One of the more noticeable things about Planet of the Humans is all the names you may never have heard before. Not one climate scientist appears in the film throughout its length and most of those appearing in it are executives of small companies, the odd local environmental or citizens’ action group, and that’s pretty much it. The one constant voice throughout the film, apart from narrator Jeff Gibbs is that of presenter, and author, Ozzie Zehner, whose discourse over the course of the film is overwhelmingly negative about each of the various renewable energy technologies examined and assessed by the movie. The big question though is how reliable Zehner’s narrative actually is, especially given that the film largely seems to be based on Zehner’s book, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism published in 2012.
Ozzie Zehner attended Kettering University and the University of Amsterdam. According to his bio on Academia “He has written for academic and mainstream publications including Christian Science Monitor, The American Scholar, The Hill, UTNE, Truthout, ARTE, IEEE Spectrum, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and other publications. He regularly guest lectures at universities and serves as a reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”.
Over the years, Zehner has been visibly critical of various clean energy technologies. In IEEE Spectrum in 2013, for example, he wrote: “Perhaps we should expand our horizons to measure the virtues of electric cars against those of walkable neighbourhoods, and the costs of generating more energy against the savings from using less.” In the same article, he quoted a US Congressional Budget Office study, saying that electric car subsidies “will result in little or no reduction in the total gasoline use and greenhouse-gas emissions of the nation’s vehicle fleet over the next several years” while also expressing a preference for values, not science and making a recommendation, in relation to the whole topic of potential bias, to “follow the money”.
Zehner has also argued in the past that solar power uses heavy metals and that solar manufacturing releases greenhouse gases such as sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), which according to the IPCC has 23,000 times the warming effect as CO2. His overall approach follows the notion that the extraction of raw materials used for solar panels and wind turbines depend on the burning of fossil fuels and that fossil fuels are also needed for the manufacture, assembly and maintenance of those panels and turbines, and that fossil fuel plants are also needed to backup renewable energy, because of the intermittency, and in order to decommission clean energy plants at the end of their useful life.
Returning to EVs, Zehner has said that most assessments of EVs are based on charging and that a rigorous approach would be to consider their entire life cycle from manufacture to disposal. He has also focused in on the use of rare earth metals for the manufacture of electric cars traction motors, particularly neodymium and dysprosium, and the mining of those rare metals, and the amount of energy used in the production of EV’s aluminium shells.
On wind energy, interviewed by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Zehner claimed that solar farms and wind farms have been fetishised, such that they are now distractions from cleaner and cheaper answers to environmental problems.
It’s perfectly clear then that Zehner has a major problem with renewable energy technologies, and it is this that enables him to fit so neatly into the overall theme of the movie, which argues that partial deindustrialisation and population control would be better solutions to climate change than decarbonisation through clean energy technology.
On the face of it, Green Illusions has had generally good reviews, for example on Goodreads, with an average of four stars out of five from reviewers, so it was well received among the general public when it came out.
However, how do Zehner’s claims really stack up when you start to focus in on them? It turns out that a number of critics over the years have accused him of distorting the truth about clean energy. Shortly after Zehner’s book came out for instance, in July 2012, Chris Meehan of Clean Energy Authority website, pointed out that other energy sources, besides solar, produce sulphur hexafluoride and do so in greater quantities.
Meehan mentioned a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that evaluated life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions for various energy generation technologies. This study found that solar PV emitted an average of 45 grams per kWh, compared to 500 grams per kWh for natural gas and 1,001 grams per kWh for coal. In reaching this finding, NREL examined 2,100 published references, subjecting them to three rounds of critical reviews by experts. Across the range of about 10 to 200 grams per kWh, even the highest estimate for production of greenhouse gases from PV manufacturing was about 40 percent of that for natural gas and 20 percent for coal, based on a meta-analysis of 46 estimates from 17 studies. NREL analyst Austin Brown found that 86 percent of SF6 emissions result from its use as an electrical insulator, with only 7 percent arising from manufacturing semiconductors with only a subset of that coming from solar cell manufacture. Brown also noticed that while SF6 is indeed a potent greenhouse gas, it nevertheless forms only a very small contribution to overall greenhouse gas emissions, at 2/10th of 1 percent.
