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Will Germany Join the International Community and Restrict Overseas Coal Finance?

19 September 2014 - 1:00pm

"In New York, I will announce that the government will change its position on the financing of coal-fired power plants abroad." -- German Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendriks September 17th, 2014.

This exciting statement could substantially change what German overseas investments, from important institutions like KfW, support. That’s particularly important for those concerned about the impacts the global coal industry has on our health and environment because Germany is currently the third largest source of international public financing for coal.

In fact, since 2006, Germany has invested 3.3 billion euros in new coal infrastructure. Any change to their support for this dirty and deadly industry will have real financial impact as well as strike a symbolic blow to the industry.

But if Germany is so coal friendly, why is it contemplating this significant move away from international coal financing? Because the international community has moved swiftly and quickly to end coal financing, and Germany doesn’t want to be an outlier.

Since last summer, the World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, European Investment Bank and the U.S. Export-Import Bank have all implemented narrow restrictions on coal support. A number of  countries -- including the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, and Nordic countries -- have done so as well.

When it comes to public divestment from coal, the dominoes keep falling.

But as exciting as Germany’s announcement is, the devil is in the details. Many observers are worried that there will be attempts to render Environment Minister Hendrik’s announcement toothless by creating loopholes that the coal industry could drive a truck through. Those concerns stem from KfWs fierce defence of financing for new coal plants in the past, claiming that it is compatible with a 2°C climate target. Coupled with a regressive push by parts of the government like the Ministry of Economy which is fighting tooth and nail to make sure that the limitations don’t apply to the funds they control, there is indeed cause for concern.

For instance, right now the announcement only covers the environment and development ministry’s budgets. That leaves over half of all support coming from key trade promotion agencies -- like Euler Hermes and IPEX -- uncovered. The details for restricting support for overseas coal financing through those agencies are still being negotiated and therefore vulnerable to these regressive efforts.

One key concern is that these agencies will seek to continue providing support for ‘highly efficient coal-fired power plants’. This would constitute a gaping loophole in the announcement , and would be well out of line with international best practice.

In order to join the international community and make this announcement something civil society can embrace, KfW must follow the steps of other major institutions -- like the European Investment Bank and the U.S. Export-Import Bank -- and announce an Emissions Performance Standard (EPS) that restricts the carbon intensity of power plant investments.

This approach is far superior to KfW’s current plan because it firmly aligns with a growing call to end support and investment for new unabated coal-fired power plants. An EPS achieves this by setting the investment standard between 500 - 550 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, which only allows for coal-fired power plants that effectively capture and store their carbon emissions.

The German government will need to sort out these details after its announcement at the UN Climate Summit. If their proposal has weak criteria and large loopholes, it will be impossible for civil society to embrace what can and should be a climate victory for the German government.

If Environment Minister Hendriks’ does announce a  stringent, comprehensive  limitation on overseas coal financing, in line with the international community, it would be exactly the kind of  action that 100,000 environmental, labor, faith, and social justice activists will be marching for this Sunday in New York City at the People’s Climate March, and its affiliated events worldwide.

But the question looms - with the world now watching, will Germany join the international community or buck international trends?

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

Categories: Sierra Club National

Massachusetts Promotes Electric Vehicles in Three-City Tour

19 September 2014 - 11:54am

We know that some of the most important ways to get more electric vehicles (EVs) on the road are 1) provide consumers with incentives that will make EVs less expensive and more convenient; 2) get dealerships to actually make an effort to sell these cars; 3) get cities to promote EVs; and 4) get "butts in seats" by having people test drive the cars and experience them first-hand.

On Thursday, I joined Massachusetts energy and environmental agency leaders on a three-city tour promoting all of these topics. The events were held as part of the fourth annual National Drive Electric Week being celebrated in more than 145 cities nationwide.

