Sierra Club National

Beyond-the-Grid Is Not Just About Light, It’s About Resiliency

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 17 November 2014 - 12:14pm
Photo courtesy of Prudhvi Mitra

At times when the grid fails, distributed generation offers a way to keep the lights on -- not only in areas beyond the reach of the grid but in cities as well.

People often highlight the cost-effectiveness and rapidity of deploying beyond-the-grid solar solutions. As the story goes, beyond-the-grid solar companies are providing power to rural places in developing countries where the grid hasn’t yet reached and at a lower cost than other available options. But distributed generation has other important benefits: it can offer more reliability than a centralized grid, too.  

Following Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the eastern seaboard of the United States and the Caribbean and left 8.1 million homes without power, the term “grid resiliency” gained new popularity as utilities and regulators scrambled to think about how to modernize the grid to avoid blackouts in places following superstorms of the future.  

Modernizing the grid wasn’t the only lesson from Superstorm Sandy, though; the reliability of distributed generation solutions was revealed as well.  As Stephen Lacey wrote about in Greentech Media’s e-book, Resiliency: How Superstorm Sandy Changed America’s Grid:  

 “But the [centralized electricity] system didn’t fail for everyone. Scattered throughout the ruin,    tiny pockets of resiliency formed -- proving that smaller, cleaner, distributed technologies can be a  powerful defense against crises on the grid.”

As Lacey’s report shows, existing hybrid-solar storage systems provided power in some devastated areas of New York and New Jersey, and off-grid solar generators provided relief to many people without power as part of relief efforts.     

The resiliency of communities using distributed generation has been proven after other storms as well. This is true both in major cities and in rural areas beyond the reach of the grid.   

A recent example of this was highlighted by Kalluri Bhanumathi, whose coastal city of Visakhapatnam in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh was hit hard by last month’s tropical Cyclone Hudhud.  As Bhanumathi explained, the cyclone brought down trees, telephone poles, and buildings in her city, and left the city without power for a week. This affected other basic services such as water supply and communications as well.

However, Bhanumathi’s family has a 5-kilowatt solar power generation system which continued providing power during and after Cyclone Hudhud. The fact that Bhanumathi’s solar system remained intact meant that her household could maintain their own supply of clean water and cooked food. They had greater resilience to the storm than the rest of the city.      

Emergency responses by the international community to disasters increasingly include bringing beyond-the-grid solar products to disaster-impacted areas. For example, solar streetlamps were brought into tent camps to enhance safety following the massive earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, and solar lamps were also distributed to thousands of families in the Philippines as part of the relief efforts following Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda).  

While disaster relief efforts are extremely important, we should see more beyond-the-grid solar home systems and lanterns as part of disaster preparedness and resilience-building efforts, rather than simply as a reaction to disasters.  Distributed generation is more resilient in the face of storms like Superstorm Sandy, Cyclone Hudhud, and Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda).  And while distributed generation has provided niche resiliency for communities hit by major storms, it can form the backbone of power systems for people living beyond the reach of the grid.

As we move into a stormier world, distributed solar can keep people safer -- while keeping the lights on. 

Do you have stories about the impact of beyond-the-grid sources of energy that weathered storms?  If so, please leave them in the comments, email me, or tweet at me (@VrindaManglik).   

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

Categories: Sierra Club National

Despite Crackdown, Indian Courts Side With Public Health, Against Coal

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 14 November 2014 - 8:40am

In a huge victory for local communities, public health, and the rule of law, yet another enormous proposed coal plant has been denied clearance in India.

In another major setback for the expansion of the coal industry, a panel of judges rejected the environmental clearance (EC) for the 3,600-megawatt IL&FS coal-fired power plant in Tamil Nadu, India. The judges upheld an appeal from local villagers determined to halt the project over concerns about water and air pollution in an already critically polluted area. These are the same concerns that were hastily ignored by the project’s backers -- who, rather than conducting a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA),  haphazardly slapped one together in a mere two weeks.

Luckily for these villagers, the Indian court system is robust.

The information provided by the project’s backers was almost totally absent, including a lack of any baseline data, a limited scope for the study area -- where at least 45 industrial projects are already contributing to a critically polluted area -- and the use of the 2005 National Ambient Air Quality Standard (a convenient year for which standards don’t exist).  Given the missing information, the court had no choice but to deny clearance.

But while the court’s decision may seem like an easy one, consider the political context in which it took place. Since taking office,  India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to do everything in his power to expand the coal industry from reopening mines closed by the Indian Supreme Court, to relaxing environmental rules, to streamlining and speeding up environmental clearances -- all of this while conducting a targeted witch hunt of local and international environmental and public health organizations for daring to question the wisdom of coal expansion.

But this week’s court decision shows that India’s democracy is indeed robust. The system of checks and balances, of which the courts are a part, is capable of surviving harsh political environments and delivering justice. Neither the whims of new governments, nor powerful corporations, can change that -- though try they might.

Most importantly, it shows that the courts are responsive to local resistance, a stance that will go a long way in boosting the morale of communities challenging dirty energy.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Our Solar System Kept Us In Orbit Despite The Hudhud’s Wrath

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 11 November 2014 - 12:44pm
All photos courtesy of Prudhvi Mitra

Kalluri Bhanumathi, Director of the Dhaatri Resource Centre for Women and Children, penned this guest op-ed.

One of the greenest cities of India, known for its serene landscapes along the waves of the Bay of Bengal, was ripped apart by  the violent cyclone called Hudhud recently.

Visakhapatnam, a peaceful coastal city in Andhra Pradesh located on the eastern coast of India between the sea and the Eastern Ghats mountain stretch, shook under the 200 km/h wind speeds of Hudhud cyclone on the 12th of October this year. Within a few hours, the insanity of the cyclone devastated the region, tearing down the entire tree cover and bringing down huge trees dating back several decades. Nature’s anger spared neither itself nor man-made structures leaving buildings that came crashing down to their bare frames and brought down most of the electric poles, enveloping the district in complete darkness and powerlessness.

The might of the winds that uprooted all the trees and crops left no shelter for the birds or animals, washing them away mercilessly into the whirlwind waters. An unprepared human population had to simply watch, helplessly waiting for the savage fury to subside and then live through weeks without power or water or any basic amenities. While the well-informed government did all it could to prevent the loss of human life and swung into disaster preparedness work by evacuating vulnerable communities from the coast and widely warning people to remain in safety, it could not also stop the devastation that was beyond human intervention. So severe was the destruction that it was impossible for the government to bring back order into the region for several weeks, given the extent of damages on all fronts.

Frantically working around the clock to restore normalcy, the government and the public have gotten together to clear the roads and restore basic services. Yet for an entire week, the city of Visakhapatnam remained in darkness as it was impossible to put back the brutally damaged power transmission systems with electric poles sprawled in every street corner of the city.

Without power, all the other basic services were badly affected as supplying water to the multi-storied housing colonies and the slums that were submerged in the flooded city was impossible. Most people had not prepared themselves for a disaster of this proportion and faced severe problems accessing drinking water and essential commodities. Communication networks were completely destroyed, and physical access in most places around the city was  difficult due to roads being blocked with huge trees and electric poles. Manpower and machinery that came pouring in from different states to help with the restoration work was no match for the extent of damage caused by the cyclone.

Amidst this havoc, we, a small community tucked behind the hills of Visakhapatnam, lived through the devastation and survived even when marooned from the rest of the world. Our farm and all its humble structures made from bamboo, grass, tiles, and other local material stood the test of nature’s fury. While they put up a resistance for a most part of the cyclone, they finally gave way with the thatched roof and tiled structures getting blown off by the winds, leaving us hanging on to each other under one leaking roof. Most of the trees - some more than 50 years old - all had to bow down to the might of Hudhud. The ten acres of mango, coconut, tamarind, cashew, and diverse other trees were uprooted and crashed to the ground and so were all our crops.

The only single structure that proudly survived intact and remained our life line was the solar system - our recently fulfilled dream of several years to be a self-reliant community.

A five kilowatt power generation system has been helping us slowly withdraw our dependence on the main grid and has enabled us to meet most of our energy needs for our domestic and office uses. The moment the rains stopped and the sun peeped out, or rather plunged out of the sky, blazing the earth which had no tree shade, our solar system got into the act of giving us power. While all around us, the world stood in darkness, we were blessed by the shining sun giving us electricity and protecting us from facing any food or water crisis.  On our farm, we were able to light our houses at night, pump up the ground water to meet all our domestic water needs, and charge our basic communication systems.