So already, with Zehner, we can see that he misses out vital information when discussing renewables. On another occasion, clean energy consultant Edgar De Meo, writing on the website of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), said that Zehner’s book “perpetuates several myths about wind power,” and that it “suffers from a basic misunderstanding of how the electric power system operates” while also exhibiting a “sensationalist tendency to bash wind.”
If the claims presented in Zehner’s own book do not stack up, this increases the need to go through the claims made in the film with equal or even greater scrutiny, given that Zehner has such a prominent role in the film. How do these claims work out with a bit of basic fact-checking? Well, let’s have a look. In no particular order, we have....
Electric Vehicles (EVs)
One of the early scenes in the film features an interview with a utility company executive in which the exec tells Jeff Gibbs that the energy mix that will power one of the EVs the company has just acquired is “95 percent coal”. However, according to a Tweet by Kees van der Leun, who has 34 years experience at Ecofys/Navigant/Guidehouse Energy, this interview took place in 2010 and the utility concerned is currently closing its last coal plant. This wasn’t mentioned in the film, but was easily spotted by Mr van der Leun.
Later in the film, Gibbs says that Tesla cars use aluminium (which is used because it is lighter and therefore increases the efficiency of the vehicle thereby also reducing the cost) and that aluminium requires eight times more energy to manufacture than steel. What the film doesn’t mention is that conventional vehicles also use aluminium. Neither does it mention that some companies are now offering recycled and low-carbon aluminium for use in EV manufacturing.
Another scene has Ozzie Zehner telling us that EVs use rare earth metals and that 90 percent of what is mined for purpose contains uranium, borium and other low-level radionuclides and that the radioactive waste from this process is subsequently spread on the ground over the desert. There is little or no mention of this to be found on Google. Other typical criticisms of EVs relate to sourcing lithium and cobalt, but both can be recycled and used over and over again repeatedly. Neither of them is typically rare. Many of the rare earths used in EVs, particularly when used to produce aluminium for the vehicle shell, are also used for conventional vehicles, so EVs are no more to blame than fossil fuel vehicles in this regard – but again, this isn’t mentioned in the film.
Zehner also says that EVs use lithium, which relies on toxic mining. That’s true, but what is also true is that more of the world’s lithium is used by mobile phones and laptops than by electric vehicles, but there is no mention of this. Furthermore, lithium is starting to be recycled, although at present this is far from a simple process. Tesla in particular has said that it will only use lithium from North American sources. Thus the industry is actually aware of the various issues with lithium, and it is starting to try and do something about it. Zehner also makes a comment about graphite, but the reality is that Tesla, for example, sources most of its graphite from Japan and Europe, where much of it is synthetic or manufactured rather than mined.
The film then switches to an area where the Lansing Board of Power and Light have installed a solar power array. Someone tells a gathered audience that the efficiency of the panels is just under 8 percent and that the very efficient panels NASA uses cost about $1million dollars per square inch.
What the film doesn’t mention is that modern solar panels are usually 20 to 25 percent efficient. According to the UK Solar Trade Association (STA), every 5 MW of solar energy in a solar farm will power 1,500 homes (assuming an average annual consumption of 3,300 kWh of electricity per house), thereby displacing 2,150 tonnes of CO2.
Another scene shows Gibb interviewing an executive at an Intersolar Expo where he states that some solar panels are built to only last 10 years. This is another piece of outdated footage, given that currently solar panels are now built to last 25-30 years as an industry standard. Even then, after 25 years, most solar panels will carry on generating, although the amount of energy they generate may suffer some decline.
Zehner also states Apple cleared a forest to make way for a solar farm near its maiden data centre. The area was in reality more like a small area of woodland and some sources seen by REM refer to it more as scrubland than woodland. The statement seems to imply that such clearance is routine when solar farms are deployed however the vast majority of solar farms are constructed on low-grade agricultural land – often preserving the ability of the land to sustain grazing by sheep in between the rows of panels – or on industrial or developed sites that are no longer used for other purposes, such as old airfields, closed factory premises or other such sites. Zehner says the Apple data centre didn’t disconnect the plant from the national grid, missing the point that transmission lines are often retained with these projects, not to draw power from the grid but to export any excess energy back to the grid.
Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)
Another form of solar power is Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), generated by large plants in which arrays of mirrors focus the sun’s rays on to a tower in order to generate heat which then drives a turbine to produce electricity.
In one scene, Gibbs and Zehner go to examine two CSP plants and discover they’ve been ripped up. They then use this discovery to claim that such plants are inefficient because they only last for a certain period of time before they are removed.
What they don’t tell you in this scene is that the two CSP plants were experimental demonstration projects – meaning they weren’t designed to be permanent facilities at this location but instead to be used as trial projects. In fact, this facility has actually been repowered, so if you look on Google Earth or Google Maps and switch to satellite view, you will see a repowered solar generation facility at Daggett, California, just a short distance from where the old plants used to be.
Daggett Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant in California. Courtesy of Google Earth.
These two plants, Solar One and Solar Two, pioneered the use of CSP plants, so they served their purpose, but as trial plants, they cannot be held up as being representative of the length of time other green energy plants remain in operation.
This ‘repowering’ operation is standard procedure across the industry, so when Zehner tells you in the film that wind and solar farms are ‘torn down’ at the end of their operational life, this is not strictly true. What tends to happen in the case of wind farms is that individual turbines, or sometimes the entire fleet of turbines in a particular wind farm, are repowered where they stand, being equipped with new components, and not ‘torn down’.
Another scene shows Jeff Gibbs interviewing Zehner near the Ivanpah CSP plant, developed by Bright Source Energy. Zehner says the facility requires natural gas every morning in order to start it up. That is true, and the plant is using more of it, but what Zehner doesn’t tell you is that, overall, such solar power facilities have a far lower impact than any fossil fuel plants. Even with Ivanpah itself, according to the California Energy Commission, it utilises natural gas for no more than 5 percent of its electricity generation. Furthermore, those CSP plants that use molten salt energy storage, such as the smaller Crescent Dunes project in Nevada, do not produce any carbon emissions. It is also true that Ivanpah was designed from the outset to burn some natural gas for peak energy production at times when the solar resources are intermittent. With increasing energy storage, these kinds of practices will inevitably reduce.
Gibbs and Zehner say that all the mirrors at Ivanpah were built by the Koch Brothers – Guardian Industries Corp, The viewer is led to believe, erroneously, that renewable energy infrastructure is being deployed or controlled by big fossil fuel interests. This is not representative at all, although what is true is that some fossil fuel companies, especially the well-known ones, are now starting to transition across to renewables as their coal, oil and gas interests start to decline in value and are phased out. This should be seen as a good thing.
At another point in the film, Gibbs says that only a few years after it was built, Ivanpah began to fall apart. What he actually means isn’t clear, and all we see is a few broken mirrors here and there. However, this again identifies the scene as outdated footage, because Ivanpah has also been repowered and is still generating. The company that runs it is also very aware of its environmental responsibilities, which is why in 2010 it decided to scale the project back in order to avoid disturbing the habitat of the desert tortoise.
There is one scene in the film where Jeff Gibbs goes to an InterSolar Expo and the various execs talk about intermittency. What is not made clear is that these are old interviews and that the industry has come a long way since this footage was taken in dealing with intermittency issues.
Gibbs then shows a pie chart from the IEA showing that battery storage is “less than 1/10th of 1 percent of what is needed.”
However, the pie chart presented by the movie shows the battery storage capacity alongside the total global annual energy use and then presumes that we need as much energy storage capacity as the amount of energy used. This is not actually necessary because we only need storage for when the supply of clean energy is intermittent.
German renewable energy
A few scenes forward and it’s Zehner’s turn to have a dig at solar, this time commenting that Germany is Europe’s largest consumer of coal and that only a small fraction of German electricity comes from wind and solar. In 2016 solar power accounted for an estimated 6.2 percent to 6.9 percent of German electricity generation, according to a report by Fraunhofer ISE, the same source now informs us that in 2020 this figure has increased to 9.1 percent. In 2016, Germany was also the world’s top solar PV installer for several years, second only to China. To be fair, Germany’s solar sector declined in 2010 due to the influx of cheaper imports from China, but according to Clean Energy Wire in 2020 the sector has now recovered, to the extent that in 2019 it supplied 19 percent of the country’s electricity supply over a whole month, being Germany’s largest single source of power.