Stop one was in Somerville, Mass., where Mayor Joseph Curtatone celebrated his city's recent commitment to install public EV charging stations and bring 16 EVs to his municipal fleet. "Somerville is fortunate to have partners at the state...who are helping us strive for our ambitious goal of becoming a net zero carbon emissions city by 2050," said the mayor, who looked like he had fun test driving a Nissan Leaf and a Smart for Two at the event.

Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner David Cash congratulated Somerville and said that the Somerville project is being supported by MassEVIP providing $2.5 million in incentives to Massachusetts public and private entities, including municipalities, state fleets, and universities acquiring EVs and charging stations.

In June, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick announced a new EV rebate program that qualifies plug-in hybrid consumers -- both those who purchase and those who lease -- for a $1,500 check. Full battery electric consumers qualify for $2,500. This is after the federal tax credit, which is worth up to $7,500. After three months, hundreds of Massachusetts consumers have applied for the rebate.

Stop two on our tour was the Nissan dealership in Marlborough, Mass., which has sold more plug-in vehicles than just about any other dealership in the commonwealth. The dealership's Jim McCall told me he had definitely noticed a spike in interest in EVs among customers since the rebate was put in place, and that they are coming in already aware of many EV benefits. "Over the lifetime of an electric vehicle, owners can reduce fuel consumption by more than 4,000 gallons of gasoline, reduce fuel costs by thousands of dollars, and cut their reliance on foreign oil," said Massachusetts Undersecretary for Environment Martin Suuberg at the dealership event.

We hear over and over that dealerships aren't making an effort to sell plug-in cars -- that the new technology is something they don't want to spend time explaining to customers. Clearly this dealership has taken the time to train its staff and educate its customers about the benefits of plug-in cars. And they're smart. Customer satisfaction reviews for many models of plug-in cars are off the charts, and dealership and brand loyalty will surely go along with happy drivers.

The last stop on our three-city tour was a large office park in Wellesley, Mass. "We are pleased to work with the state on this important program and install 16 EV Charging Stations at Wellesley Office Park," said Paul Crowley, Vice President and Managing Director, U.S. Asset Management, John Hancock Financial Services, which manages the property and received state funding to install charging stations.

Two women who drive their EVs to work at the office park, one with a Chevy Volt and one with a Smart for Two, shared with me how excited they are that they'll now get to charge their vehicles at work. Many of those attending the event on their lunch break ogled the cars on display --especially the Tesla Model S Steve Sanders had driven in -- and considered how nice it would be to fuel their cars for free. Steve drew a crowd with his car and his enthusiastic stories about how much he loves to drive it and fuel it on sunshine -- with the solar panels at his home. Just this month, Massachusetts' highest court issued a ruling that Tesla is able to sell its electric cars directly to customers without being part of the traditional dealership model.

In conjunction with the three-city EV tour, which was organized largely by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and the Massachusetts Clean Cities Coalition, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said, "We are committed to deploying innovative strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, bolster our energy independence and grow our clean energy economy. Our commitment, along with seven other governors, to getting [3.3 million] zero-emission vehicles in the eight states is a challenge I look forward to meeting, as it will have a strong impact on reducing harmful pollutants and promoting a more sustainable environment for future generations."

Massachusetts and all the other states have a long way to go to reaching the zero emission vehicle goals. In fact, Massachusetts alone will need to sell an average of nearly 27,000 plug-in cars per year between 2015 and 2025 to meet the goal. In the last year, it sold just over 2,000. But having doubled the number of plug-in car sales in the past year alone, Massachusetts is starting to charge ahead. And with continued and bolstered consumer incentives, investment in public charging infrastructure, education of the public, and partnership with business -- including car dealerships and large employers -- Massachusetts will go a long way.

Photo 1: example of MA EV license plate; Photo 2 from left to right: Oliver Sellers-Garcia, Director of Somerville Office of Sustainability & Environment, MA DEP Commissioner David Cash, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, Sierra Club’s Gina Coplon-Newfield, and MA Undersecretary for Environment Martin Suuberg.  Photo 3: Tesla about to charge up at Wellesley Office Park. First two photos courtesy of MA Dept. of Environmental Protection. Last photo courtesy of John Hancock Property Management.

