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Our clean energy potential is in the air

31 October 2014 - 11:17am

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

31 October 2014 - 9:42am

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

29 October 2014 - 11:49am
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

29 October 2014 - 8:10am

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

28 October 2014 - 8:10am
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

27 October 2014 - 9:05am

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

23 October 2014 - 12:49pm

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

23 October 2014 - 8:41am

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?

23 October 2014 - 8:24am

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?

20 October 2014 - 7:51am
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?

17 October 2014 - 10:27am
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

17 October 2014 - 7:51am

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

15 October 2014 - 11:11am

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

Will a dirty coal plant in Kosovo spoil the Clean Energy Record of Dr. Kim and World Bank?

13 October 2014 - 9:34am

Light projection on the World Bank building in Washington DC Source: 350.org, 2013

 

For the fourth year in a row, the World Bank’s investments are coal-free. But the real test of the strength of this commitment will come when the bank decides whether or not to fund the Kosovo C coal-fired power plant in Kosovo.

Currently, Kosovo relies on two old and extremely dirty coal-fired plants for most of its electricity. One of these plants recently exploded, leaving the country to rely on even more imported energy. In light of this disaster, the Kosovar government -- and the World Bank -- are hinging all of their hopes on the proposed Kosovo C coal-fired power plant to quell this seemingly endless energy import and finally meet the Kosovars’ growing energy needs.

But what the World Bank is failing to realize is that the solution to Kosovo’s energy crisis cannot be found in outdated, dangerous energy supplies like coal. By turning to a modern 21st century energy plan -- including energy efficiency, wind, and solar -- Kosovo will be able to easily meet its growing energy demands, protect the health of its people and environment, and subsequently drive growth in the country.

Currently, nearly one-third of the nation’s energy is wasted on an antiquated and inefficient transformer fleet and energy grid. The proposed Kosovo C coal-fired power plant will not only continue to perpetuate the use of this outdated system, but it will lock the country into using lignite coal -- the dirtiest type of coal -- for at least the next several decades.

By increasing energy efficiency and transitioning to clean energy sources over time, this waste will be drastically reduced and, in turn, will save countless lives and much-needed money. On top of that, by reducing and eventually eliminating the use of lignite coal, the country will be in a better position to ensure a safer, healthier future for its people.

Luckily, many local groups have already taken up this fight.

As we speak, the Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID) and their allies are protesting energy rate hikes approaching 10 percent, which is on top of several rate hikes that have come in the years before.

But how can Kosovars afford a new coal-fired power plant? The answer is they can’t.

The Kosovo C coal-fired power plant is estimated to cost approximately $1 billion of the country’s $6.9 billion annual gross domestic product. So, where is this money coming from? You guessed it: from the pockets of Kosovars.

Already, some estimates are predicting more than a 40 percent increase in energy bills for Kosovars in order to offset the cost. And that’s before construction has even started. This is more than the people of Kosovo should have to pay for energy, particularly when clean energy solutions will not only lower energy bills but health-related costs as well. Investments in energy efficiency and clean energy could solve Kosovo’s energy crisis for a fraction of a price -- which is something the World Bank, as the world’s foremost multilateral development bank, should be in the market for.

As the decision to fund the Kosovo C coal-fired power plant looms ahead, the world will be watching to see if the World Bank is truly committed to ending coal financing or if it will stain its impeccable record and ignore the commonsense clean energy solutions already available.

Kosovo is the question. The World Bank now has to answer.


-- Andrew Linhardt, Associate Washington Representative

Categories: Sierra Club National

College students continue to lead the way on clean energy

10 October 2014 - 7:55am

All this good clean energy news lately, and I haven't talked about the recent college victories! Last month, thanks to tremendous student activism, officials at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and the University of Georgia announced significant steps related to moving beyond coal.

First, at UNC, The Board of Trustees passed a resolution to target clean energy investments in the school's $2.2 billion endowment. This decision comes after more than three years of students campaigning for coal divestment and action on clean energy. Students are thrilled - but they also know their work isn't done.

