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Sierra Club Compass Blog
Wind energy? We're big fans - and we're excited to be sponsoring the American Wind Energy Association's upcoming Offshore Windpower 2013 Conference and Exhibition this October in Providence, Rhode Island.
Wind power is the fastest-growing source of power on the planet. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 50 gigawatts of installed wind capacity - enough to provide electricity to 13 million American homes. The Department of Energy even predicts that we can get 20 percent of our power as a nation from wind energy alone by 2030.
Ten states are well on their way, already getting 10 percent of their electricity from wind power, including Iowa and South Dakota, which are topping out at 20 percent. Twenty percent of our country being powered by wind energy would result in the creation of approximately 800,000 jobs, alongside increased property tax revenues and new payments to rural landowners. In addition to the economic benefits, wind energy is much safer and cleaner for us and the planet, compared to more traditional, dirtier sources of energy, such as coal or oil.
We're particularly excited for the potential of offshore wind. Offshore wind is stronger and more reliable than land-based wind farms, and our wind resources are greatest along our coasts and the Great Lakes -- close to our nation's population centers and existing transmission resources. In fact, the Department of Energy reported that the U.S. has up to 4,000 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind along our coasts and the Great Lakes - four times as much as the capacity of every U.S. power plant in operation today combined.
Though we may not be able to harness all of this massive resource, even a small percentage would greatly reduce our dependence on dirty fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Europe has already been harnessing the power of offshore wind for more than twenty years, proving that offshore wind is possible in the U.S. today.
At AWEA's Offshore Windpower 2013 Conference and Exhibition, industry leaders will come together to discuss how the offshore market is forming in the U.S. Participants will have the opportunity to engage with manufacturers, suppliers, project developers, policy-makers, utility representatives, and thought-leaders from across the wind energy industry. Each day of the conference will also feature General Sessions during which attendees can hear from high-level government officials, offshore wind industry visionaries, leading companies in the offshore wind market, and offshore wind developers giving their latest insights into upcoming projects.
If you want to learn more, visit www.offshorewindexpo.org or register for the conference here -- you might just learn something about wind energy that will blow you away!
-- Vanessa Pierce, Beyond Coal Campaign Eastern Regional Director
One might think that Nordic countries have the most to lose when it comes to the impending climate catastrophe. Partially located within in the North Arctic Circle and including the Danish territory of Greenland, glaciers are melting at an alarming rate and communities in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden will need to adapt and fight back.
Given this very real threat, it’s a relief - and a surprise to some - that the outlook for this region is relatively favorable in the the global context. Thanks in part to the strong economies and political institutions in these countries, they have a broad ability to adapt. But adaptation is not the only way these nations will deal with climate disruption.
These Nordic nations are the first ones to back President Obama’s plan to stop pouring money into dangerous coal projects overseas, except in rare circumstances.
The good news came this week, when President Obama visited Sweden and met with the leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden to discuss a number of topics, including the environment, trade, and the Middle East.
“Climate change is one of the foremost challenges for our future economic growth and well-being,” the group of leaders said in a statement issued this week. “We underscore the importance of continuing to encourage innovative approaches to promoting energy efficiency and clean energy, including renewables, and of taking action on climate change, domestically and internationally.”
The countries said they will "join the United States in ending public financing for new coal-fired power plants overseas, except in rare circumstances" and "work together to secure the support of other countries and multilateral development banks to adopt similar policies."
Some international finance institutions have also begun turning away from coal because the outdated fossil fuel is a risky investment. This summer, the U.S. Export-Import Bank announced that it would not be funding the proposed Thai Binh II coal-fired power plant in Vietnam. Other international finance institutions have followed suit, including the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, dropping coal investments from their portfolios. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is facing pressure from the Sierra Club and others to be the next to give up coal investments.
These are crucial commitments, since one country or institution alone cannot fight climate disruption. To fully move beyond coal, governments and international finance institutions should be investing in renewables -- clean energy technologies that will do more to alleviate energy poverty while keeping communities healthy and fighting climate disruption. Together with our allies overseas, we stand a chance to reduce carbon emissions, keep communities safe from toxic chemicals, and preserve clean air and water for future generations.
--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program Representative
Sometimes the best way to make a statement is to do it in a kayak.
Sierra Club activists from the Pittsburgh area were joined recently by allies from Clean Water Action, the Center for Coalfield Justice, and Three Rivers Waterkeeper at Point State Park -- where the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela rivers meet -- to push for Pennsylvania to move beyond coal. Taking the lead from Tennessee volunteers last month, nearly 30 clean-water advocates gathered and a dozen took to kayaks and canoes.
"It was a beautiful day, a really fun event, and all who participated had a great time," said Sierra Club Organizer Randy Francisco.
Part of the objective was to highlight the recent release of a major Sierra Club report that detailed the extent of Big Coal's water pollution. Weak decades-old water standards have failed to protect families and communities for too long.
“The reason we’re here today is because we love our rivers,” Clean Water Action's Tom Hoffman said at the event. “They're a huge part of our economy, but we've not been good stewards. Every year billions of tons of toxic waste from coal plants gets dumped in our rivers.”
Among the report's findings: Seventy percent of the 274 coal plants that discharge coal ash into U.S. waterways have no toxic limits; more than one-third have no requirements to monitor or report discharges of these toxic metals to government agencies or the public; and nearly half of the coal plants surveyed in the report are currently operating with an expired Clean Water Act permit.
The event was covered by local TV stations and the Associated Press. Organizers are collecting comments to be delivered to the EPA later this month in advance of the anticipated revised coal-pollution rules.
Congratulations to our supporters and allies in the Pittsburgh area for keeping the pressure on coal companies to clean up their act!
-- Brian Foley
The United States was the first country to begin fracking for natural gas, a violent process in which millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals are injected deep into the ground to fracture the rock and allow natural gas to flow back up to the surface along with dirty flowback water. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Poland have tried to jump on the fracking bandwagon; whereas others, like France, have outright banned this practice.
