The pandemic has shown that humans can manage to have an adult conversation about an immediate threat. But we now need to apply our new skill to the vastly greater threat of climate change.
By bringing that subject to the fore with so much impact Michael Moore’s latest movie, “Planet of the Humans”, has become a very important film. But it does a great disservice to the quality of the debate by leaving behind any kind of biophysical math and perspective simply to slam a “capitalist” system.
The film ignores the immense body of research on the net energy produced by renewable energy systems, which uses the ratio of Energy Return on Energy Invested to describe their lifecycle viability. EROI is the core metric that sums up how well a society can prosper with its resources at hand. In the glory days of virgin oil fields, EROIs might have approached 100:1 with one barrel of oil (or equivalent) invested returning 100.
The current global average for our depleting oil plays is around 17:1 with the oil sands at a world low of 4:1, yielding a net disposable output of but energy 3 units. Wind might average 15:1 and solar photo voltaic 8:1 in very sunny, dry locations not present in northern parts of the world. But solar hot air and hot water, when used in conjunction with geothermal storage, can deliver substantial heat energy and constitute the solution to the critical issue of northern seasonal storage.
At moderate latitudes, the scale of storage is a matter of a few days of consumption. North of say 45 degrees latitude, months-worth of energy needs to be stored since the output of renewable systems can go to near zero during winter, while energy demand is at peak levels. Whereas renewables are transitory electricity or heat, fossil fuels are themselves stored energy and this characteristic has enabled the largescale expansion of populations in northern regions.
An EROI of 8:1 is considered necessary to maintain a moderately sophisticated society with strong educational and health infrastructures while a flourishing arts culture might require 12:1. Nations in more moderate climates may get by with less rich energy sources, while northern nations require much more energy per person to sustain themselves.
Contrary to becoming a dead loss after 10 years as implied in “Planet of the Humans”, solar panels can now retain 87% of their output capacity after 25 years. Wind turbines do have an operational life of 20 to 30 years but this can be extended by maintenance and upgrades. Also, their large infrastructure costs of roads and grids can have a lifespan of many decades rather than just a few years.
Moore highlights the need to augment renewable energy systems with storage due to the variability of their output. It is a large problem but it is one that can be significantly reduced in the medium term by fast reaction natural gas plants coupled with that venerable renewable all-star; hydro. “Planet of the Humans” deliberately obfuscates that point by conflating gas plants with the much more CO2 emission intensive, slow reacting coal plants.
The film beats biomass energy to death and most of the invective is deserved as far as most of North America is concerned. However, woodchip debris from lumber mills and cordwood taken from one’s own property or that of a neighbour is still a good energetic bargain. Sugar cane in Brazil is also a viable renewable resource as long as the fields are not expanded any further into rainforests.
A vital component of our energetic future is financially rational decision making by consumers and energy suppliers. Consumers must pay the real cost of energy and energy suppliers, whether public or private, must be able to make money providing it. Therefore, governments must assure prices remain stable enough to foster coherent investment decision making over decades, to maximize utilization of new infrastructure while minimizing the stranding of older assets. Volatile pricing and political polarization of policies will bring both the transition process, and finally society, to their knees.
“Planet of the Humans” clearly posits that humanity cannot simply flick the switch to renewables and happily continue business-as-usual but it greatly misrepresents the viability of renewables as well as the usefulness of natural gas plants. Thankfully, the film eviscerates the oxymoronic notion of “clean growth” and buries it with brutal finality, something Green Parties and responsible governments around the world need to acknowledge. But the film offers too much of a binary treatment of issues, that inflicts significant collateral damage on our embryonic renewable energy industry.
Yes, the renewable energy transition represents huge challenges and we will have to make very uncomfortable lifestyle changes as well as reduce our populations, particularly in northern countries, but renewable energy is viable and remains the only path forward. We can transition successfully but the garbled shock therapy, permeating the renewables portion of the likely-to-be-classic “Planet of the Humans”, impedes the conversation.
John Erik Meyer is a small, medium tech business owner with a degree in economics. His book “The Renewable Energy Transition, Realities for Canada and the World” has been recently published by Springer Nature.