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How Japan replaced half its nuclear capacity through energy efficiency

10 April 2014 - 12:48pm

Japan was facing darkness.

Three years after the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Japan’s energy capacity was rapidly reaching its peak going in to the high-energy summer months. A tremendous amount of conventional generation capacity--including the entire nuclear fleet--was unavailable, and the country faced the risk of power cuts. But miraculously, or seemingly so, in just a few short weeks, Japan managed to avert the rolling power cuts that many believed inevitable. Even more impressive, Japan has turned these emergency measures into lasting solutions.

So how did a country on the brink of blackout suddenly meet their country’s energy needs without forcing people back to the stone age? Japan overcame this daunting task by tapping the cheapest and most widely available source of energy savings available--energy efficiency.

Much of the electricity savings were initially driven by a popular movement known as “Setsuden.” This movement emerged to encourage people and companies to save electricity and prevent rolling power cuts. Simple measures such as upping the thermostat by a few degrees in homes and offices, 'thinning' lighting by reducing the use of some lightbulbs, cutting back on the use of big screens and exterior lighting, and powering down electric toilet seats--a Japanese peculiarity--enabled Japan to dramatically reduce power demand almost overnight. Dress codes in offices were even eased to ensure employees were more comfortable in light of the changes, and both large and small companies were audited to identify savings potential.

These temporary measures have proven to have long term impact. They've dramatically increased the awareness of energy use and energy efficiency with large companies now running high-profile, long-lasting programs. Japan’s economy and gross domestic product (GDP) grew and power consumption stayed stable thanks to these newly ingrained practices.

More importantly, there is huge potential for technical measures to reduce energy usage even further--a resource Japan has only just begun to tap.

What's even more surprising is how far off the energy pundits were in predicting the impact this would have on Japan. Aside from worrying that the sky would fall, the pundits made dire predictions about the need to replace the nuclear fleet with 'cheap coal'--a myth we previously debunked.

Fortunately, through a combination of common sense energy saving measures, Japan instead turned to permanent efficiency gains. In the process, the Japanese people and its business community proved the pundits wrong.

The key lesson from the Japanese experience--the lesson pundits failed to appreciate--is that coal plant construction is simply too slow to be relevant in the modern world where resiliency is highly valued. To cope with rapid loss of generation capacity, Japan needed fast, nimble and modular 21st century solutions. That means efficiency and clean energy.

Despite major hurdles to deploying these solutions, due to a complete absence of renewable energy policies prior to the Fukushima disaster, solar power surged in 2013 blowing away earlier predictions. In fact, Japan invested the most money in solar power of any country in 2013, and this investment is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years.

In contrast, coal power projects proposed in the wake of Fukushima are still sitting on the drawing board. By the time these coal projects are projected to be online, their output will be rendered obsolete due to the rapidly dropping price of renewable energy. Even worse, these investments lock Japan into a volatile international coal market.

Japan should scrap these coal plans all together. Japan needs to look no further than India's recent imported coal debacle - Tata Mundra - for a warning of what that market can do to energy security. Coal investments there have knocked India into a market relying on volatile, dangerous fossil fuels that Indians can’t rely on.

At the end of the day, a nation can’t achieve energy security by depending on coal. Aligning energy investments with the need to address climate disruption is a critical concern to protect the health of communities and families. Replacing half of the nuclear fleet with efficiency is just one step in the right direction for an advanced country like Japan. As scientists continue to warn of the impending global greenhouse gas emissions peak, Japan must begin reducing its emissions--not increasing them with more fossil fuels. The easiest and most important step it can take is removing the illusion of the need for new coal-burning power plants.

After all, the efficiency gains and promising developments with clean energy show that Japan can be a leader in 21st century energy solutions.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director of Sierra Club's International Climate Program, and Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace

Categories: Sierra Club National

A Parent and Faith Leader's Perspective: Why We Need Strong Smog Standards

10 April 2014 - 12:21pm

As the father of an asthmatic child, and as a person of faith, I'm grateful for the Clean Air Act. That might seem like an odd introduction, but let me explain.