The United States is a fracker’s paradise because it is geographically situated to contain the largest reserves of natural gas than anywhere else in the entire world. Unfortunately, the federal government is all too willing to tap this resource as quickly as possible, and with little regulation. This includes our public lands. The gas industry enjoys exemptions from parts of seven major environmental statutes and reporting programs, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
In Europe, the laws and issues are different, but we can learn about the dangers of fracking from the unique experiences of other countries.
In Germany, many brewers have warned Chancellor Angela Merkel that fracking could damage the country’s beer industry. The Brauer-Bund beer association is concerned that fracking could pollute water that’s used in the brewing process, breaking the reinheitsgebot, the 500-year-old industry rule that beer must be produced using only malt, hops, and pure water.
Germany’s annual Oktoberfest in Munich, the largest folk festival in the world, which attracts 7 million visitors from around the world, could be threatened if Germany starts fracking. "The water has to be pure and more than half Germany's brewers have their own wells which are situated outside areas that could be protected under the government's current planned legislation on fracking," said a Brauer-Bund spokesman. "You cannot be sure that the water won't be polluted by chemicals so we have urged the government to carry out more research before it goes ahead with a fracking law," he added.
As the largest producer of beer in Europe and the third-largest per-capita consumer after the Czech Republic and Austria, it’s no wonder that Germany is concerned about this industry. The country is home to more than 1,300 breweries producing about 5,000 varieties of beer, enough for someone to try a new beer every day for 13 and a half years!
Pressure is rising from the German industry to consider fracking. Meanwhile, Merkel’s center-right party is beginning work on a law that would protect specific places from fracking. It’s improbable that a law will be passed on fracking before an election in September due to the resistance from the brewing industry and other opposition, which could block the law in the upper house of parliament.
In the United Kingdom, particularly in England, fracking has become a hot topic because Prime Minister David Cameron has endorsed this method of shale gas extraction. However, many in the UK disagree with Cameron’s opinion. According to a Opinium/Observer poll, when people were asked if they would like to see various alternative types of energy projects in their area, 60 percent said they would be happy to have wind farms or turbines, whereas only 23 percent wouldn’t mind having fracking take place in their area. A poll by the Balcombe Parish Council found that among residents, 82 percent said they opposed fracking. Most people were concerned about the increase of heavy traffic through their towns and about the local water supply and environment.
This month, there have been many protests, most notable those have occurred in Balcombe, West Sussex, in the southeast part of England. Twenty-five anti-fracking protesters were arrested outside of the gates where energy company Cuadrilla had been drilling. Those arrested include the Green Party Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas. During the protests, Cuadrilla temporarily stopped their drilling operations in the area. However, according to The Guardian, the protests have died down while the police operations have been scaled down.
Poland was estimated to have more untapped natural gas reserves than any other country in the European Union. Because of this, country officials wanted to try to replicate the fracking boom that occurred in the United States.
Poland, which has largely supported fracking, was supposed to be the country to move forward with shale gas extraction despite some opposition. Because Poland is also dependant upon Russia for its energy, some promised that fracking would help them and the EU have more energy independence. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that Poland had 5.3 trillion cubic meters of gas, but geological studies conducted by Polish scientists found only a fraction of the potential. According to the EIA, the estimate reserves in Poland were cut from 44 trillion cubic feet in 2011 to 9 trillion last year.
Now, however, we know that the estimate of shale gas are lower than expected, and that several major energy companies -- including ExxonMobil -- have decided to pull out of the country. Poland’s issues with shale gas extraction point to some of the major problems with this industry in Europe. For more information, check out this article or this one.
France and Bulgaria
France and Bulgaria are the only countries that have a ban on fracking. In 2011, under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, France became the first country to ban fracking, citing environmenal concerns as the reason for the ban. Just last year, Sarkozy said that France will maintain its fracking ban until there is proof that shale gas exploration won’t harm the environment or “massacre” the landscape. François Hollande, Sarkozy’s successor, also supports the ban. France’s Constitutional Court is reviewing the ban’s constitutionality.
Bulgaria banned fracking in January 2012, thwarting Chevron Corporation’s plans to drill in the country. The ban on fracking in Bulgaria began with grassroots opposition. Farmers and environmentalists realized that injecting water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to fracture the bedrock and release the gas involves a serious risk of groundwater contamination. Following large street protests by environmentalists, Bulgarian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for a ban.
Many states and countries are in the midst of making decisions about what to do about fracking. It is important that, as we move forward, we consider whether it is really worth fracking up our landscape at the possible expense of damaging water supplies, decreasing air quality, and harming our communities. Let’s encourage our leaders to move beyond natural gas toward renewables and join in helping the environmental movement around the world to promote clean, sustainable energy.
-- Lindsay Garten, Sierra Club Media Team Intern
Earlier this summer in his climate plan speech, President Obama spoke of new energy efficiency rules to cut down our emissions. He wanted to set efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings that, combined with the first term standards, will reduce carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030. This is equivalent to nearly one-half of the carbon pollution from the entire U.S. energy sector for one year, and will save families countless dollars on electric bills.
President Obama is working toward achieving this lofty goal with proposed rules for refrigerators and walk-in coolers and freezers. The rules were initially proposed two years ago but were sitting in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). But now the Department of Energy is moving forward with the rules and has issued the proposal. After the 60-day public comment period, the rules can be finalized and our emissions can begin to be cut.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who sent a letter along with his colleagues to OMB in early June questioning the delay in issuing the rules, praised the agency’s director Sylvia Matthews Burwell and its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs administrator Howard Shelanski for “dislodging rules like these two, that have been stuck at OMB for far too long. With Congress still paralyzed by the influence of the big carbon polluters, these are exactly the kind of actions the administration should take to fight back against climate change.”
