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‘Pay-As-You-Go’ Solar Companies Win National Geographic Terra Watt Prize

12 June 2014 - 10:52am

Just as solar leasing from the likes of SolarCity unlocked the solar market in the U.S., pay as you go solar providers are unlocking solar power for the masses worldwide.

That’s a big reason the off-grid solar market is booming, with over $45 million flowing into the market since November 2013 and a smorgasbord of start-up companies popping up for investors to choose from. Yesterday, the National Geographic’s Terra Watt Prize validated this market trend by awarding two ‘pay-as-you-go’ off-grid solar companies its top honors.

Focused on rural village electrification, the Terra Watt Prize was created to provide entrepreneurs with access to investment and the opportunity to be reviewed by credible experts which in turn provides valuable business exposure.  

This year’s winners -- who were evaluated on feasibility, impact, sustainability, and scalability of their products -- are India-based  Mera Gao Power and Tanzania-based EGG-energy.  Each company will receive $125,000, plus the prestige of being honored by National Geographic through a rigorous process designed to add to the due diligence process.          

Mera Gao Power produces and operates micro grids in rural Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states but also a hotbed of distributed solar activity. The company describes itself as a ‘lighting utility’ and lights its customers lives with highly efficient LED bulbs. Mera Gao Power collects weekly payments, and if those payments aren’t received, the micro grid systems shut themselves off via self-resetting fuses. This unique model has allowed the young company to expand power to more than 100,000 people.

EGG-energy has been working toward their mission of scaling up the solar home system (SHS) distribution in Tanzania and East Africa.  EGG-energy started in 2009 as an on-grid battery business (the “Netflix of batteries”), then expanded their battery business to include off-grid areas, and eventually added SHS to their portfolio. Today, EGG-energy is focused on expanding their ‘rent to own’ 80 and 200-watt SHS across Tanzania and East Africa by using mobile money platforms that allow them to remotely monitor their systems.

As we’ve pointed out before, mobile phone penetration and off-grid solar are converging to create clean technology’s next big market. It is one of the most innovative and exciting opportunities the international community has seen in a long time.  But for too long it has gone unnoticed as a silent revolution in rural parts of the developing world. Perhaps the National Geographic competition will be the wake-up call the world needs to recognize just how fast the revolution is proceeding and how profound the implications of this revolution will be.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program, and Vrinda Manglik, Associate Campaign Representative, International Clean Energy Access

Categories: Sierra Club National

Why Are Some in Congress Content to Let Wind Industry Jobs Blow Away?

12 June 2014 - 9:10am

Believe it or not, there was a day when the Production Tax Credit for clean, renewable energy was not a partisan issue. When it cleared the House Ways and Means Committee in 1992, it was with a strong bipartisan majority. Then, clean energy was not perceived in Congress an us-versus-them issue. There was broad agreement on both sides of the aisle that developing new, cleaner energy industries would begin to level the playing field among energy sources and create more choices for consumers. It was described as good for the environment, the economy, and the nation as a whole. Members of both parties jockeyed to get projects and factories in their districts.

Alas, those days are gone, even if the benefits are not. Now there is a crusading right-wing that is happy to take fossil fuel money hand over fist and be the spear tip for that industry's efforts to sabotage its growing clean energy competition. Most Republican members of Congress are now under great pressure from the big polluters who are their big money campaign donors to actively oppose clean energy industries that have been an agent of economic growth in the nation generally and in rural Republican districts specifically.

Renewable energy is growing fast, fast enough to make some utilities, coal companies, oil and gas barons, (and some particular Koch brothers) pretty nervous about the future viability of their product.

But to be realistic, the profits raked in by many of these billion-dollar companies have never been higher. Yet, the Kochs are using their so-called Americans for Prosperity front group and its dozens of affiliates to attack federal and state laws that have brought wind and solar energy forward from infancy to create tens of thousands of jobs and power millions of homes and businesses. Whether their target is state renewable portfolios standards, energy efficiency standards, net metering laws, or incentives like the PTC, the bottomless pockets of the Koch brothers are working overtime to obliterate clean energy.

Even in 2012, the PTC benefited from a strong nucleus of support from House Republicans. But still, the credit expired again this past December 31. Today, because of the shade thrown on the wind industry by the fossil giants, more and more Republicans appear to be afraid to voice their support for the incentive even when there are serious megawatts or wind energy jobs in their very own district. Why face a reprimand from the Koch enforcers when you can just lay low, keep your head down, and weather the storm? What's the demise of a few small businesses and jobs in the district?

Well, it's a lot. Clean energy means jobs. It means safer air and water. And it means less climate-disrupting carbon pollution pumped into our air. That's why the Sierra Club is kicking off its campaign to shine a light on a number of Representatives that have a wind industry presence in their districts and states, but apparently remain content to put those jobs and assets at risk with their silence on whether or not they support the renewal of the PTC. In some places, it's a handful of jobs in supply chain parts manufacturers, small but important cogs in a manufacturing industry that supports tens of thousands of jobs nationwide. In other areas, the economic footprint is enormous.

Here's one of the ads - a TV commercial targeting Congressman Tim Walberg (MI-07):


Another example: Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas has more than 4300 megawatts of wind in his district with thousands of supply chain jobs and tax base that funds schools and community infrastructure. Yet those constituents don’t seem to merit his support.

Most of the members in question have not even weighed in on the Ways and Means tax reform proposal released by outgoing Chairman Dave Camp that would actually take money back from projects that have not yet run the course of eligibility for the credit. It's one thing to say that one is willing to kill the growth of one of the few manufacturing industries in the U.S. that has grown quickly since 2007, it’s another to remain silent while the government yanks back resources that were promised in good faith to American companies and communities. Would the oil and gas industry allow that silence if the tables were turned?

