How to Get the Renewables Story Wrong: Planet of the Humans

Our blogger Craig Morris has a cameo appearance in the new film “Planet of the Humans.” He says the way he was quoted out of context reveals what’s fundamentally wrong with the movie. As we mentioned earlier on Energy Transition, the new picture has created quite a buzz since its online launch on Earth Day and not necessarily for the right reasons. Craig Morris takes a closer look and puts things in perspective.

(CC BY 2.0, Montclair Film)


Back in November 2016, I was on a TV talk show in Canada (full interview here). I was asked lots of things, such as whether rural people should have to put up with wind turbines – to which I said: no. If you want renewables, you have to make your case and convince people; we live in democracies, not technocracies.

I was also asked about whether Germany is “fueled by dirty energy,” to which I answered: yes. “Germany has 45% coal power. The reason they have coal power is because they have coal. If we had a lot of natural gas like the Netherlands or Norway – or hydropower like Norway – we’d use that instead.”

And then I was asked the question that got me on Michael Moore’s new movie: could Ontario replace its nuclear with renewables? Here, we are talking about electricity, not all energy (so not including heat and mobility, where nuclear power plays little to no role). To which I answer: German went from 6% renewables in 2000 to “35% right now” (meaning around the end of 2016 at the time).

Only the “35% right now” made it into Moore’s movie.

American scholar Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism, foregrounds my quote by saying: “Well, we’re basically just being fed a lie. For instance, you’ll hear about Germany running on wind and solar.” Then, my quote about comes “35% renewables” – but I’m not talking about just wind and solar. Those two alone were just around 20% at the time. And it’s all downhill after that.

Some guy not identified (the year isn’t revealed either) is then quoted saying “50% of their power” (which we have not reached yet on an annual basis, so the statement is likely not true even in context). And then Bill McKibben is quoted saying Germany got 80% of its power “from the sun” on a few days “this past summer” – whenever that was (the film doesn’t say). McKibben clearly means a brief peak, not an annual share, but his statement is also not true: Germany has never had 80% solar; he just confuses renewables with just solar. Germany has had around 100% renewable electricity in brief peaks.

Is my statement at least correct? Here’s Reuters on the first half of 2017, so the two quarters after my Canadian talk show appearance: Germany produced record 35 percent of power from renewables in first half.

So I’m good. McKibben and the other guy were sloppy, but were they liars? By all means, don’t conflate “renewables” with solar and wind. And distinguish between energy and electricity, as I have been doing, well, forever. Just look at how many times I have tweeted about this very confusion going back to 2013, when I started using Twitter regularly. But let’s keep following the film downhill.

After the 35-50-80 shenanigans, the film displays a chart showing… 4.8%. But it’s for just solar and wind, not renewables – and it’s for all energy. Electricity only makes up a fifth of energy consumption in Germany. And we were all talking about just electricity.

This sequence is not just sloppy journalism; it’s manipulative: Introduce your guests as „feeding us lies,” then line them up with 35-50-80 – and slam them with 4.8%. Viewers must think the experts can’t even coordinate their lies. (Why didn’t they just take my “6%”? I would have been close!)

Instead of clearing up people’s confusion, the film wallows in it. And that’s the main problem with the entire film.

You are not against capitalism; you are against corporatism

There’s so much else to say about this movie, but others have already done it (overview). My favourite is Ketan Joshi’s; he shows how outdated much if the footage and claims are. (Kudos also to Dan Gearino’s take.) But there is one other thing I’d like to say briefly, though it warrants its own blog post. (I wrote a whole chapter about this in my last book if you want to read more.)

The movie depicts renewables as having been co-opted by capitalism. But capitalism is not the right word. If citizens get together and use their savings to build a community wind, solar, or biomass project (or build district heat, renovate buildings, etc.), that is a form of capitalism, and it’s good. You are not against this kind of capitalism; you are against corporations whose primary purpose by law is to promote shareholder value.

It wasn’t always like this. Traded stock corporations originally had to get a license from the government to operate, and the license expired after, say, 20 years. If your stock corporation had been a bad neighbor, the license wouldn’t have been renewed – regardless of profitability. Germany’s Weimar Republic adopted in law the term Eigentum verpflichtet (roughly, “with ownership comes responsibility”) in 1919, and the term is also in the Federal Republic’s current constitution.

Nonetheless, anyone can found a corporation today for any reason, and you are bound by law to put shareholder value (investors) above stakeholders (the communities impacted). There is no real “license” anymore; if the courts don’t close you for malfeasance, you’re good to go! This is the form of capitalism you don’t like; it’s modern corporatism.

So just as we shouldn’t conflate renewables with just wind and solar (or energy with electricity), please distinguish between capitalism and corporatism.

Incidentally, I wrote about Ozzie Zehner in 2013 in this blog. My take then still applies now to him and Moore’s movie: the US approach is still “divide and conquer.” Germany’s success has always been that all renewables sectors work together, not pick each other apart.

by

Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.

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