"I'm proud that UNC has joined those efforts for environmentally sustainable investing. This is a huge accomplishment for UNC and all its current and future students," said UNC junior and Sierra Student Coalition activist Lauren Moore. "This decision is a good first step, but one that ultimately needs to lead to UNC completely divesting from fossil fuels, and transitioning to 100 percent just, clean energy."

Meanwhile at the University of Georgia,  the President confirmed publicly for the first time that they will retire the campus coal boiler -- which "is the largest single source of pollution in Athens (Georgia)."

This announcement comes after five years of student pressure and activism on campus. I have written on the many victories the students have achieved along the way in the Beyond Coal campaign at UGA, including most recently the moment when students finally secured an update from their Facilities Management office that the Administration was pursuing replacements to the coal boiler. 

Despite much silence and opposition by previous UGA Administration, for five years the students worked toward one thing: a formal announcement by their President that UGA is retiring the coal boiler and moving beyond coal. This announcement by current President Morehead is a testament to all those years of hard work.

"I think this victory shows how persuasive student voices and activism can be on college campuses," said recent UGA grad Laura Toulme. "The campaign was long and hard with many obstacles, but I am so happy that our administration finally understands the importance of eliminating this source of pollution and carbon from our campus and community."

Toulme says UGA students will continue to push the school to divest from fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy.

Young people like those at UNC and UGA are at the forefront of ensuring campuses and communities are making the transition to a 100 percent just, localized clean energy economy. I love the inspiration these young leaders provide every day, and I'm so proud to work with them to move the nation beyond coal and toward more clean energy.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign. Photo by Hannah McKinley.

Categories: Sierra Club National

MSNBC's "All In With Chris Hates" talks coal

9 October 2014 - 11:00am

If you haven't been watching MSNBC"s "All in with Chris Hayes" every night this week, you've been missing out on some phenomenal research into the coal industry, its future in the U.S., and the people fighting for clean energy to replace. Here's the brief outline of what he's covering each night.

Let's start with this great brief interview with Sierra Club Mississippi volunteer Barbara Correro talking about the Kemper coal plant and its strip mine being built right next to her home.


Monday night's segment was all about coal in Kentucky. Tuesday covered how Big Coal is very similar to Big Tobacco. Wednesday night delved into whether "clean coal" actually exists - that's where the brief interview with Barbara comes from.

There are many excellent bonus segments on the show's website, so we encourage you to check them all out to learn more. And of course, watch Thursday and Friday night's segments!

Categories: Sierra Club National

Why Is The World Bank Failing On Energy Poverty?

9 October 2014 - 9:01am

World Bank energy investments are categorically failing to end energy poverty.

That’s the stark finding of a new report released by Sierra Club and Oil Change International which measures how multilateral development banks (MDB) fare on their efforts to end energy poverty.  The report benchmarked recent MDB investments in clean energy access against the breakdown of needed investment called for in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) “Energy for All” scenario. In that scenario, universal energy access is achieved by 2030.  

As it stands, if the “Energy for All” scenario is going to succeed, it will require 64 percent of all new investments be used to fund the fastest, cheapest, and most effective source of energy that will help energy poor populations get on to the energy ladder. That source of energy? Distributed off-grid and mini-grid clean energy systems for those living Beyond the Grid.  

The  problem is, the world’s foremost development institution -- the World Bank -- is failing miserably to live up to the IEA’s goals.

Despite the presence of wildly successful programs like Lighting Africa and Bangladesh’s IDCOL program -- which has jumpstarted a booming off-grid solar market totaling 3.3 million systems installed to date -- the report shows that the World Bank Group fell painfully short on its investments in clean energy access.