This ray of light through the eerie nights of darkness around us gave us and our cattle a sense of security and safety. We were spared the ordeal that the city had to face for lack of basic amenities after the cyclone. As we write this piece, we are still totally supported by our solar power as the government machinery has not yet been able to reach our suburban villages to restore the power lines or the communication systems.

Thanks to our own alternate energy system, we were to have sufficient water, good, hot cooked food, and enough water to bathe every day - a luxury that none could afford in the rest of the city for an entire week. It is a learning experience and blessing, both how small, self-reliant, and decentralized systems that create minimum stress on the environment can come to our rescue not only in normal times but in times of serious Hudhuds.  

Categories: Sierra Club National

Move Over World Bank: Bilateral Institutions Lead Investment Beyond the Grid

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 6 November 2014 - 12:39pm
Photo courtesy of GSMA

While investments are continuing to flow into beyond the grid clean energy markets, most public institutions are missing in action.

The Sierra Club and Oil Change International recently released an assessment of multilateral development banks’ (MDBs) investment beyond the grid, and the findings aren’t good. MDBs -- including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and African Development Bank -- haven’t been ponying up as much financing as they should for the sector. Instead, their investment is heavily skewed toward grid extension and polluting power plants. That’s a big problem because the slow process of extending the grid will leave many people without power for years or even decades to come.

As disappointing as lack of beyond the grid support from MDBs is, a different set of public actors are stepping up in their absence: bilateral institutions. Programs such as USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s (OPIC) U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative (ACEF) are building impressive pipelines of companies serving populations beyond the grid. With millions of dollars in grants to catalyze early stage clean energy companies, these bilateral institutions are already having a big effect.

And U.S. agencies aren’t the only ones stepping up.  

GSMA, Group Speciale Mobile Association -- the industry association for mobile operators -- just announced £6 million (U.S. $9.6 million) in funding for these clean energy markets with support from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), to expand support for the Mobile for Development Utilities program. The program, previously branded as the Mobile Enabled Community Services program, provides support to projects that leverage mobile technologies to deliver important services related to water, sanitation, and energy.  

The exciting thing about GSMA’s approach is that it seeks to piggyback on the most successful leapfrog technology to date: the mobile phone. Instead of extending telephone landlines, the developing world has turned to mobile phones to meet their demands.

In turn, this technology is already unlocking distributed solar with mobile-enabled money transfer platforms through machine-to-machine (M2M) devices and helping to change how utilities and basic services are delivered in developing countries. It is this combination of mobile phones, mobile money, and distributed solar that is unlocking rapid pay-as-you-go (PAYG) growth. This is especially true of countries in East Africa, but is now steadily expanding to new markets (for a case in point, see the dramatic growth of bKash in Bangladesh).     

Advertisement for bKash, Bangladesh’s leading provider of mobile financial services.

With the new funding, GSMA is inviting applications for seed grants (up to £150,000 in funding), market validation grants (up to £300,000 in funding), and utilities partnership grants (up to £300,000 in funding). The application process has two stages; the first step is submitting a Concept Note by December 7, 2014 following the online instructions.  

To understand why we are so enthusiastic about this new round of support from GSMA, look no further than the first and second round of innovation fund grant awardees. They included industry leaders M-KOPA in Kenya, which was able to offer a new pay-as-you-go solar product, Mobisol, which was able to pilot prepaid solar home systems in Rwanda, and Kamworks, which is testing rental services for solar home services in Cambodia.  With its latest round of funding from DFID, GSMA may just build a pipeline of companies to rival both USAID’s DIV and OPIC’s ACEF program.

All of this is incredibly exciting for those who have been working to unlock financing for these markets and ultimately unlock energy access for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Innovative programs like those being run by GSMA prove that public institutions can indeed step up to the plate and end this problem in our lifetimes.

But it also begs the question: With bilateral institutions able to support cutting-edge approaches to how basic energy services are delivered, shouldn’t MDBs, like the World Bank, be able to do the same? The only good news is that no one seems willing to wait around for the answer.

All of thiswhich is incredibly exciting for those who have been working topounding the drum that unlocking financinge for these markets and ultimately  means unlocking energy access for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Innovative programs like those being run by GSMA prove that public institutions can indeed step up to the plate and end this problem in our lifetimes.

But it also begs the question: Withth bilateral institutions able to support cutting- edge approaches to how basic energy services are delivered, shouldn’t MDBs, like the World Bank, be able to do the same?why can’t multilateral development banks like the World Bank?  The only good news is that no one seems willing to wait around for the answer.

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

Categories: Sierra Club National

More Than 700,000 Tell Congress: Fast Track Is The Wrong Path

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 6 November 2014 - 9:57am
Photo courtesy of Teamsters

The saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same. This couldn’t be more true for the two largest trade agreements currently in negotiation, the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). While the Obama Administration and congressional supporters of the pacts have rekindled timeworn talking points that describe these deals as “21st century” trade agreements, in reality, they strongly resemble the failed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that went into effect more than two decades ago.

That’s why today, representatives from environmental, labor, food and farm, consumer rights and other fair trade allies delivered to Congress more than 700,000 petitions opposing “fast track”--a piece of legislation that would push these harmful trade agreements through Congress without any meaningful oversight or assurances that the trade pacts would actually benefit workers, families, and the environment.  The delivery, which comes days before President Obama leaves for Beijing, China, where leaders will once again make a push to finalize the stalled TPP, sends a clear message that, in the words
 of Sierra Club executive director
Michael Brune, “fast track is the wrong track for Americans who care

Photo courtesy of Teamsters

about the health of our families and access to clean air, clean water, and land.”

Today’s delivery wasn’t the first time members of Congress has heard that message. As I wrote about
before
, back in September nearly 600 organizations including major environmental, labor, civil rights, and consumer rights groups sent a letter to Chairman Wyden reiterating their opposition to fast track and calling for a new model of trade.  And, it’s important to note that the recent election results in which the Republicans took control over the Senate and increased their majority in the House does not mean that fast track is any closer to completion.  In fact, there is considerable Republican opposition to fast track, and polling from this year demonstrates that giving fast track authority to President Obama is overwhelmingly unpopular among Republicans;  87 percent of Republicans polled, for example, oppose giving fast-track authority to President Obama.  The majority of democrats polled also oppose fast-track authority.

So why are members of the public so concerned?  Well, take a look at just a few parts of the TPP and you'll understand why.  While the TPP has been negotiated in near total darkness, leaks have revealed that the pact is laden with giveaways to big corporations. The pact includes, for example, rules that empower foreign corporations to challenge public interest and environmental policies in private trade tribunals and that give corporations right extract millions or billions in compensation from taxpayers if the corporation wins. The TPP also would require the United States to automatically approve all exports of liquefied natural gas to countries in the agreement, which would mean more dangerous fracking, more coastal export terminals, and more unstable pipelines here at home.

But, if fast track were to pass, our representatives in Congress would barely be able to make a peep in objection and wouldn’t be able to raise a pen to change the deal, as Congress’ Constitutional right to shape these massive and far reaching trade agreements would disappear.  Big corporations and Big polluters, naturally, are chomping at the bit to wield “fast track” and the trade pacts it would facilitate as tools to whittle away at legislation that safeguards our environment, advances clean energy, and protects our health.   

History has shown us that trade agreements like the TPP and TTIP have failed to support workers, strengthen our economy, and protect communities and the environment. Now, just months after almost 600 organizations said “no” to “fast track” and “yes” to a new model of trade, more than 700,000 Americans are speaking out. Members of Congress must listen. The Obama Administration must listen. Congress must act. And the corporations trying to sneak these trade pacts past any kind of oversight must pay attention. The age of NAFTA-like agreements must come to an end.

Join us in opposing fast track so we can create a new, more equitable model of trade that protects our environment and jobs, safeguards our communities and establishes the U.S. as a leader in responsible trade.

 -- Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

As scientists sound the alarm on climate, a reason for hope

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 3 November 2014 - 1:28pm


When I look at my daughter -- and I know all parents feel this way -- I know I would do anything to keep her healthy and safe. A new report out from the world's climate experts makes it undeniably clear that we still have the chance to protect our kids from climate disruption, but time is running out.

Here is how the New York Times summarized the findings of the report, which the paper said was the "starkest warning yet" from world scientists:

Failure to reduce emissions, the group of scientists and other experts found, could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year.

The report paints a scary picture, but I think its most important message is that we still have time to turn the corner on climate change -- the next 15 years will be pivotal -- and we can do it affordably. As a matter of fact, it's the cost of inaction that's the true threat to our economy.

