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Sierra Club Compass Blog
During the proceedings of the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 19), Poland has earned the nickname “Coaland” from activists. Partly because of the unprecedented move in which Warsaw hosted The World Coal Association's “Coal and Climate” conference simultaneous with COP 19.Activists giving President of the COP, Marcin Korolec, a shirt that reads “Coaland Proud Citizen.”
Civil society in Poland and from around the world is demonstrating outrage at the hypocrisy of this move with protests and actions designed to show global support for Poland's moving beyond coal. In Warsaw on Sunday, a march on climate traveled from the city center to the National Stadium where the COP is being held. Sierra Student Coalition is supporting a Polish NGO's “StopEP” campaign against the building of a new coal plant in Pomerania in northern Poland. And a rally was held outside the coal summit on Monday to show outrage at the fact that it was happening while the world's leaders were meeting to work out the newest iteration of an agreement on lowering emissions with the goal of keeping the change in climate to below 2 degrees Celsius.
The “Coaland” moniker is also earned because Poland currently produces almost 90 percent of its electricity from coal. This is in spite of the EU regulations and renewable energy directives that the country has refused to follow to such an extent that it might be levied a large daily fine until it complies.
The government is synonymous with the industry because it owns the mining and the electric utilities in Poland. Following Poland's independence from Soviet control, the country has managed to decouple its economic development from greenhouse gas emissions. But it can do much more. A recent poll of the Polish people shows the majority of the people of Poland are opposed to the country's coal reliance, but the government is not responding to this information because there is still only a small number of voices active in pushing the government in its desired direction toward renewables. Similar to places in the U.S. where mining is a large part of the economy, a large group oppose moving away from coal because they fear loss of livelihood.
I spoke with some members of Polish NGOs about their views of the situation in their country as they try to move it into alignment with the EU's and global clean-energy goals.
Tobiasz Adamczewski, the Climate and Energy Expert from WWF Poland tells me that way he looks at the numbers, the Polish government's argument that coal will give Poland energy independence is false. Even from a purely financial perspective, given the state of the existing mines in the country, it will be cheaper to use coal only if the coal is imported. Otherwise, they will have to go much deeper in existing mines, which is a safety hazard for the miners, or open up new pits, displacing the people living in those areas at great expense. And they already do import a large amount of coal from Russia and projections include larger imports as energy needs rise. Health effects of the pollution from the coal-fired plants and environmental degradation from mining increase the projected costs greatly.
A European Environmental Agency study recently found Poland's second city, Krakow, has the third worst air quality in Europe. Krakow is also the home of the Academy of Mining and Metallurgy. Based in places like this century-old institution, the Polish government's idea is that they can “innovate” with “clean coal” technology, which they can then export. Technologies such as carbon capture and storage do not yet exist in a form that is viable economically or effective environmentally, and as the atmosphere passes 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide, we don't have time to wait.
Mr. Adamczewski said the free trade agreement that is currently being negotiated between the EU and the U.S. is going to be an important factor in the targets set by the EU in the future. He said that if the U.S. has strong protections in place around coal plants, it will help the EU maintain their more stringent standards. But it could easily become a race to the bottom with lax regulations, which is why Sierra Club is so concerned about the pact.
I asked what they would like to see in the next five years for clean energy in Poland and he replied, “We would like to see a good renewable energy law, which gives individual citizens the ability to produce green power economically, and a change in the perspective of Polish people toward climate change. And with that, a change in the mindset of policy makers so that Poland is never again a blocking country in the EU.”
Countries will conclude this round of climate talks on Friday, and despite a groundswell of support, especially for the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, we could see little outcome in the form of meaningful agreements on emissions reductions or pledges for funds for mitigation, adaptation and the new category for weather events like Haiyan, loss and damage.
--Claire Horn, Sierra Club Georgia Chapter volunteer
Mary Anne Hitt: Americans continue to demand clean energy from the local to national level, and here's yet another amazing example of quick, successful organizing by college students in Illinois. I'll let my colleagues tell you all the wonderful details:
Illinois College Students Vote Six to One in Favor of Divestment
Co-written by Anastasia Schemkes of the Sierra Student Coalition and University of Illinois Graduate Student Katie Mimnaugh.