In a blog post published Thursday afternoon, Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the President for energy and climate change, described energy efficiency as “one of the clearest and most cost-effective opportunities to save families money, make our businesses more competitive, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” “This reduction in carbon emissions would be the equivalent of taking nearly 109 million new cars of the road for one year,” she added. “Or put another way, the energy saved from these proposed rules would be equal to the amount of electricity used by 50 million homes in a year.”
Energy efficiency not only creates jobs, but saves money, and cuts down on harmful pollution. Saving energy is our cheapest and easiest option to keep electricity rates low and the Sierra Club applauds these rules. This is a great start to moving our planet forward.
These rules are a step in the right direction for our climate, but there’s still so much to do. These plans give us at the Sierra Club great hope that the President will finally address some of the remaining, worst causes of climate disaster, including abuses of the fossil fuel industry like fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, destructive oil drilling in the Arctic, and the destruction of our precious, public lands.
--John Coequyt, Federal Campaign Deputy Director, Sierra Club
Yesterday, the Entergy Corporation announced its plans to close and decommission its Vermont Nuclear Power Station located in Vernon, Vermont. The station is expected to cease power production after its current fuel cycle and move to shut down in the fourth quarter of 2012.
This announcement marks the fifth reactor this year to permanently end operations. Earlier closure this year includes the Kewaunee nuclear power plant, in Wisconsin; the two-unit San Onofre facility, in California; and Crystal River, in Florida. In addition, a new plant slated for Iowa was mothballed due to economic concerns.
Each closing is further proof that the price and safety costs of nuclear energy are too high for the energy source to be competitive with other sources. To quote the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Vermont Yankee's decision has the most in common with Kewaunee, in that a primary determining factor, according to its operator, was changes in the electricity marketplace..."
In other words, the plant was not competitive. Furthermore, we believe that the Yankee's operators couldn't justify spending $400 million in operational costs to keep the dinosaur plant running. The continuing costs to operate and maintain our ageing nuclear reactor fleet, don't make sense in the current market of low renewable energy prices.
These nuclear power plants aren't only expensive, they are also very dangerous. The reactors put the cities they lie in, and the workers inside them at risk. There are also serious problems associated with the waste. We haven't, despite almost fifty years of reactor operation, really found a safe permanent way to store the radioactive waste that is produced by the reactors. We also have concerns about how the waste is stored at the reactors. Many of the reactors have more used highly radioactive fuel rods in their cooling pools than they were originally designed and licensed for. This condition could lead to a lethal pool fire in the event of a meltdown.
Most of the reactors that have announced closure have been offline prior to their announcements. In San Onofre's case, it was over a year. And guess what: the surrounding communities did not have brown outs despite industry's claims. There was sufficient back up power in the grid to keep the lights on.
The nuclear reactor closures are further proof that it is time to invest in safe, clean and cheap energy sources like wind and solar. We need to be able to continue to have affordable energy and at the same time, keep our families safe by investing in alternative sources. Renewables and energy efficiency costs a fraction of what nuclear energy costs and don't come with safety hazards. We need to move away from nuclear power and towards clean energy.
-- Radha Adhar, Sierra Club Associate Washington Representative; and Leslie March, Sierra Club "No Nukes" Campaign co-chair. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Recently, I parked my plug-in Prius near my daughter's camp in Cambridge, MA, and took the train into Boston for a normal work day. When I returned that evening, I was shocked to find my car smashed up! According to the police report on my windshield, some reckless driver had crashed into three parked cars, and mine got the worst of it. The insurance company deemed it a total loss and it agreed to pay us what it believed a 14-month-old plug-in Prius with 13,000 miles was worth.
Now, my husband and I were faced with an interesting challenge: do we buy a new 2013 plug-in Prius, a used 2012 plug-in Prius, or one of the new plug-in vehicle options that had come out since we had purchased our car?
Given that so many companies have been coming out with new models of plug-in vehicles, there were at least a few new cars to consider -- and I encourage folks to check out information about all the plug-in models on the market at the Sierra Club's new online EV Guide. We're usually a one-car family, and we take frequent long-distance trips throughout New England to visit family, so we wanted to stick with a plug-in hybrid. That meant the full battery electrics, such as the 2013 models of the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, Fiat 500E, Smart ForTwo electric, Rav4 electric, and Tesla Model S, were out. A few of these models, plus the Honda Accord plug-in hybrid, are not available in Massachusetts yet anyway.
Unfortunately, we also had to disqualify the 2013 Chevy Volt, which has been getting less expensive, despite rave reviews. You see, it only has four seats, and we have two kids plus frequent playdate additions.
That left the Ford C-MAX Energi, which I had been curious about since it first came on the market several months earlier. The Energi goes about 20 miles on electric charge, and then Car and Driver magazine says it gets about 32 mpg in hybrid mode for its next few hundred miles on the highway. I visited the Ford dealership of Watertown, MA, where they claim to be selling more hybrids and electrics than any other Ford dealership in New England. My salesman was excited to show me the cool features of the Energi, like its ability to train its drivers to break and accelerate more efficiently by giving a score (I got a 94 percent!). I really enjoyed the ride, and I liked that I was a little higher up than in the Prius.
Also, I knew my colleague Jesse Simons, who is Sierra Club's San Francisco-based Chief of Staff, was thrilled with his Energi. "My family loves our plug-in C-MAX Energi," Jesse said recently. "It looks cool, has amazing acceleration, can fit almost as much stuff as my old Subaru, and I love the fact that I'm driving a car made by union workers here in America. Not to mention the fact that I'm averaging 91 mpg and now only have to go the gas station every few months. I recently installed solar on my house, so I'm literally powering my car with sun on my roof. It feels like the future is finally here every time I get in my car."
