Michael Moore’s Mixed Message

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On Earth Day, April 22, Michael Moore released a video called Planet of the Humans. The video strongly criticises renewable energy and its advocates. But much of the narrative is inaccurate and ill-informed.

The video starts with a dig at electric cars—pointing out that if the electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, the car is essentially being powered by fossil fuels.  This is true: but it’s not a valid criticism of electric vehicles.  It’s an argument in favour of shutting down coal and generating electricity from renewables—which many countries are now doing.

Next we meet up at a music festival in Vermont where a few solar panels provide a meagre amount of electricity. The festival MC falsely claims that they are running 100 percent on solar energy–which of course is not true: there a diesel generator around the back providing most of the power. The solar panels are mostly for show. The video cheerfully exposes this foolish claim, and then runs with this theme for some time, scaling it up to megawatt scale systems and suggesting that, just like the music festival, solar energy is a deception on a global scale.

A visit by the video team to Dagget, California, where two concentrating solar power (CSP) plants were built nearly 40 years ‘proves’ the point: the plants have been demolished and nothing remains but an abandoned terrain. But these were experimental designs built to test the efficacy and viability of what was a new technology in the 1980s. They were never intended to operate for decades.

The Ivanpah concentrating solar plant generating power in 2017. It needs natural gas to meet its full ouput , but still emits much less carbon dioxide than a conventional power plant

There are now dozens of concentrating solar power plants operating successfully around the world. In the US, the Ivanpah plant in California’s Mojave Desert generates almost 400 megawatts (MW) of electricity at full power. The video team went out to take a look but didn’t like what they saw.  To clear the land for construction hundreds of Joshua Trees had to be destroyed. This is unfortunate but clearing and grading a large area of land for a new utility-scale power plant is a feature of the construction of all large power plants and is hardly limited to solar installations and wind turbines. Moreover, the Joshua Tree, beautiful as it is, is not classified as an endangered species (although some conservationists believe it should be).

It’s true that Ivanpah has not operated at its full design capacity and frequently burns natural gas to bring its generation up to  full power. But viewed as a hybrid system it has much lower carbon emissions than a conventional power plant burning fossil fuels. Once again, this is not a valid argument against solar energy. It’s a lesson to be learned when designing large concentrating solar power plants—which are still very much a developing technology.

What about wind?

Images of a line of broken-down wind turbines dripping with leaking gearbox oil is presumably intended to convey the message that wind power is incapable of making a serious contribution to global energy supply. This in spite of the fact that in many countries, wind energy is now the least cost option, generating cheaper electricity than any fossil fuel. The video team should have gone down to Texas where there is over 25,000 megawatts of installed wind turbine capacity, and wind eclipsed coal as the state’s leading energy source through the first six months of 2019.

Wind power in Texas generates substantial amounts of electricity

Wind turbines are big machines. Proposing to install several large turbines on a forested hilltop in Vermont is a pretty stupid idea–as the video notes. But it’s the proposal that’s idiotic—not the technology. In 2019, Denmark set a record by sourcing almost half of its power from wind energy. Europe leads the world in wind power, with 14 percent of power consumption across the European Union attributed to wind in 2018. This is the era of wind power. And the US and Canada have a huge resource base offshore.

We all know that solar and wind are intermittent, but the cost of large scale batteries is dropping rapidly and they are becoming much more cost-effective. The video completely ignores the developing technology of large-scale electricity storage. For instance, Florida Power and Light is now building the world’s largest solar-powered battery storage system. The Manatee Energy Storage Centre, a 409-MW/900-MWh battery storage facility, is slated to begin operations in late 2021. The batteries will be charged by an existing FPL solar power plant in Manatee County.

The video goes on gleeful tour documenting all the metals, minerals, and concrete it takes to build solar power plants and wind turbines. This is moronic. Think about the enormous amount of concrete and steel it takes to build a nuclear power plant, or the  massive amounts of materials it takes to mine coal, build the coal yards, dam the tailing ponds, and construct a coal-fired power plant. After all that investment and embodied carbon, the fossil fuel plants then emit greenhouse gases for the rest of their useful lives.

The biomass boondoggle

The Enviva Ahoskie wood pellet mill in North Carolina consumes over 400,000 tonnes of wood each year. The wood pellets are shipped to Europe to be used as fuel to generate electricity.

The Planet of the Humans  spends a lot of time slagging off biomass energy, and this is the one topic where there is a legitimate concern and where the video is accurate. The profiteering by the fossil fuel and logging industries that exploit the substantial subsidies and grants for supposedly carbon-neutral power generation fuelled by biomass is a global scandal. Recent studies have strongly contested the claim of carbon-neutrality, and the huge quantity of trees that must be cut in order to keep the power plants running is massively destructive and unsustainable. The only motive here is profit.

