out the industry.
Our segment in the film, on McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, VT, is still accurate eight years after being taped.
- They burn whole trees, as many other biomass incinerators do. That was evident in the pictures of the big piles of logged trees. We even mapped out two years of logging in Vermont to feed McNeil Generating Station and provide photos of some of the clearcuts. (We didn't have the data to map out the forests they also logged in New York).
- There's a great need to focus on energy conservation. Another no-brainer.
- McNeil is the largest air polluter in Vermont. According to the U.S. EPA's latest National Emissions Inventory (2017), out of 151 industrial air polluters in the state, McNeil is still the state's largest industrial source of global warming pollution. They are also Vermont's #1 industrial air pollution source for of each of these lovely chemicals: Acrolein, Ammonia, Anthracene, Antimony, Arsenic, Benzene, Benzo[a]Pyrene, Beryllium, Cadmium, Carbon Monoxide, Chlorine, Chlorobenzene, Chloroform, Chromium (VI), Cobalt, Ethyl Chloride, Ethylene Dichloride, Fluorene, Formaldehyde, Hydrochloric Acid, Manganese, Methyl Bromide, Methyl Chloride, Methyl Chloroform, Nickel, Nitrogen Oxides, Phenanthrene, Propylene Dichloride, Pyrene, Selenium, Styrene, and Vinyl Chloride.
- Biomass incinerator ash contains toxic heavy metals and radiation. Find the heavy metals documented in our factsheet on woody biomass incineration and this 1992 academic presentation on radioactivity in wood ash, citing data as early as the late 1950s. This is just normal wood having absorbed radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb testing and nuclear reactor use. Crazier plans to burn radioactive trees from around Chernobyl and Fukushima are even more alarming.
- McNeil burns 400,000 green tons/year of trees, and also burns natural gas. According to the Energy Information Administration's Form 923 database, between 2012 and 2019, McNeil burned an average of 412,711 tons of wood per year. In 2019, they also reported burning 12,401 million cubic feet of natural gas.
- You'd need 10 of these biomass incinerators to replace an average coal-fired power plant. This is about right: 8.3 of them would be needed today, based on 2019 data for McNeil vs. all operating coal power plants in the U.S. Far more would be needed if not for the fact that the average coal-fired power plant generation in 2019 is low because many coal power plants are barely running these days.
- It takes a great deal of fossil fuels to cut the trees and move chips around. Self-evident, given how much diesel trucking and other equipment is used in logging and transportation.
- Environmental groups have been promoting biomass for years. Very true, especially for groups like Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Resource Solutions, Nature Conservancy, and even Sierra Club. While some of these groups have turned around after the grassroots has opposed them on this for decades, they still have not turned around all the way, nor have they made up for the damage they've done. However, some are happy to take funding to now look like anti-biomass leaders, while those of us leading the work against biomass for decades do not see this funding.
- Biomass is not carbon neutral.
- McNeil emits over 400,000 tons of CO2/year. Still true. According to EPA's eGRID database, McNeil reported emitting 423,056 tons of CO2 in 2018. If you factor in their methane and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, they emitted 438,748 tons of CO2 equivalents in 2018.
- Trees grow back over decades to centuries. The famous 2010 Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences biomass study states that it takes about 45 years for newly-growing trees to suck up extra pulse of CO2 released by burning trees, to get down to the level of coal. That's not carbon neutrality, but simply equalizing with coal. It takes hundreds of years of undisturbed tree growth to approximate carbon neutrality, and it never quite gets there. See this documented in our piece on how biomass is not carbon neutral.
- If we cut every tree in the U.S., it could power the country for one year. This was in the Jan 2006 Harper's Index.
