Planet of the Humans
August 5, 2020
Michael Moore, the documentary film-maker is at it again. Viewers can count on him to create controversy. His films usually take aim at subjects that often involve a powerful player abusing a smaller player, such as “Where’s Roger”, a film about General Motors and its CEO. In that film the CEO appears to treat some employees of GM and the city of Flint, Michigan with heartless disdain. Or “Fahrenheit 9/11” which delves into the terrorist attack of 9/11. Or “Sicko” which purports to examine our heathcare system. Moore is the executive producer of a film critical of the “green movement”. As usual, the film has angered some people. But this time it’s the people who usually support him.
Moore’s current film looks into Environmentalism and Green Energy. Viewers are guided through the quasi religion of the green ideology, where they are shown how things truly are, not what mainstream media has suggested over the last few decades.
Our guide is Jeff Gibbs, a film-maker and composer who has worked with Moore on several of Moore’s best known productions.
The film makes the point that green energy cannot solve society’s energy problem. It looks into our expanding consumption of resources and concludes our consumption of oil, gas and coal is unsustainable. This isn’t news. Those resources are finite. But we’re nowhere near the point of depletion. However, the film argues that green energy sources, including wind power, solar energy, and biomass energy, are also not sustainable. Mainly due to the fact that the green alternatives exist only because they can be utilized with the help of conventional fossil fuels.
Thus, Moore and Gibbs seem to have headed off in a direction guaranteed to ignite a negative response from the world of environmentalists and green enthusiasts.
Gibbs begins by informing viewers that knowledge of environmental problems tied to fossil fuels has been recognized for six decades. Air pollution being his chief example. Then he and the movie focus on a river so polluted it caught on fire, followed by people tossing plastic bottles into the water. Plastic in the oceans is a problem.
Gibbs has long considered himself an environmentalist. In the past he wrote about environmental issues for Mother Earth News and other venues. Through his period of writing about green issues he wondered why the world relied to such a great extent on oil, gas and coal.
His curiosity caused him to look deeper into the green movement, which included a trip to a solar festival in Vermont, where the movie begins. The festival was billed as a 100-percent solar-powered event. However, during the festival it began to rain. Beneath the cloudy skies, the solar panels stopped working, and the festival organizers were forced to fire up the back-up diesel generators to keep power flowing to the performers, their musical equipment and to the stage lights. But even the back-up generators were insufficient. Eventually the festival operators had to plug into the utility company power grid that supplied electricity to the region.
He moved on to the election of Obama and his $100 billion funding for green energy. Obama’s spokesman, Van Jones, spoke of constructing thousands of wind farms and millions of solar panels. Big names were featured. Al Gore and Richard Branson, both expressing their belief that big profits would come from green energy. Robert Kennedy Jr. and Michael Bloomberg too. All expressing their faith in green energy ..if only enough of the taxpayers’ money were spent to produce it.
Then came Bill McKibben, one of the nation’s well-known environmentalists and author of several books focused on the environment. He formed an organization called 350.org with the mission of starting a global climate movement. In the movie McKibben is questioned about the source of funds for his organization. His fumbling response makes it crystal clear he does not want anyone to know who funds his work. But, it becomes evident during the movie that his backers are not the people one would expect. They appear to be those who will profit financially from the smoke-screen McKibben provides. Those beneficiaries include the current generation of Rockefellers who want to keep energy developers away from their land in places such as the Adirondacks and other parts of New York State. They do not care about the poverty the ban on energy development imposes on the residents of these areas.
The movie shifts to electric vehicles (EV) Gibbs points out that it takes a lot of fossil fuels to build an EV. Meanwhile, the electricity that charges the batteries in EVs is almost always produced by burning gas or coal. Thus, the net reduction of pollutants resulting from driving EVs is far below the implied levels.
There follows a discussion of the batteries. Bottom line, batteries remain the weak link. They are expensive, heavy and take a long time to recharge. Thus, even though every auto manufacturer sells EVs, consumers are buying very few.
A key question raised in the film is, “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?”
One typical wind turbine requires over 800 energy-intensive tons of steel, 2,300 tons of concrete, and 40 tons of non-recyclable plastic. Thus, a tower itself might weigh 800,000 pounds. The cell is 220,000 pounds, and the hub rotor assembly is another 160,000.
In turn, solar power also demands large quantities of cement, steel, and glass-and rare earth metals. Thus, in a world aimed at powering itself with green technology, demand for such metals of so-called renewable energy would rise 300 percent to 1,000 percent by 2050...just to meet the Paris goals set at the COP21 meeting.