For comparison, we looked back at the plug-in Prius, which we had put a lot of thought into before purchasing in the spring of 2012, and which we had been enjoying a great deal. We couldn't quite stomach the idea of purchasing a new one and spending all that extra money (above what the insurance was paying) just because someone crashed into our parked car. Would we even find any used ones available? Surprisingly, there were three for sale in our area, all with about 8,000-12,000 miles on them. Apparently, Toyota had been using these models to show off in their dealerships and to train their staff.
With help from Sierra Club's fantastic volunteer Dan Redmond, I did some number-crunching. First, I found that the plug-in Prius had lower emissions than the Energi, but let me be clear that this is only because of my family's specific driving patterns. We rarely drive more than 10 miles in a week-day (so nearly all electric Monday through Friday), but we take about 20 annual long-distance highway trips. That means that the hybrid mode mpg is really important to us, and the Prius gets about 50 mpg. For other people who may drive more like 15-20 miles a day and take infrequent long-distance trips, the Energi may actually be the environmental winner. You can figure this out for yourself for these or other cars by visiting the Department of Energy’s online vehicle calculator.
Then we looked at price, which I viewed from the perspective of both fuel and monthly loan payments (and factoring in the $3,750 tax credit we’d be eligible for with the new Energi). Fuel payments would be higher for us with the Energi (same reason as above re emissions, but again, this could be the opposite for someone else with different driving patterns). The monthly loan costs would be about the same as we had been paying for our last plug-in Prius and about $75 more than that a month for the Energi, not surprising when comparing a used versus a new car.
So, in the end, the choice that made sense for our family was to purchase another 2012 plug-in Prius. The downside had been the major hassle. The upside was the opportunity to consider the new exciting plug-in vehicles on the market in just the last year, including the appealing Ford C-MAX Energi. Another silver lining was getting a car with 4,000 fewer miles on it than our last one with no pretzels and glitter stuck in all the crevices (yet).
-- Gina Coplon-Newfield is Sierra Club’s Director of Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative. Sierra Club volunteer Dan Redmond contributed to this article.
The Tennessee Valley Authority's Allen coal plant, one of the biggest polluters in Memphis, is feeling the heat, thanks to a strong grassroots turnout by Beyond Coal Campaign organizers and supporters at a recent Shelby County Health Department public hearing.
Families and communities are tired of the fact that air pollution levels in the county exceed Environmental Protection Agency safeguard standards. The 50-year-old Allen plant contributes to 39 premature deaths and more than 600 asthma attacks each year, according to the Clean Air Task Force.
“The people of Memphis deserve better, and the Shelby County Health Department can deliver by calling on TVA to replace the polluting Allen coal plant with clean energy, protecting families and communities suffering from coal’s effects," said Rita Harris, Sierra Club environmental justice organizer.
The public hearing drew a packed house of people calling on the TVA to shift to clean energy and energy efficiency. Many asked the Shelby County Health Department to deny reissuing the coal plant's federal operation permit, citing the fact that the Allen plant fails to meet new pollution safeguards. Speakers included representatives from the League of Women Voters, NAACP, Westwood Neighborhood Association, and a state legislator.
To its credit, the TVA has studied energy-efficiency options, but has yet to indicate whether it is committed to them. If the TVA follows its own study, it could save enough energy over the next three years to retire one of its coal plants, according to economic consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics.
“Renewable generation resources such as the Cleanline project that will bring 3,500 megawatts of wind-generated electricity as early as 2015, and increased energy efficiency measures could help Memphis shift away from coal-fired power," said Angela Garrone of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Tennessee activists are on a roll. Last month, activists took to their kayaks at McKellar Lake in Memphis and the Cumberland River in Nashville to mark the release of the Beyond Coal Campaign's major report (pdf) on water pollution from Big Coal and to demand a new direction for the state's energy future.
-- Brian Foley
The growth of solar energy in America is simply stunning. Today, hundreds of thousands of Americans have already gone solar. The costs of solar panels have dropped 80 percent from 2007 to 2012. The solar industry supports 125,000 jobs nationwide, and 43,000 in California alone with solar panel initiatives being one of the main drivers behind that vibrant job growth.
A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, puts an even finer point on this trend. Based on 2012 data, the number of residential energy customers that participate in solar rollover credit programs (commonly referred as “net energy metering”) has grown almost 60-fold since 2003. Like rollover minutes on a cell phone, net-energy metering allows customers to offset their electricity bills with clean energy — such as solar or wind power, for example — and to receive bill credits for extra energy sent back to the utility.
As the chart below shows, this hockey-stick graph would make any investor proud.
The growth in rooftop solar is so popular, in fact, that even the White House is getting into the game. Last week the Washington Post reported that the installation of new solar panels on the roof of the White House has begun, fulfilling a commitment President Obama made in 2010. The White House explained that the solar panels are "part of an energy retrofit that will improve the overall energy efficiency of the building," and that the solar panels are "estimated to pay for itself in energy savings over the next eight years."
One of the key reasons rooftop solar has grown so quickly is because of state level net-metering programs. This process reduces demand for the utilities' electricity that often comes from dirty and dangerous energy sources like coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. It brings dirty energy in direct competition with clean energy just with the simple act of installing solar panels on roofs. Solar panel initiatives bring not only energy savings, but they also create local jobs, expand our clean energy economy and reduce our need for dirty energy power plants that pollute our air, water, make us sick, and contribute to climate disruption.
It's no wonder that Americans from all walks of life are installing solar panels on their roofs and the White House is trying to play catch up. California alone, the country's current largest solar market in the nation, is already having two-thirds of all new installations occur in low income and middle class neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, in states across the country, net-metering programs and the ability to install rooftop solar is under attack. Utility-backed bills that would force homeowners to pay a surcharge for solar panels installed on their homes are making their way through state legislatures. Already one such bill is nearing a vote in California and if that one passes, dozens of other states could be next.