The following segment featuring Catherine Andrews in L'Anse, Michigan, is also accurate in our experience. Many "biomass" incinerators come into a community claiming to burn just "clean" wood (which isn't clean, anyway... see our woody biomass factsheet). However, since biomass is one of the most expensive ways to make electricity, these plants often turn from paying for a fuel to getting paid to take wastes. It's not unusual for biomass incinerators to turn to accepting construction and demolition wood waste, railroad ties, utility poles, tires, or plastics, all of which are more dangerous to burn than trees. The John H. Warden biomass incinerator in L'Anse, Michigan burned an average of 340 tons of tires per month in 2018. Burning tires is more toxic than burning coal.
Andrews was also correct to point out that millions in Obama's "stimulus" law went to subsidize biomass incinerators. In addition to the $11.7 million to this L'Anse burner in Michigan, another $18.5 million went to a failed biomass incinerator in Colorado, $39 million went to a biomass burner in Reading, Pennsylvania (the poorest city in the U.S. in recent years, and mostly Latino), and nearly $117 million went to a noisy failed biomass plant in Gainesville, Florida, the largest in the nation and a sister project to McNeil in Burlington, Vermont. Over $856 million flowed from the Stimulus to this dirty industry.
Biofuels are also no good. Much can and has been written on the problems with ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, waste-based fuels, biodiesel, and algae-based biofuels. Ditto for hydrogen. See these links to articles of ours for a start.
Wind and solar have some problems, too (but also hold promise)
The film is correct to point out that wind and solar aren't angelic energy sources with no impacts. However, they exaggerate aspects of it or use outdated info, as other critiques have rightfully pointed out.
Surprisingly, they didn't point out some of the things we would have thought to mention. With wind, while bird kills aren't much of an issue, bat kills have been a problem the industry has struggled with, as bats seem to be attracted to the turbines.
The rare earth metal, neodymium, is mainly mined in China with terrible health and environmental consequences. Typically, two tons of neodymium are used in the magnets of each wind turbine. Thankfully, it's possible to build large-scale wind turbines without neodymium. This and other rare earth metals -- and their human rights and environmental consequences -- are a problem for wind, batteries, and other electronics. Industry has been exploring ways to reduce and eliminate these materials. The film could have pointed out that one way to improve the situation is for the environmental movement to start demanding wind turbines free of neodymium and other rare earth metals.
There's also the issue with the wind turbine blades being made from fiberglass that cannot be recycled, and is piling up in landfills.
Solar has a well-deserved reputation for toxic materials as well. It's fair to discuss this, but it would have been more helpful to be honest about how these toxic impacts pale in comparison to fossil fuels. It also would have been nice if the film talked about which types are least toxic and what breakthroughs are being made toward non-toxic types of solar. I would have plugged the Solar Scorecard by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition so that viewers can make informed decisions on the best solar to support.
If updated more recently, they could have pointed to newer research into plant-based solar cells, which uses small amounts of the rare earth metal, molybdenum, and uses nanotechnology to combine them with blue-green algae. Nanotechnology is likely to provide many breakthroughs in solar (like solar paint) and all sorts of things, but also carries major dangers and new health risks that some are calling the "new asbestos" -- which is surely an understatement.
If I were making the film, and providing some much-needed balance, I'd also point out the Drake Landing Solar Community in Okotoks, Alberta, Canada. This community, which saw weather as low as -26°F in January, meets 90% of their winter heating needs with solar energy from the previous summer -- stored underground in heated water. If they can heat their cold winters this way, few have an excuse to have to burn anything for space heating.
Mainstream environmental groups can be conflicted and clueless... as can "green" political and business leaders
Sadly, the critiques of mainstream environmental groups ("Big Greens") are well deserved. Much of what was exposed in the film was mere cluelessness (on issues like biomass). Some touched on corporate funding of organizations, like when Sierra Club was taking tens of millions of dollars from the fracked gas industry to fight the coal industry... then later swore off that and apologized, but started taking even more from Bloomberg with much the same effect. They and other groups touted conversion of coal power plants to natural gas or biomass as environmental victories, even while the impacted communities were left damaged and sold out.
