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No to Fast-Tracking Harmful Trade Pacts; Yes to a New Model of Trade

10 September 2014 - 11:02am

There’s growing opposition to trade deals that the Obama administration is pushing and to so-called fast-track trade authority, an outdated mechanism that would limit Congressional and public oversight over trade negotiations. From national polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose putting the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the fast track to demonstrations across the country against fast tracking such deals, there’s no denying that the tides are turning.

The U.S. is negotiating what could be two of the world’s biggest trade deals -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Pacific Rim nations and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union. But the meat of these deals goes beyond traditional trade issues like tariffs -- they deal with important everyday things, like our jobs, the safety of our food, and our access to clean water and air. The dangers of these deals seem endless, yet they’re being rushed through in near complete secrecy.

Click image to download full infographic.

Trade negotiators are writing these deals behind closed doors, with little to no involvement of the public and our elected officials. Despite this, there is still a push in the U.S. administration and among some in Congress to even further limit public and Congressional oversight of these massive trade pacts. If fast track were to pass, for example, signed trade pacts like the TPP and TTIP could be rushed through Congress with a guaranteed vote in 90 days, a maximum of 20 hours debate, and no possibility for amendments. In other words, fast track makes it impossible for Congress to ensure that trade pacts actually deliver for workers, communities, and the environment.

That’s why today, nearly 600 national, regional, and local organizations are reiterating their opposition to fast track and calling for a new model of trade. The time is now to fix the flawed model of trade that has cost us jobs and degraded our environment.  

Groups including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the AFL-CIO, the Communications Workers of America, the NAACP, and Public Citizen sent a letter to Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) firmly rejecting fast-track trade promotion authority and calling for a new system for negotiating and implementing trade agreements.

The Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune said it best: “Fast track is the wrong track for Americans who care about the health of our families and access to clean air, clean water, and land. We need a new model of trade -- one that protects communities and the environment while keeping the public engaged in the policy-making process.”


In January, then-Senator Max Baucus and Congressman Dave Camp introduced a fast-track bill, the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, which would strip Congress of its ability to amend or sufficiently debate trade pacts. Sen. Wyden, the current Senate Finance Chairman, is now drafting a new trade authority bill.

In place of the way-off fast-track method of rushing trade deals, the letter calls for a new model of trade authority that includes a number of key elements, including:

  • A Congressional role in selecting trade partners;

  • A set of mandatory negotiating objectives to ensure trade pacts deliver real benefits;

  • Enhanced transparency, including the release of texts; and

  • Congressional certification that negotiating objectives have been met before trade negotiations can conclude.

Today’s trade agreements affect our daily lives in countless ways. It’s time that the process for negotiating and implementing these trade pacts evolves to reflect that reality. Congress has regularly created new trade authority mechanisms throughout history. Fast track first went into effect under President Nixon in the 1970s. It was last granted during the George W. Bush administration, but that law expired on June 30, 2007. And as our letter to Senator Wyden proves, it’s time for something new.

If this broad coalition of environmental organizations, labor unions, and organizations working at the center of public health, consumer rights, sustainable farming, and more can agree that a new model of trade that supports families and communities is absolutely necessary, then Congress should join with us and bring trade policy into the 21st century.  

Ask your Members of Congress to take action in support of response trade and against fast track by sending them a message here.

--Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program

 

Categories: Sierra Club National

David Keeps Winning: 10 Recent Victories That Will Give You Hope for the Planet

9 September 2014 - 11:56am

Wow. That's the word I repeated over and over this summer, as news rolled in of one clean energy victory after another. These are David and Goliath campaigns, led by community groups fighting for the health of their families, for clean air and water, and for a safe climate. Over and over, against all odds, from the deep South to Oregon and everywhere in between, David keeps winning.
 
Each one of these campaigns represents a major victory for local families, who point to these coal projects as threats to the safety of their kids and communities. They also add up to a sea change in how we make electricity in America: 178 coal plants and 505 coal boilers, one-third of U.S. coal plants, are now retired or slated to retire. On top of that, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission just reported that 100 percent of new electricity on the U.S. grid in July was renewable, mostly wind and solar.
 
If you find yourself falling victim to despair or cynicism about the fate of our planet, look no further. These 10 recent clean energy victories will give you hope for the planet. These were made possible by the work of dozens of allies, big and small.

1. Mississippi: After six years of grassroots pressure and legal challenges against the Kemper coal plant, a landmark legal settlement was announced in August that will bring $15 million in energy efficiency and clean energy investments to Mississippi. This was an especially big deal for solar in the deep South - one headline described it this way: "A landmark deal in Mississippi could give a big boost to utility scale solar."
 
2. Indianapolis: The city is home to a polluting downtown coal plant, long targeted by community leaders as a source of dangerous air and water pollution. After an intensive two-year campaign lead by local community groups including the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and dozens of others, Indianapolis Power & Light announced it will stop burning coal at its Harding Street power plant. The announcement came on the eve of a much-anticipated vote by the Indianapolis City-County Council on a resolution calling for the phase out of the plant, which we expected to win. Check out this post for some great photos from the campaign.

3. Oregon: In a decision heralded around the nation, in August the Oregon Department of State Lands rejected a vital permit for one of the last remaining proposed coal export terminals in the Northwest, Ambre Energy's proposed Morrow Pacific coal export project along the Columbia River. The rejection is the first time a Pacific Northwest state agency formally rejected a permit for one of the proposed coal export terminals – some are calling it a "death rattle" for the coal export plan.
 
This comes after years of tremendous pressure from residents of all backgrounds – from doctors, parents, people of faith, small business owners, Tribal communities, and many others.

In total, three out of six proposed Northwest coal export terminals have been abandoned and the fourth is now teetering in the wake of this decision, the result of an electrifying campaign that has turned out 17,000 people turn out to hearings and generated 410,000 public comments opposing the projects.
 
4. Missouri: In July 2014, in the hometown of coal giants like Peabody, utility Ameren announced that its board had passed a resolution to phase out the 932 MW Meramec coal plant in 2022, citing that the 61-year-old plant had reached the end of its useful life. This came after a relentless coalition campaign to phase out the plant, which was home to leaking coal ash ponds and a significant contributor to air pollution in St. Louis.

5. Tennessee: The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced in August that it will retire the Allen coal plant in Memphis, which emits thousands of tons of pollutants in the air every year. Local residents had pushed hard to replace the plant with renewable energy, and TVA pointed specifically to community pressure as the reason they chose to go with a smaller natural gas plant and leave room for clean energy options:

TVA president Bill Johnson said TVA evaluated gas plants as large as 1,400 megawatts in their Environmental Assessment, but they went with a smaller plant in consideration of comments received urging TVA to "preserve the opportunity to use other kinds of energy resources such as solar or wind to meet future demands."

6. Illinois: In a partial victory for Illinois activists, in August NRG announced its plan to stop burning coal at two of its coal facilities in Romeoville and Joliet. Our coalition is continuing to work for more clean energy, a solid transition for the workers, and the phase out of additional coal plants that pose a public health threat to surrounding communities, including the 60-year-old Waukegan coal plant on the shore of Lake Michigan.

7. Los Angeles: This summer we scored a major clean energy victory in Los Angeles, when the city utility board voted to increase its 10 year energy efficiency target from 10 percent to 15 percent. To hit that target, the city is going to jump from a low of around 0.5 percent energy savings per year in 2011 to saving two percent per year in the coming years. That puts L.A. on par with the highest achieving energy efficiency savings programs in the nation, creating lots of new green jobs in the process. This victory is the latest accomplishment by an amazing coalition that has been racking up clean energy victories in LA, including successfully pushing the city to end coal use by 2025.