Indeed, across the U.S., as we make the transition to clean energy, we’re not just cleaning up the air and water, but we're also saving money on our electric bills. In Georgia, for example, utilities recently received bids for solar projects at 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour, which is competitive with fossil fuels.

So it's more than a little infuriating to hear the dirty fuels industry complain about the expense of cleaning up its pollution, when we know that clean alternatives are available and affordable. While big polluters drag their feet, our kids and families continue to pay the cost of this pollution with our health, our healthcare bills, and possibly the safety of our very planet.
 
Since 2010 when Sierra Club and allies launched our campaign focused on existing coal plants, 179 coal plants across the U.S. have announced retirement, and clean energy has come rushing in to fill that gap. According to a new analysis, from 2007 to 2013 U.S. coal generation fell by 21 percent, which resulted in a 16 percent drop in U.S. carbon emissions. The majority of that coal power was replaced by wind, solar, and energy efficiency -- not natural gas. Indeed, of our drop in emissions, 40 percent of the fall came from switching to renewables and 30 percent can be attributed to energy efficiency, while only 30 percent came from switching to gas (Greenpeace and EIA).
 
So far in 2014, renewable energy has accounted for 40 percent of all new energy projects, continuing to transform the U.S. energy landscape. Prices for clean energy have continued to fall (an 80 percent drop since 2009 for solar, 63 percent for wind), and according to Lazard these projects are now competitive with new gas plants. Furthermore, because we’re using energy more efficiently, U.S. energy demand has remained flat in recent years, which means some of this retiring coal capacity just won't need to be replaced.

These new clean energy sources also help us modernize the grid. Last year's polar vortex and natural gas shortage showed the vulnerability of relying too much on gas-fired plants. In contrast, wind and solar power held strong during this period and helped make up the shortfall in key markets like Texas and the Mid-Atlantic. This is one of the reasons why utilities should look to add clean energy to their portfolio when replacing coal.

Finally, this shift in our energy mix doesn't just benefit our children's future -- it also improves their lives today. Retiring the 179 coal plants announced to date is projected to prevent more than 4,600 deaths per year and $2.1 billion in healthcare costs, according to data from the Clean Air Task Force.
 
We don't want to go back to a system where power plants cause thousands of deaths per year and take a wrecking ball to our climate -- and we don't have to. In simple economic terms, it is not financially worthwhile to prop up aging, outdated coal plants that damage public health when we can invest in modern solutions like wind and solar.
 
As the world's leading scientists hold up a danger sign, hundreds of thousands of Americans who are moving their communities beyond coal are pointing the way to a solution. This is not a time for cynicism and despair -- it's a time for hope, determination, and action. Join us.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal campaign director

Categories: Sierra Club National

Corporations Aren’t People And They Aren’t Nation States, Either

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 3 November 2014 - 9:09am

Despite what some politicians say, corporations aren’t people. But, even worse, when it comes to the world’s biggest trade deals, corporations are actually treated like nation states. Thankfully, a major storm is brewing that could put a crack in this fundamental pillar of the existing free trade regime.

Today’s free trade deals commonly include a set of rules that empower corporations to challenge laws and policies passed by democratically-elected governments in secret trade courts. Increasingly, corporations use these so-called ‘investor-state’ provisions to challenge energy and climate policies, public health and anti-smoking laws, and minimum wage requirements – among many others. That authority effectively gives corporations the same legal standing as other nations when it comes to international trade.  While civil society has long opposed this anti-democratic and anti-public interest process, new leadership in the European Union may help bury this system of corporate rights once and for all.

This process of “investor-state” dispute settlement has been a major and controversial issue in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free trade deal being negotiated between the United States and the European Union. Back in December 2013, less than six months after negotiations for the trade pact began, more than 200 civil society organizations from both sides of the Atlantic urged investor-state provisions to be excluded from TTIP because:

  • Investor-state dispute settlement forces governments to use taxpayer funds to pay  corporations for public health, environmental, labor and other public interest policies and government actions;
  • Investor-state dispute settlement explicitly undermines democratic decision-making; and
  • European and U.S. legal systems are already very capable of handling disputes.

The United States Trade Representative (USTR), the part of the U.S. government that negotiates free trade pacts like TTIP, has been absolutely clear in its desire to keep investor-state provisions in the pact, despite strong opposition from U.S. civil society organizations, state legislators, and some Members of Congress.  The sentiment in Europe is more skeptical.

In January 2014, for example, growing public concern over these reckless provisions prompted the European Commission to halt negotiations on this part of the agreement and conduct a public consultation on the issue.  About 150,000 people responded to the consultation--one of the highest response rates ever for a Commission consultation.  The Commission is now compiling the results.

Member states of the European Union are also increasingly doubtful about giving corporations free rein to challenge public health and environmental safeguards in secret courts. Germany’s Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, for example, wrote in March 2014 that “From the perspective of the [German] federal government, the United States and Germany already have sufficient legal protection in the national courts,” and that Germany “has already made clear its position that specific dispute settlement provisions are not necessary in the EU-U.S. trade deal.”  It’s no wonder why Germany is concerned; Germany has been on the wrong end of two investor-state cases—one to challenge new regulations in Germany’s coal fired power plants and another to challenge its decision to ban nuclear energy.

To top this, European Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Junker—the supreme decision- maker on this topic in Europe—has also expressed his strong concerns over investor-state dispute settlement in TTIP.  In his speech before European Parliament, Junker said that: “In the agreement that my Commission will eventually submit to this House for approval there will be nothing that . . . will allow secret courts to have the final say in disputes between investors and States.”  Junker furthermore said that “There will be no investor-to-state dispute clause in TTIP” if his deputy, incoming commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, “does not agree with it too.”

Of course, the battle is not over yet and the public in both the EU and the U.S. need to be vigilant in our opposition to this system of corporate rights in trade pacts. And, while keeping investor-state provisions out of TTIP would be a major, major accomplishment, there would also be many other dangers of the TTIP. Right this second, however, you can raise your voice and help crack this system of corporate empowerment in trade agreements by taking action here.

--Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Our clean energy potential is in the air

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 31 October 2014 - 10:17am

94. That's the number of days this year the air was unsafe to breathe in Southern California because of smog. And it's up from last year, when the number was 88. Over the decades we’ve made progress towards cleaning up the nation's dirtiest, smoggiest air basin, but fossil fuels and air pollution still place a heavy burden on families across the region.

The toll of this pollution is immense. Every year, local kids miss more than 1.1 million days of school due to dirty air and Southern Californians suffer from more than 120,000 asthma attacks. Even worse, over 5,000 people die prematurely every year due to air pollution. And this problem does not affect us equally in Southern California. African American and Latino children are two to six times more likely to die from asthma than whites, and the people most vulnerable to smog are children and the elderly.

Our pollution problem is not only affecting the health of people, it is also hurting our economy. In Southern California, pollution costs each of us $1,250 every year. While burning fossil fuels puts a hole in our pocket books, it hurts the economy more broadly too. Workers miss 400,000 days of work every year due to air pollution, and in total air pollution costs the region's economy $22 billion annually.

It has been over 40 years since the Clean Air Act was created, so why is our air is still unsafe to breathe? Here's the gist: Under the Clean Air Act, through the creation of State Implementation Plans (basically, an air pollution reduction plan), states must demonstrate progress towards meeting the health based standards that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets for pollutants like nitrogen oxide (NOx), the precursor to smog pollution. By law, the EPA must review and later approve these plans to ensure it is effective and done in a timely manner.

However, because of a "polluter loophole" in Clean Air Act, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) can submit partially finished pollution reduction plans that only take us part way to protecting public health. This loophole was written back during the 1990 amendments when clean alternatives like solar and electric vehicles were less viable. That's no longer the case. Through this loophole, polluters can say our air is cleaner while ignoring the fact that burning fossil fuels like oil and gas still present a public health nightmare for all of us living in Southern California

The result has led to a decades-long failure to make significant progress on controlling smog. On August 13, 2014, the EPA once again approved SCAQMD's plan that fails to detail how they will protect us from smog pollution. In fact, the SCAQMD projects that we won’t meet these air standards until 2032. That means millions of lives lost, hundreds of thousands of asthma and heart attacks, and billions of dollars down the drain.

The EPA has a responsibility to hold our region’s air regulators accountable for reducing harmful smog pollution, but they haven't for decades. And so, the Sierra Club and our partners are taking action. Today, EarthJustice, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit against the EPA for approving inadequate pollution reduction plans from the SCAQMD. We need a better strategy to cut pollution, and if we are successful, the court will reject this inadequate plan.