There are plenty of mainstream environmental groups who have supported dirty energy technologies, including biomass and waste incineration, biofuels, landfill gas-to-energy, nuclear power, natural gas, coal gasification (so-called "clean coal"), hydrogen, hydroelectric dams, open-loop geothermal, waste-to-fuels schemes, and other false solutions... or the array of policies that prop them up. Many still do. It's not acceptable for well-resourced environmental groups to vocally support any of these dirty technologies or policies that better-informed grassroots activists have been fighting for years, then see the light, adopt a new policy, and pretend it's all okay. There's concrete harm that Big Greens have caused to communities through this advocacy. It's not enough to write a few anti-biomass articles and pretend that you don't owe it to communities to now close down the biomass burners you promoted. It's also not acceptable to water down the strong grassroots-led critiques of a dirty energy source like biomass, pretend that some types are still acceptable, repackage it as if your group has been on the right side all along, then suck up all the funding that foundations are now willing to give to the issue when they were never willing to fund the grassroots to lead this work in the first place. Reparations are due, and environmental justice Principles of Working Together and the Principles of Alliances with Green Groups must be followed.
Not all environmental groups are coming from the same place. Some are outright run by corporate polluters. Some are simply partnered with and funded by corporate polluters. Many more are funded by foundations with corporate-friendly ("market-based") agendas, and others are funded by foundations that more subtly shift the focus and activities of their grantees. There's also a large world of unfunded, or less-funded grassroots environmental justice groups and their support networks who don't tend to have these compromises. See this chart of environmental group types for a guide, as there's a spectrum from the Exxon's to the Earth First!s of the world, with many shades in-between.
Yes, some groups can do plenty of good things while also being guilty of taking money that compromises them, causing them to sell out communities impacted by technologies and policies they promote. This happens ALL the time. There's a constant tension between grassroots environmental justice groups and mainstream environmental organizations, and there's no end in sight. The compromised mainstream groups serve a purpose, and when corporate interests lack in groups that serve their purpose, they've created and lavishly funded new environmental groups to meet their needs.
Much more can be said on this. Whole books can be written on it. Many have been. And many of us who know too much would lose funding if we wrote the books that need to be written. Here are some of the websites and books out there on this topic:
- The Environmental Movement's Struggles with Race Issues
- Sourcewatch on Big Green
- Wrong Kind of Green
- Andrea Smith, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007; republished Duke University Press, 2017)
- Carl Deal, Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations (Odonian Press, 1993)
- Elaine Dewar, Cloak of Green: The Links between Key Environmental Groups, Government and Big Business (Lorimer, 1995)
- Bram Buscher, Wolfram Dressler, and Robert Fletcher, Nature Inc.: Environmental Conservation in the Neoliberal Age (University of Arizona Press, 2014)
- John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You!: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Common Courage Press, 1995) (Chapter on sewage sludge free online)
- Peter Dauvergne, Genevieve LeBaron, Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism (Wiley Press, 2014) (Part is online in Google Books)
- Brian Tokar, Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash (South End Press, 1997).
- Christine C. MacDonald, Green Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad (Lyons Press, 2008) (review)
- Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1995).
- Robert Brulle, Agency, Democracy, and Nature: The US Environmental Movement from a Critical Theory Perspective (MIT Press, 2000).
- Daniel Faber and Deborah McCarthy (eds.), Foundations for Social Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005).
The need to reduce population and consumption
We cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
If everyone in the world consumed as we do in the United States, we'd need at least three more Earths to meet our resource consumption. It's self-evident that we cannot continue to pillage the world's resources and expect to survive long as a species. If global warming doesn't completely do us in, resource depletion will draw down our numbers as we've already used up the cheap and easily obtained half or more of the world's oil, gas, coal, uranium, and other resources, and the rest is in shorter supply, harder and more destructive to reach, and so costly to obtain that most will stay in the ground. Green solutions will only carry us so far, so fast. We must reduce consumption massively.