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

Categories: Sierra Club National

Why We Can't Just Shut Up and Eat Our Cookies?

18 September 2014 - 4:55pm

Gas drilling rig near Clearville, Pennsylvania. Photo by Mark Schmerling.

By Ivy Main, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Chair

I grew up with brothers, so I knew from an early age that the easiest way to make friends with guys was to feed them chocolate chip cookies. I took this strategy with me to college, commandeering the tiny kitchen in our coed dorm. The aroma wafting down the hallways reliably drew a crowd.

One fan was so enthusiastic that he wanted to learn to make cookies himself. So the next time, he showed up at the start of the process. He watched me combine sugar and butter, eggs and white flour.

Instead of being enthusiastic, he was appalled. It had never occurred to him that anything as terrific as a cookie could be made of stuff so unhealthy. It's not that he thought they were created from sunshine and elf magic; he just hadn't thought about it at all. He left before the cookies even came out of the oven.

I felt so bad about it, I ate the whole batch.

But I can empathize with that guy when I'm told that as an environmentalist, I should love natural gas. Natural gas is the chocolate chip cookie of fossil fuels. At the point of consumption, everybody loves it. It's cheap, there's gobs of it, and it burns cleaner than coal, with only half the carbon dioxide emissions. Disillusionment sets in only when you look at the recipe. ("First, frack one well...") I realize we have only ourselves to blame. For years, environmentalists talked about gas as a "bridge fuel" that could carry us from a fossil fuel past to a future powered by renewable energy. No one would tarry on that bridge, we figured, because gas was expensive. We'd hurry along to the promised land of wind and solar.

But that was before hydrofracking and horizontal drilling hit the scene. Fracking opened up vast swaths of once-quiet forest and farmland to the constant grinding of truck traffic heading to drilling rigs that operate all day and night, poisoning the air with diesel fumes and sometimes spilling toxic drilling fluids onto fields and into streams. It was before studies documented well failures that let toxic chemicals and methane seep back up along the well borings and into aquifers, contaminating drinking water.

And it was before scientists sounded the alarm on "fugitive" methane emissions from wellheads: gas that escapes into the air unintentionally, sometimes at levels so high as to cancel out the climate advantage of burning natural gas instead of coal.

But just as environmentalists were thinking, "Whoa, natural gas turns out to be a bridge to nowhere," electric utilities were embracing fracked gas in a big way. Fracking has made gas so cheap that giving up coal is no sacrifice. It's so cheap they see no reason to get off the bridge and embrace renewable energy. At one conference I attended, a gas company executive gushed, "Natural gas is no longer a bridge fuel. It’s a destination fuel!"

All I could think was, "In that case, the destination must be Cleveland." Which was surely unfair to Cleveland.

Just to be clear: Environmentalists are not opposed to gas because we are spoil-sports, or purists, or hold stock in solar companies. The problem with natural gas is that it isn't made by Keebler elves, but extracted through a nasty process that is harming the planet in ways both local and global.

If the best anyone can say about natural gas is that it's not as bad as coal, then lingering on the bridge makes no sense. And anything we do that keeps us here -- opening up more lands to fracking, or building new pipelines to transport fracked gas -- is both foolish and dangerous. Foolish, because embracing cheap gas distracts us from the serious business of building wind and solar and using energy more efficiently; and dangerous, because the planet will not stop warming while we play shell games with carbon.

Categories: Sierra Club National

World Looks To OECD As High Level Commission Calls For Phasing Out Coal

16 September 2014 - 4:25pm

Today, the high powered Global Commission on the Climate and Economy released its flagship report on global coal use and the economy: The New Climate Economy.

The report pulls no punches when it comes to coal, including a call for a global coal phaseout involving an immediate end to investments in new unabated coal-fired power plants globally and the retirement of existing unabated coal-fired power plants in high income countries.