Taking advantage of this polluter loophole enables the region to continue delaying the transition to clean energy. In a year when dirty air days are increasing, regulators are considering more dirty gas power plants despite clean energy being available and more than capable of doing the job. We are expanding freeways and not investing enough in getting cars off the road through public transportation.

So, where do we go from here? The SCAQMD must develop a plan that cleans our air and protects public health. By 2023, achieving the science-based clean air standards requires a 75 percent reduction in smog producing pollutants, like nitrogen oxides. By 2032, by 90 percent. In short, we have to transition a 100 percent clean energy economy.  

This is an amazing opportunity. Right now, California leads the nation in rooftop solar and in clean energy more generally. This has resulted in the creation of thousands of jobs all throughout the value chain and has helped keep California's economy strong during economic hardship elsewhere. In fact, more than 47,000 Californians work in the solar industry, which is more than the combined workforce of the four largest utilities in the state.

A strong plan from the air district has the potential to transform our economy, bringing much needed clean energy jobs to towns like mine in Fontana. As Fontana's economy recovers, putting solar panels on our homes is helping families save money on their energy bills while creating jobs in our neighborhood. If we could continue this trend while also building up a clean vehicle infrastructure, we can create jobs, restore our economy, and protect our kids and friends from getting sick.

Our air is bad. It is killing people, making them sick, and hurting our economy. But there is a silver lining here. As bad as our air is, our clean energy potential is greater. We can turn our region from number one in the nation for bad air to the world’s leader in clean energy. And we need our regulators to see it.

-- Allen Hernandez, community organizer in Fontana, California

Categories: Sierra Club National

Coalition Launches New Website For Coal Activism

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 31 October 2014 - 8:42am

Today, a suite of environmental, social justice, and health advocates from around the world launched Endcoal.org, a resource for global communities, activists, students, and researchers who want to learn more about the problems with coal and the solutions to meet global energy needs

The website includes resources on the nexus between coal and climate, water, health, finance and economics, and mining as well as updates on international coal activism. It also highlights blogs from some of the leading international writers and activists on coal -- including the Sierra Club.

The site also hosts an interactive map and database that tracks all planned coal plants around the world since 2010. The Coal Plant Tracker, developed by CoalSwarm, allows the user to find out how many coal plants are planned in their country, track stages of development, and access more detailed information on the projects. Currently 284-gigawatts of coal plants are under construction and an additional 1,214-gigawatts have been proposed in 62 countries around the world.

But everywhere there is coal, communities also face devastating health effects and often violence and intimidation at the hands of companies or local officials. This, in turn, has fostered a global movement to stop deadly new coal plants and mines and pressure governments and institutions to take action to end our dependence on coal.

In the European Union, 109 proposed coal-fired power plants have been defeated. Since China’s air pollution crisis, mainly due to massive coal burning, 10 of China’s 34 provinces have banned the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Coal consumption in China dropped for the first time ever in the first three quarters of 2014, which indicates that China has decoupled its gross domestic product growth from coal growth.

Coal burning in the U.S. actually peaked in 2007 and has dropped by an astonishing 21 percent since.  U.S. groups -- including the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign --  have helped retire 179 coal-fired power plants, and more than 177 existing plants are slated for retirement.  

Meanwhile,  international financial institutions -- such as the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank -- have adopted policies restricting or eliminating support for coal-fired power plants.

While the movement to stop coal is growing, the coal industry is relentless in its push to mine and burn more coal. Endcoal.org seeks to help the global coal movement push back and move toward a clean energy future.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

The TTIP: A Very Scary Proposal

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 29 October 2014 - 10:49am
Cartoon by Courtenay Lewis

What do Halloween and the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have in common? Both are packed with things that should make your skin crawl. Earlier this October, I joined a meeting hosted by the Catalonian Campaign against the TTIP in Barcelona to discuss the many risks of the TTIP, a massive proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and EU. That same weekend, towns and cities across Europe protested  the TTIP and its corporate-empowering, fracking-enabling rules. These events reconfirmed that Americans and Europeans share many reasons to fear the trade agreement, including these ghastly features:

1. Secret trade agreements are like vampires. In Barcelona, trade policy expert Susan George stated that, like vampires, the TTIP could not survive the light of day. Even though the agreement would have huge impacts on everything from the food we eat to the energy we use, the European Commission and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative are negotiating the TTIP in complete secret. The U.S. and EU public, press, and government officials are not allowed to see the negotiating texts.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., hundreds of “trade advisors,” almost exclusively representing corporations, do have access to key texts and are actively influencing the pact. Our government should allow the public, at the very least, to have the same access to the texts as Halliburton has. And as Senator Elizabeth Warren has stressed, “If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the U.S.” 

2. Rise of the toxic sludge (in your drinking water). The U.S. is pushing for the TTIP to contain rules that empower corporations to sue governments—before private trade tribunals— over virtually any policy that the company claims could impact its expected future profits. Similar rules in the North American Free Trade Agreement have empowered a U.S. oil and gas firm to sue Canada for $250 million in response to a fracking moratorium in Quebec, demonstrating the threats that “investor-state” rules pose to countries and provinces’ policy-making processes.

Like in North America, countries across Europe are implementing fracking moratoriums and restrictions, often to the frustration of fracking companies. For example, when France implemented a fracking moratorium in 2011, a U.S. oil and gas company took this decision to court—and lost. Now corporations are pushing for the TTIP to give more “protections” to oil and gas companies, which – based on the NAFTA precedent— would allow foreign companies to circumvent government and court decisions over energy policies, and sue taxpayers over policies that companies deem inconvenient. In light of the air and water contamination and climate-disrupting emissions associated with fracking, the last thing communities need is rules that threaten their ability to regulate it.

3. The rise of Frankenfoods. In the EU, safeguards around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are some of the strongest in the world. The EU bans or restricts the import of GMO products and requires that GMO foods are labelled. The U.S., however, has no national laws requiring the labelling of GMO foods, even though polls indicate that more than 90 percent of Americans would support GMO labelling. In response to citizens’ concerns, more than 20 states have introduced over 60 bills that would require GMO labelling in these states—proposed rules that GMO-producing agribusinesses vehemently oppose. The TTIP would give industry a new vehicle to threaten these policies, as the trade agreement would likely identify GMO-labelling policies as “barriers to trade,” which could both stymie U.S. states’ efforts to label GMOs, and threaten the EU’s GMO regulations.

Be afraid. The TTIP could prevent countries and states from implementing policies that protect communities and stabilize the climate. Fortunately, people in the U.S. and EU are mobilizing to highlight the many tricks— and no treats— of this pact. With enough public pressure, U.S. and EU negotiators may finally be compelled to release the TTIP texts. Then we’ll see whether the TTIP can survive the light of day, or will go the way of the vampire. 

-- Courtenay Lewis, Campaign Representative, Responsible Trade Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

From Hurricane Sandy to the People's Climate March

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 29 October 2014 - 7:10am

Two years ago this week, Myrtle Williams' life changed in a way she had never imagined. The healthcare professional was at work in a nursing home in the Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, New York, when Hurricane Sandy came ashore.

The deadly storm destroyed homes and knocked out power to tens of thousands -- including the nursing home. Yet despite damage to her house, Williams and many of her colleagues chose to stay in the nursing home and take care of the patients.

Now on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Williams has much on her mind.

"I'm still thinking about the realization of what all took place," said Williams, a member of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. "I still think about how we were all affected, how many lost their lives, how it affected us in the healthcare industry. We were drastically affected by losing those we cared for."

But from her remembrance also comes an urge to take action. Before Sandy she never thought much about climate disruption, but October 2012 permanently changed her point of view.

"We have so far to go to make people realize that just because Sandy's over, that's not the end of this. We can see how the climate is changing around us, "said Williams.

Williams joined tens of thousands of her union brothers and sisters and people from all over the U.S. at September's massive People's Climate March in New York City because she was ready to be a voice for climate action.

"It was important to march and make my voice heard, but also to do it for those who can't be heard," she said. "I marched for those who are sick and frail and need someone to care for them. There were so many affected in the nursing home around me and they could not go on their own. Going to the march gave me that feeling that I'm not just doing this for my community, but for a whole group of people who need assistance."

Williams' perspective as a healthcare worker is also valuable in the face of climate disruption. She knows that certain diseases will become more prevalent as the climate changes and has already seen an uptick in respiratory illnesses in her line of work.

She hopes the amazing diversity of groups and people who marched in NYC in September continues to push for climate action in the coming months and years.