The "population problem" is actually a consumption problem. Put simply, the equation is "population times consumption." An average person in the U.S. consumes as much energy as two people in Japan, five in the UK, or 71 in Bangladesh, so pointing any fingers at Bangladeshis would just be racist nonsense. It's fair to criticize any white folks for stupidly pretending that the population problem is about brown-skinned people in other countries not having as many kids. The film doesn't quite do that. However, it could be more pointed in connecting the population issue they raise to consumption, and the need to reduce both population AND consumption in a just and equitable way, which means focusing on limiting the population and consumption levels of the wealthy high-consuming sectors.
"Population control" movements have a sketchy and racist history that includes forced sterilization of women of color. This has gone on as recently as 2013 in Californian prisons.
This history doesn't mean that we shouldn't have sincere conversations about how to limit our numbers AND our consumption levels humanely. We either get our species-wide act together on this in a fair and humane way, or nature will curb our numbers in much less graceful ways. The COVID-19 pandemic is just a hint of bigger things to come.
WHAT THEY GOT WRONG
Intermittent renewables do not need to be backed up by fossil fuels
What about when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining?? OMG!!
Calm down. No one is building new fossil fuel plants to back up wind and solar. This myth has been busted repeatedly for years, but is still being peddled, even by self-proclaimed "environmentalists" who are pro-nuclear and anti-wind and testify to legislators trying to get renewable energy subsidies to go to nuclear power. I'm... so... tired... of... this.
A 2012 study from the University of Delaware has determined that wind, solar and energy storage could economically fully power a utility scale electric grid with 99.9% reliability by 2030, cheaply and without government subsidies, if the proper mix is implemented.
As it turns out, solar is available at the time of day when we need it most! And wind on the grid is always blowing somewhere. Combine wind and solar and a modest bit of storage capacity, and a grid does not need "baseload" combustion energy. It especially doesn't need baseload like nuclear power that cannot readily turn on or off. In fact, nuclear power is an obstacle to renewables because it cannot be flexible. See this article debunking the "baseload power" argument. More in example one, here.
Energy storage does not need to match generation
In Australia, as Ketan Joshi's critique of this film points out, they've found that when wind and solar make up 68% of their electricity mix, they only need storage capacity for 1.4%. The University of Delaware study also found that modest amounts of storage are needed. The pie chart in the film implying that the world needs storage comparable to total energy use was very misleading.
There are many energy storage methods. There are batteries of various sorts, hydrogen (electrolyzing water when you have extra wind and solar), compressed air, flywheels, hydroelectric (letting water down when needed, which is much better than spending energy to pump water uphill first), thermal storage (molten salt, water, etc.), and more. One that might turn out to be the cheapest and most environmentally-friendly is to cryogenically liquefy air, store it, then release it as needed to turn turbines.
Renewables ARE replacing fossil fuels
"Ozzie Zehner said it was an illusion that renewables were replacing coal, or any fossil fuel." -Jeff Gibbs, narrating
"Evidence from contemporary trends in energy production likewise suggest that as renewable energy sources compose a larger share of overall energy production, they are not replacing fossil fuels but are rather expanding the overall amount of energy that is produced." - Planet of the Humans Fact Check page, defending Richard York's statements in the film based on his published research.
Zehner and York would have an argument if adding renewables caused people to just use more energy, or if it were true that renewables need additional fossil fuels as backup. Both are false... at least in the U.S.
From 2000 through 2019, U.S. population grew 17% as electricity consumption fell 2.6%, reflecting energy conservation and efficiency, which should always be higher priorities than any type of generation. Total energy consumption (electricity, transportation and heating) increased 1.6% in that time (because energy use in transportation and the commercial and industrial heating sectors increased), but 99.9% of wind and 62% of solar is serving the electricity sector, where energy demand is falling. So, more wind and solar does not mean more energy use.
The growth of wind and solar since 2000 came while coal, and fossil fuel use in general, fell.
In the U.S., coal use has declined dramatically, replaced more by fracked gas than renewables. The 26% drop in coal use for electricity was matched by gas, wind, and solar increasing by 27%. By total energy consumption, the 11.6% drop in coal use was matched by gas, wind, and solar increasing 11.6%. See our page on U.S. Energy Sources for more details.