The irony: the mining, transportation, refining and manufacturing of materials required for the green energy solution would be powered by fossil fuels.
Gibbs then observes ethanol plants. He sees their secret ingredient. Farmlands. He notes that the most productive farmland in the world isn’t that far west of the biggest coal mines in the world. Thus, if you bring the two together you can have an ethanol plant. As we see, ethanol is reliant on two things.
1. A giant, fossil fuel based, industrial agricultural system to produce corn, and
2. Fossil fuels, in the form of coal.
This combination is supposed to result in the replacement of fossil fuels with something else. Does this make any sense? It has been observed that using corn to produce ethanol converts a source of food for livestock into engery for transportation. Therefore, corn prices have risen as corn is now in demand in tow major applications. Thus, instead of reducing oil consumption, ethanol production has led to high food prices for supermarket shoppers and no reduction in oil consumption.
Gibbs says he developed the feeling that green energy was not going to save anything. He discussed his concern with Richard York, of the University of Oregon, who published a study in the Journal of Nature in which he posed a question, “Do non-fossil energy sources” actually replace fossil fuels?”
Dr York’s study showed how nations that add non-fossil energy sources do not see a reduction of fossil fuel consumption. Thus, after spending billions of dollars on green energy, it’s clear there is no replacement of fossil fuels.
Gibbs asks what stops us from running the world on 100% solar and wind? The answer is intermittency. The sun is everywhere, except when it’s not there. Such as at night and on cloudy days. And the wind does not always blow. Utility companies want to know the impact. When solar cells or wind turbines are connected to a grid, can the utility shut off a coal plant? That’s certainly the goal. The answer? No. They cannot. Because renewables suffer from their intermittent nature. A cloud cover could drastically decrease solar generation. And if there isn’t a source of energy to meet the demand for electicity at that moment, there will be power outages.
Thus, Gibbs realizes it’s not possible to turn off a fossil fuel power plant when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. A fossil fuel plant that is the main source of electricity to a region must, by design, operate at a relatively steady pace at all times. These are base-load plants.
But, power demands vary over the course of a 24-hour day. Thus, some balancing of supply with demand must occur. Most often the balancing is handled through the use of fast-acting gas-fired plants, operating in support of base-load plants. Base-load plants are fueled by either nuclear or coal and are on at all times.
The fast-acting gas plants respond to peak demand periods, such as mid-day when factories are running at top speed and offices are in need of maximum air conditioning. Their output can be dialed down during periods of low demand and dialed up when demand starts rising.
Gibbs wants to know about plant efficiency. Does it affect the efficiency to turn fossil fuel power plants on and off? Yes. Dialing output up and down wastes energy.
The problem of dialing output up and down is exaggerated when wind and solar are added to the mix of energy sources. Their unreliable, intermittent nature magnifies the swings that must be met by the fast-acting supplementary gas-fired plants.
Energy storage. If it were possible to store enough energy generated with intermittent sources such as solar and wind, it would be possible to make big reductions in our use of gas, coal and nuclear. In other words, if it were possible to store a lot of electricity, it would be possible to reduce our base-load system requirements. But there is no technology that can handle this huge task.
Gibbs asks about batteries. Would adding storage like batteries make a difference? Yes, if it were possible to manufacture batteries capable of handling this task at affordable prices. NASA can spend millions for a battery to power a probe landing on Mars. But that kind of spending is beyond the reach of mere mortals keeping the lights lit here on Earth. Thus, the dream of massive, cost-effective batteries is a long way off. Gibbs discovered less than one-tenth of one percent of the necessary battery storage exists today.
The film does include some outdated technical information. The critics of the movie focus on those small points while avoiding the elephant in the room. The critics challenge the film’s claim that EVs do little to reduce overall fossil fuel energy consumption. They challenge the claim that solar panels last only ten years.
Believers in green energy cite Germany as the leader in using alternative energy to produce electricity. In the film, it is stated that Germany produces only a small fraction of its overall power with renewables sources. The critics of the film correctly point out the relatively high percentage of electricity generated with renewable sources at certain times of the day. At certain times of the day, mostly around noon, a high percentage of Germany’s electricity is produced with renewable energy sources, primarily wind and solar.
But the film makes the more important point. In the big picture, when the energy consumption of the entire country is measured, renewables contribute only a tiny percentage of the energy needed to power Germany.
Bottom line, Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs make it painfully obvious that green energy is a long, long way from being up to the task its zealous believers wish for.
Chris Bischof is the Senior Writer and Editor of the Bakken Oil Business Journal lending his expertise from NYC. Previously he worked as a securities analyst and financial writer. Chris can be reached at [email protected]