8. West Virginia: In late August, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision and ruled that environmental and historic preservation groups, including Sierra Club, have standing in our campaign to protect the historic Blair Mountain Battlefield, which is threatened by a proposed mountaintop removal coal mine. Blair Mountain was the site of a pivotal battle in the struggle to unionize the coal mines, the largest armed insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War, where 10,000 miners clashed with paid coal industry operatives.

As Sierra Club's Bill Price put it, “Blair Mountain is an asset to the people of Appalachia. It must not be destroyed. This decision brings us one major step closer to preserving our history.”
 
9. Utah: We won a big solar victory in Utah this summer, when the state Public Service Commission ruled that Rocky Mountain Power could not charge a “solar tax,” a proposed monthly fee to homeowners who go solar. This decision came after months of opposition to the fee from a broad coalition, including Sierra Club, and over 10,000 comments to the PSC opposing the fee.

10. Hollywood: And in some great news for ground-breaking television, in August the Showtime documentary climate series "Years of Living Dangerously"one episode of which featured amazing coal activist Anna Jane Joyner, TV star Ian Somerhalder, and yours truly – won the Emmy for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series!

I was so honored to be part of this groundbreaking project, and my congratulations go out to everyone on the Years team for this much-deserved recognition. It is such a great series, and in case you haven't seen it yet, it just came out on DVD and iTunes.
 
I'll say it again – wow. I can't wait to see what this fall will bring. These were grassroots powered victories, one and all - thanks to everyone who helped make them happen!

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal campaign director

Categories: Sierra Club National

September 10: Slowing Down for Net Neutrality

9 September 2014 - 10:41am

It’s estimated that nearly two billion people use the internet each day. In the past two decades alone, it has not only become one our main sources of news, but our social hub, our answer-giver, and our forum to speak up about some of today’s biggest issues.

But what would you do if one day the internet as we know it became impossible to use?

That’s exactly what will happen if big cable companies get their way as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nears the deadline on its net neutrality decision.

But what is net neutrality?

Essentially, it’s exactly what it sounds like. A policy of net neutrality ensures that all governments and internet service providers treat all information on the web equally. So all those cat videos you love to watch in your spare time take the same amount of time to load as, let’s say, your favorite websites and news outlets. The petitions you sign to keep dirty fuels in the ground, support efforts to get kids outdoors, or curb carbon pollution are treated the same as the websites of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world. Basically, you’re able to access all the information you want equally. Sounds pretty common sense, right?

That’s not what big cable providers think. If companies like Comcast succeed in influencing the FCC’s decision, the internet could suddenly be divided into slow and fast loading “lanes.” These big businesses will have the freedom to allow certain websites to load faster than others, encouraging users to only visit certain sites -- sites that internet providers just so happen to make a profit from.

Suddenly, our freedom on the internet is limited at the discretion of big business, which means the throttle on what we search, the sites we visit, and things we post are no longer in our power.

So, why is the Sierra Club getting involved?

For one thing, we’re a grassroots organization of 2.4. million members and supporters that goes toe-to-toe with some of the biggest polluters -- and largest companies -- on the planet on a daily basis. We know how important it is to ensure that the playing fields are level where we stand up for our issues -- whether in the courtroom, the voting booth, or on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The problem with giving just a few corporations control over all of the information online is akin to the problem of just a few super-rich people having control over the issues that are debated in our government. Yet, we’re seeing the latter every day as big polluters spend billions on politics and skew the priorities of Congress toward one that launches attack after attack on our air, our water, and the health of our families. We can’t let the same thing happen to the internet - a venue of unrestrained expression and debate.

When you look at exactly who would be at the throttle of the internet if we lose net neutrality, the need to act is even more dire. Big companies -- like Comcast -- are a part of groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - the right-wing “think tank” responsible for writing and pushing legislation all over the country meant to push climate denial, attack safeguards from carbon pollution, and gut clean energy investments. Do you want them with their finger on the button when you are posting a blog about clean energy, sharing an online action about Keystone XL, or emailing your Senator about voting rights?

Net Neutrality keeps the playing field level - and we have to do everything we can to ensure it stays in place. That’s why we’re joining with other organizations like reddit, imgur, Kick Starter, CREDO, Greenpeace, Mozilla, vimeo, and presente.org for an “internet slowdown” to show the FCC and big cable companies that our freedom of speech is not for sale. On September 10, get prepared to see that symbolic “spinning wheel of death” on sites all across the internet. It’s just a preview of what will happen if Net Neutrality hits the dustbin and big cable gets its way -- and our way of saying the internet must remain free and open.

TAKE ACTION: Tell the FCC that you support Net Neutrality!

-- Cindy Carr, Sierra Club Media Team

Categories: Sierra Club National

Money Out, Voters In!

8 September 2014 - 2:47pm
Sen. Amy Klobuchar points to the boxes of 3 million signatures in support of overturning Citizens United.

For Members of Congress, today is Day One back on the job after summer recess. And while the 113th Congress has been labeled “do-nothing,” several members of the U.S. House and Senate did something big on their first day back -- they rallied for democracy.

Under ominously grey skies, Senators Tom Udall, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Representatives Ted Deutch and Jim McGovern joined dozens of citizens in front of the U.S. Capitol to send the message to the rest of Congress: We need to get money out and voters in.

The members and citizens were rallying in support of SJ Res 19, the “Democracy for All” bill, which the Senate will vote on tonight. The bill mandates that Congress pass legislation to address the undue influence of money in politics -- money that is drowning out the voices of average citizens who can’t match huge campaign contributions from billionaires. It would help to overturn bad Supreme Court decisions that have given corporate polluters more power and influence in politics.

Senator Udall of New Mexico introduced the bill, and set the stage Monday.

“We are here today to overturn Citizens United,” he said.


Citizens United is one of the bad Supreme Court decisions that stands in the way of democracy. In January, 2010, the Court voted 5 to 4 in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, effectively ruling that corporations are persons under the Constitution, setting the stage big corporations to give unlimited money contributions and essentially buy elections.

Senator Whitehouse from Rhode Island, a co-sponsor of the bill, noted that since the Citizens United decision, Republicans have been silent on things that everyday Americans care about, notably, carbon pollution and the climate action needed to reign in that pollution.

“The Citizens United decision is destined for infamy,” he said.

But this is not a partisan issue, as some of the Members like Senator Klobuchar noted. Campaign contributions for Democrats and Republicans alike should be regulated to level the playing field.


Boxes flanking the speakers’ podium contained comments by more than 3 million Americans to overturn Citizens United by supporting a constitutional amendment. The Democracy For All bill accomplishes that and more. These signatures were collected by dozens of organizations nationwide like the Sierra Club, which also sent a letter to the U.S. Senate today urging for passage of the bill.

“Working alongside reform-minded members of the Senate, a diverse and broad coalition of environmental groups, good government groups, and unions are standing up to champion reform and advance bipartisan legislative solutions to make Congress more responsive to the interests of average Americans – not just the super wealthy and corporate interests,” the letter reads. “The Udall-Bennet amendment is one of the critical steps to repairing our democracy.”

These comments, letters, and rallies are positive steps toward getting big money out of politics and restoring democracy in America.

--Sierra Club Media Team

Categories: Sierra Club National

New EPA safeguard would close major Clean Air Act loophole

8 September 2014 - 1:41pm

In case you missed it, late Friday the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a fix to a Clean Air Act loophole which currently allows facilities in 36 states to dump massive amounts of pollution onto nearby communities. Right now this loophole enables facilities in these states, during periods when the facility is coming online, shutting down, or experiences a malfunction (SSM), to emit huge amounts of pollution that they aren't held accountable for.

