Planet of the Humans is tearing through the climate activism community, spreading confusion, doubt, and even anger amongst many of the people who are interested in doing something about the climate crisis. Unfortunately, the movie is pedalling long debunked tropes about solar and renewable energy, and doesn’t add anything new to discussion of climate action at all.
The main thesis of the movie is that all climate action has been taken over by the banks and that all climate action is as destructive or more destructive than just burning fossil fuels. This is done through a strong focus on the worst form of biomass energy and sustained by using old footage from 2012 interviewing several people who don’t seem to understand how solar energy works.
There are some good points about companies pretending they’re doing something useful for the environment, but that’s called Greenwashing and climate activists spend a lot of time and energy fighting that too.
Let’s dive into some of this to help unravel the facts from the misinformation that you’re probably wondering about after seeing this movie.
Myth: Solar Power Is Inefficient
The movie repeatedly claims that solar is not powerful enough to be taken seriously.
You use more fossil fuels to do this than you’re getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning the fossil fuels.
The time it takes for a solar panel to pay back the energy used to build it is well under four years. Since it lasts three decades, it means 90 percent of the power it produces is pollution-free, compared with zero percent of the power from burning fossil fuels. – Bill McKibben
Although the film was released in 2020, the solar industry it examines, whether through incompetence or venality, is from somewhere back in 2009. – Source: PV Magazine
This quote is talking about the part where the movie interviews some chap talking about solar panels being 8% efficient. He claims the “football field-sized” solar park they’re standing in only generates 63,000 kWh, which can “only power 10 homes a year” because they could not afford the ”NASA solar panels” which cost “$1 million dollars a square inch.” He also says they only last 10 years. There’s a lot wrong with this, so let’s unpack it all.
Standard solar panels for industrial or home usage are 15-20% efficient, not 8%. Some high end panels are 30% and researchers have created experimental 40% panels, but 20% is probably what you’re looking at when you see the standard blueish solar panels on racks.
|Sunpower X Series||SPR-X22-370||22.80%|
|REC Solar||REC Alpha Series 380AA||21.70%|
|LG Solar||High NeON R Module||21.70%|
|Panasonic HIT panels||N340 HIT||20.30%|
Do these ~20% panels cost $1milion a square inch? Absolutely not, that’s ridiculous. In the United States in 2019, the average rooftop installation cost $16,000 without any subsidies involved.
Ok but rooftop setups are dinky right? Well, a reasonable home roof setup in the States might be able to generate 6,000 watts (6kW) of electricity. For every one hour a 1kW solar panel has good sun, it’s generating 1 “kilowatt hour”, (1kWh).
Most of the States get between 3.5 and 6 hours of peak sun a day, so our average rooftop solar panel will be generating that full 6kW for, lets say, 5 hours.
Five hours a day, 365 days a year, would produce 1825 kWh. This is a low number, because they’ll still generate a bit outside those 5 hours, so let’s just round it to 2000. Let’s see how many homes it would take to match 63,000kWh that football field sized farm is trying to power? 63,000 kWh divided by 2000 kWh equals 32.
So back to price, 32 homes * $16,000 (average cost of a rooftop solar setup) and we’re looking at $512,000. Half a million to match the entire output of that “football solar park”, not the nonsense $1million per inch.
That town could have paid to install a few residents rooftop solar panels without needing to take up the space of a football field either.
There’s another important thing to point out if you’ve not seen the movie. For some reason the solar panels featured are old, floppy, “thin-film” panels also known as “Amorphous Silicon Solar Panels”. Their bendy nature makes them well suited for applications on curved surfaces, like the top of a train, or other places where a bulky panel wouldn’t fit. They’re a terrible choice for being put on racks like the solar park featured in this movie, but even those panels have an efficiency of 11-15% these days.
Finally, do solar panels only last 10 years?
Standard solar panels come with 20-25 year warranties, so if this solar park only has a 10 year lifespan that adds more credence to the idea these panels were second hand.
There’s a few explanations for this section.