The White House's installation of solar panels highlights the need to ensure that all Americans -- from low income homeowners to the President of the United States -- have the opportunity to install solar panels on their homes. The White House made a clear case for the economic and environmental reasons for going solar. We must defend against attacks on clean energy to make sure every American -- just like the President did this past week -- is able to install solar panels on their home.
-- Refugio Mata, Sierra Club's My Generation Clean Energy Campaign
--Jennifer Edwards, Sierra Club National Online Organizer
We have two broken systems - energy and finance - which conspire to support a coal fired centralized grid that never reaches the poor while driving dangerous climate change. That means 1.3 billion people around the world won't escape the dark, and we'll fry the climate, unless we disrupt these systems and deploy distributed clean energy. Three months ago the Sierra Club worked on a pilot project with SunFunder to promote such a potentially disruptive solution: solar crowdfunding for the world's poor. We have a few preliminary lessons we'd like to share about taking it to 'scale.'
Let's start with the good news - in three short months the clean energy access project we shared with you is already fully funded! The project raised $15,000 to fund ReadySet Solar Kits from Fenix International to for 375 energy entrepreneurs in Uganda who will in turn power mobile phone charging and lighting for up to 19,000 households - as a microutility device, each ReadySet can power up to 50 phones in a community - while avoiding 12.3 tons of carbon dioxide. It's just the latest SunFunder success story as the company has raised $120,000 for eight projects that benefit 28,377 people directly. Not bad for a year's work.
Let's compare that to the World Bank. A 2011 Oil Change study that found that of all fossil fuel projects the World Bank supported, none provided energy access for the poor. That's right - zero. The only energy project that actually delivered energy for the poor was a $1.25 million investment in biomass gasifiers that benefited 2,500 people in India (thanks to Husk Power). For those keeping score, that's 28,000 people helped by SunFunder versus 2,500 by the World Bank.
Not bad on SunFunder's end, but clearly not the scale we're looking for right? I mean this is just a small slice of the energy needs of 1.3 billion people. That's true, but after engaging SunFunder on this project, and working with off grid clean energy entrepreneurs demanding $500 million for their sector, we have a few lessons we think have big implications.
Lesson #1: Small is Big. There is not a single energy entrepreneur whose sole goal is to provide energy access that is not focused on deploying decentralized clean energy. Go ahead, talk to entrepreneurs who eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff and you'll see they recognized long ago that if your trade is energy access, the right tool for the job is decentralized, small-scale clean energy. That's why companies like SunFunder who specialize in financing these businesses can outpace entities like the World Bank 10 to 1 when it comes to lives affected. The best part is they do it despite having only a fraction of available capital.
Lesson #2: Small is Fast. In the absence of significant resources or media attention, SunFunder was able to raise the money from the crowd in just three months. Ask any entrepreneur who has engaged entities like the World Bank and you'll understand that this is far, far faster than they are capable of. On top of that, entrepreneurs can be turned down at the end of a lengthy process with the World Bank, meaning they spent time and money for nothing. It's energy's presence, not promise, that changes lives and the same is true for the finance needed by the entrepreneurs who deliver it.
Lesson #3: Small is Bankable. What crowdfunders like SunFunder (and Solar Mosaic and Milaap and Abundance Generation and on and on) have done is demonstrate that crowdfunders can fill a financing void left by large financial institutions. They've shown they can reach a strata that traditional development agencies can't: small-scale entrepreneurs seeking project finance for sub $100K projects.
In addition, they can tailor these amounts to previously unbankable projects in incremental amounts. That helps us avoid systemic problems by adding energy as needed and avoid any bubbles created by, oh, say an over-reliance on a single energy source or enormous investments in unneeded capacity. This also works on the consumer side of the equation where pay-as-you-go systems are unlocking energy for the poor.
Lesson #4: We Are Using The Wrong Yardstick. I've written with Carl Pope and Jigar Shah before about the pitfalls of using price to determine where and when the poor receive energy because it's energy's presence, not price that changes lives. To that metric we should add GigaWatts of supply, which is a cherished metric of Very Serious Policymakers who, in spite of the fact that the International Energy Agency has released two reports showing that 70 percent of rural communities worldwide will only be electrified with decentralized clean energy, are still convinced that the only way to deliver on the world's energy needs is to pour billions into huge centralized projects that generate GigaWatts of power. David Roberts describes the thinking pushed by those in this camp like this: "small is for sissies, and the only solution to energy poverty is expanding and extending the brittle systems of the 20th century to the developing world."
The problem (brittleness aside) is that grid expansion hasn't worked. This leaves poor communities to spend huge portions of their monthly income on dirty kerosene and diesel instead of cheaper, cleaner energy because Very Serious People want them to wait for the grid to arrive; A grid that hasn't come for decades, and won't come for decades more. We need to start measuring energy access in terms of services delivered and human beings impacted in a time frame that matters - now.
So where to from here? Already organizations like the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) is financing a fund which will support off grid clean energy including novel mini grid approaches like Tower Power. DFID is also funding a 'fund of funds' through the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) that can capitalize local financial institutions to invest in, amongst other things, clean energy access entrepreneurs. The latter is an excellent example of how an institution like the IFC could make a big difference in this space.
If a multi-lateral like the IFC did finally pony up the money, it's clear crowdfunding specific products are needed. These could be funds that match dollar-for-dollar money raised from the crowd, or loan guarantees that can help unleash capital for local entrepreneurs at levels organizations like the IFC can't reach. This marries the best of both worlds - the nimble ability of crowdfunders to support small scale projects that have immediate impacts on the lives of the poor, with the larger pools of capital the development institutions can tap into without forcing them to engage in small scale projects directly.
Ultimately, we're going to need the big bucks that development institutions and institutional investors can bring to bear on this problem. But even if the $500 million clean energy access fund that entrepreneurs have been demanding is created, the lessons we've learned will be critical to ensuring impact. Because if there's anything we know for sure, it's that business as usual ensures failure as usual.