There's nothing clean about gas, biomass/biofuels, or nuclear, and we're not celebrating the fact that they were part of the replacement of coal and oil since 2000. However, nuclear power is about to fall as more reactors close and no new ones manage to be built. Biomass and biofuels are increasing mostly due to industrial heating uses, and ethanol in transportation, but it's a testament to our grassroots anti-biomass work that most of the push for dozens of new biomass incinerators has been blocked (and Jeff Gibbs deserves credit for being part of that). The best news is that the shale bubble is bursting, and that the growth of fracked gas to replace coal is poised to be overtaken by wind and solar, which are rapidly becoming the cheapest options.
|Share of U.S. Electricity Consumption by Fuel|
|Share of U.S. Energy Consumption by Fuel (Electricity, transportation and heating sectors combined)|
& Waste Incineration
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Energy Consumption by Sector (Tables 2.1a through 2.1f)
Wind and solar do not use more fossil fuel than they replace
"You use more fossil fuels to do this than you're getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place, instead of playing pretend." -Ozzie Zehner
This is just wrong. See National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Life Cycle Assessment Harmonization. Or spend a few seconds in Google and these are easy to find:
- "Energy pay-back times drop from around 5 years in 1992 to around just under 1 year for poly-Si and just over 1 year for mono-Si PV systems currently." (Re-assessment of net energy production and greenhouse gas emissions avoidance after 40 years of photovoltaics development, Nature, 2016)
- "The resulting [energy payback time] values for the modules only are 1.09 and 0.93 years for monocrystalline and multicrystalline silicon, respectively, both under southern European conditions." (Update of energy payback time and greenhouse gas emission data for crystalline silicon photovoltaic modules, Progress in Photovoltaics, 2015)
- "All [solar photovoltaic] technologies generate far less life-cycle air emissions per GWh than conventional fossil-fuel-based electricity generation technologies" and that "at least 89% of air emissions associated with electricity generation could be prevented if electricity from photovoltaics displaces electricity from the grid." (Emissions from Photovoltaic Life Cycles, Environmental Science & Technology, 2008)
- "A wind turbine with a working life of 20 years will offer a net benefit within five to eight months of being brought online." (Wind turbine payback: Environmental lifecycle assessment of 2-megawatt wind turbines, Science Daily, 2014)
- "The carbon payback times for wind turbines are much shorter than previously thought, according to international research carried out at the largest community wind farm in the UK. German student, Katharina Lutz, found the turbines at Beinn Ghrideag had a payback time of just 47 days – a drastic reduction on the previous, widely accepted, estimate of 2.3 years." (Wind-turbine carbon payback times shorter than expected, finds new study, Windpower Engineering & Development, 2019)
Now, if you want to make this argument, at least do it regarding corn-based ethanol or other biofuels, where you might have a case. The net energy for corn-based ethanol is close enough to 1:1 that there was major academic debate when the mad ethanol building binge hit around 2005 over whether ethanol uses more fossil fuel energy than it displaces. See Wikipedia's page on ethanol fuel energy balance, and the studies we have archived at Energy Justice on net energy of biofuels.
Ethanol is not largely coal-powered
"Ethanol plants also seem to have a secret ingredient... ethanol is reliant on two things: a giant fossil fuel based industrial agricultural system to produce corn, and even more fossil fuels in the form of coal." -Jeff Gibbs, narrating
There was a point about 15 years ago where it was predicted that all new ethanol biorefineries would be powered by coal. That didn't really pan out. While we're not aware of any public database on the industry's heating fuel sources, it's our understanding that the industry continues to be mainly powered by burning natural gas, not coal. We did help a community in Pennsylvania fight off a plan for a biorefinery that would have burned waste coal, though. Waste coal makes normal coal look clean, so it's a relief to have seen that one stopped.
