Luddites and “Planet of the Humans”

Michael Moore has a new movie out about environmentalist called “Planet of the Humans” which has caused quite some stir.

Watching this I can related to a conflict currently going on in my native Norway regarding the building of Wind turbines. Frankly they represent the kind of people I have been against most of my life. In fact they are the kind of environmentalists which made me an anti-environmentalist. I have never particularly liked people who only know what they are against but not what they are in favor of.

The real world is full of trade-offs. I am sorry but you cannot have a cake and eat it too. We cannot all live like barefoot hippies in trees with little flower gardens. Our advance societies and enormous population require a massive industrial base. It needs huge farms, massive mines, lumber mills, fishing etc.

All these things require the destruction of some small piece of nature. That is inevitable. The narrator Jeff Gibbs of “Planet of the Humans” act as a rather naive child through this whole documentary.

That wind turbines and solar panel production would require a large industrial base seems to be somewhat of a shock to him. That they require backup power in the form of coal plants of natural gas plants for when the sun does not shine also seems to be some kind of big revelation to him, but it should not.

The whole documentary comes across as the difficult life of a man incapable of making trade-offs. As someone desperate to save every little plant and living thing, who gets panted into a corner because the perfect solution doesn’t exist.

He makes a big point out of GMs EV being charged from an electric grid with power from a coal plant? Seriously, what does he think the alternative would be? That by magic EVs, wind and solar power would spring into existence in lockstep at the same time so that anywhere you choose to charge will automatically provide clean green power out of the socket.

No, it doesn’t work like that. The green shift will be messy. Many different transitions will have to happen at the same time. We cannot wait to make EVs until all electric power produced is green.

Electric Cars, Wind and Solar Power Need Each Other

That also makes no sense because Wind, Solar Power and EVs actually need each other. They cannot function that well alone. Why?

Renewable energy production fluctuates. We need to adjust demand or store the power. Batteries are expensive. However EVs are now getting such large batteries which most of the time they will not be using. EVs get large batteries for long range driving but most people drive to work most of the time.

Hence there is an enormous potential in using the batteries of EVs to store power through systems we call Vehicle-to-grid. You can get a Tesla Model S today with battery capacity of 85 kWh. The average American home has an electricity consumption of 10,972 kWh per year which equals 30 kWh per day. The EU average in contrast is about 4000 kWh per yeah. This translates to about 11 kWh per day.

A Tesla Model 3 which is quite an affordable car comes with battery capacity from 54–75 kWh. So what we can already clearly see today is that a regular EV has battery capacity way beyond what a regular home needs in most of the world through a day.

As long as cars plug in to a shared grid this capacity for energy storage becomes available to all people. When you park you car at work, during day time it could be e.g. filling up power from solar cells operating at max. When you come home in the evening and plug in your car it is selling power back to the grid as the sun is going down.

Thus if you insist that all energy must be clean before starting to use EVs then you will never reach this future. Clean energy needs storage. Cars can give that. We have to accept that in a transition period all Green solutions will involve fossil fuel usage.

But Solar Cells Require Fossil Fuels to Be Made!

The documentary talks about how solar cells are made. And they present it as some enormous revelation that fossil fuels are involved in the making.

I cannot help but feel like I am looking at some kids getting dissapointed to find out that Santa Claus isn’t real after all.

In their mind solar cells are for this reason suddenly not the solution. What is lacking here is a quantitive analysis and big picture thinking. That coal is involved in making solar cells does not mean we are better off just burning the same coal. Over its life time solar cells will displace far more coal than went into making it.

Long term coal isn’t even needed. In mineral processing we typically have the ore as some sort of metal oxide, such as iron-oxide. To make pure iron we need to remove the oxygen. We do that with a reducing agent. Today that is commonly coal as it is cheap and plentiful. But that is not the only solution. You could e.g. use hydrogen as a reducing agent. This is relevant when the documentary speak of how silicon is made. Like iron it is found in nature as a metal-oxide. You can turn it into pure silicon using coal as a reducing agent. But that is just one of many options. E.g. there are companies working on just using electric current to produce steel.

Thus it is flawed to think that because producing solar cells today requires coal, that this means we can never be carbon-free. Moore and Gibbs must realize that a Green Shift takes time. There are a myriad of industrial processes we must change, and that takes time. We cannot do it all at once.