-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International
Big Coal's "RAM" idea is being met with calls to "scram!"
The "RAM" coal export terminal being rammed through Louisiana's permitting process by coal companies has aroused the ire of communities that would rather keep the state's natural places from being trampled by dirty fuels. Nearly 200 people showed for two recent public hearings held by the state Department of Natural Resources, giving a huge boost to grassroots activists fighting to keep the process transparent.
"This terminal threatens more than our air," said Devin Martin, conservation coordinator with the Sierra Club's Delta Chapter. "It would be built adjacent to a site that the state has determined is the best possible location for a sediment and freshwater diversion project to help restore our eroding coast, the fastest disappearing landmass on the planet and the first and best protection from deadly storm surge from hurricanes."
Initially, state officials had planned to hold one hearing in the rural town of Davant in the Mississippi River Delta, an out-of-the-way location that would have been a burden to reach for many opponents of the plan, especially people in the New Orleans area. After a public backlash, state officials agreed to add a second hearing in Belle Chasse, only 15 minutes from the proposed location of the export terminal and much closer to the metro area.
"The meeting extension was a huge win for public access and transparency on the permitting process, something that's not always a given here in Louisiana," Martin said.
The proposed site is in Plaquemines Parish, not far from two existing coal terminals that already inflict air pollution on nearby families. At the Davant hearing, 50 people spoke unanimously against the proposal -- only coal company consultants spoke in favor.
"After the hearing concluded, the public was invited downstairs to a cookout prepared by our local volunteers, who also distributed literature on the impacts of coal and coal trains along with lots of Beyond Coal swag," said Martin. "Even Mr. Gil Chatagnier, president of the firm representing RAM, ate a burger and asked for a Beyond Coal t-shirt!"
More than 120 people showed at the Belle Chasse hearing, which lasted nearly four hours. Environmental organizations were joined by social justice activists, and faith community leaders. Locals are dead set against the proposal that includes a coal export facility, railroad line, 15,000 square-foot maintenance shop, and a multistory office building that will only harm their communities.
"I am definitely in opposition to this terminal," said Plaquemines Parish Councilman Burghart Turner. "It's not that I’m anti-business, but this is dirty business."
"The terminal will only add to respiratory problems we already have from a grain elevator and two oil refineries nearby," said fifth-generation Ironton resident Audrey Trufant Salvant. "We're concerned about a railroad we hear they want to run along the Mississippi and through the back of our town to carry coal. Trains could be running constantly. Right now the rail ends at the CHS grain elevator north of us."
After the hearing, Martin said, "We'll be watching closely for the decision outcome, but today we celebrate the success of building a Beyond Coal movement."
-- Brian Foley
In a blog post a couple of weeks ago, I discussed the gender gap in biking citing a new report, Women on a Roll. The report, which was created by Women Bike, a new program from the League of American Bicyclists, outlined its accomplishments toward achieving gender equality in biking. In 2009, women only accounted for 24 percent of all bike trips.
In some cities, however, the numbers were a little better: in Boston and Philadelphia, women account for 32 percent of bike trips each year. In other countries, the numbers are even better. In the Netherlands, women account for 55 percent of bike trips annually, whereas in Germany, this number is 49 percent.
The good news, however, is that in the U.S., the movement toward gender equality in biking has already had some amazing achievements:
- Women make up 60 percent of bicycle owners aged 17-28 years old.
- From 2003 to 2012, the number of women participating in bicycling rose 20 percent.
- The number of women and girls who ride bikes rose 20 percent compared to a 0.5-percent decline among men from 2003 to 2012.
- Forty-five percent of paid staff at bicycle advocacy organizations are women.
So how do we go even further to ensure that more women ride bikes? Bike shares are but one solution towards achieving gender equality in the sport.
According to a report, 43 percent of bike-share users in North America are female. In Boston, a similar report found that 47 percent of Hubway users, the city’s bike share program, are female. Additionally, in 2012, 45 percent of Capital Bikeshare members in Washington D.C. were women.
But how do bike shares help to reduce the gender gap in biking? Carolyn Szczepanski, director of communications for Women Bike, noted that bike shares address most of the issues with biking that women commonly cite. Szczepanski explained that bike shares allow for easy access and convenience to multiple destinations. They are multi-purpose and accessible for short trips, allowing women to bike in regular clothes and feel comfortable while they’re riding. Bike shares allow women to feel more connected to a community. Additionally, bike shares address some of the problems of snobbery and machismo that women have faced in many bike shops.
Bike share systems are becoming more common in U.S. cities. Launched in 2010, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare was one of the first bike share programs in the country. Citi Bike, the largest bike-share program in the country, with 6,000 bicycles, just launched in May. This summer, Chicago created a 4,000-bike system, and the San Francisco Bay Area will launch its program at the end of the month with 700 bikes.
With an increase in bike-share programs, we might see in the upcoming years more women participating in the sport. Bicycling is not only good for your health and beneficial for community building, but it's also good for the environment by replacing vehicles that run on fossil fuels. Let's move beyond oil and gas and move toward clean, green transportation.
-- Lindsay Garten, Sierra Club Media Intern
Brunei is a tiny, remote country in Southeast Asia with a population smaller than that of Washington, D.C. It's also the location of the current round of trade talks between the United States and eleven other Pacific Rim nations.
Who could think of a better place to hold a round of secretive trade talks? And the timing is opportune, too. Held at the end of August, when many - at least in the United States - are away on summer vacation, these trade talks will remain lurking in the shadows, capturing little media or public attention.
