A new Michael Moore-backed documentary has been released that examines the climate crisis and the lack of progress made so far in combating the problem. Unfortunately, and somewhat strangely, the filmmakers chose to focus much of their attention erroneously critiquing a leading climate solution—renewable energy.
The reality is wind and solar today are already avoiding substantial amounts of carbon emissions, and the potential to cut even more CO2 emissions is enormous. Today wind avoids 42 million cars’ worth of carbon pollution a year, and that number will steadily grow as wind’s near-record pipeline of projects in development comes online. The book Drawdown is a comprehensive examination of 100 different solutions to climate change, with input from more than 100 of the world’s foremost climate researchers. It finds landbased wind power is the second most effective way to reduce emissions, and offshore wind ranks 22nd on the list
Let’s set the record straight on where this film gets it wrong. See this article for an in-depth look at the film’s problematic portrayal of solar power.
A misunderstanding of the power system
No electricity source runs 100 percent of the time, including coal, gas, and nuclear plants in addition to wind and solar. Conventional power plants need to go offline for maintenance or other unexpected reasons. In Texas, coal piles flooded during Hurricane Harvey and became frozen during cold spells, rendering coal plants inoperable. In fact, during Polar Vortex weather events in 2019 and 2014, and the Bomb Cyclone event in 2018, conventional power plants experienced widespread failures because of the extreme cold.
Grid operators have decades of experience managing these changes in supply and demand, and it’s proven that sudden, unexpected outages at large conventional power plants are more costly and difficult to manage than the gradual, predictable changes in wind and solar output. Because of the balancing efforts grid operators undertake, it’s simply untrue that fossil fuel reserves run around the clock for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, as the documentary falsely claims.
Along these lines, the documentary attacks Apple, the Tesla Gigafactory and others for claiming they run on renewable energy. However, the film again misunderstands how the power system works. The electricity grid can be thought of like an ATM. When a corporate buyer of wind energy says it’s buying enough wind to power a data center for example, that doesn’t necessarily mean the electricity generated by a wind farm feeds directly into the data center.
Say you deposit $20 in the ATM near your office. A short time later, you withdraw it from the ATM near your house. You now have a different bill than the one you deposited, but that’s irrelevant; you still have $20. This aspect of the banking system is analogous to how the electric power system works: it aggregates all sources of electricity supply and demand over a large geographic area, allowing one to add wind energy in one area and use an equivalent amount of electricity somewhere else on the grid.
Wrong on carbon footprints and lifecycle impacts
At several points in the documentary, filmmakers bizarrely criticize the materials used to build wind turbines and solar panels and claim that emissions generated to build renewable energy projects are greater than the carbon reduction benefits the projects will create.
This is simply false.
The average wind project repays its carbon footprint in less than six months and generates zero carbon electricity for the remainder of its 20 to 30 year lifespan. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory reviewed all published research on this topic and concluded that wind energy’s carbon footprint is a fraction of all fossil fuels’ and even lower than nuclear and most other renewable energy sources. Every study by utilities, independent power system operators, and government entities has found those pollution reductions are as large or larger than expected.
Wind turbines are primarily made of steel and concrete, as the documentary notes, but so is nearly every man-made structure in modern society. Cars, buildings, sidewalks, and countless other structures, not to mention conventional power plants, are also constructed using steel and concrete. Nor do U.S. wind turbines use significant amounts of rare earth materials as the film portrays—over 95 percent of the U.S. wind turbine fleet uses gearboxes rather than direct drive machines, which means rare earths are not used.
Wind and Solar’s impact on fossil fuel use
The film’s claim that wind and solar energy is “not replacing fossil fuels” is patently false. While 13,703 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired capacity was retired in 2019, more wind power capacity was added to the grid than any other generation technology. Together, wind and solar represent 62 percent of capacity added in 2019. Furthermore, wind energy provided 7.2 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2019, up from a 6.5 percent share in 2018. At the same time electricity generated from coal dropped 15 percent from 2018 levels, continuing its decline in the U.S. electricity market. Wind energy’s share of U.S. electricity generation has more than tripled since 2010 when wind accounted for 2.3 percent of total generation. Iowa and Kansas, for example, now both generate over 40 percent of their electricity using wind, and in both states wind is the largest electricity source.
The climate crisis is a real and significant challenge society must solve, and it’s good to bring attention to the problem. In this instance however, filmmakers have made an odd choice to criticize leading climate solutions using inaccurate information while fundamentally misportraying how the power system works. Doing so sows misinformation and sows confusion, and ultimately undermines any good they were trying to accomplish.