Last fall, Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) complained that, in enforcing the standards of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has "overreached" its authority. Overreach - that mental picture might seem scary to some: the hand of big government imposing its way into our lives to tell us what we can and cannot do.

As a Christian, though, the image that comes to my mind when I think of overreach is very different. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, against a clear blue sky, God over-reaches space and time. In the touching of two fingers, heaven and earth meet, and Adam "became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7b). According to the second creation story, God took the dust of the earth and gave it human form. But the lump just lays there, inert, lifeless, until God breathed spirit---the Hebrew word is ruach, "breath" - into Adam's lungs.  

That Biblical story takes on real flesh and blood as I'm desperately racing to the emergency room with my son, Aaron, in the seat beside me. It's another bad air quality day where I live, and Aaron is having yet another asthma attack. His face is ashen and his lips are sky blue as he tries to suck in the life giving air that he can't force into his lungs. I reach out my hand across the seat to him---to assure him, to assure myself---but he's too weak to even lift his fingers up to meet mine. There is no breath in him.

I carry him in my arms, limp as a ragdoll, into the emergency room where doctors and nurses who meet us at the door. I watch as their hands reach out to heal. Aaron's breath is restored. Standing next to his bed I can't talk without crying, so I just make an OK sign with my hand, a question in my eyes. He lifts up his hand so his OK meets my OK. Overreach.

It could have been much worse for Aaron. The reason there aren't more bad air quality days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because, in 1970, Republicans on one side of the aisle and Democrats on the other side of the isle reached their hands across the partisan divide to create the Clean Air Act.

The reason there aren't more bad days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because a Republican president, reached over, pen in hand, to signed the Clean Air Act into law. As a result, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, some 400,000 premature deaths have been prevented.

Here in Arizona, the EPA is proposing to reduce harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a coal plant that is one of the largest sources of NOx emissions in the U.S. as well as from the Apache, Coronado, Sundt, and Cholla generating stations. NOx is a key ingredient in both ozone and fine particulate pollution, both very dangerous forms of pollution.

Every year, air pollution from these coal plants contributes to significant health problems including heart attacks, asthma attacks, hospital admissions, emergency room visits, chronic bronchitis, and costing Arizonans hundreds of millions of dollars in health expenses. Certain groups are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, such as: infants, older adults and people with lung diseases like asthma.

Smokestack pollution from NGS also adds to smog haze in 11 national parks and wilderness areas surrounding the plant, including the Grand Canyon, which is less than 20 miles away. Emissions from the Apache, Coronado, and Cholla coal plants add to dirty air at 18 national parks and wilderness areas in four states. The Sundt plant, right in Tucson, affects our public lands and the public health of those in surrounding neighborhoods.

We should not have to wait decades for clean air. We need strong clean air standards that include the most protective pollution control technology to safeguard our health and our environment now, as well as that of future generations. I thank God for the Clean Air Act, and for the people who are willing to stand up in the name of life and healing and common sense. I hope Rep. Gosar can be one of those people who "overreaches" across the aisle to support strong EPA clean air standards.

- Rev. Doug Bland, Director of Arizona Interfaith Power & Light

Categories: Sierra Club National

Securing a Positive Climate Legacy

10 April 2014 - 7:10am

Our world faces an unprecedented environmental, social, and economic challenge-- climate disruption. As the most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change notes, the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world as seas rise, extreme weather events increase, areas suffer drought or flood, and plants and animals edge closer to extinction.  Scientists agree that fossil fuels are the main culprit behind climate disruption and as a new Sierra Club report details, it is vitally important that undeveloped dirty fuels remain that way.

Using publicly available data already gathered by federal agencies, the report, Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures (PDF), calculates the potential carbon dioxide emissions from dirty fuel development proposals. Such calculations send a clear message: Actions to effectively reducing climate disruption must include keeping dirty fuels in the ground.