On Friday night, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC or UofI) became the latest school (of the 300+ campuses working on fossil fuel divestment) to pass a student-wide divestment referendum. With all votes tallied, they had won with 6-to-1 in favor of divestment.
Bottom line: 86 percent of the voting student body demonstrated their support of coal divestment at UIUC!
To secure a referendum on the student ballot, the UIUC Beyond Coal group had to collect petition signatures from seven percent of the student body: 3,038 signatures in total. And right when the UIUC Beyond Coal campaign students were hundreds of miles away from campus, in the middle of Power Shift, they got the go-ahead to start collecting petition signatures –with less than three weeks to deliver all 3,000.
In the span of two weeks, Beyond Coal gathered over 4,000 signatures to get the resolution on the ballot. On Friday Nov 15, the divestment referendum passed 6-1, with 1,730 YES votes.
In a state ravaged by the coal industry, the UIUC Beyond Coal began working on coal divestment in August 2011, following an incredible student-driven effort that secured a 2017 commitment by the administration to stop burning coal at the campus power plant.
Illinois is currently ranked fifth in the country for coal production and is led by a governor with plans to double the state's coal exports by 2014. This the same governor that appoints the UIUC Board of Trustees. Even just 20 minutes away from Champaign a proposed coal mine threatens citizens in the town of Homer.
This stark reality only makes the UIUC Beyond Coal campaign that much more impressive.
Early on, the campus Beyond Coal group secured the support of the student senate, built a vast coalition on and off campus, and even climate activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin cheered on the students during visits to campus. The campaign is regularly featured in the student newspaper, local news articles and TV news.
This divestment referendum is the most recent success. The students have made their opinion clear. They voted to support removing investments from a dirty and outdated coal industry and investing instead in clean energy and community projects.
The University's vision "to create a brilliant future… in which the students, faculty and staff thrive and the citizens of Illinois, the nation and the world benefit" clearly calls on the University of Illinois to lead now in the face of climate change. U of I must protect the future of the very students it educates, and we urge the school's board of directors to choose to divest from coal at their next meeting in January.
First it was President Obama, standing before the American people at Georgetown University in June, telling us that it was time to act on climate. As one of the pillars of the climate action plan, President Obama pledged to end public financing for coal projects overseas, except in very specific situations. This was later backed up by a declaration by the Treasury Department.
Next, five Nordic countries came out with a similar plan, calling for an end to throwing money away on dangerous coal projects.
Multilateral development banks were the next to announce that they would no longer be investing in coal projects overseas. The World Bank released its new energy strategy, and and then the European Investment Bank piggybacked. Just like dominoes, public support for coal has been falling all across the world.
And today we found out that the UK’s public financing for coal is the next domino to teeter over.
At the Warsaw Climate Change Conference (COP 19) this morning, UK climate secretary Ed Davey announced that the UK would end international financing for coal projects except in exceptional circumstances.
This is a bad sign for coal but a great sign for our health, our climate, and our planet. Burning coal emits toxic pollution into the air that leads to health problems like asthma and cancer. It also releases toxic mercury that rains down onto rivers and streams and contaminates the fish that we eat. Coal burning is also responsible for nearly one-third of U.S. carbon emissions—the air pollution that is the main contributor to climate disruption.
Finally, this reality is catching on. Governments and financial institutions are facing the reality that coal kills, and our future and our children's future depend on transitioning away from the dirty and dangerous fuel.
This is worth celebrating, and it’s not the last domino to fall. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, another multilateral development bank, should be the next to change its energy strategy and cut off spending on dangerous coal projects. It has become clear that coal is not a sound or safe investment, and finally we’re putting our money where our mouth is.