"When Sandy hit, it didn't hit just poor people or those who were scraping by, or the middle class - it hit everyone around us. It affected the rich, the poor, the homeless - those who are caregivers, teachers, children -- so many people were affected," said Williams. "So the People's Climate March and movement in turn should include everyone in our society who can make their voice heard. We need to make that message clear that we are all affected.

"The People's Climate March made me more in tune with the fact that, yes, we can do something, whatever small part I play, I want it to be effective. It's not just for my family and the people I care for, but for future generations, for my kids, and their kids.  We need to take drastic action. We as a nation should do what we can to make a change."

-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club. Top photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen. Second photo courtesy of Myrtle Williams.

Categories: Sierra Club National

From Narmada to Tata Mundra: Iconic Indian Activist Demands Clean Energy Transition at World Bank

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 28 October 2014 - 7:10am
Medha Patkar speaking in Washington, D.C. in October 2014. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ghio.

Medha Patkar made her name fighting the push for large dams in the 1980’s. Decades later, the fight rages on.

That fight all began with the Narmada River Valley Project -- the largest river dam development in India. When Medha was researching social inequality and social movements for her PhD, she learned of the plight of indigenous people in Gujarat in conjunction with the construction of the dam.

Wanting to help the cause, Medha  began working with Adivasi youth groups in the districts of Dang, Sabarkantha, and Banaskantha and farmers in the Narmada Valley in India. She worked with allies to found the Narmada Bachao Andolan -- an organization dedicated to fighting for justice for hundreds of thousands of people scheduled to be displaced by dams along the Narmada river.

Beyond the Narmada valley, Medha Patkar has played a crucial role in empowering people struggling to protect their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights across India. She she is a national Convener of the National Association of People's Movements (NAPM) and has won numerous awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize.

I sat down with Medha Patkar while she was in Washington, D.C. to advocate for the Narmada communities at the World Bank Fall meetings.

Nicole Ghio: How did you get involved with activism, and what is your history with activism?

Medha Patkar: “I was born in a family where both parents were activists. [My] father was a freedom fighter, and [my] mother was a government servant earning for the family. But she also was involved in the socialist youth organization. That’s where they got married. So since childhood, I was observing the meetings with the laborers taking place in my own house and also participating in student camps.  

“While in Gujarat, I came to know about the Narmada dam issue. I thought this was very symbolic. I went for a two day long walk in the tribal areas with an advocate wanting to take legal action. I thought legal action would not help. What was needed was mass mobilization and struggle. Going through those indigenous people’s communities, the Adivasis, I realized they were not told or asked about the project that is going to have huge impact on their lives and livelihoods.

“[The Narmada struggle] was seen as a symbol of the development paradigm. That’s why we couldn’t restrict ourselves to a single issue or project.[…] We thought that everything should be well-knit to present the paradigm as it is today, and the alternative vision.[...] Since we challenged the World Bank, we also questioned the whole international economic vision that these financial institutions are pushing and everything that comes with it.”

NG: What do you see as the alternate vision?

MP: “[One] that is based on the values and principles of equity and justice. To us, sustainability cannot be just compensatory measures, as World Bank and other actors put it. [...] It has to be linked with the equity and justice.”

NG: Where have you seen the use of renewables and other alternative sources in India? And what is or isn’t working?

MP: “The energy intensive way of life, way of industrialization, of everything is really taking a toll on the resources. The pace and the concentration in the areas where there [are] natural resources […] is really not just displacing, [but also] destroying everything there. The worst is that the people not involved [in planning] are cheated. [...] [In the energy sector] the allocation of resources [goes] neither to the local communities  [or] even to the statutory agencies -- [they are] giving it [all] to the private corporations. [...] That is absolutely not affordable. If you want to really use the resource for dealing with the inequities, for fulfilling the basic needs, this is not the way at all.

“That is why these kinds of major mineral based energy [projects are] having huge targets and huge claims of reaching out, etc. but [are] not even bringing in that result. It’s concentrated centralized generation of power and concentrated distribution -- with no justice in distribution.

“The renewable sources are decentralized. They are in the hands of the people already, which they can have knowledge to tap and use.

“So the technologically [is] manageable for the common people.  Because [of] the decentralized availability of the resource, the benefits can also be distributed in a just manner.  And ecological sustainability beyond generation has to be thought of. All of those things are better served through the renewable technology. […] It has to be alternatives not only in terms of the technology, but who owns the resource and who manages the harnessing process and who gets the benefit.

NG: Is there a message you’re bringing to the World Bank meeting in D.C. this week?

MP: “The World Bank [has] experience within itself [from] when they dealt with the Narmada issue. [...]  There were protests by a number of environmental [non-governmental organizations],NGOs, in this part of the world, but they also could get a response from within [the World Bank] when they protested. [...] We know that the World Bank’s small input in a project’s cost makes large impacts, whether it is in Tata Mundra today or in Narmada that day.

“We as the activists at the country level could join hands with NGOs here. [...] The World Banks says in many of its documents that they learned a lot from Narmada.  We say that were not good learners. [...] They dropped large hydro, but now they are beginning to come back again to it.”

As I was leaving the interview, Medha Patkar asked me to pass on one last message to activists in the U.S. She told me now is the time to re-engage in Narmada. The world-wide pressure gave strength to the people on the ground and forced the World Bank to re-think its approach to large projects.

But now that is slipping. The Bank has forgotten its lesson and is considering backing large, dangerous hydro projects once again. Meanwhile, there is a renewed push to complete Narmada.

It is time to once again join hands and say no to displacement and destruction in the name of development.

***

During her visit, Medha Patkar invited others to join her in protesting the new draft of revised safeguards at the World Bank, which instead of helping protect communities are actually regressive on many issues. She testified at a meeting with civil society on safeguards during the World Bank fall meetings, where activists presented a statement condemning the draft and staged a mass walkout. Once outside, she rallied the crowd at the protest.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Five Principles For Taming the Wild West of Beyond the Grid Clean Energy Policy

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 27 October 2014 - 8:05am

Misguided and inappropriate safeguards threaten to handicap some of the most dynamic and innovative approaches to ending energy poverty for 1.3 billion people around the world.

That the findings of Sierra Club’s latest report -- Expanding Energy Access: Beyond The Grid --  which proposes five policy principles to ensure clean energy access markets thrive.

If we don’t fill the vacuum of safeguards that exist for companies serving those living beyond the reach of the grid, we threaten the long term viability of these beyond the grid clean energy markets. These approaches are already pioneering cutting-edge Machine to Machine (M2M) technology, dynamic financial innovations like pay as you go (PAYG), and even big data to unlock clean energy for low-income populations. That’s all while unlocking tremendous economic opportunity in a $12 billion market.

But all of that is threatened if policymakers don’t set appropriate rules of the road. Without rules, we all but ensure that those most in need of energy solutions pay the price for the most expensive electron -- the one that isn’t delivered. An outcome no one wants to see because without access to electricity, communities may suffer from poor healthcare and restricted opportunities for economic advancement.  

In order to ensure these markets continue to grow rapidly and deliver for low-income populations, we’ve identified five principles for policymakers to abide by:

1. Energy Services Not Electrons: It was the LED light bulb, not just the falling price of solar, that unlocked clean energy for low-income populations by bringing down the size of all components in a solar home system. It’s vital we apply that principle -- that energy efficiency unlocks clean energy for low-income populations -- to the next steps of energy service delivery. That means supporting the deployment and development of highly efficient appliances and agricultural equipment.

2. Build Markets From The Bottom Up: Starting with ‘pico’ power -- like solar lanterns and solar home systems -- populations get onto the energy ladder by displacing existing expenditures on dirty kerosene lighting. Lighting, however, is the beginning, not the end, of energy access. As people move up the energy ladder to higher levels of access, policymakers should transition deployment support to full access technologies like mini-grids and larger solar home systems.

3. Level The Playing Field With Fossil Fuels: Right now, clean energy access providers are getting hit both coming and going. Their competitors -- fossil fuel companies -- are highly subsidized, but clean energy companies are taxed. Policymakers should seek to direct fossil fuel subsidies directly to low-income populations and gradually eliminate the fossil fuel industry’s support over time (see Michael Liebrich’s paper on this here). At the same time, policymakers should focus on reducing taxes, like value added taxes (VAT) on solar products, which hinder our ability to end energy poverty.