What's more, these facilities doing these massive pollution dumps are often located in low income and communities of color -- communities that have already shouldered the burden of excessive hazardous air and water pollution.

Polluters should never get a free pass at the expense of the public health of their neighbors.

"Fixing the SSM loophole in the Clean Air Act is the right move for EPA," said Leslie Fields, director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships program. "Communities on the fenceline of polluting industries deserve relief from facilities claiming SSM events. The health and economic effects from these SSM are severe and continous. Environmental Justice communities have demanded these actions for a long time. EPA's closure of the SSM loophole is welcomed and will help protect the most affected communities and all other communities."

The next step is an EPA public hearing on October 7 in Washington, D.C. A final rule is expected before June 2015.

Categories: Sierra Club National

No Greenlight for Expansion of IFC-Funded Tata Mundra Coal Plant

5 September 2014 - 11:19am
Photo of Tata Mundra, courtesy of Joe Athialy.

India’s king coal is well on its way to being dethroned.

First, the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) refused to finance an expansion of the dirty, destructive Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant back in May. Now it seems Indian courts  have agreed that the wide-reaching effects of this coal project are too controversial to move forward with the proposed expansion.

Last week, the Indian Supreme Court delivered a one-two punch to the Indian coal industry in a series of landmark rulings that further call into question the viability of the nation’s faltering coal industry. In particular, the Tata Group received a major setback when the Supreme Court stayed a planned rate hike for its economically struggling 4,000-megawatt Tata Mundra Ultra-Mega Power Plant.

This week didn’t start off any better for Tata or its Mundra coal plant.

The recently released minutes from the July 31-Aug. 1 meeting of the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) reveal that the EAC refused to greenlight an expansion of Tata Mundra, citing the company’s failure to meet the conditions set in the existing Environmental Clearance (EC) for the project. This includes  providing for mangrove preservation and the establishment of a greenbelt. Instead, the EAC tabled the decision, pending the development of a detailed action plan to bring the coal plant into compliance with the EC, the creation of an action plan with budgetary information for public hearings, and a recommended site visit by an EAC subcommittee.

It’s clear that Tata Mundra has become the poster child for poorly thought out coal projects. Tata initially low-balled its bid for construction costs  in order to win the contract for the project, using estimates for imported coal that allowed no room for increase. That rate increase is exactly what happened when Indonesia decided to link the price of its exported coal to the price on the international market. This led to the Tata CEO calling the Mundra project “financially unviable” and the company asking the Indian government for a bailout in the form of higher rates, which would have allowed Tata to pass on the cost of its mistakes to consumers.

It is this rate-hike that the Supreme Court stayed last week, and it is another plan to save the failing Mundra coal project -- the proposed 1,660-megawatt expansion -- that the MoEF refused to clear this week.

Meanwhile, Tata Mundra has been rocked by allegations of environmental and human rights violations. After initially receiving support from the IFC, a damning report issued by the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) – the independent investigative body of the IFC -- upheld complaints from local fishing communities facing severe health effects and the loss of their livelihoods due to the project. The report found that the IFC failed to follow its own due diligence procedures when approving the project, which led to an internal conflict within the World Bank as the IFC refused to take meaningful action to address the findings.

On top of that, last week, the Supreme Court ruled on the now infamous “coal gate” scandal -- where private companies were given sweetheart deals by the government -- and found that an astounding 218 coal mining leases issued between 1993 and 2010 were illegal.

With all of these verdicts taken together,  it is clear that coal is not just a danger to nearby communities, it is a dangerous industry for investors.

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Dominion, Dump ALEC! Sierra Club Virginia Leads Rally for Climate and Democracy

5 September 2014 - 10:16am
Oceana volunteer Priscilla Lin and Sierra Club Virginia Chapter director Glen Besa in front of ALEC headquarters.

On a sunny, hot September afternoon, 80 protesters turned out alongside a busy highway at the Arlington, Virginia headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They were demanding that Dominion Resources, Inc. withdraw from ALEC, the right-wing legislation factory behind stand-your-ground laws, attacks on voting rights, and anti-climate laws. Among those joining the protest and speaking to the crowd were Bill Euille, mayor of Alexandria—one of the largest cities in Virginia—and the influential blogger and climate science expert Joseph Romm of Climate Progress.

Richmond-based Dominion, a Fortune-300 company, owns Virginia’s largest electric utility, as well as a huge multi-state natural gas storage and pipeline business. The company is Virginia’s largest carbon polluter and has plans to build a large liquefied natural gas export facility in Maryland and a huge pipeline across Virginia. Both gas projects, if built, would expand markets for fracked natural gas, meaning more dangerous and destructive fracking across the U.S. -- near our schools, hospitals, and backyards.

Dominion is an ALEC member. Documents posted online by Common Cause, a public advocacy organization, show that Dominion executives sit on ALEC’s energy, environment, and agriculture task force, along with Joseph Bast of the climate-denying Heartland Foundation and representatives of major carbon polluters and fossil-fuel interests including Koch Industries-related entities and Exxon-Mobil.

ALEC has been described as a “corporate bill mill.” It brings large polluters like Dominion together with state legislators to work on proposed laws that favor corporate interests. Some have mockingly described ALEC’s initials as standing for “A Legislator for Every Corporation.” The organization’s controversial lobbying has included work against measures to address climate disruption and support for voter-suppression efforts and stand-your-ground gun laws, to name just a few. This has caused some 85 companies, including Walmart, Coca-Cola, and most recently Microsoft, to cut ties with ALEC.


Coalition partners working with the Sierra Club on the Dominion-Dump-ALEC rally included Oceana, Black Youth Project 100 (byp100), Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Greenpeace, and Food & Water Watch.

Alexandria Mayor Euille speaking at the September 4 rally.

Alexandria’s Mayor Euille said, “We must push back hard against groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization which has expressly opposed the EPA’s effort to curb carbon pollution from power plants as well as fought renewable energy while promoting dirty fossil fuels.

Noting that Alexandria already suffers from flooding due to sea-level rise, he said, "we must not permit our future well-being to be held hostage by fossil fuel companies and others with a vested interest in maintaining the dangerous, unsustainable status quo.”

Climate Progress blogger Romm, echoing Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on obligations owed to future generations, said, “it is immoral for one generation to destroy another generation’s vital soil — or its livable climate. What Dominion is doing through its support of ALEC is immoral. It is time for them to stop.”

Sierra Club Virginia Chapter chair Ivy Main stood before the group of protesters and said, “ALEC's agenda is anti-EPA, anti-clean energy, anti-consumer, and anti-worker. And because the only ones who can block the ALEC agenda are the people, ALEC is also anti-voting rights. ALEC is not an organization any public utility should belong to, and Dominion's customers deserve better. Dominion should quit ALEC now.”

At the rally, Jonathan Lykes represented the D.C. chapter of Black Youth Project 100, a group dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all black people. In a powerful speech, Lykes said, “there is a new youth movement budding in our generation -- a movement that is fighting for democracy and the worth of all people. ALEC’s policies on stand-your-ground laws, voting rights, and the environment make it clear that we all need to dump ALEC.”


Hundreds of thousands of Virginians pay electricity bills to Dominion every month. These protestors stood up for the Virginia ratepayers whose money is working against them. If Dominion listens, they will dump ALEC once and for all.

--Seth Heald, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Vice Chair

 

Categories: Sierra Club National

Are Mini-Grids The Next Big Opportunity Beyond The Grid?

4 September 2014 - 10:13am
Photo courtesy of Devergy

Beyond the grid solar start-up Devergy believes the time has come for the next evolution in clean energy access markets: mini-grids.