Between August 23 and 30, trade negotiators from these 12 nations will meet behind closed doors in Brunei to further hash out the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Governments are saying that it might be the last official round of these trade talks -- which seems both unacceptable and impossible. It's unacceptable because not a single word of draft text has been released to the public, despite the fact that the agreement has been under negotiation for more than three years and would affect the lives of millions of Americans and others across the globe. It's impossible since there are still numerous critical issues in the pact that remain unresolved going into this "final" round of talks. And, in the context of outspoken citizen opposition, Malaysia has become the first country to say that it will not agree to any timeline for signing the pact.
Some of the most contentious unresolved issues are in the pact's chapter on the environment -- one of many controversial chapters. Here, the United States is pushing a strong conservation proposal that includes specific measures to promote responsible fisheries management, including policies to curb shark-finning, and a ban on trade in illegally harvested timber and illegally taken wildlife and wildlife parts. The U.S. proposal is legally binding and would commit countries not only to enforce domestic environmental laws, but also to enforce commitments made in international environmental agreements.
Unfortunately, however, other countries have thus-far been unwilling to accept the strong U.S. proposal, so U.S. negotiators might be bullied into backing down at this round of trade talks. A number of North American environmental organizations have already weighed in, calling on U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman to oppose efforts to weaken environmental protections. In Brunei, the U.S. must hold its ground and not put critical environmental objectives - like shark fins - on the chopping block.
In addition to the uncertain environment chapter, the Sierra Club is deeply concerned about a number of parts of the trade pact that seem to be closer to completion. In the pact are rules championed by the United States that give corporations virtually unfettered rights. These rules would allow corporations to sue governments over laws and policies that might reduce their profits. Surprisingly, these egregious rules have been less controversial and are further along in negotiations than the environment chapter. Similar rules in other trade pacts have resulted in assaults on policies such as a time-out on fracking in Quebec or a commitment to phase out nuclear energy in Germany. Of course, without full access to the texts, the public has not been able to even have a meaningful conversation about what these rules would mean for fighting climate disruption and protecting communities across the globe.
Given this context, the idea that the 19th round of trade talks in Brunei might be the last official round is particularly unacceptable. It seems very clear that negotiations aren't going to end after Brunei. What might happen, however, is that negotiations go even further underground, hidden deeper from the public. That means that now is the most important time to spread the word about this trade pact and demand transparency in these talks that will affect our food, water, air, jobs, and more.
--Ilana Solomon, Sierra Club Trade Representative. Follow Ilana on Twitter here.
On August 21, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lease sale in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for 149 million tons of publicly-owned coal failed to attract a single bid. It was the first time that a federal coal tract offered for sale in Wyoming failed to attract any bidders -- even the company that originally sought to mine the location determined that it couldn't do so profitably.
In June 2013, the Department of Interior's Inspector General released a report identifying numerous flaws in BLM's coal leasing program. Among them, the report confirmed that over the last 20 years 80 percent of Powder River Basin lease sales attracted only one bidder, and none attracted more than two.
Cloud Peak Energy, which applied for the Maysdorf II North Coal Tract lease in 2006 in order to expand its Cordero Rojo mine, said it had evaluated the coal tract in the Powder River Basin and decided not to submit a bid due to "current market conditions and the uncertain political and regulatory environment of coal and coal-fired electricity."
The Powder River Basin, which straddles the Wyoming-Montana border, is the largest coal mining region in the United States. But with the domestic coal market in steep decline, the economics of extracting its coal are increasingly bleak.
Cloud Peak Energy CEO Colin Marshall said that an economic analysis led the company to conclude that "a significant portion" of the coal up for bid was not economically recoverable. "We are unable to construct an economic bid for this tract at this time," he said. "We will continue to evaluate any possible future lease sales by the BLM of these tons in the North tract as market conditions improve."
But the assumption that market conditions for coal will improve is clearly questionable if not downright delusional. The failure of the lease sale to attract any bidders shows that the federal coal lease program is mired in outdated and inaccurate beliefs about coal's market value.
"It comes down to economics, plain and simple," said Aaron Isherwood, a managing attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program. "The market for coal is incredibly soft, so why would the government sell publicly-owned coal at a time when people are paying rock-bottom prices for it? Federally-owned coal is supposed to be sold at fair market value. Would you try to sell your house right after the housing market craters? The public is getting ripped off. The failure of this lease to attract a single bid is clear evidence that the federal coal-leasing system is badly in need of reform."
Nearly 5 billion tons of federal coal is currently being leased or sold in the Powder River Basin, even as the domestic market for the resource is tanking. As confirmed by the Department of Interior report, the way leases are managed by the BLM is short-changing American taxpayers to the tune of millions of dollars with each successive lease.
Coal market experts who spoke in Wyoming and Montana earlier this week called for a moratorium on new federal coal leases until the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management "get their act together," asserting that the federal leasing program has shortchanged taxpayers by $30 billion over the past three decades.
"The BLM can't give this stuff away," said Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, in reaction to the failure of the Maysdorf II coal tract to attract any bidders. "This is the beginning of the end of coal -- it's officially worthless. This is what happens when community after community replaces their aging coal plants with clean energy."
-- Tom Valtin, Sierra Club
On Tuesday August 13, a federal appeals court ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must restart its licensing process. The 1983 Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the NRC to approve or reject the Department of Energy's (DOE) license application for a repository to dump nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The DOE submitted their license application to the NRC in 2008 and filed a motion for its withdrawal in 2009 saying that the project was unworkable. This action by DOE prompted the filing of the lawsuit.
According to Chief Judge Merrick Garland, the lack of funding for the project limits the impact of the court's ruling because it amounts to, "little more than ordering the commission to spend part of those funds unpacking its boxes, and the remainder packing them up again." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agreed, saying, "The place is locked up, it's padlocked. Nothing is happening with Yucca Mountain."
We support Senator Reid but know that for his statement to be reality we, the public, must show the sort of active opposition that made the DOE declare the project to be unworkable years ago.