The footage is a decade or two old
The solar park operators cheaped out, dusting off some junk old panels from some warehouse basement
They consulted somebody to set the solar park up, who didn’t know anything about solar panels
Whatever the cause, the numbers do not hold up to 2020 standards by any means, which is awkward as this premise is used as a foundation for most of the rest of the movie.
Confusion: "100% Renewable" and "Off-Grid"
Another claim made throughout the film is that solar doesn’t work because it needs a grid connection for backup. Grid-tied solar is the most cost effective way to run solar panels because it’s using the entire grid like a giant battery. You put what solar into it that you can, put back any extra you have, and take out more if you need it.
Take Apple as an example. All of their independent buildings around the world will not always have perfect sun conditions, but they can make sure they’re putting enough into various worldwide grids to cover the energy they’re taking out. Imagine the inefficiencies of Apple installing solar plants that are only connected to their buildings. How ridiculous would it be for every company to run their own plants, trail their own power cables past thousands of homes and factories, just to go directly into their office…
The way ‘x% renewable energy’ works is companies look at how much energy they consume, and buy from the grid the same (or some percentage) quantity of energy sourced from renewables. The grid is one big pool with buckets of energy in and out. This is a revelation to the filmmakers, but a boring reality for anyone remotely familiar with the mechanics of electricity grids. – source: ketanjoshi.co
You generate what solar energy you can on site, store what you have the capacity to store in batteries, then if you’re producing more than you need you can put that power back into the grid. If you’re not creating enough, you take that back from the grid.
Myth: Electric Cars are “Powered By Coal Anyway”
When the sales people are suddenly jumped with the question “where is the energy coming from to power this car” they flounder and take a few stabs at answering the question, but it’s hard to answer this sort of stuff is super nuanced.
A car can be charged in various places. Your home, which can be powered by 100% renewable electricity via providers like Good Energy in the UK, at the supermarket, petrol stations, anywhere. Some of those might be using energy providers which are still powered by coal plants, so does that mean you might as well just drive a petrol car around?
[Scientists from the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen and Cambridge] found that in 53 out of 59 regions, comprising 95% of the world, electric vehicles and domestic heat pumps generate less carbon dioxide than fossil fuel powered cars or boilers. The only exceptions are heavily coal-dependent countries such as Poland.
In countries such as Sweden, which gets most of its electricity from renewable sources, and France, which is largely powered by nuclear power, *the CO2 savings from using electric cars reach as high as 70% over their conventional counterparts.
In the UK, the savings are about 30%. However, this is likely to improve further as electric vehicles grow even more efficient and more CO2 is taken out of the electricity generating system. – Source: Guardian, “Electric cars produce less CO2 than petrol vehicles, study confirms”, 2020
We need to stop burning fossil fuels, but that’s harder to do when our motors literally contain combustion engines. Whilst car owners switch from fossil fuel to electric, the grid is also switching from fossil fuels to electric, so over time the exact same electric vehicle is causing fewer and fewer CO2 emissions. The same cannot be said for a conventional car. Hopefully we continue to transition towards renewable energy, but if enough policy makers are brainwashed by this movie then that could be at risk.
One legitimate problem raised in the movie is that electric cars require batteries which degrade over time. Lithium batteries can be recycled, and before needing to be stripped for their raw components they can actually be reused as storage at solar farms to help with maintaining a baseline load to the grid. Reuse is always better than recycling, and thankfully both are possible.
When the battery packs in a lithium-ion-powered vehicle are deemed too worn out for driving, they still have up to 80 percent of their charge left. So before they ever get to a recycling center, these batteries are used to prop up the grid, especially alongside energy sources that may not be quite as steady, like wind or solar power. The batteries can store power to help the flow of electricity stay on an even keel rather than ebb and flow with the weather. – Source: How Stuff Works
I’m under no illusion that we can all swap our internal combustion engine cars (ICEs) for EVs overnight, but the UK grid can handle a much quicker transition than we’re seeing. With the development of Vehicle to Grid (V2G) technology, EV drivers can actually help balance the UK grid by providing energy from their vehicle batteries to the grid at times of peak demand. This doesn’t change the fact that the grid still isn’t green enough. In the UK we’ve averaged 25% renewables (plus 20% low carbon, excluding biomass) for the last year. Governments worldwide need to increase spending on all sorts of site-relevant renewable energy projects, but we can help flatten this curve by simply not driving as much, or at all.