Key findings include that less than 10 percent of the Bank’s energy funding specifically targets the poor – a group that makes up nearly 40 percent of the world’s population, when you include people who lack access to electricity and/or modern cooking fuels. Even worse is the fact that out of that miserly 10 percent, only one quarter was spent on off-grid or mini-grid clean energy deployment -- well short of the IEA’s benchmark of 64 percent.

As a result of this pitiful performance, the World Bank received an ‘F’ on its report card for energy access efforts.

While those who follow the Bank will likely be unsurprised by these figures, they are nonetheless appalling. The World Bank is, after all, a vocal supporter of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) campaign. It also claims poverty eradication as an overarching priority for its investments. So its patent failure on this issue is, simply put, unacceptable.

But an even more important question is: Why is the World Bank failing so miserably?

As my colleague Peter Bosshard at International Rivers has pointed out, it’s structural. For instance a World Bank evaluation found in 2009 that “internal Bank incentives work against [efficiency] projects because they are often small in scale, demanding of staff time and preparation funds, and may require persistent client engagement over a period of years. This makes them less attractive to managers and agencies that use disbursement as a measure of action and large turbines as a visible symbol of achievement.”

As Peter goes on to point out, “Five years later, the Bank's Quality Assurance Group castigated the institution's ‘pressure to lend’, and pointed to the ‘fear that a realistic, and thus more modest, project would be dismissed as too small and inadequate in its impact.”

The World Bank's central problem is, according to author Bruce Rich, “a culture of loan approval, institutionalized in various perverse internal incentives.”

That’s why despite having a nearly $4.1 billion dollar annual energy portfolio, the World Bank has failed to pony up a meager $500 million in investment for beyond the grid clean energy markets. And our analysis confirms that investment is enough to catapult this rapidly-growing  market towards a $12 billion clean energy access marketplace that can end energy poverty in our lifetime.

That’s not to say the Bank can’t overcome these problems if they want to.

Aggregating investments via financial intermediaries is an already well-worn path that offers a way to overcome the problems associated with a large number of small deals. Similarly, ring-fencing resources, developing new funds, altering staff incentives, and creating mandates to lend in this market would all encourage Bank staff to invest in this space and help turn around the Bank’s failing grade.

And let’s be clear: the upside to investing in these clean energy markets is tremendous. According to the Bank’s own Lighting Africa program, these markets are growing at an astounding 95 percent annual rate. Bangladesh’s IDCOL program has increased solar installations at a 60 percent rate for an entire decade. Those are growth rates roughly two times what mobile phone penetration grew at in the early 2000’s. And, to top it all off, this market solves one of the most high profile development challenges of our time.

But that’s a solution that requires leadership, which clearly isn’t being provided. That was especially obvious when World Bank President Dr. Kim infamously said he believed the World Bank could only be ‘taken seriously’ if it continued investing in businesses as usual -- businesses including coal.

As long as Dr. Kim remains uninterested in truly innovative approaches to ending energy poverty, the one institution that should ‘own’ this problem and provide scalable clean energy investment is sitting on the sidelines.

But World Bank or no World Bank, private investors and foundations are waking up to the opportunities in this market, with $45 million invested this year alone. That means Dr. Kim faces the very real possibility that instead of being at the vanguard of ending energy poverty, he will be missing in action.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

All signs point to the fact that Dr. Kim is serious when he talks about innovation and that he truly cares about ending poverty. If that’s truly the case, it’s time he stood up and declared a new day at the Bank; one where those taken seriously are the innovators - not defenders of the status quo.

That’s because in the 21st century, villagers won’t wait for the grid, and those that are serious about ending poverty shouldn’t promise it.

Help Dr. Kim lead the World Bank into the 21st century and demand he pledge $500 million of the Bank’s energy portfolio to clean energy access.

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

Categories: Sierra Club National

Highest Percentage Yet of U.S. Electric Vehicle Sales

8 October 2014 - 2:37pm

Last month, plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) made up the highest percentage ever tallied of total vehicles sold in the United States. This is good news.