The mini-grid systems Devergy deploys are essentially many solar home systems connected to a battery back-up and charge controllers distributed to individual homes throughout a village. Each of those individual units are connected to the system via old fashioned wires as well as smart, Devergy-developed machine-to-machine (M2M) technology which allows Devergy to balance the energy load, remotely monitor usage and outages, and, most importantly, collect lots and lots of really useful data.

With a highly conservative estimate of a $5 billion market opportunity and the $1 billion Beyond the Grid Power Africa Initiative launched earlier this summer, many investors have waited with baited breath to see if mini-grid operators like Devergy will succeed. Meanwhile exciting mini-grid operators like Mera Gao and OMC Power have pioneered innovative models like ‘Tower Power’, but overall the market is still very nascent. In the meantime, high-profile investors like Solar City and Bloomberg Philanthropies have started investing money in fast-growing pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar lanterns and solar home system companies.

But that may be about to change.

Source: Sierra Club Clean Energy Services For All

To better understand the current state of play for the burgeoning mini-grid market, we caught up with Fabio de Pascale and Gianluca Cescon, respectively the ‘Chief Energising Officer’ and ‘the Chief Operations One’ at Devergy, a company at the cutting edge of mini-grid deployment in Tanzania. 

It turns out Devergy’s entry into the mini-grid market started by posing a simple question: Do we need to follow the traditional approach and copy what utilities do to supply electricity? Given the abject failure of utilities to serve these off-grid, rural customers, it made little sense. Devergy realized that not paying attention to the customer’s needs was a big part of why utilities and past mini-grid operators had failed, and the reverse may help Devergy become a success.

But what exactly does that mean?

The Devergy approach has one important value proposition highly attuned to the realities of these energy markets -- the ability to start small. Because most of these communities can only afford a few initial energy services -- usually mobile phone charging and lighting -- companies that oversize these services are making them unnecessarily expensive. While oversizing is commonplace for traditional mini-grids to compensate for technological or operational constraints, this rule of thumb can hold true for individual solar home systems as well. Ultimately, if there are even a few spare watts of unused energy capacity created by these oversized services, that’s money that didn’t need to be spent.

By creating mini-grids that add solar panels modularly and balancing the energy demand across multiple users, Devergy solves this oversized problem by ‘right sizing’ their systems. That means Devergy builds systems based on actual demand instead of guesswork around what demand will be. This ultimately makes investments safer and power more affordable.

Even better, as money that would have been spent on kerosene is freed up, new power supplies can be quickly and easily added to the mini-grid. Unlike massive development projects that can leave investors and governments on the hook when costs skyrocket -- see the International Financial Corporation- funded Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant as example A -- distributed clean energy is never ‘too big to fail.’

But thinking about modular mini-grids is one thing. Building them is another. That’s why the next step toward making this mini-grid approach a reality is pretty technical. In order to realistically bring mini-grids into the mainstream, companies need to switch from Alternating Current (AC) in favor of Direct Current (DC). Currently, most grids in the developed world rely on AC, but solar panels create DC power.

In order to be compatible with traditional energy grids, this DC power needs to be converted, requiring costly equipment and electrical losses. But by switching the entire system to DC, it would save 20 percent of the system costs right off the bat because it eliminates the need for a costly inverter. Edison would be pleased.

It just so happens that once you’re working in a DC-powered world, something remarkable happens -- distributed solar generation (DG) makes a lot more sense.

Devergy runs what can best be described as a networked mini-grid reliant on DG. By using the M2M technology, it is the “smartness” of the system that enables the mobile-money pay-as-you-go approach, which is fundamental to provide financially-sustainable energy services.

 

The final interesting piece of Devergy’s approach to clean energy access is its focus on energy services as a whole, not just kilowatts. Gianluca and Fabio explained that while many people love stereos and TVs, these products  increase power demand tenfold. Luckily, DC-powered appliances are highly efficient and would enable people to have access to televisions and stereos without overloading the system. The problem is that people in developing countries can't find DC appliances in local markets, driving up the demand and harmony for a DC-based system from the energy services suppliers like Devergy.

Thus, Devergy embeds these DC-based energy services in their business model and calls itself an energy services company, not a utility. The dream is to one day create universal standards between concurrent energy systems, like off-grid electric and M-Kopa, so appliances are interconnectable, and a standardized market is formed.

But while large-scale dreams are still a ways off, Devergy is making progress. The company, which only started a few years ago, already has 800 customers and is looking to triple that number that by the end of next year, mirroring the growth in solar lantern and solar home systems that investors are used to. It’s also why Fabio and Gianluca believe the market for mini-grids will soon start to grow rapidly.

But even though investors believe ‘mini-grids are game changing’, they haven’t put their money where their mouths are. Fabio and Gianluca explained that on more than one occasion, Devergy has been told by investors to ‘come back when [the company is] profitable.’  The underlying problem is the market can’t expand if money is sitting on the sidelines.

It’s time for impact investors, multi-laterals like the World Bank, and foundations to step up and catalyze this mini-grid market. Because when it comes to mini-grid investment, the time is now.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

CES14: Clean Energy is a Good Bet in Vegas

3 September 2014 - 1:30pm

I'm looking forward to attending the 2014 Clean Energy Summit (CES14) on Thursday, sponsored again by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  I'm not really a Vegas guy, but I'll brave the onslaught of flashing lights to listen to some of the nation's pre-eminent leaders in energy and politics talk about where we are and what's in store for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the rapidly changing utility landscape.

This is a pivotal time to be having this conversation.  Prices for solar and wind power are falling fast while outdated coal and gas driven utilities are frantically pulling the wagons into a circle to address the threat that rooftop PV solar, demand response, grid storage, and other cutting-edge technologies pose to their 19th century business models.  Meanwhile, the oil rich Koch brothers and their petro-thugs are fiercely attacking federal and state clean energy laws in a desperate attempt to knock out competitors to natural gas and clear the field to dominate future electricity generation.

In fact, CES14 comes as decisions loom for Congress about whether to renew clean energy incentives like the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and geothermal -- which expired last year, threatening tens of thousands of jobs -- as well as the Investment Tax Credit for solar energy (expires in 2016).  The Kochs have been pouring millions into the coffers of Congressional Republicans and pushing them to vote against wind power and the PTC, despite the fact that more than 75 percent of wind energy projects are located in GOP districts, creating jobs in for these politicians’ constituents and providing tax support for rural schools and infrastructure.

That’s why the supportive dialogue of the Clean Energy Summit can be so important. Its an opportunity to hear what some of the most innovative and creative people in the clean energy economy are doing to create new technologies and new jobs. And its a chance to hear why some of the highest profile leaders in the country are backing clean energy more strongly than ever.

The array of speakers at the Summit is definitely impressive. Senator Harry Reid continues to be a staunch believer in a transition to a clean energy economy that can stem the worst effects of climate disruption while creating jobs and broad economic benefit. In addition to hearing his latest take, I'll be all ears to see where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants take the nation on energy and climate - if, for the sake of conversation, she were to run for President someday. The agenda also  features long-standing oracles Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and John Podesta, a strong voice for wind and solar now serving as one of the President’s key advisors. The slate also includes less predictable people like John Huntsman, who is likely to make a strong case for business leadership in addressing climate change with clean energy solutions and prove that not all Republicans have their heads in the sand. The growing calls for climate action among economic leaders are isolating the fossil fuel barons and creating space for entrepreneurs to step up and propose practical business solutions -- facts that will no doubt be highlighted at the Summit  Also speaking tomorrow are old friends like Billy Parish (Mosaic) and Alex Laskey (OPower) who have used their passion, wits, and creativity to innovate and provide some of those needed answers for the economy and environment.