The Biomass Hatred

Tree huggers don’t like chopping down trees. That is natural. But we cannot all be Elves living in the trees.

I saw a commenter confused by how chopping down a tree, burning it and then waiting 10 years for the tree to regrow could be sustainable. I can do nothing but shake my head. Is this the level of thinking going on among the biomass haters?

Thousands of trees are growing at the same time and we are cutting down a small fraction of them. CO2 is stored as trees are growing. Thus young forrest is contentiously removing CO2. Old forrest in contrast isn’t. Growth and rot balance each other so emissions of CO2 is identical to the uptake.

Managing a forrest by cutting down parts of it is a good thing. You can cut down sections which prevents forrest fires from spreading.

Watching this Moore documentary one gets the impression that they view all sort of logging as bad for the environment. But when you cut down trees in e.g. an old forrest and use those trees to build houses, you have permanently stored CO2 in the walls of your house. The forrest cut down is now available to grow a new forrest and thus consume CO2 as it is growing.

If I cut down and regrow a forrest twice to build houses, then I end up storing twice as much CO2 as if I just left the forrest alone.

Here is an article discussing the benefits of using e.g. Nordic forrest. In my native Norway despite massive usage of wood for burning and building there has still been a net growth of forrest since at least the 1950s. We are not alone in this.

The confusion about forest among environmentalists today is in large part due to the burning of the Amazon forrest. That is however an entirely separate problem from forest usage in the Northern hemisphere where there tends to be a substantial net growth of forrest.

A green transition involves many different systems working together. Thus statements in the documentary such as “chopping down all the US forrest could only power the country for a year,” are stupid. Nobody is suggesting putting all eggs in one basket. The focus would naturally be on wind and solar power. Biomass can supplement this for the periods where the sun doesn’t shine or wind does not blow.

Burning Clean

There is a lot of talk about emissions from these biomass facilities. But there is no reason why they have to be strong polluters. That depends entirely on the kind of facility that you build. E.g. a gasifier can be used to turn biomass into gas which is burned cleanly. What I mean by saying burning cleanly is that you are not getting sooth particles into the air.

You can also use Anaerobic digestion to convert various forms of biomass to combustable gas the burns cleanly.

Trees are not the Only Possible Input

Biomass is not limited to using wood. One can e.g. grow switch grass or algae. There are even biomass based on sugar production from bacteria in big tanks. In these cases the argument that trees grow too slowly does not apply anymore. These alternative sources of biomass grow much faster.

Wind turbine hate

Wind turbines is another thing getting a lot of hate in this documentary. Again we hit upon the same naive ideas of wind power. As if large structures could be built by love and magic fairy dust alone. These are industrial structures.

And we need a lot of them to generate power. Yes that will affect landscapes. These naive environmentalists thought that a couple of wind turbines would be enough. Or honestly I don’t know what they where thinking.

We have a massive population on this planet and each of us consume massive amounts of goods and services. This requires a lot of power generation, mining etc. Sure pristine, untouched nature is awesome, but you also have to accept reality. Going back to living in simple caves is not an option.

The earth cannot support billions of people living in a hippie style. Simple survival with modern conveniences require that we wreck some of nature. There is no way around that. The challenge is to find ways of destroying as little of nature as possible while retaining an acceptable standard of living.

Yes solar cells and windmills will require environmental destruction. Better get used to that right away. We are making a trade-off. Global warming will cause significantly more environmental damage if we don’t stop it. It will drastically change animal habitats all over the planet. It will have major impact on marine life e.g. If global warming does not get stopped, then in about 70–100 years most of marine life would actually die, because when the water gets warmer it cannot hold oxygen anymore.

Gibbs seems surprised that wind turbines don’t last forever. This is just shockingly naive. Why should they last forever? All power plants have a design life. That applies to coal plants and nuclear plants alike.

Yes some wind turbines have had surprisingly short life span of 10 years. However that isn’t necessarily the standard. With good maintenance procedures a wind turbine can last 25 years or longer. The energy required to build a turbine is typically recuperated in a mere 6 months..

Yes we have to keep building and replacing wind turbines. But the point is that we get far more energy out of them than we put in to make them.