According to the latest monthly scorecard from the prolific EV media site InsideEVs, auto manufacturers sold 10,538 electric vehicles (EVs) in the U.S. last month. This includes both plug-in hybrids and full battery electrics. Out of the 1,246,006 total vehicles sold in the U.S. last month, plug-in vehicles made up .85 percent of total vehicle sales in September –the highest percentage to date according to our calculations.

This portion may sound small, but it’s 20 percent bigger than the percentage from September 2013.

For an environmental group like the Sierra Club, it is this percentage that we care about more than total EV sales (which were strong, but not outstanding last month). As a way to slash oil use and emissions, we need people to switch from driving to transit, biking, and walking –meaning fewer auto sales and less driving overall. But for the millions who will continue to drive in the near future, we need them to switch to EVs, which are significantly cleaner than conventional vehicles.

What accounts for this highest ever percentage last month? We like to think it's because of the more than 90,000 people who attended National Drive Electric Week events in 150+ cities in mid-September -– not to mention the hundreds of thousands more who read the 200+ media hits from the week’s exciting events.  The increasing number of appealing plug-in cars on the market must also play a factor as well as glowing consumer reviews of cars like the Volt, the Leaf, and the Model S -- to name a few.

For statistic hawks and EV advocates who may be questioning our math, I’ll mention a caveat: the EV sales figures reported by the Electric Drive Transportation Association last month were lower than those reported by InsideEVs. The reason is that each is making a different guesstimate of Tesla Model S sales, since Tesla reports quarterly rather than monthly. However, the Editor-In-Chief of InsideEVs Jay Cole told me that his team has averaged only about 150 cars higher or lower than the final quarterly numbers over the last few years. Meaning: these guys are really good at estimating EV sales figures.

Relatedly, there was also promising news out of the EPA this week. The agency reported that model year 2013 car and truck fuel efficiency and emissions reductions are at an all-time record high, having improved eight of the last nine years. At an average of 24.1 mpg, there is a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction.

To rev up fuel efficiency and reach a tipping point, EVs must, of course, make up a much higher percentage of total U.S. sales. Whether it’s five, 10, or 25 percent (think about the point when people quickly started buying TVs and cell phones for the first time), that is where the rubber will really meet the road. Consumer rebates, public education programs, utility incentives, workplace charging initiatives, and other aggressive EV policies and programs must accelerate to get us there.

-- Gina Coplon-Newfield directs Sierra Club’s Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative. Christina Rohrbacher also contributed to this article. Photo by Tom Moloughney from Montclair, NJ 2014 National Drive Electric Week event.

Categories: Sierra Club National

Four Reasons Pay-As-You-Go Solar And Digital Financing Are Unlocking Energy Access For All

7 October 2014 - 12:47pm

We already know that pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar companies are making high-quality, modern clean energy products readily available for those living beyond the grid -- a factor that is poised to expand energy access to the 1.2 billion people currently without access to power.

When combined with digital finance -- which includes branchless banking and mobile money -- PAYG technologies can not only expand more rapidly, they can potentially -- for the first time ever -- begin to build a credit history for people living beyond the grid. That makes clean energy all the more transformative because the ability to build credit enables low-income populations to access the financial system and affords them the opportunity to buy productive assets and ultimately improve their economic situation.

Now, thanks to The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) comprehensive new report,  it’s easy for those interested in the transformative potential of the PAYG market -- including investors and those looking to work in energy access -- to understand the nuts and bolts of this nascent market.  

CGAP’s report -- which counts at least 25 companies using pay-as-you-go technology -- lays out some of the factors that have converged to make this such an opportune time for the sector.

Reason 1: Solar Got Really Cheap.  There has been a significant drop in the price of solar panels, batteries, and LEDs.  The CGAP report points out that solar panels currently cost half of what they did in 2008 and are still getting cheaper.

Source: Dalberg analysis

Reason 2: The Market Is Exploding With Growth.  There has been dramatic market growth for small-scale solar products.  For example, the compound annual growth rate from the sale of four million portable solar lighting products in Africa from 2009 to 2012 was 300 percent.