This was the understanding in 2006, when it could still be said that coal was cheap and gas was expensive:
While only four of roughly 100 ethanol plants currently operating in the U.S. are powered by coal (practically all of the rest are fueled by natural gas), some 190 more are under construction or soon to be built. One energy analyst, Robert McIlvaine, president of the Illinois-based research group McIlvaine Company, predicts that "100 percent" of new ethanol plants built in the U.S. over the next few years will be coal-fired, "largely because of the exorbitant cost of natural gas right now, and the comparatively predictable future supply of homegrown coal." - A new reliance on coal could sap green cred from the ethanol industry, (Grist Magazine, 2006); also Carbon cloud over a green fuel (Christian Science Monitor, 2006)
Don't get me wrong: ethanol is an awful idea, whether powered by gas, coal, or fairy dust. But it's not correct to say that ethanol biorefineries are largely powered by coal. They're largely powered by a fossil fueled industrial agriculture sector with lots of nitrogen fertilizer made with natural gas... AND more (largely fracked) gas to power the biorefineries.
There's nothing wrong with claiming to be 100% renewable while being tied to the electric grid
Please. There are valid reasons to beat up Apple, but the film's bashing of Apple and Tesla was cringe-worthy. The film attacks them for being connected to the electrical grid, as if that negates the claim that they're operating on 100% renewable energy.
News flash: it's actually BETTER to be tied to the grid if you want to avoid having to have on-site batteries, which could be criticized for the materials in them. Just like any homeowner with solar on their roof, it's possible to generate more than you use, and it's a good thing if you sell excess clean energy back to the grid. Yes, you'd sometimes be pulling energy from the grid when you don't produce as much as you need, but that doesn't change the fact that you're producing more clean energy than you're using.
The electrical grid is like a big pool, where buckets of clean and dirty energy get put in, and users pull buckets of energy out as needed. What matters is not whether your exact electrons flowed from a solar panel to your use, but whether you financially support generating at least as much clean energy compared to your energy use.
This isn't all they screwed up. Sadly, there's more. Here are links to some of the better critiques out there:
- 6 Reasons Why “Planet of the Humans” is a Disaster of Misinformation
- Planet of the humans: A reheated mess of lazy, old myths
- This is where hard work got us (another post about the bad film)
- Skepticism Is Healthy, but Planet of the Humans Is Toxic
- Terence Corcoran: The hottest doc of the year kills green energy
- Five reasons why Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans is a bad mistake
WHAT THEY MISSED...
The film offers little other than despair, sticking with fossil fuels, and either killing yourself or just not having kids. While I'll endorse vasectomies, especially for privileged white men, the film could offer so much more. How about talking about policies to support...
- family planning, abortion rights, and educating women?
- laws to support deep cuts in energy consumption through conservation and efficiency measures?
- laws to mandate a shift to wind, solar, and energy storage by 2030?
- public power?
- democratically-run, local, community ownership of power systems?
- fare-free, publicly-funded, expanded mass transit to get people out of their cars?
- a transition to Zero Waste systems, from banning single-use and toxic plastics to ending waste incineration, and the myriad of public policies that'll transform our wasteful material economy into a circular one with many jobs in redesigning products, reuse, recycling, and composting?
- a transition to plant-based, regenerative, organic, local agriculture, ending food deserts, and making affordable healthy foods available to all?
- redesigning the economy so that it measures and rewards actual human progress and not just what is good for the top 1%? ...and ending the economic growth model that drives overconsumption, replacing it with a steady-state economy?
- democratizing our governments so that they can actually represent the people?
- breaking up corporate media so that we don't have 4-5 corporations dominating all that we see and hear?
And yes, seriously, having fewer (or no) kids is the single most effective thing you can do to reduce your impact on the world.
[Click on the graphic above for the study behind it.]
However, individual action is not enough. We need systemic changes, and need to recognize that there are pervasive propaganda systems designed to keep you focused on individual actions instead of fighting for institutional change. Click on Smokey and learn more about it. You'll be glad you did.
Don't be the hippie type who stops at making yourself the best you can be. Do all you can, but learn it in the course of joining with others to organize for systemic change. The world cannot afford to wait until you're perfect before you start changing the system.
