BiofuelsEnergy SystemsWhy Permaculture?

Solar, Wind, & Subterfuge

Raw Realities of Renewable Energy

Something that long hasn’t set well with me in the green movement is that so much of it is based on marketable products. For example, not long ago, the world was set alight by the idea of plant-based soda bottles. It was as if making plastic from plants had solved all our issues, and suddenly, using these innovative new bottles made the plastic-bottle experience guilt-free. Of course, that wasn’t the case.

Bioplastics, in many ways, are likely more problematic than petroleum-based plastic. In the case of Coca-Cola’s “PlantBottle”, the end result was the same non-biodegradable chemistry. It just had to be derived from plant-based ethanol instead of fossil fuels. With that in mind, it’s probably worth pointing out just how much fossil fuel was required to grow, harvest, transport, and process the plants to make that plastic. In reality, we’d only found a new way to make the same old problem, which really boils down to the fact that disposable plastic bottles are detrimental to the environment.

In other words, the packaging both literally and figuratively changed, but the end product wasn’t green at all. That didn’t stop the marketing bonanza. Soon, “plant-based”, “biobased” and “biodegradable” plastics were everywhere, and the prefixes “bio” and “plant” persuaded consumers that now an end to the issue of plastics was in-hand. We were on route to a viable solution, and buying our water in biobased plastic bottles was aiding in this answer. What a sham!

The truth is that we needed to (and still need to) drastically reduce our use of plastics and eliminate disposable plastics, but this would be detrimental to a convenience-based economy that hugely relies on fossil fuels, plastic packaging, and nonessential “necessities” to survive. The answer isn’t a new type of plastic, i.e. a new way to continue along the wrong route. Rather, it is a re-imagining of how we are living, a version of vitality not reliant of caffeinated cola products distributed in plastic bottles.

 

 

Planet of the Humans

The above tale is only to bring us to a discussion of a new documentary Emma and I watched this past weekend: Planet of the Humans. It was produced by Michael Moore (director of Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Capitalism: A Love Story, etc.). Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, he and director Jeff Gibbs decided to release it for free on YouTube.

Having seen an interview with Moore, we knew that the film was going to look at renewable energy, removing the rose-coloured glasses from behind which folks normally view it. For us, in the process of equipping our off-grid cabin with solar, and being viewers of Moore’s previous documentaries, we thought we’d prepared ourselves, both for how we felt about renewable realities and how we were going to feel about what the film was going to show us.

Some days later, unease is still swirling within me. It’s a mix of disappointment, disparagement, and disdain. Frankly, it’s a feeling often brought about when I choose to watch such documentaries, when I put stock (to use a problematic term) in seemingly green companies, or when I support well-meaning politicians (Is that a real thing?). At once, I seem to have learned nothing all that new but somehow feel ornery in the revelation.

 

 

The Revelation

What the film addresses is how the current approach to renewable energy is basically another version of the PlantBottle. It’s just an illusion of something that fixes the problem, a means of packaging power in such a way that we can continue to drink it in indeterminately while the planet we’re supposedly saving suffers. We’ve been sold a marketing scheme to keep us in surround sound systems, microwave ovens, and air conditioners because losing such necessities is not convenient to the economy.

We knew renewable energy did not come from renewable sources. Solar panels, windmills, batteries, and all the components that go with them are usually built, boxed, and distributed with fossil fuel energy. No surprise, the documentary breaks some of those statistics down, citing the amount of coal required as a material in solar panels as well as to fuel constructing the panels. Similarly, the cost and lifespan of windmills is called into serious question. There remains a favourable embodied energy exchange to argue on behalf of, but the nonrenewable aspect of renewable energy is a knife easily twisted, one that greenhorn eco-warriors don’t often deal with.

More problematic for me was peering into the behind the scenes realities of companies, NGOs, government programs, and political figures who have been champions of renewable energy. What becomes apparent quickly is that they’ve knowingly been peddling green facades for the fossil fuel industry to continue its march. Without getting into the particulars of Al Gore, Mike Bloomberg, or any of the other green movement leaders, what we learn is that most of the groundbreaking projects are conceived with smoke and mirrors, and the green scene is not something to recklessly follow. 