One part of the movie that is fully accepted by environmental scientists and climate activists is that there’s no magical silver bullet tech here, and we cannot just all switch cars for “green cars”, we need lifestyle changes too. For example, if your household has two fossil fuel cars, the ideal solution would be to sell them both, buy one electric car if a car is absolutely needed, or get into the car sharing economy with turo, cars2go, etc. The best bet is to switch to bicycles, and if that’s not viable due to physical limitations, electric bicycles, or even an electric motorbike, instead of needing that electric car.
The mother of two uses this electric cargobike to take her children to school, go grocery shopping, and run her freelance photography business. “It can carry everything I need and go anywhere I need to go,” she says. “I also feel like we’re more part of the community, being out in the open where we can interact with the people around us.” – Source: Mozilla, Working for Good: Metrofiets Cargo Bikes
Fossil fuel bans are taking the worst offenders off the road (like the diesel ban in Bristol), but we need to drastically speed things up. Coronavirus is pushing this change forward, with hundreds of miles of bike lanes being set up across cities like Milan, Paris, and New York, who are all keen to see less driving in general in their streets. Active transport with minimal EV usage is the way forward here, but EV’s aren’t inherently bad simply because some of their power comes from coal during the transition phase.
Myth: Solar / Renewable Has a “Huge” Carbon Footprint
An argument made over and over again throughout the movie is that solar panels and wind turbines are terrible because they require fossil fuel energy and minerals to create. Everything has a carbon footprint. The computer I’m writing on, the device you’re reading it on, the reusable coffee cup you’re drinking out of, and the bike I’ve been riding around Europe on advocating for climate action, all has a carbon footprint. The important question is: what are the “lifecycle emissions” of the item in question, and is there a net gain from its existence.
The concept of lifecycle emissions analysis is its own science, with people studying for years just to be able to analyze certain types of products, but let’s do a quick example with a topic close to my heart. A bicycle requires fewer emissions to create and ship than a car. Cycling around creates emissions (eating and breathing!) yet still creates fewer emissions than a car. Then, recycling a bicycle takes less energy than recycling the components in a car. Overall, the lifecycle emissions of a bicycle are a mere tiny fraction of the lifecycle emissions of a standard car.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, aggregated research into the full lifecycle of various energy sources, comparing the CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour: an apples to apples comparison of how energy we get from each power source, compared to how much greenhouse gas was created to make it. See if you can notice a difference between renewable and fossil fuels.
This graph is a little tough to read at first, because the graph collates a whole bunch of sources for each. You can see there are 46 estimates for Photovoltaics (solar), 36 for Concentrated Solar Power (another type of solar), and 126 for Wind. The rectangles show the minimum and maximum, with the black line in the middle being the median (average). Generally, even the maximum carbon footprint for any renewable energy places it well below the most efficient gas or coal plants.
So, is renewable energy completely free of fossil fuels? Certainly not, but claims of renewable energy being “worse than fossil fuels” are demonstrably false. Patently untrue. Just completely incorrect.
You can read more about this on Carbon Brief: Solar, wind and nuclear have ‘amazingly low’ carbon footprints, study finds.
Myth: Wind Requires Mountain Top Removal
One claim made in this movie was from a random chap being interviewed, talking about ‘mountain-top removal’ for wind. I had to Google for a long time to find any reference of. The best I could find was this:
Mountaintop removal/valley fill is a mining practice where the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal. Mountaintop removal can involve removing 500 feet or more of the summit to get at buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighbouring valleys. I’ve got friends who live in British Colombia, Canada, and they’ve pointed to gaps between two mountains where another mountain used to be. An entire mountain can be turned into a crater on the hunt for coal, and this is what that looks like:
They’re not the same thing, and most wind farms do not require any logging. They’re placed in wide open spaces, or in the sea.
South Australia closed down its coal plant in 2016 and the state has, arguably, the country’s most reliable grid thanks to its battery storage. It is producing well in excess of 50 per cent of its electricity consumption from wind and solar, and could reach 87% in a few years.