4. Unlock Finance: In many ways, enabling access to finance is job number one. Public policy can help achieve that in part by setting the rules of the road. But it can achieve it more directly by de-risking private investment through loan guarantees. In certain cases, like mini-grids, subsidy support -- in the form of innovative approaches like rural feed-in tariffs (rFit) -- are required to unlock the market. Regardless, the effect of access to finance, particularly for consumers, is dramatic.

5. Define Utility Regulations In The Off-Grid And Mini-Grid Space: This is perhaps the largest looming threat to the burgeoning beyond the grid clean energy industry. There simply is no policy certainty for companies in this market, and policymakers need to ensure light touch regulation that accommodates, rather than precludes, the growth of the clean energy industry by, amongst other things, defining what constitutes a utility and benchmarking prices to protect consumers.

We firmly believe that these solar companies should be regulated and consumers protected. But current clumsy attempts to fit a square peg in a round hole can have unintended, harmful impacts by -- amongst other things -- handicapping the ability to charge consumers what is required for a sustainable business model. By applying the body of regulations and policymaking designed for the operational realities of the grid -- like benchmarking prices against grid resources instead of diesel generators -- we ensure the most expensive power of all: its absence.

That means we need a whole new body policy steeped in the realities of the populations living beyond the reach of the grid whom we are attempting to serve. This will require new innovative, light-touch policy making to ensure rules of the road so that investment continues to flow and that these markets remain as innovative as ever in their quest to end energy poverty.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Millions in New Investment Cap Record Year for Beyond the Grid Solar Markets

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 23 October 2014 - 11:49am

It has been a record year for beyond the grid solar investment.

Photo courtesy of OMC Power.

Over $45 million in investments have closed in the past year, including: $1.8 million for plug and play solar provider BBOXX, $11 million for industry pioneer d.light, and $20 million for mobile money pioneer M-KOPA. Not to be left out of a potential $12 billion market, three more new major funding announcements have taken place in the past two weeks alone.    

First, SolarNow, the solar asset finance company operating in East Africa, announced it closed a round of equity funding of €2 million (U.S. $2.56 million) from Novastar Ventures and impact investor Acumen.  Uganda-based SolarNow is, in the words of CEO Willem Nolens, “not just a solar product company or a pay-as-you-go service provider; we are an asset finance and distribution company with a focus on renewable energy.”  

SolarNow is living proof of two things: these energy markets are moving beyond just a light bulb, and its all about unlocking financing. SolarNow sells 50-500-watt solar home systems through an innovative in-house credit facility in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya designed to support a range of appliances including lights, radios, TVs, and refrigerators. This approach to solving affordability and distribution challenges is incredibly important as an alternative to partnering with financial institutions, such as microfinance institutions. The new round of investment will allow SolarNow to respond to growing demand from existing customers and to expand their distribution network to new East African markets.

On the heels of the announcement from SolarNow, ‘Tower Power’ pioneer OMC Power announced that it has secured major funding from Singapore-based Energy Investment Tech Pte. Ltd.  OMC Power, one of the companies featured in our video with the Center for American Progress about energy poverty in India, is at the cutting edge of micro-grid development, proving that micro-grids may just be the next big opportunity for beyond the grid markets.

The undisclosed amount of new funding from Energy Investment Tech will go toward building 200 micropower plants in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which will provide energy to over three million people in 6,000 villages.  The fact that the company’s installations are growing ten-fold is very exciting news and speaks to the high level of demand for clean energy services in India.

But it’s not just the private sector that sees the growing beyond the grid solar opportunity and is moving rapidly to invest.  Exciting programs like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s Africa Clean Energy Finance (ACEF) and USAID’s’ Renewable Energy Microfinance & Microenterprise Program (REMMP) and Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) are building an impressive pipeline of beyond the grid solar companies. Add to that the recent European Union grant of €6 million (U.S. $7.63 million) to Mobisol -- now the largest rent-to-own solar energy provider in Africa -- and you have a handful of innovative programs helping build these markets.

But while some public sector actors are waking up to this opportunity, the fact is that leading development banks -- like the World Bank -- are missing in action. A recent report from Sierra Club and Oil Change International found that the World Bank categorically fails to invest in these dynamic markets. So in some ways it’s two steps forward, one step back.

However, as investment continues to flow and services expand, it will be harder and harder for public sector companies to justify their absence. In the meantime, dynamic companies like OMC and SolarNow will be sowing the seeds of a clean energy revolution from the bottom up.

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

Categories: Sierra Club National

Industry Push Poll Breaks Cardinal Research Rules, Claims Voters Oppose EPA Clean Power Plan

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 23 October 2014 - 7:41am

A new industry-sponsored poll is resorting to biased push-poll tactics in an apparent attempt to offset the growing body of research that shows Americans support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s proposed carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants. The so-called “Partnership for a Better Energy Future,” a self-described industry association that includes the American Petroleum Institute and the National Mining Association, has released new polling they claim shows voters nationwide and in swing states are wary of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. But a look at the actual research documents reveals a blatantly-biased survey and a lack of transparency about the survey sample.

According to the Partnership for a Better Energy Future’s press release, the survey conducted by Paragon Insights “finds that Americans have major concerns about the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas regulations and are unwilling to pay even a dollar more for energy in exchange for these new rules.” But while the survey documents look legitimate and detailed, this research breaks two of the cardinal rules of public opinion research: being transparent about research sampling methodology and avoiding bias in question wording and sequence.

One of the first steps in survey analysis is to double-check that the demographics of the final survey sample (i.e. the group of people who completed a poll) closely matches those of the population of interest. The Partnership for a Better Energy Future, nor their pollsters at Paragon Insight, are transparent about the demographic breakdowns of their sample. The population of interest for this research was “likely voters,” for which there is no standard demographic profile to compare a survey sample against. Some informed judgement calls are necessary when sampling from this population, making it even more important to release demographic breakdowns in a survey release. The omission of this information is puzzling and could be interpreted as suspicious.  

As any survey researcher will tell you, question wording and sequence are very important, as they influence how survey respondents interpret poll questions and how they answer them. And biased question wording or sequence will usually yield biased survey results. And given that this industry poll employs both biased question wording and biased question sequence, the results are automatically suspect.

To illustrate how biased the Partnership for a Better Energy Future’s poll is, consider its main finding that a plurality of voters (47 percent) oppose “the EPA regulations” while 44% support them. If you look at the parts of the survey questionnaire which were released, you will see that these results come from a question that appears after respondents hear a battery of arguments for and against the “Obama administration’s regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.” Instead of following industry standard and asking for respondents’ opinions before influencing them with qualitative information, this survey first presented twice as many arguments against it than arguments for it. While the negative arguments included questionable (and scary) claims like “the new regulations could increase your yearly household energy costs by as much as $130” and “could lead to job losses in your state,” the positive arguments were far less personalized. One reads “the new regulations could persuade other countries to join the fight against global climate change or the environment” and another claims “the regulations could reduce global carbon emissions by as much as 1.5%.” Conveniently absent is any mention of the significant public health benefits of reducing harmful pollution from coal-fired coal plants. Our own research has found that protecting public health is seen as one of the most-convincing reasons to support the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

These arguments influenced how these respondents would respond to this question. If I did not know much about about the EPA’s Clean Power Plan before taking this survey, I would be more likely to say I opposed it after hearing just three “pros” and six “cons.” Especially if the list of “pros” did not include the top reason Americans support the plan: its positive impact on the health of America’s families.

There’s good reason to believe these biases yielded flawed data, as these survey results run counter to every major publicly-released poll this year. Earlier this year, a national survey conducted by Quinnipiac University found that 58% of registered voters support federal government limits on “the release of greenhouse gases from existing power plants.” These findings are consistent with a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which found that two-in-three American adults (67%) supported the EPA setting “strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants.” Another 57% said they would approve of a proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from companies, even if it would lead to higher utility bills for consumers.

--Grace McRae, Sierra Club Polling and Research Strategist

Categories: Sierra Club National

Quiz: Is an Electric Car Right for You?

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 23 October 2014 - 7:24am

A lot of people have heard the buzz around electric vehicles (EVs), but they don't know if an EV would be right for them. In fact, many don't even know what would be the right questions to ask themselves to figure out whether cars like the Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, or Ford C-Max Energi would fit their lifestyles -- not to mention their budgets.

I'm happy to report that we at the Sierra Club have launched a 'pick-a-plug-in' web tool to help people figure out which electric cars, if any, are right for them. I hope you'll check it out and share it with your friends.

A poll last year found that nearly half of American households could purchase an EV for their next car; it would be a great fit for their driving needs, and they would have a place to charge it with electricity. We're talking about many millions of people. Are you one of them?