Planet of the Humans delivers an abundance of footage of programs that have failed and been abandoned, renewable power plants with natural gas plants powering them, and companies on 100% renewable energy but not really. Possibly worse is the massive deforestation in pursuit of renewable wood pellets/biomass for “sustainable” industrial energy production. In the end, what has happened is the appearance of green has become a marketable commodity, so politicians, businesses, and organisations have done enough to attach their names to a financial investment meant to pay dividends. The bottom line is profit over action, keeping some semblance of the unsustainable status quo.

 

 

A Revolution of Resolution

In the end, the honest answer can’t be pressed because it’s not profitable. Just as with plastic bottles, we simply need to find ways to minimise our energy usage. The answer to our energy woes and the pollution caused by its production is a wholesale reduction on energy. We don’t need renewable energy power plants that produce the same unseemly quantities of energy that coal plants, nuclear plants, and natural gas plants do. We need homes that require less energy. We need lifestyles less dependent on electricity.

As hard to swallow as a documentary like this is, permaculturalists have already been thinking towards the actual solution for decades now. We’ve already been weighing the embodied energy of solar panels and batteries against the power payback they provide. We’ve been designing passive heating and cooling systems. We’ve been growing our own fresh food. We’ve been reusing and repurposing what we can. We’ve been learning about medicinal plants, local building materials, and productive waste cycles. We’ve been lessening and lessening our energy demands because there is no other true green solution.

The world adopting a permaculture lifestyle is not conducive to the gross consumption of convenience capitalism. Our ever-expanding economies are not built to provide us with needs and good choices; rather, they are built on glut to grow without recognition of limits. Unfortunately, renewable energy has tumbled into this same pitfall with other profitable green solutions such as biofuel and bioplastic: Market demands trump honest assessment. The goal is not to fix the energy problem so much as to sell as many solar panels as possible.

It’s there where I find myself able to let go of any guilt I may have with regards to our off-grid solar power set-up. At least I tell myself that. It’s a modest system sized to power LED lights, two laptops, a freezer, a well pump, and a handful of occasionally-used, low-demand appliances. We are also going to meet some of our energy needs from wood we sustainably harvest (from fallen trees at the homestead and local maintenance projects) and biogas production from waste onsite. We’ve designed for passive solar heating and cooling. In short, energy conservation—not profit—has been our motivating factor, and that looks much different.

Regrettably, the film offers little in terms of how to solve the upcoming energy crisis, neither from a personal or political level. It’s time to start touting true solutions. That’s what permaculture looks like, and that’s what we are doing.

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Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

14 Comments

  1. Solar and wind will electrify the economy. The next technology leap, fusion, will do away with much of the need for solar and wind but will utilize much of of the infrastructure and supply the new electrified demand that they helped build.

  2. Thank you for this article ! This is my point of view at this point : a 100% renewable world is possible ! But it is a pre-industrial world, and it was the situation of humanity for centuries before this madness of fossil fuels !
    Degrowth is the only physically possible way (depletion of all ressources included fuels). My fear is about the consequences of war on ressources. I am sadly convinced of the soon coming back of slavery, ethnocides and wars as a way for the richest to maintain their “lifestyle” as long as possible.
    In France we have also a high proportion of nuke in the electricity which could allow a slower degrowth in comparison with fossil or biomass based electricity systems.
    Remi from France (pardon my bad english!)

  3. P.S. Are you against hi-tech in general? What do you think about humans colonizing/mining other planets in the far distant future? There is no limit to resources in the universe. The only limitation right now is access to them.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful article Jonathon. I’ve been feeling so disturbed since watching Planet of the Humans, not just for the reasons you’ve outlined, but also because of the backlash against the makers from within our environmental m’ment. It’s like so many just don’t get it so I feel relief when I read an article like yours, clearly articulating what I believe was the underlying message.

    Thanks,
    Jo Nemeth.

