Before COVID-19 upended our lives, I was at a pre-premiere for Planet of the Humans. The movie is produced by Michael Moore and directed by Jeff Gibbs. Moore, a hero of the political left has gone full-throttle on garbage with a well-meaning but totally ill-informed and out-of-touch director, Jeff Gibbs. If you watch this movie, please understand that it is ill-conceived and out of date.
First, Gibbs is a thoughtful and very worried person of significant talent. I enjoyed spending the better part of a day with him, talking about his film. It certainly is a conversation starter. While I appreciate the concern he has about unfettered growth and unbridled greed, he is misinformed, needlessly peddling doom and misguidedly supporting climate change denier talking points. Gibbs' information on the carbon intensity in renewable energy is false. As Zeke Hausfather and Carbon Brief have pointed out, studies show that solar PV, concentrated solar, wind, and nuclear power all have carbon footprints that are miniscule fractions of coals or natural gas fired power plants. This talking point has come from gadfly and “skeptical” “environmentalists” like Ozzy Zehner and Bjorn Lomborg, both of whom are gleefully endorsed by climate contrarians. He also misrerpresents the impact of renewable energy on fossil fuel generation. We need only look at a nation like Denmark to see that renewable energy is rapidly displacing fossil fuel generation. From 2000-2020, that nation has gone from a 90% fossil-powered grid to a 90% renewable grid with backup in fossil sources and imported energy. In the United States, Forbes reports, "New research from Energy Innovation and Vibrant Clean Energy (VCE) shows the U.S. has officially reached the coal cost crossover point, where fast-falling wind and solar prices make simply operating three-quarters of all existing coal generation plants more expensive than building new local renewable energy. In 2018, 74% of the national coal fleet was “at risk,” meaning the plants could be replaced with new wind or solar generation within 35 miles of each plant cheaper than the combined fuel, maintenance, and other going-forward costs of running those plants. By 2025, at-risk coal increases to a whopping 86% of the entire existing U.S. generation fleet, even as federal renewable energy tax credits phase out.” And just this last week, we saw that renewable energy has surpassed coal in total generation for 90 days this year. The emissions there? 0%. Gibbs and Zehner seem uninterested in this current reality.
There are also a number of other silly notions in this film. The Lansing, Michigan solar field is small, inefficient, and 12 years old. It is not a current marker of reality. He asserts that coal-fired power plants are running full bore all the time to support the grid. This is nonsense as any power plant operator can tell you. One of the reasons that natural gas is taking coal over, besides cheapness, is that it is more flexible as a fuel and power plants can ramp up and down to compensate for renewable energy inputs to the grid. At a point in the near future, batteries will be able to do that faster, better, and at scale, further displacing natural gas. Finally, I know from personal experience through my work at Penn State on our solar power purchase agreement (PPA) that Gibbs is wrong. Our team at Penn State secured the largest solar PPA in the Commonwealth. Our production from a 70 MW solar project will secure 25% of our purchased electricity. This electricity would otherwise come from the dirty grid. But no more. Interestingly, the company we have worked with is Lightsource BP, as in British Petroleum. BP knows (very late and after much denial) that they must become an energy company, not a petroleum company. By shifting some of their capital to a 40+% investment in a renewable energy company, they have signaled that the writing is on the wall for fossil fuels. And they are in partnerships with farmers, municipalities, Penn State's Center for Pollinator Research, Sustainability Institute (where I work full-time), the Nature Conservancy and Pennsylvania contractors to secure a healthy and vibrant project that can be a model that stands totally apart from Gibbs’s doomsmithing. In short, the movie is outdated, divisive and ultimately serves climate change denier talking points from an allegedly politically progressive point of view. Sadly, it is a regressive view of climate action that breeds inaction, depression, and inertia more than anything.