There are a lot of compelling reasons why more than a quarter million Americans have already bought EVs since they first came on the mass market a few years ago. They are cool high-tech wonders (imagine driving an iPhone!), there is little or no need to ever visit a gas station (depending on whether you purchase a full battery electric or a plug-in hybrid car), they are much cheaper to fuel (the equivalent of about $1 a gallon), and they are much better for the environment (even when considering the emissions from the electricity to charge them up).

Also, there is a $2,500-7,500 federal tax credit that comes with the purchase of an EV. And many people live in cities and states where they can take advantage of additional incentives, like a purchase/lease rebate (in some places get a check in the mail for thousands of dollars -- I am not kidding!), carpool lane access, and special utility rates for EV drivers. Linked to our new 'pick-a-plug-in' web tool is our online EV Guide that has all of this information if you enter your zip code. If you click on a specific EV, we'll even tell you how much you’ll avoid in carbon emissions and fueling costs compared to the average conventional car.

But are EVs currently the right fit for everyone? No. For example, some people don't have a place to charge them with electricity. For many, though, it’s simpler than they think. I had a basic 110 volt outlet installed on the side of my house, so I can charge up my car in our driveway. Easy peasy.

Many people ask me, "What's the best electric car to get?" My answer is always, "it depends." How many miles do you drive in a typical day? Do you take a lot of long-distance trips? How much money are you willing to spend? There are nearly 20 great models available in the US and more coming out every year.

So, what are you waiting for? Check out 'pick-a-plug-in,' and start your EV journey.

-- Gina Coplon-Newfield, Sierra Club's Director of Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative

Categories: Sierra Club National

Are U.S. taxpayer dollars supporting coal industry human rights violations overseas?

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 20 October 2014 - 6:51am
The Sasan coal-fired power plan and coal ash pond. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ghio.

Today, a fact finding team of five non-governmental organizations (NGOs) -- the Sierra Club, 350.org, Carbon Market Watch, Friends of the Earth U.S. and Pacific Environment -- released a scathing report, The U.S. Export-Import Bank’s Dirty Dollars,  on the rampant human rights abuses at the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) financed Sasan coal-fired power plant and mine in Singrauli, India.

For years, reports of human rights, indigenous rights, labor, and environmental violations have plagued Sasan and its owner, Indian company Reliance Power, and the U.S. government are partly to blame. The 3,960-megawatt project has received over $900 million in taxpayer finance from Ex-Im, and when allegations against the project are raised, Ex-Im prefers to look the other way.

When Indian groups and NGOs alerted Ex-Im to a smokestack collapse that killed 30 workers, the Bank

This tribal child is one of the people who have been relocated in order to build Sasan. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ghio.


did nothing. When reports emerged of irregularities with the coal allotments for Sasan, foreshadowing the coal-gate scandal that would envelop then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Ex-Im said nothing. Eventually the outrage prompted the Bank to conduct a visit to the project, but while they met with Reliance, the Bank refused to meet in the communities. Instead, they insisted that the affected people who had faced violence at the hands of Reliance – people without access to reliable transportation – meet them at a hotel that catered to industrial interests. Shockingly, people were afraid to speak out in such an unsafe venue. But even so, they refused to stay silent for long.

Today’s fact finding report contains first-hand accounts from the front line communities Ex-Im attempted to ignore.

What we uncovered in our trips to Sasan was heartbreaking. We heard from villagers whose homes were destroyed in the middle of the night while they were still living in them. We met with indigenous residents whose children were denied entry into schools. And we learned how Reliance covers up injuries -- and even deaths -- at the project.

There were two groups, though, that we did not hear from. Reliance Power refused to meet with the fact finding team, and Ex-Im refused to provide the supplemental environmental reports -- including the remediation or mitigation plans and related monitoring documents  -- that Reliance is required to submit to Ex-Im, and which federal legislation and the Bank’s own policies require be made available on request.

This seed pod is covered in coal dust from the conveyor belt that brings coal to Sasan from the mine. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ghio.

Recognizing the risk Sasan could pose, Ex-Im classified it as a Category A project when the Bank approved the financing. This means the coal project is required to comply with additional standards, including the IFC Performance Standards and their provisions for environmental and social impacts, labor and working conditions, pollution prevention, community health, and resettlement. It is clear from first hand reports that Sasan fails in all these areas.

However, without the monitoring documents, it is impossible to know if Ex-Im willfully ignored these requirements or if it failed to do its own due diligence to monitor Sasan and investigate complaints. In order to learn the truth, the Sierra Club submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request today to obtain the missing documents.

But the truth is not enough for the people living with the impacts of Sasan. They need justice.

We hoped the first step would take place last week, when the U.S. Export-Import Bank Office of the Inspector General (OIG) – the independent investigative body for Ex-Im -- traveled to Singrauli for an inspection of Sasan. But the OIG seemed more interested in building a relationship with Reliance than listening to the communities.

The OIG representatives arranged to travel to Singrauli in a Reliance helicopter, but were forced to change their plans due to weather. Once they finally arrived, they also refused to meet with the affected people in their communities. The OIG did allow a few representatives to visit them at their hotel at 7:30 in the morning while Reliance officials waited outside and could take note of who attended, possibly endangering those who showed up.

The U.S. can no longer allow itself to be complaisant in the abuses taking place at Sasan. We call on the OIG to conduct a thorough inspection that includes follow-up visits using the best practices established by the CAO and with third party experts who can evaluate the impacts.

Moreover, it is imperative that Ex-Im use its influence to halt a proposed expansion of Sasan and work with Reliance to bring the project into compliance with the IFC Performance Standards. Should this prove impossible, Ex-Im must withdraw from the project.

To do less calls into question the legitimacy of the Export-Import Bank and its ability to effectively monitor the use of U.S. taxpayer dollars abroad.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Will the Export-Import Bank’s Office of the Inspector General Ignore Human Rights Violations?

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 17 October 2014 - 9:27am
The Harrahawa Village was relocated to make way for the Sasan coal ash pond. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ghio.

Sudarshan Rajak disappeared under suspicious circumstances after protesting the relocation of families for Reliance Power’s 4,000-megawatt Sasan coal project in Singrauli, India. Some of his neighbors believehe was in his house when it was bulldozed by Reliance. Krishna Das Saha's home was destroyed in the middle of the night -- while his family was still living in it -- to make way for Sasan’s coal ash pond. And when Sati Prasad challenged Reliance’s refusal to hire local workers, he was dragged out of his home and beaten by the police.

These are just a few people who have met violence and intimidation at the hands of Reliance Power. This aggression is subsidized U.S. tax dollars in the form of over $900 million in financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im). Indian groups have documented these and other abuses in Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project, Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh: A Brief Report.

Ex-Im has turned a deaf ear to the allegations against the project, but it appeared as though the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) -- the independent investigative body for Ex-Im -- was prepared to listen. Now, we are not so sure

This week, the OIG traveled to Singrauli as part of its inspection of Sasan. While the two OIG representatives were happy to make arrangements to travel to Singrauli in a Reliance helicopter – plans they later had to amend due to rain – they refused to meet with the affected people, claiming that meeting in the communities would make the OIG appear biased. Instead, the OIG summoned a small group of local people to their hotel at 7:30 in the morning while Reliance officials waited outside and could see which villagers came to meet with the OIG.

This is flat out wrong. By holding the meetings at the hotel instead of in the communities, as was originally requested, the OIG put villagers who are concerned about the project at future risk.

Moreover, the OIG has an obligation to follow-up on complaints from affected people. Ex-Im classified

The Sasan coal-fired power plant in Singrauli, India. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ghio.

Sasan as a Category A project, which means that it is required to comply with additional standards, including the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards for environmental and social impacts, labor and working conditions, pollution prevention, community health, and resettlement. The OIG is abdicating its responsibility if it ignores the human impacts and restricts its inspection to the Ex-Im standards for the export of equipment and other weaker benchmarks.

I personally met with affected communities and retold their stories to officials at Ex-Im -- including alerting the Bank officials to a smokestack collapse that killed 30 workers as well as irregularities in coal allotments. These irregularities foreshadowed the coal-gate scandal, which later rocked India and forced then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to defend himself to Parliament.

But instead of using their trip to listen to the people affected by Sasan, the OIG was only willing to take a tour of the sites by car, where they could view the communities out the windows while refusing to stop and talk to them. Unsurprisingly, the community members felt this was unacceptable.

This is not justice.

