Will the Green Revolution Save Us?

Breakpoint: A Counter History of Progress

Directed by Jean Robert Vialett (2019)

Film Review

This is a bleak but fascinating documentary about the downside of so-called “progress” associated with the two century-long fossil fuel age. Starting with the replacement of wood with coal in the early 18th century, the film examines each new technological innovation the ruling elite celebrates as “progress.” By the end of the film, it is alarmingly clear that the great majority of the global population has paid an enormous price for this progress, in terms of chronic exposure to toxic chemicals and radionucleotides, global warming, near total deforestation, collapse of our fish stocks, colonization, massive poverty, and destruction of formerly vibrant public spaces by the automobile.

In the filmmaker’s view, what is commonly called “progress” are actually wealth making schemes that have made a few hundred people fabulously wealthy by destroying the health and wellbeing of the rest of us.

There are a number of surprises in the film. Previously I had no idea that social critics were warning against deforestation at the beginning of the 19th century, nor that this was a principal driver of the shift to coal. Nor was that the first solar PV technology was developed during World War II to reduce domestic demand for oil (needed for the war effort). The first solar home, built in 1948, was 75% self-sufficient. The early 1950s saw the production of 100,000 solar water heaters in the US. Eighty-percent of Florida homes were solar equipped at the peak of the first solar boom.

The early solar industry would be strangled in its infancy by a conspiracy between railroads, coal companies, and property developers to ensure all new power plants were coal-fired and all post-war boom homes connected to the grid.

The 1973 oil shock and Club of Rome study Limits to Growth inspired Carter to push energy conservation policies, as well as installing solar panels on the White House a second time in 1979. The solar industry would be killed a second time by the wave of neoliberal globalization launched by Reagan and Thatcher.

I was also horrified to learn about Project Plowshare, which promoted the use of nuclear bombs for “peaceful purposes” during the fifties and sixties. For 20 years, the US government detonated 27 atomic bombs to build a ship canal in Alaska. This cost taxpayers $770 million ($4 billion in today’s dollars).

The Soviets deployed 150 atomic bombs for similar civilian purposes.

The filmmaker is extremely pessimistic about the Green Revolution “saving” us given the massive demand for rare earth minerals (such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel) required to make solar panels and storage batteries.

Anyone with public library card can view film free at Kanopy – just type Kanopy and the name of your library into the search engine.

 

 

The Corporatization of the Climate Movement

The Planet of the Humans

Directed by Jeff Gibbs (2020)

Executive Producer Michael Moore

Film Review

This very alarming film mainly (released on Earth Day on Michael Moore’s YouTube channel) concerns the capture of the climate movement by Wall Street interests. It places special emphasis on environmental NGOs, like Serra Club, 350.org, and the Nature Conservancy, which are increasingly partnering with Wall Street banks and corporations to promote technological solutions (such as solar panels, wind turbines, concentrated solar mirrors, and large scale biomass and biofuel production). These technologies are immensely profitable for corporations, but as director Jeff Gibbs demonstrates, are unsustainable in the long term without addressing population growth and massive overconsumption in the industrial North.

The film begins by closely examining, in turn, each of these heavily promoted renewable technologies. For me, the issues raised about solar photovoltaic and wind turbine technology, both strongly embraced by climate activists, are the most concerning. Gibbs reminds us that all solar panels and turbines have a fairly short lifespan (20 year), which is most concerning in light of the large environmental and carbon footprint they leave during mining and manufacture of the raw materials they consume. The steel and cement required for wind turbines have a sizeable carbon footprint in themselves, and the mining (in third world countries) of cobalt, lithium, nickel, tin, and rare earth minerals used in solar batteries and electric vehicles produces substantial quantities of uranium, radon, and other radioactive isotopes as waste products. The mining process also produces a significant quantity of sulfur hexafluoride, a  greenhouse gas 23,000 times more potent than CO2.

Gibbs ends by examining specific ties between environmental NGOs and Wall Street players:

Sierra Club

  • received millions in donations from the world’s leading timber company for their support of biomass energy (ie clearing of native forests to produce wood chips).
  • received millions in donations from Michael Bloomberg to replace coal fired power plants with those powered by (equally polluting) natural gas.
  • major backer of Green Century Mutual Funds, which are 1% invested in solar and wind technology and 99% invested in oil, gas, tar sands, and unsustainably produced biofuels.
  • sell solar panels and electric vehicles from their website.
  • is biggest international investor in Viva, the biggest corporate destroyer of native forests.

Bill McKibben and 350.org

  • assisted Goldman Sachs in raising capital for a Brazilian project to increase sugar cane production for ethanol (increasing Amazon deforestation and displacing indigenous populations).