The dialogue among these leaders and many others at the Summit is absolutely vital. And I’m looking forward to being a part of the fight to ensure its constructive in paving the way to clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. So, lets’s hope that this time around what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. 

Follow @SierraClub on Twitter and Instagram for more from CES14    - Dave Hamilton, Director for Clean Energy, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign
Categories: Sierra Club National

Solar Energy to Light Up Myanmar

3 September 2014 - 8:06am

 Myanmar is on its way to a brighter future.

In one of the largest U.S. investments in Myanmar since the U.S. government began to ease sanctions in 2012, ACO Investment Group signed an agreement with the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power to build a $480 million solar power project in the Mandalay region.

A first of its kind in the region, once the project is completed in 2016, the two 150-megawatt plants are expected to supply 10-12 percent of the country’s power. Members of the Obama Administration were present to witness the signing.

After decades of military dictatorship and subsequent sanctions, Myanmar, also known as Burma, became one of the poorest countries in Asia with one of the lowest rates of electrification. An estimated 70 percent of Burmese people currently do not have access to electricity. The proposed solar project will not only help address Myanmar’s growing power demand, it will also create an estimated 500 jobs.

Following the reforms in Myanmar that led to the reduction of U.S. sanctions and the election of Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament, many now have hope that many of the country’s long-standing needs will begin to be addressed. With the promise of job creation and a clean, reliable source of electricity on the way, it is clear that solar energy is a step in the right direction for the future of Myanmar.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

The Lummi Totem Pole Journey

3 September 2014 - 6:44am

By Robin Everett, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

Last year, members of the Pacific Northwest's Lummi Nation made a historic trip to the Otter Creek Valley of Montana with a traditional, hand-carved totem pole. Together with local ranchers and members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, they began a journey across the West, stopping in towns and cities along the way to raise the call to help fight ill-conceived coal export projects.

This month, members of the Lummi Nation have once again embarked on a totem pole journey called "Our Shared Responsibility -- the Land, the Waters, the People." The purpose of this journey is to call attention to the proposed shipment of an unprecedented volume of coal and oil from the American heartland to the Pacific Coast.

"One primary goal of the journey is to connect tribal nations along the coal corridor," says Lummi master carver Jewell James, above at left, and below with the 19-foot-tall totem he carved for this year's journey. "Tribal Nations innately understand and honor the need to protect sacred landscapes and treaty rights. Uniting the Tribal Nations is important for this particular issue and for tribal communities that would be affected by coal transport and export."

In the face of the proposed Cherry Point coal export terminal that would sit on their ancestral lands, members of the Lummi tribe are making a protest journey to unite tribal and nontribal communities whose lives intersect with the paths of coal exports and other fossil fuel mega-projects.

Endorsed by the Lummi Nation, the 2,500-mile binational trip will travel from South Dakota and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route, home to the Pacific Northwest before turning back and winding north to the Canadian tar sands.

The Lummi community is making this trip at a pivotal time. Although the Ambre Energy export proposal in Oregon received a major blow last week in the form of a critical permit denial, two export proposals remain on the table in Washington State. One of them, at Cherry Point, would sit atop Lummi ancestral lands known as Xwe'chi'eXen. The mining of that coal would also destroy Northern Cheyenne lands in Montana's Powder River Basin, and all along the way fossil fuel transport would harm the fishing and treaty rights of Native Americans.

Totem poles are one of the oldest forms of North American storytelling. "The totem itself is not sacred," explains Jewell James. "It is only when it is touched and shared by many communities standing together that the totem becomes a lasting part of our memories and a symbol of our resistance."

And that resistence is strong. Last week's denial of Ambre Energy's permit for its proposed coal export terminal on the Columbia River demostrates the real power of local communities to stop coal exports in their tracks.

Visit the Totem Pole Journey's official website for more information.

Follow #TotemPoleJourney for live updates.

Follow the journey on Facebook.

All photos by James Leder


Categories: Sierra Club National

Uncertainty, Rising Costs Cloud Indian Coal Sector After Landmark Supreme Court Rulings

29 August 2014 - 8:53am

India’s coal bubble is perilously close to bursting.

This week the Indian court system handed down three landmark energy rulings. While an ultimate decision still looms, the combined weight of these initial rulings reaffirms one thing -- it’s time to diversify away from coal.

Of the three rulings, the most talked about came in response to public outrage over sweetheart deals for private mining companies that provided access to coal mine leases for next to nothing. The discovery of these backroom deals -- now referred to as the ‘coal gate’ scandal -- has rocked the Indian government, and the coal sector, for well over two years. The court’s ruling found that 218 of these leases were illegal, in a sweeping verdict that affects all mine leases issued from 1993 through 2010.

The court is set to decide whether the companies awarded these mines will be fined or whether they will lose the mines entirely on Sept. 1. Regardless, the signal the court has sent  both the coal industry and the Indian government is that it is time to start over and only allocate energy resources -- like coal and coal mines -- in a transparent and fair manner. No matter how you slice it, that means increased costs.

The fallout was immediate. Most notable was the financial community’s reaction to concerns over billions of dollars that could be lost in bad loans issued to stranded assets. Indeed, with 8 percent of non-food lending exposed across the banking sector and billions invested in 37-gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants in Odisha alone, the fallout could be all too real.

The irony here runs thick. The “coal gate” scandal that birthed this verdict began under the previous Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and was really the epitome of all corruption scandals -- though there were quite a few.

In fact, “coal gate” has been a major issue facing  the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Despite bending over backwards to fast track coal projects, Modi’s administration now faces serious setbacks to advancing coal power. Thats because while the courts ruling doesn’t end coal expansion, it does potentially push the reset button -- a death knell for dozens of coal projects hanging by a financial thread. In addition, that reset will force coal miners to competitively bid for new mines which will only raise fuel prices for an already financially struggling sector.

As bad as this news for the coal industry was, it’s the second ruling from the Supreme Court that has delivered the one-two punch that may hurt the coal industry most.

While most of the country was focused on the final stages of the engrossing  coal gate scandal, the court handed down a new verdict in response to pleas for a bailout from the Tata Mundra Ultra Mega Power Plant (UMPP)and other coal-fired power plants struggling with rising coal import prices. Initially, Tata low balled its construction bid in order to win the project by underestimating the price of volatile and uncertain foreign imports. But this strategy backfired as coal prices rose so high that they now threaten to make the Tata Mundra coal plant, in the words of the Tata Mundra CEO, “financially unviable.”

But rather than allow these companies to pass on the skyrocketing costs and raise rates for average citizens, the Supreme Court reversed earlier rulings deeming any retroactive changes to tariff structures a no-go. That’s incredibly important because if private developers are able to bid artificially low prices to win contracts and then retroactively change those contracts, the system as a whole is undermined. The signal this ruling sends is tremendously important because it goes right to the heart of contract sanctity in India.

More importantly, the issue of equity and fairness was at play.  It’s hard to believe that billion dollar  companies like Tata would have passed on fuel savings if coal prices magically dropped. Instead these energy giants were seeking to operate in a “heads I win, tails I win” situation. Thus far  the Indian Supreme Court isn’t having any of it.

The fallout of this decision may ultimately be as sweeping as that of “coal gate.” It will directly affect the country’s flagship UMPPs program, a series of 4-gigawatt plants meant to stem the power crisis. Despite government and industry promises that these UMPPs will not succumb to the same dire fate as Tata Mundra and won’t be affected by the court’s revocation of mine leases, their future remains highly uncertain.