The OIG does not currently have a process for this type of inspection, but other institutions do. Last week, Civil Society Organizations sent a letter to the OIG outlining how to conduct an objective and complete report, using the process employed by the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) of the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation as a guideline. This includes conducting follow-up visits to meet with affected people in their communities and employing third party experts to assess the impacts.

Will the OIG step up and conduct an impartial inspection? Or will it aid in the suppression of the impacted communities?

If the OIG chooses the latter, they will receive a rude awakening. Local residents have shown time and time again that they will not be silenced.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Momentum builds in Louisiana, the latest front in the fight against coal exports

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 17 October 2014 - 6:51am

In recent weeks, something amazing has been happening in the Gulf Coast of Louisiana – communities have been standing up and casting votes to ring the alarm about proposed coal export projects. As U.S. coal use has declined, mining companies are looking for a future in international markets. And while most people might think of the Pacific Northwest as ground zero for planned coal export facilities, the Gulf Coast is home to over a dozen proposed coal export terminals as well. Thankfully, as the plans to export coal through the state grow, so does the opposition from local residents.

Case in point - the small town of Gretna, Louisiana, in Jefferson Parish. This is a historic metro area of New Orleans, and it's also the site of a proposed coal export project called the RAM coal export terminal. If constructed, the facility could see some six to eight million tons of coal and refinery waste exported overseas every year (that's about six coal-fired power plants worth of coal). It would add to the dust and water pollution burden in the communities it neighbors by sending mile-long, uncovered coal trains running through historic neighborhoods, and it also threatens the state's vital coastal restoration projects.

The fight over this export facility hit a milestone in September, when residents packed a Jefferson Parish Council meeting. They cheered when the council voted unanimously on a resolution that questioned the impacts that the RAM terminal would have on coastal restoration, and also called on the Army Corps of Engineers to hold public hearings and conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement on RAM.

"This was the outcome of an entire summer of outreach by the Sierra Club, our partners in the Gulf Restoration Network, and the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition," says Devin Martin, a New Orleans-based organizer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "We made a big push to generate turnout and demonstrate public opposition to the export terminal at the previous council meeting in August, and more than 100 people attended -- it was standing room only."

Residents worked together to phone-bank, write letters, put up yard signs, collect petition signatures, and much more to educate their neighbors and to pressure the council. They also packed the Gretna City Council meeting in July and previous educational forums. Martin credits some amazing community activists, especially Grace Morris of the Gulf Restoration Network, for such a successful movement of residents against this polluting facility.

There's still much work left to do - especially after the Army Corps of Engineers responded to the Jefferson Parish Council vote by issuing a press release saying there's no need for public hearings on the RAM terminal proposal. But Martin and other coal export opponents still have lots of reasons for optimism.

Momentum is building against coal exports in the Gulf. The unanimous vote by the Jefferson Parish Council on Sept. 17 was preceded by a unanimous vote by the Gretna City Council on September 10. In June, the neighboring city of Westwego passed a resolution opposing coal trains.

"While the (Jefferson Parish Council) resolution doesn't stop the project or even force the Corps to act, the political implications cannot be overstated," said Martin. "Jefferson is Louisiana's second most populous parish, the home turf of some of our most powerful and infamous politicians, and so deep Red that it falls into the infrared spectrum of political leanings."

You can help! Sign the petition to oppose coal exports in Louisiana.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal campaign director

Categories: Sierra Club National

Poisoned Chalice: California rate design reform and its consequences for rooftop solar, efficiency, and conservation

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 15 October 2014 - 10:11am

Last year the California Legislature passed a bill (AB 327 - Perea) granting the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) the ability to make broad changes to how the state's investor owned utilities (PG&E, SCE, and SDG&E) charge customers for electricity. In his departing comments (PDF) from the CPUC, former Commissioner Mark Ferron observed that the bill was "a poisoned chalice" because "the Commission will come under intense pressure to use this authority to protect the interest of the utilities over those of consumers and potential self-generators, all in the name of addressing exaggerated concerns about grid stability, cost and fairness."
 
Sure enough, that intense pressure has begun. Utilities are now asking the CPUC to significantly change rates that would hurt low-income customers and, as an analysis by the Sierra Club demonstrates (PDF), cripple the market for rooftop solar and efficiency upgrades. At public meetings throughout the state, hundreds of Sierra Club members, clean energy workers and consumers are speaking out against the proposed changes.  
 

Speaking out against utility proposed rates at a public participation hearing in Fontana

What Utilities Want: Fixed Charges and Flat Rates

Currently, electricity rates are "tiered" so the more you use, the more you pay. Initial consumption is charged at a low rate, with rates increasing significantly with energy use. This structure rewards conservation and is in large part responsible for the rapid growth of rooftop solar in California because it makes energy-savings investments economic for customers with high energy-usage. Energy bills are also almost entirely tied to the amount of energy consumption with few unavoidable fixed charges.

Last summer, utilities succeeded in passing AB 327, which removed protections limiting the price of energy at lower consumptions levels and allowed utilities to seek CPUC approval of a "fixed charge" of up to $10 on energy bills.  With the passage of AB 327, utilities are now seeking to exploit AB 327 to its fullest by asking the CPUC to:

1) add the maximum permissible monthly fixed charge of $10 to each customer's bill in 2016, rising over time from there;
2) collapse the existing four-tiered rate structure to just two tiers, with only a small difference in the rates charged between tiers.

What Fixed Charges and Flat Rates Do:  Hurt Low-Income Customers and the Environment

Let's unpack the impact of the proposed utility changes. First off, what does a fixed charge mean for your average customer bill?  Well, opening up my bill from Southern California Edison, every bill my family pays begins with a 99 cent "basic charge" at the top of my bill. If you're an SCE customer, yours is about the same. That charge is going to jump to $10 per month. Nothing I do, from conserving energy to going solar will offset that charge. It's fixed on my bill, which means my family has to pay ten bucks every month to SCE before we consume a single kilowatt hour. This type of charge is bad policy for two reasons.

As shown in the above graph, fixed charges punish those that conserve and consume little energy by significantly increasing the cost of the little energy they do use. Unavoidable charges also reduce everyone's incentive to reduce energy use by reducing the savings from conservation and measures like rooftop solar. For example, in its analysis of the utilities’ proposed rates, the Sierra Club determined (PDF) that the $10 fixed charge would increase the average payback period for a rooftop solar investment for SCE customers by an average of 1.4 years, making the decision to go solar significantly less economic.   

SCE's primary argument is that maintaining the grid has costs and everyone should pay for it, regardless of how much energy you use. If that sounds nuts to you, join the club. It's sort of like a grocery store charging you $10 bucks a month to cover the costs of their dilapidated shelving units, before you walk in the door. A better policy is a minimum bill. Unlike a fixed charge, which affects all customers, a minimum bill is only triggered when a bill would otherwise fall below the minimum rate. A properly set minimum bill ensures all customers contribute to grid expenses without significantly impacting conservation and low-income customers like fixed charges do.
 
SCE also wants to reduce the tiers from four to two with little difference in price between tiers. Typically, my family stays within the first two tiers. Over time we have invested in insulation, an attic fan, and replaced some more energy efficient light bulbs. Even during this recent heat wave, we've only barely climbed into the third tier. Under the SCE's proposal, tiers one and two would increase into one single more expensive tier, while tiers three and four would drop significantly. In other words, families like mine would see their bills go up while energy hogs would see their bills drop. On top of that, flat rates make it more difficult for energy hogs to do the right thing by significantly reducing their economic incentive to invest in rooftop solar and efficiency measures.

What's the justification? Well, utilities say the current rate structure is unfair because high energy users pay a disproportionate share of costs of the energy grid. However, energy hogs should pay more because they impose greater costs by driving the need for new gas plants and more expensive peak power. In addition, rates should reinforce state energy and climate policies, not undermine them. Rates with meaningful differences between tiers are not only fair, but also critical to encouraging clean energy solutions like energy efficiency or rooftop solar. At minimum, utilities should include three balanced tiers. The third tier should be twice the tier one rate so that customers are encouraged to use less energy.

Time for the PUC to Stand Up to Utilities and Defend State Clean Energy Goals

In his closing remarks (PDF) on the "poisoned chalice" of rate design, former Commission Ferron called on his fellow commissioners to "be bold and forthright in defending and strengthening our state’s commitment to clean and distributed energy generation." The CPUC should reject the utilities' proposed fixed charge and extreme tier flattening and ensure rates continue to foster a clean energy economy. You can weigh in now by sending a comment to the CPUC today. A final CPUC decision on rates is expected in early 2015.

-- Evan Gillespie, western region deputy director, Sierra Club

Categories: Sierra Club National
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