Al Gore

  • co-founder of Generation Investment Management, a company specializing in biomass and biofuels production (this was prior to the 2005 release of his film An Inconvenient Truth).
  • co-founder of a multibillion dollar sustainability investment fund based in the Cayman Islands.

Koch Brothers

  • largest corporate recipient of federal biomass subsidies.

The second video is a Q&A hosted by Michael Moore (executive producer), Jeff Gibbs (director), and Ozzie Zehner (producer) on April 23rd.

 

 

Australia’s Battery Powered Solar Revolution

Battery Powered Homes

Catalyst (2016)

This is a short made-for-TV documentary promoting Australia’s preeminence in the uptake of battery based solar systems. Because solar panels don’t produce electricity at night, homeowners with solar panels must either have large enough batteries to supply their evening energy needs or purchase power from the grid to cover these periods. In 2016, thanks to major technological advances, the price of lithium solar batteries dropped from $15,000 to $10,000.

The popularity of solar batteries in Australia seems to mainly relate to the high price of grid-based power.* However there are clearly other factors. In parts of Australia, some local councils pay residents a rebate covering half the cost of their solar battery. This is because solar batteries can be crucial in fighting a severe bush fire that causes the grid to go down.

What impressed me most about the documentary was all the innovative ways battery manufacturers use to increase the uptake of their product. For example, a home owner has a number of different options in selecting a solar battery package. For $10,000 they can purchase a battery that makes them totally independent from the grid. For considerably less, they can purchase a smaller battery that stores enough electricity to get them through peak evening hours when power company charge the highest rates.

In Perth, where one out of five private homes have solar panels, battery manufacturers are collaborating with developers to construct apartment buildings with solar batteries large enough to supply all the units. In this case, the landlord will ultimately own the battery and tenants will pay their power bill to her.

Other communities with high solar panel penetration are investing in enormous batteries that supply entire neighborhoods. All surrounding solar homes feed into the battery during the day and draw from it at night.


*Typically power companies by power during the day from solar-powered homes for 7 cents a kilowatt hour and sell it back at night for 28 cents a kilowatt hour.

 

The Renewable Energy Revolution

The Future of Energy: Lateral Power to the People

By Maximilian Dearman and Missy Lahren (2015)

Film Review

This film takes its title from Jeremy Rifkin’s 2011 book The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World. The students who crowdfunded this documentary are clearly influenced by Rifkin’s relative blindness to the realities of class society. That being said, the film presents much valuable information about key players in the renewable energy revolution.

The video sets out to prove Rifkin’s thesis that “revolution” inevitably occurs when there are major simultaneous breakthroughs in energy production and communication. According to Rifkin, the first industrial revolution occurred in 1820, with the simultaneous development of coal-based steam power and letter-press printing; the second in 1900 with the simultaneous development of the combustion engine and electronic communication (telephone, radio and TV). He asserts the third industrial revolution has already started, owing to the simultaneous rise of renewable energy and the Internet. He’s convinced that the combined efforts of the business community and the nonprofit sector have already put the US on track to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050 – regardless of government inactivity on climate change.

The filmmakers are clear converts to Rifkin’s views on market-based solar energy conversion. They argue the above trajectory is inevitable now that solar energy has become cheaper than fossil fuels. They erroneously attribute the price drop for solar photo voltaic cells (PVCs) to an “economy of scale” effect (ie high demand for an item allows you to mass produce it and the price drops). They also argue the cost of renewable energy will continue to fall, while fossil fuel costs will increase as finite resources diminish.

A more realistic analysis would attribute the current low cost of PVCs to low production costs – in Chinese sweatshops using super cheap electricity from coal-fired power plants. These costs will increase exponentially as Chinese wages continue to improve and as China’s government reduces their reliance on dirty coal.

On the other hand, the film is chock full of useful information about US cities that have already switched to 100% renewable energy, as well as numerous groups and programs that have helped make this possible:

Grid Alternatives – a national nonprofit organization that installs free solar panels in low income communities, while simultaneously low income volunteers to become solar technicians.
Community Choice Aggregation – a system adopted into law in the states of Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Illinois which allows cities and counties to aggregate the buying power of individual customers within a defined jurisdiction in order to secure alternative energy supply contracts on a community-wide basis. Energy will always be cheaper, more efficient and more planet-friendly when it stays in the communities where it’s produced and is controlled by those communities.
• Green for All – a national organization founded to ensure that low income communities and communities of color have access to renewable energy technology and jobs.
B-Corporations – a framework and certification for corporations wishing to benefit their communities, as well as their shareholders.
Mosaic – a conduit for small renewable energy entrepreneurs to obtain financing when banks refuse to loan them money.
• Power Shift, Cool the Earth, Alliance for Climate Education – national groups working to get rood information about renewable energy alternatives into schools.
• Longevity – a 20 year solar lease program for families who can’t afford to pay $7,000 upfront for their solar energy panels.