Reason 3: Quality And After-Sales Service Is Improving.  Changes in technology mean better quality solar products, including a 20 percent lengthening of battery life in the past four years alone. There is also a greater ability to monitor and manage solar devices remotely through machine-to-machine chips and GSM/GPRS modules.  

Reason 4: Mobile Phone And Mobile Money Penetration Unlock Solar.  The proliferation of mobile phones has enhanced communication between customers and companies, and mobile-enabled money transfer platforms have made payment collection more efficient and easier for solar companies.

These converging factors mean that the road ahead for PAYG is an exciting one.  It’s important to note, however, that the sector is not homogenous, and this is where CGAP’s report is most useful. It lays out various options and models that are succeeding in the PAYG sector, including:

  • PAYG solar product categories, with examples of companies;

  • different models for digitizing payments with mobile money and energy credits, with on-network or off-network payment hardware;

  • options for pricing based on time or usage; and

  • financing terms.  

PAYG solar can also promote access to other sources of formal financing, which is exactly why CGAP is interested in these issues. CGAP, housed at the World Bank, has an overall objective of advancing financial inclusion for all, including low-income customers, and is engaging with these issues through its Digital Finance Plus initiative. This initiative aims to help providers leverage branchless banking and digital payments to make basic, essential services and utilities more accessible and affordable to people at the base of the pyramid. This includes not only improving energy access but also access to healthcare, education, and water.

Innovative pay-as-you-go technologies are creating new ways to finance assets for low-income consumers, reducing the risks of financial exclusion based simply on income or wealth. That’s without even mentioning the benefits affordable lighting can provide for health and education.    

It is an exciting and dynamic time for the PAYG market, for those attempting to keep up, CGAP’s new report is a must-read.

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

Categories: Sierra Club National

Will The UK Phase Out Coal Plants?

3 October 2014 - 2:13pm

Prime Minister David Cameron looks like he’s ready to move the UK beyond coal.

In his statement at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City last week, Prime Minister Cameron pledged higher emissions standards for UK’s coal-fired power plants, and his team later tweeted that he plans to phase out existing coal-fired power plants in the UK in the next 10 to 15 years.

As one of the world’s leaders in carbon emissions, that’s huge. And this is just the latest in a series of steps away from coal for the UK.

At the COP19 Warsaw Climate Conference last year, following the lead of the United States and several Nordic countries, the UK announced that it would no longer publicly finance international coal projects.

However, recent efforts to lobby for the continued operation of the Aberthaw coal-fired power plant in South Wales directly contradict the government’s initiatives to advance the UK’s energy sector beyond a heavy reliance on coal. As it stands, the Aberthaw plant burns coal that is unusually difficult to ignite and employs chemical processes that result in nitrogen oxide (NoX) emissions five times above the legal limit. In fact, the plant was named as one of the top 30 highest carbon emitting plants in the Europe.

But despite its heavy emission output, Aberthaw coal-fired power plant remains exempt from European Commission regulations based on shaky arguments that it uses indigenous coal which is safe from the volatility of an international coal supply.

A recent flagship report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate on the new climate economy explicitly calls for “high-income countries to commit to avoiding further construction of new unabated coal as a minimum first step to avoid further lock-in to high GHG emissions and accelerate retirements of old plants.”

And this report is not merely an exercise in academia; the Commission includes former heads of state and finance ministers, the head of one of China’s largest private banks, and high ranking officials from the world’s leading international economic institutions including the OECD, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.  While the scientific case for the risks of continued coal consumption has broad consensus, this report is among the first to make a comprehensive economic case for a decisive shift away from coal.

The world will be watching to see if Prime Minister Cameron is all talk or if he’ll follow-up on his pledge with concrete action.

-- Rohan Bhatia, International Climate Program Intern

Categories: Sierra Club National