There has been plenty of opportunity to support the PTC since it expired on New Year's Eve. Conservative Rep. Steve King, with whom the Sierra Club disagrees more often than the alternative, circulated a letter with fellow Iowan Rep. Dave Loebsack arguing for a straight extension of the PTC through 2015. Every member of the House had the opportunity to sign that letter. But that's the least they should have done. If Congressional inaction threatens your district you can hold press conferences, make floor speeches, organize your colleagues - make a stink.  But the silence has been deafening.

Clean energy enjoys strong, broad, bipartisan support. It's time to make more citizens aware of what their elected representatives are actually doing - or not doing - to support it.

If these members believe that the survival of wind jobs in their districts and states is not important enough to merit their support, what other industries and jobs do they think are expendable?

-- Dave Hamilton, director of Clean Energy for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign

Categories: Sierra Club National

Time to Act on Trucks: We can reduce new truck fuel consumption 40% by 2025

12 June 2014 - 8:20am

Today medium and heavy-duty vehicles - everything from delivery trucks to tractor trailers - represent one of the fastest growing sources of oil use in the transportation sector. Though our passenger cars have grown more efficient in recent years, the average tractor-trailer gets around six miles per gallon on the road, the same as it has for decades.

The Obama administration has an opportunity to propose strong efficiency standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles that can reduce new truck fuel consumption 40 percent by 2025. These standards will cut carbon pollution, reduce oil use, and save drivers money at the pump.

According to  a new factsheet released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and the American Council for and Energy-Efficient Economy, we have the technology to cost-effectively reduce new truck fuel consumption 40 percent by 2025.

Tractor-trailers, responsible for two-thirds of medium and heavy-duty vehicle fuel use, can reduce fuel use 46 percent, with fuel savings paying for new technology in just over one year. Increasing the average fuel efficiency of a tractor-trailer from nearly six miles per gallon to nearly 11 miles per gallon would significantly reduce oil use in the transportation sector. Similarly, vocational vehicles, such as delivery trucks, and heavy-duty pickup trucks have opportunities to reduce fuel use 32 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

Strong standards will reduce oil consumption. In 2012, trucks on the road consumed roughly 2.7 million barrels of fuel each day, resulting in 530 million metric tons of carbon pollution. Setting strong standards that build on existing standards could cut fuel use by 1.4 million barrels per day - roughly equivalent to our oil imports from Venezuela and Iraq in 2011 combined.

Thanks to innovation by countries in the United States and around the world, we have the technology to increase fuel efficiency and reduce carbon pollution. From aerodynamics to automated manual transmissions and turbocharged engines, a wide range of technologies can be employed in the coming years. These technologies will save drivers money at the pump, including an estimated $30,000 in fuel savings per year for average tractor-trailer owners.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are currently developing proposed standards for medium and heavy-duty vehicles, which they are expected to release in March of 2015. We know that one effective way to reduce oil use and cut carbon pollution is to set strong standards for medium and heavy-duty vehicles. Now it’s time for the Obama administration to act on trucks.

-- Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Sierra Club

Categories: Sierra Club National

Mass. Activists Cheer Coal Plant Retirement, Call for Transition Plan

11 June 2014 - 8:16am

Residents of Holyoke, Massachusetts, are cheering the retirement of the local Mt. Tom coal plant, knowing that its significant air pollution will soon end. Last week the plant's owners, GDF Suez, announced that the plant will cease operations in October 2014.

This is a major victory for the many local clean air advocates, including Coal Free Massachusetts, of which Sierra Club Massachusetts is a founding member, and which represents more than 100 public health, environmental justice, faith, student, and business organizations including Neighbor to Neighbor and Action for a Healthy Holyoke (AHH!). For years members of these groups have been writing letters, holding rallies, protesting, speaking at public hearings, and more to urge the retirement of the plant because of its public health and environmental effects.

"The asthma rate in Holyoke is twice the state average and my wife suffers from terrible asthma herself," said Carlos Rodriguez a community leader in AHH! and Neighbor to Neighbor, "so, while we are very glad to know our air will be cleaner, responsible retirement also means working with our community and the workers for clean up and transition."

James McCaffrey of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign in Massachusetts says that GDF Suez has committed to honoring the duration of the plant's union contract which expires in October.

"This is a great start, but we still need to do more," McCaffrey said. "The state has committed $100,000 through Coal Free Massachusetts supported legislation that passed last year for reuse and planning for the host community of Holyoke, and we hope the legislature and Governor Patrick will take steps now to provide meaningful support for municipal revenues and the workers."

Community members are not only concerned about the plant's workers and the economic effect on the community, but also about making sure the Mt. Tom site is fully cleaned up.

"I am nervous about the contamination in the ground," said Carmelo Diaz, also of Neighbor to Neighbor and Action for a Healthy Holyoke, "back in Puerto Rico I’ve seen a coal plant that closed without cleaning up its mess."

GDF Suez is considering repurposing the Mt. Tom site as a solar farm, and McCaffrey says Coal-Free Massachusetts and the coalition are working with the administration, legislature, and GDF to assure that all regulatory and legislative components are in place to help clean up the site and possibly repurpose it for renewable energy.

McCaffrey credits the powerful group of local activists with the success over the filthy Mt. Tom coal plant. "We've pressured both the state and the Environmental Protection Agency for stronger air and water permits, engaged with grassroots and community leaders, and worked directly with the company."

They know the work isn't done yet, but the Mt. Tom retirement announcement is a great boost for lovers of clean air and clean water in western Massachusetts.

-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club

Categories: Sierra Club National