Here’s a little history about Yucca Mountain. This site was designated by President George W. Bush’s administration as the site for the nation's repository for high-level nuclear waste, with plans to license the facility and send 70 thousand metric tons of radioactive waste to the site from all over the United States. But the process of choosing Yucca Mountain was flawed. Instead of using sound science, it was chosen through political action. And despite the $15.4 billion that has been spent on the repository project, all that is there is an exploratory tunnel into the mountain There are no tunnels for waste emplacement – no repository or dump.
Let's take a look at some facts:
Insane fact #2: Furthermore, regulators have consistently changed the standards for radiological exposure to satisfy operational parameters for the project. The designers and regulators for this project were initially faced with standards that were impossible to achieve, yet were required for public safety.
Insane fact #3: While some design aspects have been addressed, others are still up for discussion. For example, there hasn't been any field testing of the system for retrieving nuclear power rods stored there.
Insane fact #4: The transportation of radioactive materials hundreds, even thousands of miles into Nevada brings its own suite of public health and environmental risks. Mechanical failure and accidents have been compounded with threats presented by vandalism and terrorism.
Insane fact #5: Nevada doesn't even HAVE nuclear power. That's like getting lung cancer from second-hand smoke!
There is enough nuclear waste to completely fill Yucca Mountain already, and the evidence that Yucca is wrong for nuclear waste is too overwhelming to ignore. We, the public, have to make our opposition to Yucca loud and clear.
Radioactive waste storage is but one of the many issues associated with nuclear power. We must abandon nuclear power and move to a clean and renewable energy future.
-- Sierra Club Washington Rep Radha Adhar and Jane Feldman, Conservation Chair of the Southern Nevada Group of the Sierra Club
These concerned citizens were in Washington to talk to the Obama administration about updates to the so-called "startup, shutdown, malfunction" rule for industrial facilities, including coal plants and refineries. Existing loopholes in many states allow big polluters to skirt responsibility for huge blasts of toxic emissions that sometimes happen when a facility is starting up, shutting down, or experiencing a malfunction. For polluters that put the bottom line before the well-being of neighboring communities, this loophole provides a golden opportunity to release large amounts of toxic pollution without accountability.
While industry cashes in by abusing this regulatory exemption, it is low-income families and communities of color living next door to these coal plants, refineries, and other facilities that feel the brunt of the pollution. Earlier this year, the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency put over 30 states on notice that they needed to update their standards for these pollution events. These loopholes were written into state reguations and are a relic of the past, dating back to when the EPA was first established and the agency was getting its regulatory sea legs. Now, big polluters are taking advantage of these loopholes, and the EPA is finally stepping up to update these protections and safeguard the health of nearby families.
On Friday, the Sierra Club joined community activists from affected cities in meeting with officials from the EPA and White House Council of Environmental Quality in D.C., where they discussed the extent of the industry's abuse of the exemption and urge for the strongest safeguards possible. The meeting included activists from Birmingham, Alabama, and Detroit, Michigan, two places where polluters have traditionally relied on apathy from government officials.
"These big polluters claim to be a part of our community, but it’s clear that they don't care about their neighbors when they continue to dump toxic pollution near our homes and schools that are making our children sick," said Rhonda Anderson, the Sierra Club's environmental justice organizer in Detroit, before the meeting. "Power plants and refineries will do whatever they can to avoid cleaning up their act, so it’s time for the EPA to close this dangerous loophole once and for all."
It's encouraging to see the White House sit down with activists whose families have been affected by industrial pollution for decades, and whose calls for action have gone ignored for far too long. This is a sign that the Obama administration's commitment to combating climate change includes prioritizing the health of low-income families and communities.
The White House has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to environmental justice, and this is an important opportunity to translate those words into action. As is always the case, industry will be pushing hard for the status quo, which is why these local residents traveled all the way to Washington last week. Closing this loophole for good will signify another big step toward moving the country to clean energy and safeguarding the health of our families and communities.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
What a difference a year makes.
One year ago at the National Clean Energy Summit in Nevada, Senator Harry Reid joined the Moapa Band of Paiutes in calling for the retirement of the Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant. At this year's summit, the message wasn't just about celebrating its retirement, but also reaffirming the state's momentum in becoming a clean-energy leader.
Thanks to legislation signed earlier this year, the Reid Gardner plant is scheduled to retire three of its four units by 2014 and phase out the fourth by 2017. The closing of the plant, which was Nevada's single biggest contributor to climate disruption, signified a huge victory for the state's transition to clean energy and commitment to clean air and healthy communities.
"Don't be afraid to talk about climate change," said Reid, as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "It's time to stop entertaining the climate change deniers and start talking about the problems we face."
But there's more to the story. Defeating Big Coal couldn't have happened without the Moapa Band of Paiutes, the small Native American community that for decades had no means of pushing back against Reid Gardner's pollution that regularly made tribal members sick. With the reservation less than a mile downwind from the coal plant, closing the coal plant was literally a matter of life or death.
Now the focus is on solar energy's massive potential. Last year, Senator Reid called on the state to quit coal for good. This time, the senator joined Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign Director Bruce Nilles in praising the Paiutes' 250-megawatt solar project that will be built on the reservation, create 600 construction jobs, and generate clean power to be sold to Los Angeles.
That being said, with the imminent closure of the Reid Gardner coal plant, the cleanup of toxic pollution needs to start immediately, as it could take years to complete. After decades of polluting the area, a committed plan by the utility to clean up the site would be the right thing to do, and the Sierra Club and the Moapa Paiutes are working together to make sure that happens.
Overall, there was a lot to be happy about at Tuesday's summit. Coal provides 38 percent of the country's power, down from 50 percent in 2007. Nevada is gradually following in the footsteps of Los Angeles, Oregon, and Washington state in committing to 100 percent coal-free energy. Thankfully, coal's future looks bleak compared to clean energy's sunny outlook.
-- Elspeth Cordua, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign Nevada Representative
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