Four major potential sources of carbon pollution have been identified, the Arctic Ocean, the Green River Formation, the Powder River Basin, and the Monterey, San Juan Basin and Marcellus shale plays. If just a fraction of the oil, gas and coal from these major climate disrupters was developed, the resulting carbon pollution would cancel out our country's greatest accomplishments in the fight against climate disruption--efforts like the Obama administrations new fuel economy standards.



Thankfully, President Obama can take pragmatic actions to keep dirty fuels in the ground and speed our country down the path to clean energy future.  Over the remainder of his time in office he has an opportunity to:

  • Fully implement his Executive Order 13514 requiring all resource management agencies to fully consider climate pollution, like they do other types of pollution, prior to leasing or exporting onshore and offshore oil, gas, coal, and unconventional fuels sources such as oil shale and tar sands.  
  • Stop any new leasing of federal oil, gas, and coal until potential environmental, climate, and public health impacts are fully considered, including:
  • Withdrawing plans to allow development of oil shale and tar sands on 800,000 acres of federal public lands in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
  • No issuance of new federal coal leases until reforms that increase royalty rates, set sensitive lands aside, insure public transparency, and fully assess impacts from all aspects of coal production are implemented.
  • Withdrawing plans to offer any new offshore oil leases in the Arctic Ocean.
  • No issuance of any new oil and gas leases on federal lands that use fracking and well stimulation techniques until impacts on water, air, and climate are averted.
  • Close oil, gas, and coal industry exemptions from environmental and public safety laws.
  • Stop the export of coal and liquefied natural gas.

By showing leadership and taking these actions, President Obama can put the world on a path to avert climate catastrophe and create a clean-energy future that generates quality jobs, protects public health, and secures a wild lands legacy for our children’s future.  He can bolster his National Climate Action Plan and secure the progress that his administration has made in reducing domestic carbon emissions.

TAKE ACTION: Tell President Obama to keep dirty fuels in the ground!

-- Dan Chu, Director of the Sierra Club Our Wild America campaign

Categories: Sierra Club National

How Coal & Clean Energy Will Define Indian Elections

8 April 2014 - 2:06pm

On the coast of India’s Gulf of Kutch in Western Gujarat, near a small town called Mundra, an iconic fight against Tata Power’s Mundra coal plant is brewing. This fight has become the epicenter of a “rousing struggle” against coal expansion - and a microcosm of India’s election politics.

A small group of local fisherfolk are opposing the plant and leading a campaign that exposes the dark side of unchecked coal development and contradictions in the campaign of leading Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

In a country that recently made headlines for the largest power outage in history, Gujarat is an anomaly – it has a power surplus. That, along with industry-friendly policies including a heavy emphasis on special economic zones (SEZs), has helped propel the state's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, to become the primary challenger in the race for prime minister. Indeed, the idea Modi's campaign has touted about Gujarat energy development is something many Indians aspire to.

Even more appealing is that Modi's power surplus has been supported by a 'saffron revolution' thanks to dramatic solar expansion. A true anomaly in coal-dependent India.

But despite Modi’s fervent support for solar energy, Gujarat is also home to some of the biggest coal plants in the country. Power companies are building a series of 16 ultra mega coal power plants (UMPPs) to stem the power crisis, including Tata Power’s flagship Mundra coal plant, or “Tata Mundra.” But the projects have exposed just how poorly the industry is now performing, and just how desperate the need is to diversify India’s energy mix away from coal.

Tata Mundra has been a debacle since day one. Despite abundant promises of cheap power, Tata Mundra’s costs have skyrocketed, forcing it to raise rates for average citizens. Worse, it has set a harmful precedent in the country: it’s the first project to be exempt from a legally binding contract by the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission in order to raise rates and boost profits. Tata Mundra will be defending the exemptions in courts for years to come as states and consumers appeal these decisions.

The devastation to locals from this project is even more grim. Tata Mundra has burdened local fishermen by diverting waterways and releasing thermal pollution that kills fish for miles along the coast.

That’s why local fisherman have filed for a full audit of the World Bank Group’s financing of the project. The audit’s damning findings were swept under the rug by World Bank President Dr. Kim, but are once again under investigation by another international financier -- the Asian Development Bank.