With regards to coal, a report by the LA Times from 2019 reveals that Germany is planning to shut down all of its 84 coal plants over the next 19 years, and all its nuclear plants by 2022. The country is aiming to have just eight coal plants in place by 2030. It may be true that Germany is currently Europe’s largest consumer of coal, but that isn’t likely to remain true for too much longer.
Zehner also says in the film that Germany is building a terminal to import American natural gas. This completely misses the point that natural gas is being used in the short term as a ‘bridging fuel’, primarily for heating buildings. The problem is, like the UK, natural gas is currently Germany’s most important fuel for residential building heating. Previously, Germany relied on Russia to support its natural gas, so switching sourcing to the US increases the country’s energy security. This decision did stimulate an angry response in Europe where natural gas production is slowing down. However, some organisations, such as Fraunhofer ISE, argue that Germany could reduce its dependence on natural gas by improving building energy efficiency and rolling out renewable electricity in the heating sector, where most gas is currently used.
Elon Musk’s Gigafactory
In the movie, Zehner commented that Elon Musk’s Gigafactory still has transmission lines connecting it to the national grid, when Musk said it would be powered by wind and solar. What the film doesn’t make clear is that the process of making the factory powered by 100 percent renewable energy is still continuing - and those transmission lines may very well be used to export energy on to the grid, rather than taking energy from it. Currently, on the factory roof, a massive solar panel array is being constructed that will consist of 200,000 solar panels, enabling this array to provide most of the factory’s energy. Alongside the solar panel array, energy efficiency developments have been made in order to avoid, as far as possible, utilising natural gas for the high-energy manufacturing processes. This includes using waste heat from equipment to run equipment efficiently and help heat the factory. LED lights and the factory lighting system will save 144 MWh of energy per month. The factory also runs chilled water in order to cool the building down, but conventionally this also uses a huge amount of energy, so the design utilises a special chilled water plant based on the desert climate. The cool air at night produces more chilled water than is needed, which means that the extra water resources can be used during the day. The water plant uses a huge thermal storage tank that will cut electricity used for this purpose by up to 40 percent and water consumption by up to 60 percent.
The film also depicts a German industry expert who falsely claims that the contribution to the German energy mix by wind power is small when compared to fossil fuels and coal. This is incorrect as German wind produces 34.3 percent of German electricity suppliesaccording to Fraunhofer ISE, while other countries such as the UK, Spain and Portugual, draw over 20 percent of their electricity from wind.
The movie criticises two leading environmental organisations, 350 dot org and The Sierra Club, for supporting biomass, but the two organisations no longer support biomass. In this way, the film misrepresents Bill McKibben, the founder of 350 dot org.
The reality of the biomass issue is that it is really complicated. If biomass operations are not conducted properly, then it is true that it can add emissions rather than displacing them. Annoyingly, the film spends a larger amount of time on biomass than it does anything else, which is illogical given, as climate scientist Michael Mann has pointed out, biomass only forms about 2 percent of domestic electricity generation in the US.
Mann’s position on biomass seems to be the one that makes most sense given the complexity of the issue.
Tweeting recently on this matter, he said: “Cutting trees down for biomass is a horrible idea--few good faith participants in this discussion support it. An argument can be made, though, for using bi-products (e.g. wood chips) from existing forestry practices and other organic waste for energy generation”.
There is a real problem with the supply of wood chips from southern US forests to the EU for biomass plants there, and environmental groups on both sides of the Atlantic have been very vocal about that. Even with small-scale biomass, there is another concern with air pollution. So it may be the case that most biomass operations remain small-scale, which many feel is appropriate for this particular sector.
Riddled with errors
The overall conclusion then really has to be - there is a lot wrong with this movie. REM has just covered the main and major errors in the film. There are quite a few more that we didn't cover.
Please also look out for our follow-up article, consisting of an interview with Assistant professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Leah Stokes, with contributions from climate scientist Michael Mann, which will be following this article shortly.