--Justin Guay, Sierra Club's International Climate Program
Africa is beginning to see a new light. A solar-powered light that is. Currently 598 million Africans live off the grid in rural Africa. Many of them still use kerosene lamps to light their homes, a practice that can consume up to 20 percent of each family’s income and is harmful to both the environment and the health of the families.
To help solve this problem SunFunder and SunnyMoney have stepped in with solar power. Together, they are working to move Africa beyond the age of kerosene lamps and into the solar future. But what are these organizations, and how do they work?
SunFunder is a crowdsourcing solar energy initiative that links donors--like you--to solar businesses--like SunnyMoney--in an effort to offer affordable solar energy to the 1.3 billion people worldwide without reliable electricity. To see our pilot project with SunFunder go here. SunFunder allows donors to select the cause they want to support, collects the donations, and then loans the money to the solar company doing that work. The solar company invests the money and earns a profit. That profit is returned to SunFunder and ultimately the original donors.
Since first launching 15 months ago, SunFunder has fully funded 10 projects, made 1,200 total project investments, from more than 590 donors from 37 countries, with a 100% repayment rate. It has helpedClick on the infographic to enlarge
more than 50,000 people. Not bad for a year and a halfs work.
But if that’s not remarkable enough, the loans are now being repaid in under a year. You read that right. SunFunder partnered with SunnyMoney last year, and their first loan of $10,000 to sell solar lights to families in Zambia has been fully repaid in the first nine months.
SunnyMoney sells their solar lights and phone chargers exclusively in Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, and Tanzania through the schools’ network. In order to create the most trustworthy system to sell solar lights and publicize their message, SunnyMoney networks with head teachers to spread the word about solar lights and phone chargers. This gives students and their families an opportunity to purchase lights for their homes with the help of a trusted source, the teachers.
The payoff has been huge. SunnyMoney has sold more than 700,000 solar lights which allows residents to have cheap, reliable, environmentally friendly lighting -- an option they’ve never had before. This benefits both the families and the students who can now more easily study and do their homework in the evenings.
“As a result of this project, the owners of new solar lanterns in the Eastern Province [of Africa] will experience significant savings in their energy costs, better light quality to study by, healthier indoor air to breathe, and easier mobile phone charging,” the SunFunder website states.
While the solar lights cost money upfront, the lights pay for themselves in the first 12 weeks and typically last five years. The benefits for families are immediate and lasting.
“A solar lamp does more than shine a light. A solar lamp protects the environment and transforms lives,” states SolarAid, the charity that owns SunnyMoney, on its website.
--Cindy Carr, Sierra Club Media Team
Why All Parents Should Take Action Against Dirty Fossil Fuel Power Plants
I am the parent of a lovable (and very opinionated) 9-year-old named Iskra. Like any other parent, my #1 concern is my kid's health and well-being. Did she eat her lunch? Is she watching too much TV? Is she making friends?
But how often do parents stop and wonder about how clean the air is for their kids? I grew up in Los Angeles and like thousands of other kids, I had asthma as a young child. Little did I know that LA would one day be ranked the #1 city with the dirtiest air.
I often fear that my little girl will also get plagued with asthma or some other illness because of LA's poor air quality. I have to be thankful that she doesn’t have asthma, but there are warning signs: one doctors said she has weak lung capacity, and Iskra has chronic eczema, which is linked to weak lungs.
Pio Pico Dirty Power Plant: Bad for the health of our families, bad for our pocketbooks, and bad for our climate
Because I care about Iskra's health, I am concerned about California's push to build more dirty power plants. One example is the Pio Pico Power Plant that San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is proposing to build in San Diego. Pio Pico would get built less than 1.5 miles away from the border. This is a region that already has some of the dirtiest air in the state and replicates the old pattern of dumping our dirty pollution near Mexico. If built, Pio Pico would emit over half a million tons of greenhouse gases a year. This year, we saw the disastrous impacts of large wildfires like the Rim Fire in Yosemite that will come with climate change. I don't want to leave that legacy for my daughter, either.
