Yes It Can
But Renewable energy is not going to save our planet
This is the bold statement of PLANET OF THE HUMANS, a provocative investigating documentary written, directed, and produced by Jeff Gibbs.1Planet of the Humans, wikipedia The film was executive produced by Michael Moore. The real question of this documentary is: will renewable energy help us to avert the climate catastrophe that we are so desperately trying to avoid? Its answer – a harsh NO – encountered fierce criticism from a variety of scientists and environmentalists, who claim the film is unbalanced and sometimes even dishonest. Despite these allegations, however, PLANET OF THE HUMANS, still convincingly makes the case that renewable energy alone is not going to prevent the human race from being wiped out due to overpopulation and overconsumption.
How long do you think the human race has before extinction?
Renewable energy sounds like a wonderful thing. It’s right there in the name. Renewable. It sounds like it will never run out, like a library book you never have to return. Perhaps it’s not surprising that something which sounds so good may be too good to be true.
Let’s start with a definition. A renewable resource is something that occurs naturally and gets replenished quickly enough to replace what gets used up. Wind energy is renewable because new winds will keep blowing past wind turbines. Wood for making fires and building houses is renewable because trees grow back, although if we use up the all of the trees before the new ones grow back it stops being renewable.
Fossil Fuels are not renewable. Although they occur naturally from dead organic matter pressurized underground, they don’t replenish quickly enough for us to use them. It takes millions of years to go from decaying leaves and rotting animal corpses to coal or oil.
Fossil fuels also happen to come with a big problem: they cause greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, which are wreaking havoc on the climate. Renewable resources like solar power seem like a good solution to this problem. The sun shines on solar panels and they generate electricity. No carbon emissions
There are problems with renewable energy sources that aren’t obvious at first glance. Take solar, one of the major sources of renewable energy. Solar power is an intermittent source: it only works when the sun is shining. When the sun is not shining, or even on a cloudy day, something else needs to keep the lights on.
for most industry processes
Renewable energy is unreliabele
As renewable resources are part of the environmental cycle, they follow time patterns. For example, wind power works only when the wind is blowing. Couldn’t we just use wind power when the sun isn’t shining? That would only work if the wind started blowing whenever there wasn’t enough sunshine. It’s not that simple.
How solar cells, wind turbines and electric cars are made
Consider other costs of solar power. Solar panels have to be built. It takes electricity to run solar panel factories, and most of that electricity currently comes from fossil fuels. The materials for solar cells, which include rare metals, have to be mined from the earth, and the vehicles which do this also rely on fossil fuels.
To make matters worse, solar panels don’t last forever. They only last thirty to forty years. That means digging up even more rare metals and adding worn out solar panels to our stream of electronic trash.
Renewable energy does not solve the problem of overpopulation
The real problem is overpopulation. The human race, our lifestyle, our presence on earth uses more energy for food, shelter, industry and leisure than the earth can provide in a sustainable way. In theory, renewable energy should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a giant step forward in the fight against climate change. But it will not win us the battle. To win the battle against climate change, to preserve the good things in life as much as possible and alter the bad, we need much more energy than can currently be extracted from renewable resources. What’s more it needs to be CO2-neutral too.
Humanity is poised for a fall from an unimaginable height. And renewable energy is not going to save us from it.
So why are we commited to renewable energy? Is profit the motive? Is it because we have already invested so much to make it fit in our business models?
Is humanity indeed headed for disaster, as the documentary PLANET OF THE HUMANS suggests?
Not necessarily. We have an option before time runs out.
Environmentalist Michael Schellenberger suggests a surprising solution: nuclear power. An environmentalist promoting nuclear power? Yes, he did that. Before branding him a traitor, consider this: Nuclear power is not a renewable resource, but that doesn’t automatically make it a bad thing. The crisis is not that we are running out of fossil fuels. The crisis is that burning fossil fuels wrecks the climate. So to answer this problem we don’t necessarily need a renewable source of energy, we need a source of energy that is much less harmful to the environment.
The big advantage of nuclear power is that it is a zero carbon source, and that it can provide the energy we need when we need it. Running a nuclear power plant emits as much carbon as running a wind turbine. (Building a nuclear plant takes up resources like steel and concrete and the process cause greenhouse gas emissions, depending in part on what sort of machines are used to build it. But the same is true for building wind turbines and solar cells.)
There are at least two major problems with nuclear power: nuclear waste and the risk of catastrophic meltdowns. Both are serious concerns, but there are ways to safely store nuclear waste, and nuclear safety is improving.
We need an energy system that provides reliable power when we need it and that system needs to have nearly zero carbon emissions. Unless we find better ways to store energy, renewables are not able to provide that on their own. Meanwhile, nuclear power can make ends meet for the time being.