  5. The “solution” is to change from an economy that requires constant exponential growth, to a no growth economy. Humanity will get there eventually, when it is forced to by ecological limits. The people who practice permaculture will be in the best shape to handle that transition and provide leadership through that transition.
    Thanks for a good commentary!
    Bob

    1. Ho Bob, we are at LIMITS TO GROWTH right now. The virus triggered what was waiting in the wings, and now it’s on for young and old. Degrowth is here and here to stay. Deindustrialization means the end of fossil fuels and renewables. And it’s the best thing that could happen to the planet.

  6. Jonathan, many thanks for sharing your thoughts. We live in Zanzibar, off grid since 12 years using a 750W solar system that powers luxuries such as lap top, internet, some LED lights, a small fridge, and, when we switch everything off, we may even use a power tool on a sunny day. However, as you wrote, permaculturists have long realized that even “green” electricity has its price. Like it or not, “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. We are trying to make up by rewilding coastal thicket and regenerative farming that we are teaching to our neighbours. Still, it would be even better if we could one day manage to live without any electricity at all. That would be truly green.

  7. Great write up Jonothon.

    I own a solar company and there is very little in this I would have a different point of view with if anything.
    The perception with people being energy efficient is that when their neighbour drives down the street they cant see what they are doing to make a difference, So solar panels show off to ten Jones what that are doing.
    This is what I always ask at the end of my workshops and get this message across to my solar students.

    I ask this question. ” look at the world as one big fuel tank and out of all the things you can do to reduce your energy consumption what are the 3 best things you can do to have the largest impact everyday? ”

    Maybe before you go any further write down what you think would be the 3 best things to do?

    I get lots of different response like, Turn off the lights, change the temperature on the Air con, Blah Blah Blah.

    I end with this. The number 1 thing you can do to reduce your energy consumption is.

    Grow your own food. The 2nd best thing you can do is harvest your own water and 3rd is if you have the option catch public transport.

    Keep up the good work.

    Mike from http://www.24hoursolarpower.com

    1. About the “3 best things”one can do to reduce energy consumption, I would rather say : 1.Insulate your house 2.Divide your need of transport 3.Buy local. Harvesting water may be part of a higher resilience strategy but will not help lower significantly energy need. Every country as its specificities, in US reducing electricity use will help lower emissions, but in France electrification of all needs (heat, transport, industry) is a progress since our electricity is from nuke (~10g CO2/kwh versus 500/1000g CO2/kwh for coal plants).
      By the way, larger individual autonomy (energy, food, water..) is sometimes synonimous of worse footprint at the whole scale! This is especially true about solar panels with batteries if you maintain lifestyle because you need to design your personal installation (size of the panels, capacity of the batteries) considering the peak of consumption. This individual design is less efficient than a network design that smooth the peak of consumption.

  8. Given that Moore’s documentary suggested PV was 8% efficient (currently 15-30% in reality), and wind power has a similar Energy Return on Investment to Coal, but a carbon footprint of 14gms/kwh vs coal fire stations 870gms/kwh, I know which technology we need to be looking at for climate reasons. Why Moore has decided to trash renewables I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be changing my mind based on his documentary. Do we need to look at reducing demand? Of course we do. Nothing has changed. In most temperate climates, we shouldn’t need to use anything but passive design to heat and cool buildings. Should we be using public transport rather than a car, where possible? Of course. We know the answers, keep up the good work and don’t despair.

  9. With power (Moore’s power to command an audience) comes responsibility and this film is misleading and without solutions. The film uses old efficiently numbers for renewables. The population argument negates that the damage done has been largely due to a small percent of people in the industrial world. Leapfrogging technology in developing countries helps them jump past this dirty growth period. Also, it feels inherently wrong to trash your allies. The NGO argument has been around a long time. And while not perfect, decisions are always better in hindsight, people like Bill McKibben and Al Gore have done more to build the movement of activists than Moore or the films director. Good piece by George Monbiot https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/07/michael-moore-far-right-climate-crisis-deniers-film-environment-falsehoods

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