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Sierra Club Compass Blog
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
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