For instance, two UMPPs are currently caught up in delays over concerns related to bidding processes and the ability to pass on fuel prices in the wake of Tata Mundra. As they wait to sort out the details, delays and local opposition continue piling on costs.  Meanwhile, another coal project seeking finance from the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the Tilaiya coal project,  is mired in controversy and opposition from locals with over 100 Indian organizations opposing the Bank’s potential support.

In short, despite what the industry would have you believe, all is not well with coal in India.

So with this brick wall settling across the road to coal expansion, what is a power-starved nation to do? Diversify to the fastest, cheapest, and most readily available energy resource at hand -- solar.

As has been widely reported, all indications are that Prime Minister Modi takes solar power very seriously -- including a pledge to provide solar power for all by 2019. Rumors are that Modi is planning an incredibly ambitious solar target that could dwarf the already impressive 20-gigawatts of power the country has planned. That’s a reflection of the rapidly changing economics of solar in India which are on course to be cost competitive with coal as early as 2018, according to HSBC. This is a feat wind power has already achieved which is leading the nation to dramatically increase support for new wind power to the tune of 10,000-megawatts every year.

As it happens, just as the Supreme Court closed one door, another has remained wide open thanks to the Indian legal system. Solar companies were facing uncertainty over proposals to retroactively remove subsidies in  Gujarat - which just so happens to be the state where the most solar has been installed to date. Here the Indian court system again upheld contract sanctity by refusing the government the ability to retroactively change contracts and subsidies for existing solar projects.

So, there you have it. Investors  can certainly continue to plow billions of dollars into a  sector facing a highly uncertain and increasingly costly future. Indeed many of these fossil fuel investors will be sure to keep their heads firmly grounded in the sand as their bank accounts empty, thanks to their belief in the inevitability of coal.

But for those who can see the writing on the wall, the future looks much brighter. Indeed, when it comes to future power sector investments in India, one thing is clear: all signs point to solar.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Labor of Love: How My WV Small Town Launched a Game-Changing New Model to Go Solar

28 August 2014 - 10:50am

This week, my small town in West Virginia cut the ribbon on a solar project that isn't just the largest crowd-funded solar project in the state, but also launches a new model making it possible for any WV community organization to go solar. On a perfect sunny day, 100 elementary school students and dozens of community members joined my husband, Than Hitt, and my daughter Hazel, who cut the ribbon for a 60-panel solar system at the historic Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. It was an unforgettable day that crystalized all our hopes for the future of West Virginia, and exemplified the power of regular people to change the world.

The genius of this project was that the church went solar for just $1, thanks to over 100 community members who contributed - but they donated their water heaters, not their dollars. Maryland-based Mosaic Power pays homeowners $100 per year to have smart meters installed on their home water heaters that save energy and, in the aggregate, operate as a safe, efficient mini-power plant. These community members are each donating their $100 per year to the church solar project, collectively raising enough money to pay for the solar system. The financing model was developed by our brilliant friend Dan Conant and his company Solar Holler, and now that we have proof of concept in Shepherdstown, he's taking it statewide.

The church is going to generate nearly half of its electricity from the sun, reducing pollution, saving money, and living out the congregation's commitment to caring for the Earth. I'm a member of this remarkable church, where we've spent many a Sunday morning lamenting the destruction polluting energy development has wreaked on our state, from mountaintop removal mining to the coal chemical spill in Charleston earlier this year.

By going solar, we’re not only reducing our reliance on dirty energy, but we've demonstrated a model that other WV nonprofits are lining up to replicate. Making this project work was a labor of love three years in the making, dating all the way back to 2011 when my family was the first in our historic town to go solar, which helped get the community talking about how we could do more. Take it from me, when you go solar, it's like creating ripples in a pond - you may set into motion changes bigger than you ever imagined.

Now that we've figured out the details of this community-supported solar financing model, Solar Holler already has two more projects on deck in West Virginia communities, and those are sure to be followed by many more. And the project is being noticed around the country, with press coverage including USA Today, the Associated Press, and this great piece by Think Progress. I'm so proud of my husband, who led this project for the church, and so proud of our community.

At the ribbon cutting, our pastor Randall Tremba offered powerful remarks that have stayed with me, because he beautifully captured why the church undertook this groundbreaking project, and what it means for the community and the nation. I'd like to close the post with an excerpt from his remarks:

I am the pastor of SPC, which now stands for: Solar Presbyterian Church.

These solar panels symbolically and actually reconnect this church to an old and long Presbyterian tradition of respect, reverence and connectedness for and with Mother Earth - a reverence sadly forsaken several hundred years ago. We are happy to reconnect to Mother Earth.

That old reverence is reflected in a poem composed by St. Francis in 13th century and addressed to Mother Earth, Sister Water, Brother Wind, and Sister Moon. But it begins this way: Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; you give light through him.
He is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, Brother Sun bears your likeness.

This project will make a lot of Presbyterians, living and dead, very happy. Let me explain by taking you back through time a ways.

The Fellowship Hall is attached to the Meeting House out front which was built in 1836 by a community of Presbyterians first organized on the banks of the Potomac in 1743, which was 33 years before there was a United States of America.

These solar panels would make our 18th century founding Presbyterians very happy for, in case you didn't know, most of them were Scots and the Scots like nothing more than saving a penny. Think Andrew Mellon.

Scots love saving a penny and these panels will save us many of those.

As much as frugality, the Scots also love technological inventions. Think Alexander Graham Bell.

As much as inventions, the Scots also love the natural world and work to keep it whole and holy. Think John Muir, son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. Love of nature is in SPC's DNA....As happy as this project makes Presbyterians, I hope it makes our civic community just as happy and proud. For this project could not have happened without ecumenical and communal support.

On behalf of SPC, I thank Than Hitt and Dan Conant along with their blue-ribbon committee who successfully guided this project through thick and thin, over humps and bumps, on sunny days and cloudy days, and around twists and turns more than once. But I also thank the citizens of this community. For it takes many hands to make light work and work light.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign director

Categories: Sierra Club National

100+ Indian Organizations Sign Letter Opposing Export-Import Bank Coal Project

27 August 2014 - 8:12am

After the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) stated last month that it was considering financing Reliance Energy’s 3,960-megawatt Tilaiya Ultra Mega Power Plant (UMPP) and associated coal mine in the Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand, India, over 100 organizations in India signed a letter urging the the Bank to reject the coal project.

The fact that Ex-Im would consider financing Tilaiya is particularly shocking given the human rights and environmental abuses the Indian Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) uncovered at Reliance Energy’s 3,960-megawatt Sasan UMPP and associated mine. These abuses have been documented in the CSO’s report:  Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project, Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh: A Brief Report.

Additionally, the Sasan coal project has been dogged by allegations of corruption, and as a result, the Supreme Court of India ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct an investigation into reported irregularities surrounding the allocation of coal blocks -- the land used for coal mining -- to Reliance. Sasan received over $900 million in financing from Ex-Im, but despite Reliance Energy’s precarious past, instead of working to prevent financing energy companies with environmental and human rights abuses, the Bank is digging in its heels and doubling down with Reliance Energy and Tilaiya.

And we’ve already seen evidence to suggest that Reliance Energy is prepared to follow the same pattern of infamous environmental and human rights abuses when it comes to Tilaiya. In 2012, more than 200 people at risk of being affected by the Tilalyia coal project were arrested for peacefully protesting at a public hearing. A week later, 20 villages in Hazaribagh decided against allowing Reliance to mine coal in their region, but Reliance pushed on, ignoring the objections of local people.