What's so frustrating about this dirty power plant is that my organization and our partners across the state already killed this proposal once! Together with community leaders, in 2012 we pushed the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to reject SDG&E's effort to build the Pio Pico plant. They called SDG&E's bluff: California doesn’t need the power that Pio Pico would provide. But SDG&E is too worried about their profits to stick with the democratic decision made by government regulators. This proposal is about increasing their bottom line, not serving Californians.
Pio Pico comes with a price tag of $1.6 billion. If built, taxpayers in Southern California will be paying for dirty energy for years to come - Pio Pico comes with a 25 year contract. So when Iskra is 34, she would be stuck breathing emissions from this fossil fuel dinosaur rather than seeing solar panels blanket California. Our future generations would literally be paying: with their health, and from their pockets.
Every time we build a new dirty power plant, we take a step backwards. We move away from the renewable energy that power our communities, puts Californians to work, cleans up our air and prevents climate change.
Let's Say No to Pio Pico, Yes to Clean Energy, & Yes to Our Children's Health!
The truly scary part is that Pio Pico is just one example. Corporate polluters like SDG&E are lining up proposals to build more dirty power plants across California.
In early 2014, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will decide on whether to approve Pio Pico for the second time. Knowing the damage that a single dirty power plant can have on our air quality and on the health of our children, I can't help but take action. Like all parents, I would do everything in my power to ensure Iskra’s health and safety.
Click here to join me in telling the CPUC and corporate polluters "No to Pio Pico!", "Yes to Clean Energy" & "Yes to Children’s Health!"
-- Strela Cervas, CEJA co-coordinator
I hope the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is listening.
Last week, the NRC held one of many public meetings to hear comments on their Waste Confidence Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS) and their proposed rule at their headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.
The DGEIS seeks to examine the environmental costs of spent nuclear fuel. The rule was originally created in 2010, but in 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that some aspects of the NRC’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements were not met. You can read more about the ruling here.
During the meeting, dozens of concerned citizens spoke about problems associated with nuclear waste. Their testimonies were met with applause when they finished speaking.
“There’s no real justification for the creation of high level radioactive waste,” said Diane D’Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “We’re allowing continued poisoning of our planet.”
“Just because a tsunami is unlikely doesn’t mean a Fukishima can’t happen,” echoed Dr. Gwen DuBois, a member of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility and founding member of the Crabshell Alliance. She addressed the possibility that 35 nuclear power plants are at risk if there are sudden dam failures, from storms like Superstorm Sandy which are more likely to occur because of climate disruption, and the need to move spent fuel to less vulnerable areas.
“We need to move beyond nuclear energy,” DuBois continued.
Among those speakers were Sierra Club representatives, ready to stand with their peers and say we need to move beyond nuclear energy and toward a more sustainable future.
“How can we have confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission if you don’t even listen to the most serious findings of your own staff?” asked Linda Seely, from the Sierra Club’s Nuclear Free Campaign.
“All we can do is move the contamination from one place to another,” Seely continued. “They don’t know how to clean up and dispose of nuclear waste except in a superficial manner.”
“Nuclear waste is a problem without a solution, and we really do not have an answer,” said David O’Leary, chair of the Maryland Sierra Club chapter. “We need to not continue with publishing a rule that enables producing more of this waste.”
“We impale in future of our descendents, and we do this, my god, to boil water,” DuBois said. “We need to transition out of nuclear and out of coal, and into efficiency, solar and wind.”
In short, nuclear energy and the waste it produces threatens our safety, our environment, and our health.
A schedule of future public comment sessions can be found here. Comments can be submitted until December 20.
--Cindy Carr, Sierra Club Media Team
As India reels from a perfect storm of increasing fossil fuel import bills, capital outflows, and a stagnating economic environment, attention to its current account deficit (CAD) has grown exponentially. I've written on the threat coal imports pose to energy security and CAD in the past, but the biggest threat from fossil fuel imports is clearly oil.
Currently the country imports 70 percent of its supplies at a staggering cost. The situation is only going to get worse, which has prompted high-profile calls from people like Akhil Ghupta and Blackstone for innovative solutions including a dramatic expansion of solar power. I recently caught up with Anand Gopal of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) to discuss how India tackles this oil import crisis.