Some "renewable" sources are more deserving of critique than wind and solar
The film didn't really cover geothermal or hydroelectric.
In short, geothermal has been rather damaging in many places when it's used for electricity production. This is only an option in areas like the western U.S. states where magma is closer to the surface of the earth. It's an "open-loop" kind where resources are actually extracted from the ground, bringing up pollutants, and depleting the resource often enough that ongoing drilling is required. The closed-loop kind that is used to pre-heat and pre-cool buildings is an energy efficiency measure that can be done anywhere. That is the better kind where a liquid is circulated below ground where the temperature is steady. This is also known as a ground-source heat pump and is a more efficient (and more expensive) version of an air-source heat pump that can also heat and cool buildings, like a reversible air conditioner. We support heat pumps, including closed-loop geothermal, but not the open-loop kind for electric generation.
Hydroelectric dams block entire river bodies and are quite destructive. When flooding the land above the dam, greenhouse gases form from rotting vegetation, and mercury can accumulate in fish once microbes convert mercury in soils to fat-soluble methylmercury. Indigenous lands are often flooded by dams, and river ecologies are harmed. New dams should be opposed. Existing dams should eventually be removed, but if there's no movement toward that, at least make sure they're being used to make power while they're around. They can be an energy storage strategy if water is let down when needed, though river ecologies will still be harmed. Pumped storage (spending energy to pump water uphill to release it later) is one of the most wasteful ways to store energy and is not recommended. Ocean-based hydro technologies, or the kinds that work just on the side of a river are more reasonable ways to use water power without causing as much damage.
Nuclear power is not a clean solution
Nuclear power cannot exist without uranium mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, the reactors themselves, and nuclear waste dumps. Every step in this process -- plus tangents like depleted uranium use in war, enriched uranium used in nuclear bombs, and reprocessing used to "recycle" nuclear fuel -- devastates a different set of communities with radioactive and toxic pollution. Fossil fuels and massive government subsidies make it all possible.
There are many reasons to prioritize closing aging and dangerous nuclear reactors. Even if you can disregard all of them by rationalizing them as a hedge against fossil fuels, you can't deny the fact that throwing billions of dollars at each one is money that could more quickly be transitioning us to conservation, efficiency, solar, wind, and energy storage. Subsidizing aging nuclear reactors means a SLOWER shift away from both nuclear and fossil fuels.
Nuclear power is far too expensive, centralized, and dangerous to be considering. Here's a recap of some of the reasons we don't support nuclear power (new or existing):
- it's totally unnecessary (conservation, efficiency, wind, solar and energy storage can meet all of our electricity needs)
- it takes about a decade to license and build a new nuclear reactor... not a good time frame for trying to tackle global warming.
- it's the most expensive and subsidized form of power there is, sucking up the money needed to do any real transition to clean energy. It's impossible to do nuclear power without billions in public subsidies. Wall Street won't touch it. None have ever been built without massive government subsidies, and even with them, the industry is collapsing under its own financial weight.
- it's the most dangerous form of power. It's the only one where a single plant can make entire areas of the earth uninhabitable. With fossil fuels, it takes an entire fleet many decades to cause global warming. With nuclear power, it takes hours for one plant to contaminate an entire region (and later, the world).
- it's notorious for accidents, not to mention terrorism risks.
- normal operation of nuclear power releases radioactive pollution that contaminates reactor communities and food supplies that travel throughout the country/world.
- there's no solution for the waste, which lasts effectively forever. All waste dumps in the U.S. have leaked. Fuel pools full of highly irradiated fuel rods are unsafely overpacked.
- it's incredibly centralized and controlled by giant corporations that corrupt our government.
- it sucks up massive amounts of water (and sea turtles and fish...)
- it's not even a solution to global warming, as uranium enrichment is so energy intensive that it takes the output from entire coal plants to power it, not to mention all of the fossil fuels used in mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, the reactor itself, waste management, and transportation between all of these steps. The enrichment process alone releases a large portion of the potent global warming-causing and ozone-depleting CFC-114 in the U.S. (which is banned in most other uses).