Even more vexing is the fact that Ex-Im voted last December to stop funding coal plants overseas following the announcement of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). Prior to that plan, the Bank financed some of the largest coal plants in the world, including Sasan and South Africa’s 4800-megawatt Kusile coal-fired power plant.  In total, Ex-Im has provided over $7 billion to destructive coal projects since 2007.

It’s time for Ex-Im to listen to the 109 Indian CSOs and all the communities affected by these dangerous coal projects and commit to rejecting the unnecessary, outdated coal agenda once and for all.

--Neha Mathew, Executive Coordinator, Beyond Coal Campaign

Categories: Sierra Club National

More Than A Light Bulb: How Clean Energy Is Powering Health Clinics Beyond the Grid

25 August 2014 - 11:04am
Photo courtesy of SunFarmer

It is hard to overstate the effect that access to reliable electricity can have on people’s lives in rural communities worldwide.  

That’s why we are so supportive of interventions like off-grid clean energy that not only put power directly in people’s hands, but do it in a time frame that matters: now, not decades from now. That’s something traditional grid extension and centralized power plants simply can’t do.

Despite the important leg up off-grid clean energy provides these communities, we’ve heard some concerns that these interventions can only be used to provide lighting and supplies like light bulbs.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.

To help us understand what kinds of resources these companies are powering with clean energy, we turned to SunFarmer, a U.S.- and Canadian-based non-profit organization, to learn more about off-grid companies powering health clinics.

SunFarmer is a pretty unique organization. As a non-profit, they have learned important lessons all off-grid companies should live by, including not to give things away for free. That’s why SunFarmer employs a rent-to-own business model that specifically seeks to empower local companies to deliver clean energy services to hospitals and health clinics. SunFarmer’s value to these companies is simple, but big: it unlocks crucial financing. Given how hard financing is to come by in this market, that’s incredibly important.

In addition, SunFarmer provides ever critical after-sales service in the form of technical assistance, quality assurance, and system maintenance -- while local partners lead on project management. SunFarmer is also developing a monitoring and control platform to track the levels of energy production, observe the system’s battery performance, and communicate any issues (including energy theft) to health clinic staff. All of these critical data points prove that the next big frontier for these markets is data analytics.

But why should SunFarmer target large consumers, like health clinics, when most organizations working in this clean energy market start with small household needs -- including lighting and mobile phone charging?

The answer is simple: the founders of SunFarmer were moved by the negative effect unreliable power has on 300,000 healthcare facilities worldwide. These critical public health care providers suffered from hours of power shortages and cuts that were keeping them from doing their job -- saving lives.

When hospitals or health clinics lack reliable power, they can’t refrigerate vaccines.  They can’t perform surgeries.  Babies are delivered by flashlights or candlelight.  Health clinic staff with SunFarmer projects have described the difference between delivering babies in darkness versus light, noting, “Previously, delivery was difficult using flashlights held in the mouth as they could neither see clearly nor could give instructions.”  

This is particularly problematic during complicated births; as noted by the UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, lack of access to electricity is a leading cause of maternal mortality.  Worst of all, if a medical team doesn’t have a charged cell phone, they can’t even call for extra help in an emergency situation.  In short, reliable power is critical, and in the areas where these hospitals are located, the centralized grid has been failing miserably.

In Nepal, for instance, these hospitals may receive power from the grid for as little as four hours per day. Even the widely-used replacement for the unreliable grid -- diesel gen-sets -- aren’t able to keep up with the demand. That’s because the diesel fuel needed may not be delivered for days or weeks on end and may be diluted with water and other chemicals -- not to mention, its hefty price tag.

For six health clinics (and counting), SunFarmer’s Nepal staff and local partner, Gham Power, have changed this.

Funding from the SunEdison Foundation, MaRS, and crowd-funded contributions (through Indiegogo and Kiva) have allowed SunFarmer to install solar projects at six health clinics, with two more projects expected to reach completion in the next two to three months.  All projects are 2-kilowatts or above and provide the reliable power the grid and diesel gen-sets have failed to supply in the past.

Currently operating in Nepal, SunFarmer plans to expand.  They are raising $5 million to install solar projects at 250 more health clinics around the world.        

What SunFarmer drives home is that clean energy access has far-ranging benefits -- including empowering women by making maternal health care services more readily available and assuring safe deliveries in a well-lit space.

This is why the Sierra Club’s International Program advocates for energy access. Because it’s always been about more than a light bulb, and it’s time the world woke up to what Beyond the Grid markets are capable of delivering.  

-- Vrinda Manglik, Associate Campaign Representative, International Clean Energy Access

Categories: Sierra Club National

Big Clean Air Victory in Indianapolis

21 August 2014 - 11:20am

After a two-year campaign by 50 organizations in the Power Indy Forward Coalition, Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL) has announced its intention to stop burning coal at its downtown Harding Street power plant in 2016 and close the unlined coal ash lagoons at the plant, located on the city's south side.

"Harding Street is the largest single source of industrial pollution, sulfur dioxide, soot, and carbon in our city," says Megan Anderson, an Indianapolis-based organizer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. (That's Anderson at center, below, delivering petitions to IPL headquarters in 2012.) "This retirement marks the 500th coal boiler to be retired since the launch of the Club's Beyond Coal campaign in 2010, so we're dubbing this victory the Indy 500."

[Note: Coal plants are made up of one or more boilers, or "units" -- Harding Street has three. With the Aug. 21 announcement that TVA's Allen plant in Memphis will be retired, the Beyond Coal campaign has helped retire 178 coal plants and 503 boilers since the campaign launched in 2010.]

A long-standing tradition at the Indianapolis 500 car race is for the victor to drink a bottle of milk immediately after the race. Below, local volunteers toast the Harding Street victory in downtown Indy.

IPL's August 15 announcement came as the Indianapolis City-County Council was preparing to vote on a resolution urging IPL to stop burning coal at Harding Street by 2020. Resolution 241, which also urged IPL to invest in greater amounts of clean, renewable energy, had 11 co-sponsors, and a majority of council members had pledged to vote yes.

Photo by Alicia Tucker, courtesy of A.L.T.ERNATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY

The measure passed the Community Affairs Committee 4-1 last month, with supporters of the resolution vastly outnumbering opponents at the hearing. Hours earlier, the Sierra Club released a poll showing that nearly 7 in 10 Indianapolis voters supported IPL phasing out coal entirely in Marion County, and for the utility to increase its energy efficiency and use of renewable energy like wind and solar.

Among those who testified at the July hearing was Amber Sparks, below in tan jacket, who lives about three miles from the Harding Street plant. She told the City-County Council how asthma-related illnesses have regularly kept her children home from school, led to about 20 emergency room visits and half a dozen intensive care stays, and thousands of dollars in medical bills.

"Asthma has changed our lives," she said. "We continue to adjust and eliminate as many triggers as possible … but there are some triggers I can't control. On bad air days, the children must stay indoors, limit physical activities, and have round-the-clock breathing treatments. Their quality of life is affected, and it breaks my heart each time they look at me and ask why they have asthma."

Below, clean-air activists at the hearing.

According to the EPA, Harding Street was responsible for 88 percent of the toxic industrial pollution released in 2012 in Marion County. It is also the largest source of dangerous soot and sulfur dioxide pollution in the county, contributing to central Indiana's failing grades for air quality announced earlier this year by the American Lung Association.

Photo courtesy of NUVO News

Over 55 churches, neighborhood associations, student groups, and other organizations comprising the Power Indy Forward Coalition passed resolutions urging IPL to power our city with clean energy and put an end to toxic pollution in Indianapolis. Hoosier Chapter volunteers knocked on doors, talked to people at festivals and on the street, made phone calls, and spoke out at rallies and public hearings about the public health impacts of burning coal.