If you're wondering why you should care what Anand and his colleagues have to say, it might be useful to give you a sense of their past work. Their team at the LBNL led a study that recalculated India's wind potential and found 20 to 30 times more potential than the 102 gigawatts the government had officially reported. Their findings have spurred a new wave of investment and interest in wind power in India. As they turn their sites on new challenges, it's worth understanding where they think India's energy future lies.
Here's my interview with Anand.
Justin Guay: Can India do without oil?
Anand Gopal: India has great opportunities to substantially reduce, or at least, stabilize oil consumption. Road transportation, which will be responsible for most of the growth in oil demand in the coming decades currently still accounts for a small share of total Indian primary energy demand. This is because the current vehicle fleet is a fraction of the expected fleet size in 2030 and most of the urban and road infrastructure that will support this growth has not yet been built. Therefore, India, unlike China or Brazil and many other emerging economies, presents us with the opportunity to leapfrog directly to a clean transport future with little need to change existing vehicles or infrastructure. The best part is that as advanced clean vehicle technologies get cheaper through deployment in the West, they can be deployed in India before large scale motorization takes hold.
(1) They can enable greater renewable energy penetration by offering grid balancing and other Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) services;
JG: Where do electric vehicles fit in to a 'Beyond Oil' solution?
AG: Of the many transportation technologies that use fuels other than oil, electric vehicles (EVs) appear to hold the greatest promise in India. India has such high demand for non-transport uses of biomass that biofuels are unlikely to be a major solution for India. Natural gas vehicles (NGVs) can be part of the 'Beyond Oil' solution, as evidenced by the gasification of transit fleets in some cities, but India's natural gas resources are not abundant and the exploitable shale gas resource does not seem promising. Hence, large-scale deployment of NGVs may only shift India from oil import dependence to natural gas import dependence, doing nothing for the CAD.
EVs on the other hand do not suffer from the problems of biofuels and NG that we described above. EVs also offer some additional benefits:
(2) They substantially improve human health outcomes by eliminating tailpipe pollutant emissions which are one of the main causes of morbidity and early mortality in India; and,
(3) Unlike NGVs, EVs can enable very deep reductions in Indian greenhouse gas emissions because renewable electricity costs are falling dramatically in India.
JG: Why are EV's particularly suited for India?
AG: In our research, we have found that the transition from internal combustion engine cars to power-split hybrid and full electric cars results in much greater real-world fuel economy improvements in India (and China) than we see in the U.S. That's due to four main reasons peculiar to Indian driving behavior:
(2) A higher share of energy per Indian trip is lost in braking, which is almost wholly recovered in an hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) and EV;
(3) HEVs and EVs use no fuel during idling and the share of idling time in traffic is much higher in India (than the U.S.); and
(4) The average range traveled in India is much smaller than in the U.S., making EVs much more feasible and range anxiety less of an issue.
JG: What technology, business model, and financing breakthroughs (if any) need to happen for EVs to be deployed?
AG: The cost of batteries is the key barrier to EV affordability. So, these would need to drop for greater market uptake. However, the large share of two-wheelers and the smaller power needs for cars there may allow for less energy dense battery chemistries than Li-ion in EVs. We are interested in exploring such possibilities at LBNL.
India's fuel economy test procedures should be more reflective of real-world use. Currently, India uses a modified version of the New European Driving Cycle for fuel economy labels, which has no correlation to Indian driving. This test procedure systematically underrates hybrid and electric vehicles and overrates ICE vehicles.
It may also be helpful to provide incentives for EV purchases. These incentives can be designed in a net revenue neutral manner. The incentive can be set at a level where the EV purchase it facilitates results in the full recovery of costs from fuel savings over the life of the vehicle. The incentive could be even higher because of the macroeconomic stabilization effect from reduced oil imports.
Taken together these changes can finally set India on a path to break oil dependence and solve the CAD.