- it lays waste to more land than coal mining does.
- it's intimately linked to nuclear weapons through the enrichment process. Countries with "peaceful" nuclear programs have the same equipment needed to make nuclear bombs. Nuclear material being around also makes terrorist dirty bombs easy to get.
- it's one of the most racist of energy industries, in terms of communities impacted by uranium mining, nuclear waste disposal, depleted uranium use, and uranium enrichment, especially regarding Indigenous peoples.
- there isn't enough uranium to scale up nuclear power. Thorium isn't a feasible alternative. Fusion isn't, either.
- existing reactors are aging and falling apart, becoming increasingly risky to operate, and need to be closed immediately. They're operating well past their intended lifetimes and are becoming far too dangerous to keep operating until fossil fuels are replaced.
- they can't take the heat and sometimes have to shut down in the hottest summer days when their power is needed for air conditioning demand
- they can't readily turn on or off, so their baseload nature makes them incompatible with deploying a grid primarily on intermittent renewables
And for you thorium fanatics... thorium is still super expensive, would take too many years to develop, still has dangerous radioactive pollution issues, is still centralized, contributes to nuclear weapons proliferation, and just isn't needed. Here's some reading for you:
- Ten Myths About Thorium As A Nuclear Energy Solution
- Thorium and Molten Salt Reactors
- Beyond Nuclear debates "thorium power" proponent at Sierra Club meeting
- Thorium Fuel: No Panacea for Nuclear Power
- Science Friday: Is Thorium a Magic Bullet for Our Energy Problems?
- "New" Nuclear Reactors: Same Old Story
- Thorium Reactors: Their Backers Overstate the Benefits
- Thinking About Thorium
- Thorium Reactors: Back to the Dream Factory
Read up more about nuclear power, and support these groups:
- Nuclear Information and Resource Service
- Beyond Nuclear
- Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
- Nuclear Energy Information Service
- Diné No Nukes
- Nuclear Watch South
- Citizens Awareness Network
- Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League
There's a thriving grassroots environmental justice movement that is worth supporting
You wouldn't know it from the film's focus on white men and academics, or on their choice of which environmentalists to expose, but there's a thriving environmental justice movement worthy of support. There are many grassroots groups leading the battles against biomass and waste incinerators, fossil fuel infrastructure, and other dirty energy projects in their communities. Most of these groups are all-volunteer, and are transient, forming as needed to fight certain projects and often dissolving once the battle is over.
Collectively, grassroots groups accomplish far more than mainstream environmental groups do by lobbying for state and federal policies. Don't be fooled by the "Not in My Backyard" (NIMBY) myth. While there's nothing wrong with wanting to protect your own backyard, most grassroots groups get connected with each other and help each other see the bigger picture, and fight for "Not in ANYone's Backyard" (NIABY) when faced with polluting and unnecessary technologies. While mainstream environmental groups spent huge sums advertising for your donations and lobbying to pass bills that largely cannot get passed in corporate controlled legislatures, grassroots groups are reshaping entire industries one community at a time. They're not just pushing polluters from one community to a weaker one. We're savvy about that, and usually follow a company to the next community and stop them again until they give up. In the waves of dirty energy and waste facility development in the past few decades, between 50% and 99%+ of each wave of development gets crushed one community at a time. This means hundreds of planned coal plants, gas-fired power plants, biomass and waste incinerators, pipelines, liquefied natural gas terminals, landfills, and other noxious facilities are blocked from being built anywhere. No legislative effort comes close to the impact of a well-networked grassroots environmental justice movement.
Energy Justice Network serves and supports many of these groups and can help connect you with any local community groups we know in your area. We can also help you figure out what existing or proposed threats need attention in your community. We're part of other environmental justice networks as well, and can steer you to the right people depending on where you are and what you're interested in doing to make your community a better place. You can join and support us, and contact us for help.