Rampant, unchecked industrialization is ravaging the environment and the social fabric of India’s coasts, and Modi’s political enemies know it. Arvind Kejriwal, chief of an opposing political party, traveled to Gujarat to “tour" the development progress of the state.

While Gujarat has seen large industrial growth, it’s also home to some of the lowest social indicators in the country. In fact, Gujarat represents one of the lowest per-capita, per-day earnings for salaried people in the country. Most Indians don’t see these facts, thanks to Modi’s impressive marketing campaign.  

But it’s not just opposing political parties who are highlighting the contradictions inherent in Modi’s state and campaign. Already the Congress party has organized several political rallies up and down Gujarat’s heavily industrialized coastline to appeal to fishing communities affected by coal development. The message: end environmental destruction.

Modi’s association with some of the world’s largest coal projects will undoubtedly darken the candidate’s image. It may even put him in the same company as India’s current Environment Minister “Oily Moily.”

As Indians head to the polls, what’s happening in Mundra could end up ultimately defining Modi and his plan for the nation.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Hazardous Waste Next Door: The Importance of the Definition of Solid Waste

8 April 2014 - 8:49am

Did you know that chemical companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the industrial waste industry are exempt from a law requiring companies handling hazardous waste to protect public health and the environment?

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted in 1976, but in 2008 the Bush Administration exempted these companies handling the most dangerous substances from complying. This new rule was called "The Definition of Solid Waste" (DSW).

Take a look at the chemicals slipping through this regulatory gap:

  • Solvents like benzene, toluene, TCE and perc (linked to cancer, low birth weight, miscarriages, major malformations, and heart defects)
  • Heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury - potent neurotoxins and carcinogens

In 2011, thanks to legal challenge from the Sierra Club, as represented by EarthJustice, and due to the advocacy of environmental justice, civil rights, public health and other organizations, the EPA completed a groundbreaking environmental justice analysis and found that DSW's lax rules for hazardous waste disproportionately affected communities of color and low-income communities:

  • Hundreds of sites where toxic releases have occurred in the past are consistently located in communities of color and low-income communities.
  • The 2008 DSW rule removes opportunities for public participation in siting and permitting decisions, disenfranchising non-white and low-income communities from critical decisions affecting their health and livelihoods.
  • The industries exempt from federal controls are often located in areas that already face exposure to multiple environmental hazards, and already have high cancer rates and neurological hazard rates as a result of exposure to pollution.

In fact, in Illinois and Idaho, almost every hazardous waste recycling facility operating under the regulatory exemption is located in a community of color and low-income community.

The 2011 legal challenge required the EPA to publish a new DSW rule in 2012, but the EPA had taken no action until last month. On March 15, 2014, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) finally began its regulatory review of the EPA's DSW rule.

The Sierra Club is part of a coalition of public interest organizations and individuals from across the U.S. that supports a DSW standard that protects our health, environment and livelihood from hazardous waste released from recycling operations. Together we are urging the administration to abide by the 90-day limit for review of this rule and to publish a final DSW rule by July 1, 2014.

The delay in issuing a final rule is exacting a high toll on communities of color and low-income communities. Since 1982, hazardous waste recycling has polluted more than 200 sites, including many on the Superfund National Priority List, which identifies the worst toxic waste sites in the nation. The EPA found that the majority of the contamination at these sites occurred when recycling operations were exempted from compliance with safeguards under the RCRA.

This is why the final DSW rule must reinstate these essential safeguards. There is an urgent need to close this gap for the health of the nation and particularly for environmental justice communities. The rule impacts management of 1.8 million tons of hazardous waste, predominantly in communities of color and in low-income communities.

Any further delay is unacceptable while toxic releases to air and water poison fenceline neighborhoods at recycling operations. We call on the OMB, the EPA, and the Obama administration to ensure that this important rule receives the priority it deserves so that the safety of the nation’s most vulnerable communities can be ensured now and for future generations.

-- Leslie Fields, Director of the Sierra Club Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program

Categories: Sierra Club National