How could a country close its coal plants if it needed coal plants to always be running just in case the sun ran out or the wind stopped blowing?
Ah yes, batteries, the well known technology that the movie breezed past at a wonky rate. More batteries would help the renewable transition out a lot, but South Australia has managed to find enough to sustain a 50% renewable grid. Fingers crossed more regions and countries can catch up quick.
Population growth has been a huge problem for the planet. Of course 7.7 billion people are putting a bigger strain on the plant than the 300 million folks here 2000 years ago.
The population growth is slowing down, with the UN suggesting peak population will hit 11 billion in 2100. From there, it’ll be going back down again. Those numbers are considered to be high by other sources, suggesting the human population will top out between 8 and 9 billion in 2040-2050, but the narrator doesn’t mention any of that.
The focus on population control touches on a whole bunch of concerning problems, because many of the countries with growing populations are much poorer. I’m not going to get into here, but… it sounds a little racist. Most of the population growth is in countries where the average person does not have a huge carbon footprint, unlike, say, the USA which has one of the highest carbon footprints per-person.
Either way, the best thing to do to support the number of people on the planet is to continue to switch away from land and carbon intensive diets, and continue to help provide educations in developing countries, help push women’s rights around the world, and focus on reducing the wasteful lifestyles of the people most responsible for carbon emissions.
Kenya’s average carbon footprint per person is 0.3 tonnes, and the average footprint in the US is 15 tonnes, and the UK is 10 tonnes. We don’t need to worry about Africa we need to sort things out at home.
Fact: Biomass Energy from Trees is Terrible
Various people were jumped on camera and asked to offer their position on a very nuanced topic: is biomass good or bad? Biomass is an umbrella term for “storing CO2 in biological matter” and “biomass energy” means “burning it to create electricity.”
At a very small scale, burning wood for fuel is technically carbon-neutral. If a tree falls in the forest, it will decompose, and that produces greenhouse gases (CO2 and methane). If you take it home and put it in your wood stove, it’ll release that CO2 through the process of burning instead. That checks out on paper, but of course giant power plants aren’t wandering around the woods carefully carrying small quantities of wood to a small burner.
Most of us in the world of climate activism and environmental science absolutely agree on the negative impact of biomass power plants, and it’s devastating to see so many countries running with this as the way forward.
Bill McKibben (the movie “baddie”): Burning Trees for Electricity is a Bad Idea, 2016
Carbon Brief: UK should ‘move away’ from large-scale biomass burning, 2018
Europe urged to end coal-to-biomass subsidies over deforestation concerns, 2019
Of course, forests are not the only fuel source for a biomass energy plant, they’re just the biggest. The problem with biomass is not the idea, or that anyone ever supported it, it’s the unexpected size of the projects. Project Drawdown words this rather well.
Biomass energy is a “bridge” solution—one that can help the world transition from fossil-fuel power to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. Until energy storage grows and the grid becomes more flexible, it can help meet electricity demand, complementing variable wind and solar power.
Biomass energy is a true solution only if it uses appropriate feedstock, such as waste from mills and agriculture or sustainably grown perennial crops. Using annual grain crops like corn and sorghum depletes groundwater and requires higher inputs of energy. Using native forests is nothing less than an atrocity. – source projectdrawdown.org
Biomass energy was meant to be a bridge solution, not one that would continue to be invested in by major countries for decades. Converting coal plants to biomass is an expensive waste of money. Yay the coal plant is gone, but for the money spent, solar would have been a drastically better investment. Thankfully, in the UK biomass is only ~5% of our energy supply, and I’d love to see that drop off.
The movie, at one point, claims that Germany gets more electricity from biomass than wind and solar, but that’s not at all true.
Biomass: 45.48 TWh
Wind: 127.23 TWh
Solar: 46.54 TWh
Check the source yourself on energy-charts.de, it’s a fraction of the overall energy use.
Ecologi hashave supported several two Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard-backed biomass energy projects, including projects in India and China which burn rice husks, bark, dung, and other farm waste. They are smaller and designed to help rural communities which don’t have any alternatives, and clearly state their intentions to burn primarily farm waste on the Gold Standard and Verified Carbon Standard reports.