Above and below, clean-energy activists celebrate IPL's August 15 announcement.

"For the past two years, thousands of Indianapolis residents have demanded clean air for our community," says Jodi Perras, Indiana representative for Beyond Coal. "They've signed petitions and postcards, rallied on the steps of Monument Circle (above) and at the Indiana State Museum, and urged their City-County Councilors to call on IPL to stop burning coal at Harding Street. Today, those calls have been answered."

Photo by Alicia Tucker, courtesy of A.L.T.ERNATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY

Perras gives a shout-out to coalition partners Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light, Citizens Action Coalition, Indiana NAACP, Organizing for Action, Concerned Clergy, and students and faculty at Purdue University Indianapolis and Butler University.

Categories: Sierra Club National

Chinese Coal Consumption Just Fell For The First Time This Century

18 August 2014 - 7:33am
Sources: Compiled from China National Bureau of Statistics and China National Coal Association statistical releases.

There may be a light at the end of the long dark tunnel: It appears China’s coal boom is over.

While positive signs have been emerging from China for well over a year, it appears the ‘war on pollution’ is not just talk. According to analysis produced by Lauri Myllyvirta and Greenpeace International in the first half of this year, China’s coal use dropped for the first time this century - while the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) actually grew.

You read that right: coal and GDP growth have decoupled in China.

At the same time, the growth of imports -- the seemingly endless source of optimism for the moribund U.S. coal industry -- ground almost to a halt, with only 0.9 percent growth so far this year, as opposed to more than 15 percent yearly figures we have seen since China first became a net importer. Topping off the trifecta of good news is that domestic production dropped by 1.8 percent [article is in Chinese]. While uncertainty over the changes in coal stockpiles still exists, we’re confident that the unbelievable may be at hand: peak coal consumption in China.

It’s hard to understate just how historic this shift is. Analysts have been arguing over if, and when, Chinese coal consumption would peak. Some were forecasting a peak before 2020 while others -- including Wood Mackenzie -- have been loudly claiming Chinese coal demand may not ever peak but would instead double by 2030. This new data exposes the wide gulf between reality and hype that those predictions rely on.

In a sign of just how dramatically the tables have turned on the previously skyrocketing projections for the coal industry in China, consider this: the China National Coal Association is now calling for a 10 percent reduction in second half domestic coal output in many of the main coal-producing provinces. That about face comes as quite a shock considering as recently as December, the Association was busy advocating for a billion tonnes of coal to be added to the Chinese coal market by 2020. My what a difference a year makes.

But, it’s important to understand how the many who still believe in the myth that Chinese coal demand can grow endlessly will respond to the news. Two easy to believe short-term explanations have already been offered for the slowing coal demand.

The first is that China’s economic growth is slowing and skyrocketing coal consumption will resume when the economy rebounds. The problem with this explanation is that while the first five years of the century saw coal use and GDP grow almost hand in hand, the second half saw them decouple. More importantly, the Chinese economy registered a year-on-year growth rate of 7.4 percent, which indicates that the fundamental growth pattern of the Chinese economy has changed.

A widening gap between economic growth and coal consumption increases. Sources: Compiled from China National Bureau of Statistics and China National Coal Association statistical releases.

The second explanation was offered by Bloomberg: a surge in hydropower generation offset coal use. China did indeed add a lot of hydropower capacity in the first half of 2014; however, the 9.7 percent year-on-year increase in hydropower generation was business-as-usual. In fact, the average for the past five years was 9.3 percent. This increase in hydropower was only capable of changing the coal consumption growth rate by less than one percentage point, which hardly changes the big picture.

So, what’s really going on? The times they are a changing, and the Chinese economy is changing with them. We’re finally starting to see movement away from the energy-intensive fossil fuel industries and investments that fueled China’s rise.

Basic energy-intensive industry products are no more the engine of growth in China. Source: Compiled from China National Bureau of Statistics yearbooks and press releases.

It has been long acknowledged that, in China, investments and a heavy reliance on industry cannot sustain growth while the services sector and household consumption remain suppressed. This adjustment seems to be slowly progressing, with growth in services (excluding real estate) and private consumption only recently outpacing the manufacturing industry. While still nascent, if this restructuring gains pace, along with the promising growth in clean energy, there is much reason for optimism.

But there is still a long way to go from a peak in coal consumption to the necessary reductions needed to move toward a clean energy future. Fortunately, this change does not have to be linear, and interestingly, it seems Chinese investors were ahead of the curve as many have been busy shifting their money from coal to clean energy over the past few years.

It looks like the smart money in China has long realized what the data is now showing: bullish predictions on future coal growth are unfounded, and clean energy is the future.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program, and Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace International

Categories: Sierra Club National

BMW i3: A Subtle and Sublime Revolution

15 August 2014 - 4:25pm

Photo courtesy of BMW

The BMW i3 made its debut in U.S. markets in May. The best way to describe the car is that it's radically different. It really looks like a concept car; its design is futuristic and colorful, with the added bonus that you can actually buy it today. The i3, though dead silent, has impressed with a 22kwh battery that has a range of 81+ miles between electric charges and can take you from 0-60 in under 7 seconds.

"It takes off like a rocket!" says i3 owner Charlie Rabie, a Tufts University professor and former business leader, who took delivery of the first i3 in the U.S. [Check out the Sierra Club's electric vehicle guide.]

So what's all the fuss about?

We met with Rabie, pictured below at right, to discuss the car. He explained why he found himself drawn to it. "[The car] is flawless… it drives like a BMW…I don't have to deal with gas stations. The car had been built from the ground up to be electric, and it shows."

Photo courtesy of Charlie Rabie

Rabie went on to show us some of the innovative functionality that is available to smartphone users through the i3's own app. You can remotely view charge levels, check historical efficiency stats, lock and unlock your doors, start and stop charging, precondition the battery's temperature for optimal efficiency, and even see how many pounds of CO2 you've avoided releasing into the atmosphere.

Additionally, BMW seems to have come up with a solution to the range anxiety issue experienced by some. My dad, who also happens to be an i3 owner, decided to go for the Range Extended (REX) model. The REX version comes with a small gasoline engine that effectively doubles the car's range, kicking in only when the battery is about to drop below 5 percent.

The fact of the matter is that the range extender is a foolproof safety net; it doesn't just double your mileage range; it gives you total freedom to drive i3 to its full electric range every time you charge it. Most times, you'll drive in only electric mode. But if you happen to run out of electric charge, you can rely on gasoline and even fuel up at a gas station if you don't have access to or time for EV charging. However, all the i3 drivers I've spoken to, including my dad, say that the vast majority of the miles they're driving are electric.

"I've driven 6,000 miles, 95 percent of that was on electricity, and I've never gotten stuck " said my dad, Jack Mark. "For a city, it's the ideal size. And it's so quiet, my wife and I can sit and chat as if we are in our living room."

[That's Joe and Jack Mark with the i3, below.]

Photo by Joe Mark

The Sierra Club's New Hampshire chapter chair Jerry Curran is another i3 driver. He also adores his new wheels and recently gushed:

"The i3 is the most advanced electric car in America in terms of sustainability. To reduce energy consumption, it was built with light weight carbon fiber and aluminum... The carbon fiber was produced in Washington with Bonneville hydro power. The assembly plant in Germany is powered by three wind turbines. Recycled materials comprise half of the interior. It's a blast to drive, handles like a BMW, and will drop any other BMW muscle car off the line from 0 to 45." 

- Joe Mark, an incoming senior at Tufts University, is an intern with the Sierra Club's Electric Vehicle Initiative.

Categories: Sierra Club National