It is absurd to cut down the only viable natural carbon sink we have. Yes, trees  grow back, but only slowly, and studies show that the overall impact of this decimation of forests is a net emission of carbon.  Forests are the habitat for hundreds of thousands of animals. Clear-cutting huge areas of forests to fuel supposedly clean power plants is a depravity.   

The final message of the video is compelling, even though the initial narrative about solar and wind is flawed. Renewable energy alone cannot solve the climate crisis, and its most fervent advocates need to be much more realistic (and more accurate) about what renewables can and cannot do. No amount of renewable energy can change the fact that the planet is close to reaching its limits to growth. The limits to greed, however, are nowhere in sight.

An orangutan mounts a solitary protest in West Borneo

The most moving part of the video is at the end.  There are no words.  Just images of two forlorn orangutans climbing up a solitary leafless tree in a barren burned-out landscape. There are no other trees. One of the animals slowly climbs higher and the bough breaks—a poignant metaphor. A clear sign that the end is near for these amazing animals.  This is how the video should have started.

In 1758, the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus gave the Earth’s sole remaining primate the name Homo Sapiens, meaning the wise man of the genus Homo. The name no longer applies. In the new era of the Anthropocene, we have become Homo Damnosus: ruinous, injurious, and destructive.   

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There is a lot more information about the climate crisis and how to solve it in this new book: Climate Change and Renewable Energy: How to End the Climate Crisis. It is the first book that explains in detail how solar energy, wind power, and the other renewable sources of energy are the key to ending the climate crisis. You can check it out here : //www.palgrave.com/us/book/9783030154233

Also check out the video here: https://vimeo.com/ontario/martinbush

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Martin Bush

Martin Bush graduated from the University of Sheffield with a PhD in chemical engineering and fuel technology. He has spent the last 30 years leading natural resources management, renewable energy, and climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in Africa and the Caribbean. He lives in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He can be contacted at climatezone.central@gmail.com. He is the author of a new book: Climate change and renewable energy--How to end the climate crisis. Published by Palgrave-Macmillan in October 2019.

4 thoughts on “Michael Moore’s Mixed Message

  • 05/01/2020 at 9:06 pm
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    A few thoughts after watching the documentary.

    An important quote near the start of the doc is perhaps at the heart of the director’s message: “Is it possible for machines made by industrialisation to save us from industrialisaiton?” This, to me, is the core of the documentary. The narrative that certain technology can indeed save us from ourselves and our burning of fossil fuels seems to be the fundamental one pushed by many ‘environmentalists’: “We will save humanity by switching to renewable energy”.

    What this documentary seems to do–and has created such a stir and vehement reaction by those in its sights–is to expose the ugly side of the ‘renewable/clean/green’ energy movement. This, of course, is a side that the cheerleaders of the movement would rather remain hidden and it is why it is downplayed or ignored by many. The mantra is that alternates to fossil fuels are the preferred choice because we can keep our industrial civilization and just keep on keeping on because the shift will be clean. The reality, however, is very different and very disconcerting to those who push the dominant, green/clean narrative.

    The underlying message that seems to come through repeatedly through the doc is that it is simply delusional to believe that we can continue to power industrial civilization without much interruption at all by transitioning to solar/wind/biomass/etc. forms of energy production. And there is ample evidence to support this view; that we have so grossly overshot the natural carrying capacity of our planet that collapse is imminent; and that the renewable future envisioned by many is impossible without significant fossil fuel inputs in perpetuity.

    And questioning the money behind the various big groups that push the dominant narrative is important because following the money is always enlightening in a world dominated by money and narrative control. We are very often (if not always) manipulated in our sociocultural beliefs and it is through control of the narratives that we come to support movements or reject them. And who tends to control our narratives: big money. They control almost all media. They control almost all government. They control almost everything.

    As far as the criticism that this doc offers no ‘solution’ to the issues raised, I disagree. The path forward was painted quite clearly near the end in suggesting we need to stop chasing the infinite growth chalice on a finite planet and recognise that the best and possibly only way forward is actually backwards–scaling back our energy use and our consumption, not trying to find other ways to power our industrial lives and what is a dead end.

    If we can say anything about humans it is that we strive with all our might to reduce our cognitive dissonance and when our core beliefs are challenged we will go to all sorts of lengths to reduce the anxiety this creates, including dismissing the ugly side of our favoured narratives even if it is staring us right in the face. There is no such thing as clean or green energy and either we accept this and put our energies into degrowing our world in a managed way, or we experience the inevitable collapse that always accompanies overshoot.

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  • 04/27/2020 at 11:38 am
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    This is mostly nonsense. The examples distort the core facts. The video does little to advance positive action.

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  • 04/26/2020 at 8:07 pm
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    The film is so wildly inaccurate and full of misinformation that it was removed from the “films for action” web site and other reputable sites. It is a toxic mess, and is not actually a Michael Moore film either. Please refer to this review:
    [Link deleted]

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