Biomass can also mean cutting down trees to build wood framed homes, which would effectively store the carbon away for decades, and compared to cement production, the footprint is far lower. In order to have enough trees to support this and to continue net growth in woodland, we need to be dedicating far more land to sustainable forest management. If we follow the UN advice of cutting our meat intake by 50% (which would massively reduce greenhouse gases), we’ll have far more land for farmers to switch from beef to wood plantations, and we can drastically increase the amount of wood used for construction.
Shifting to a diet rich in plants is a demand-side solution to global warming that runs counter to the meat-centric Western diet on the rise globally. That diet comes with a steep climate price tag: one-fifth of global emissions. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. – Source: Project Drawdown
Myth: Banks Support Green Energy
The director is taking a very real issue, corporate greenwashing, and using it to make a dangerous argument. We’re all on the same team – nobody wants greenwashing. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Loads of major banks are “eager to get involved” or eager to look like they’re getting involved, but really they’re funnelling trillions of dollars into the fossil fuel industry. $1.9 trillion was invested from major banks around the world in 2019.
Bill McKibben, the chap who was attacked throughout the movie, is one of the folks behind Stop the Money Pipeline, which is trying to raise awareness for the importance of divesting from these major banks.
I’ve put together a bunch of resources for climate-friendly financial options for those in the US, UK, and Europe, and I’d love help expanding this out globally.
Money works in mysterious ways. What if I told you big oil and energy companies spent 3.3 billion dollars on renewable energy in 2018? I’m surprised the movie didn’t mention this, I’m sure they’d use it to suggest renewable energy is a sham, and that clearly the big oil companies are benefiting from it.
The same information presented another way?
Top oil and gas companies jointly spent 1.3% percent of their 2018 budgets on clean energy. – Source: Reuters
Ah, right, so… probably not some sort of evil scam, just “business as usual” from the companies shredding the natural resources of the world at our expense.
We need everyone, even big corporations, to invest in appropriate renewable energy, so let’s be vocal about how small their renewable energy investments are, and demand that they do better now.
The movie mixes some facts with a lot of fiction backed with outdated and false data to make the dangerous argument that renewable energy is inherently bad, and that the leaders of climate activism cannot be trusted. This is making people question climate action in general, which is only going to damage the entire movement.
Emily Atkin, author of the excellent newsletter Heated puts it best:
Planet of the Humans reminded me of an argumentative essay from a lazy college freshman—as if, after a few hours of studying, he realized there wasn’t enough evidence to support the argument he chose for the assignment. But he was so wedded to the original idea, and didn’t want to waste the hours of work he did, so he overcompensated by being an overly aggressive narrator instead of starting over with a new argument. – Source: Heated, Emily Atkin, ”Really? Micheal Moore?”
If you’re not convinced then there are more than a few other reviews and explanations of the movie from subject matter experts.
- Planet of the humans: A reheated mess of lazy, old myths, Ketan Joshi
- Michael Moore produced a film about climate change that’s a gift to Big Oil, Leah Stokes
- “Planet of the Humans” Is Full Of Myths, Errors, & Dangerous Misdirection, Clean Technica
- 6 Reasons Why “Planet of the Humans” is a Disaster of Misinformation, Ben Wehrman
- 10 Reasons « Planet of the Humans » Gets Everything Wrong on Climate, Benjamin Tincq
- Why “Planet of the Humans” is crap, Tom Athanasiou, EcoEquity
- _Planet of the Humans _Comes This Close to Actually Getting the Real Problem, Then Goes Full Ecofascism](https://earther.gizmodo.com/planet-of-the-humans-comes-this-close-to-actually-getti-1843024329), Brian Kahn, Gizmondo
- Meet the New Flack for Oil and Gas: Michael Moore, Josh Fox, The Nation
- Inside Clean Energy: 6 Things Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ Gets Wrong, Dan Gearino, Inside Climate News
- A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal, Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone
- POTH Traffics in Myths, Errors, and Dangerous Misdirection, John Rogers, Union of Concerned Scientists
Main image credit: Rumble Media