-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International
Off-grid applications are clean technology's next big market. Nowhere is this more true than Africa where the International Energy Agency predicts population growth will outstrip grid expansion to leave 645 million people without power. It's predictably tough for companies in this potentially vast market to stick out from the pack - unless of course you're BBOXX. I caught up with Mansoor Hamayun, the CEO of BBOXX, on the eve of a Series A investment from Khosla Impact to discuss the company's evolution and off-grid clean tech 2.0.
(click graphic to enlarge)
BBOXX is, as Mansoor describes it, a classic university start-up that began as a charity focused on one of the great problems of this century - universal electrification. The company realized early on that the grid was an economic question - even if governments provided every household with the grid, the payback period never happened because load was too low. That meant grid extension was a non-starter. As Mansoor puts it, 'I don’t see the grid expanding, and even if it did the reliability issue is huge. Remember the first source of demand for companies like ours is on-grid consumers who have terrible service.'
That meant for Mansoor the solution was a 21st century distributed 'grid.' But to his surprise he couldn't find the products required to build it out. That's because few working on the problem knew what it meant to provide an on-grid service in an off-grid environment - they were simply too focused on kilowatt hours and not service delivery. That meant the field was wide open for creating products and appliances that catered to the realities of the market.
But supplying quality products is one thing, genuine demand is another. It turns out BBOXX was fortunate to move into the African market at an ideal time - right after the Copenhagen climate change conference. That conference created a group of motivated consumers - successful African businessmen - interested in clean energy solutions. They saw off-grid clean energy as a real opportunity but lacked the ability to make it happen.
That's where BBOXX stepped in with nothing more than 45,000 in British Pounds scrounged between the three cofounders. Given their cash-starved state, and the demand driven by their African partners, they were forced to be sales driven - without cash flow they couldn't grow. They turned that motivation into $3 million in revenue and have been opening operations in a new country every six weeks. Currently they're in 14 countries and introducing their own retail network. Not bad for a few years work!
But the real innovations, those that earned them a Series A from Khosla Impact, are the evolving pay-as-you-go finance solutions backed by remote battery monitoring all delivered through their own distribution network.
Sandhya Hegde from Khosla Impact sums up their positive impression this way, "Gathering data on customers' energy usage behavior is the only way we can learn how to provide energy as a reliable service. We believe this innovation is central to unlocking the pay-as-you-go business model and making solar energy an accepted, trusted, and financeable product in the eyes of the off-grid world." This is off-grid clean tech 2.0.
Arguably the most important piece here is consumer financing. That's because entrepreneurs face a harsh market reality: Asking their customers to buy lifetime energy needs on day one. No one in the world is ever asked to do that but it's daily reality in off-grid markets.
BBOXX is responding by moving to a payment plan model supported by an in-house finance company: BBOXX Capital. The sole purpose is to finance end customers. The fund was capitalized with the help of a soft loan of $300,000 from the Africa Enterprise Challenge (funded by DFID) that was matched by franchise partners to reach roughly $1 million. The aim is to use this fund to support 200-300 payment plan products/month in two geographies (Kenya and Uganda).
With financing in place they have overcome the space's biggest hurdle. That means the biggest risk they face now is execution. For BBOXX that means increased service delivery in the form of radio, TV and other products. Because once households have even watt level energy, their demand for transformative services like the internet is enormous. As Mansoor puts it, "It's amazing when I see people streaming YouTube on their phones in rural areas. It blows me away."
In order to get there though they'll need to secure the Holy Grail: a long-term relationship with the customer with a proprietary distribution channel. Because if you own the entire chain, you have the ability to overcome the last-mile challenge and deliver the services of the future – from TV to tablet.
This means that in 21st century Africa off-grid clean tech providers like BBOXX are the future. But Mansoor is not alone. While he says his main competitor is kerosene and consumer habits, he knows other companies are not far behind. From M-Kopa to Azuri, the off-grid clean tech space is quickly filling with exciting competitive companies. But it doesn't seem to bother BBOXX. They're pioneering off-grid clean tech 2.0 and they're not looking back.
-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International
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