Yes fossil fuel is required currently to construct wind turbines. But as I have repeatedly emphasized. That is a temporary situation. As transportation gets electrified, steel production is modified to use hydrogen as a reducing agent etc the need for fossil fuels will disappear.

Lying Through Omission

Moore’s documentary is not bad IMHO. It does highlight the problem with our capitalist consumer culture and the need to change that.

It is not so much that they make factually wrong claims. Rather it is about all the fact they leave out. E.g. when discussing hydrogen for use in transportation, they leave out that you can produce hydrogen from electrolysis, where the input is green energy. Yes today hydrogen is mostly made from natural gas, but this is changing as electrolysis produced hydrogen is getting a lot cheaper.

Here too, access to green energy plays a significant role. Wind and solar power has exceptionally low marginal cost. That means the spot price from wind and solar is very low, which makes it cost efficient to produce hydrogen from electrolysis. As the wind and solar capacity expands around the world this would increasingly become a reality.

You see the same discussions regarding wind, solar and biomass. They point out that all of them require fossil fuels and then quickly jump to the conclusion that fossil fuels could just be used directly. However that is premature.

Most of these alternatives will typically produce more energy output than you put in. Sure you could burn the coal used to build a windmill. But that only gives you power for 6 months. If you spend that coal building a windmill you can get power for 25 years instead. In the worst case you get 10 years, but that is still a lot better than 6 months.

Yes they point out some real problems, but that does not mean they are not solvable. E.g. bio ethanol production on the US is a bit of a joke. It is true that renewable energy facilities need fossil fuel power plants as backup.

However they do not talk about the difference in how easy these plants are to start up or shut down. A coal plant is harder to shut down than a natural gas powered plant e.g. The idea that a gas power plant is simply used as much as before after a wind farm is built is simply not true.

Wind power is now (2019) so cheap that a company operating a natural gas plant can actually save money by building a wind farm. That is because the cost of buying the natural gas is higher than operating the wind farm.

The documentary also entirely leaves out how you combine energy and storage systems effectively. E.g. presently it is too expensive to use batteries for long term energy storage. However they are now cost effective to deal with short term fluctuations in power needs.

Thus batteries can handle short term fluctuations from wind and solar power instead of having a fossil fuel plant that you have to turn up and down rapidly. The latter is wasteful because not running at full throttle reduce their efficiency, and hence emissions.

It is always possible to make renewable energy look bad by cheery picking bad combinations for an energy system. E.g. combine a solar farm with an old fashion coal plant and things don’t look so good. However if you combine a solar farm with a large battery and a gas power plant and things will look a lot better.

Final Thoughts

Renewable energy is complex. And it is all too easy to judge it and be negative if you don’t see the full picture. It is one of the reason I wrote this more comprehensive discussion of all the various alternatives and how they combine.

“Planet of the Humans” is not the smoking gun that conservatives imagine it to be. I have written an article here about the conservative misunderstanding of Planet of the Humans.

Do I think the documentary is bad? Not really, as long as you understand what you are watching. Michael Moore is a democratic socialist, quite similar to me actually. The difference is that I am perhaps more positive to free market economics than him.

I think he is right to point out how private enterprises are using the green movement as a way of selling themselves and making money. There is a real story here to cover.

When clothings companies pretend they care about the environment and encourage that you return your old clothes for recycling to buy new clothes cheaper, they really don’t realize how much they are part of the problem.

You don’t solve anything if you on one hand encourage recycling while with the other hand you encourage further consumption. That is of course what private enterprise have to do. They have an obligation to their share holders to grow sales. They are in the difficult position of having to boost sales while making it seem to consumers as if they care about the environment.

The problem I have with the documentary is that Michael Moore has too much of a bleak look at the future. We need to reform our capitalist consumer culture, but that is not enough to get CO2 emissions under control. Cutting your consumption in half does not solve the problem of CO2 emissions. It just stalls it.

The only long term solution a transition to a use of hydro electric, wind, solar, biomass and nuclear power. We will likely need all solutions. There are no magic silver bullets.

E.g. Nuclear power can likely be part of the solution, but it is developed so slowly and our known reserves of Uranium and Thorium are too low to give human civilization infinite supply of power. Wind and solar in contrast will always be with us, and thus is a solution which has to be developed sooner rather than later. It is also the solution that will work as we explore other planets and built space habitats.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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