Perhaps most importantly, the report calls for governments to shift the “burden of proof” away from assuming that coal is the only solution to the world’s growing energy demands and instead takes into consideration the devastating social, environmental, and economic costs of coal.

In short, the Commission is demanding public policymakers move beyond coal.

To be clear, this is not simply the policy prescriptions of environmentalists. The Commission is chaired by the former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, and is filled with former heads of state and current and former executives from Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and other major financial institutions.

Many multilateral development banks (MDBs) and a few governments have already taken steps to implement similar policies. President Obama called for an end to overseas financing of new coal-fired power plants in his Climate Action Plan, and since then the U.K., the Nordic countries, and the Netherlands have joined the pledge.  Meanwhile, the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have also committed to end financing for new coal plants.

In addition to calling on high income countries to stop building new, unabated coal-fired power plants immediately and accelerate the retirement of their existing plants, the report also calls on middle income countries to limit new coal-fired power plants and begin retiring their existing fleet by 2025. Ultimately, the Commission is seeking a global phase-out of unabated fossil fuel power generation by 2050.

And it’s pretty clear why: in addition to driving dangerous climate disruption, these coal plants are having enormous effects on human health. In fact, recent reports estimate up to 100,000 people in India and 250,000 people in China die each year as a result of coal pollution.

With this cost to human life in mind, along with instability in the international coal markets and the looming threat of climate disaster, the Commission has come out with a series of recommendations to move away from coal while simultaneously supporting strong economic growth and promoting energy access for developing countries.

The first dominoes have fallen. Now it is time for the rest of the world’s richest countries to commit to end financing for coal and instead use their investments to support clean energy. All eyes are on the next big opportunity to put the Commission’s call to action into practice: countries must agree to narrowly limit their support of export credits to overseas coal projects through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Some of the world’s biggest heavy hitters are calling for action. It’s time for the OECD to deliver.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, Sierra Club International Climate Program, and Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

400 more reasons to march on Sept. 21

12 September 2014 - 9:58am

The facts are in: global carbon emissions are putting us over the edge.

The World Meteorological Organization’s newly-released annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin has confirmed that greenhouse gasses (GHGs)   have reached their highest level ever -- and humans are to blame.

This year’s report shows that in 2013, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) -- one of the most potent GHGs -- reached 396 parts per million (ppm). To put that into perspective, that’s almost 3 ppm higher than 2012 and represents the largest increase from one year to the next that we’ve ever seen. That was, of course, until April of this year. Then, CO2 reached a record 400 ppm, a 4 ppm jump in the first four months of 2014 alone.

If this trend continues, we can undoubtedly expect to break this record anew every year that passes.

But this isn’t an Olympic Track and Field event. Breaking these records comes with dangerous new threats to the health of our families and our communities -- not an endorsement deal.

Experts warn that we must limit our CO2 emissions at around 400 ppm if we have any hope of keeping our global temperature rise below 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit -- and protect the planet from all but certain climate catastrophe. That catastrophe would mean cementing extreme storms, extreme temperatures, and extreme droughts as the new norm, destabilizing migration and immigration patterns, imperiling wildlife and communities, and sending sea levels rising...among numerous other threats.

Princeton University geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer told the Washington Post that reaching 400 ppm is “ the level that climate scientists have identified as the beginning of the danger zone. It means we’re probably getting to the point where we’re looking at the ‘safe zone’ in the rearview mirror, even as we’re stepping on the gas.”

With the climate facts continuing to pour in, our world leaders must be doing everything they can to protect our planet for future generations, right?

Unfortunately -- to what should be the dismay of every person, plant, and animal on the planet -- this isn’t the case. In fact, it’s not even close.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) just released their annual Low Carbon Index which shows that, globally, we’ve been consistently missing our carbon emissions reduction target each year. By how much? While we should be reducing by at least 6.2 percent each year, we’ve only been seeing a 0.9 percent decrease on average.

In fact, the Index concludes that if we continue emitting at the same rate we are today, we’re on track to see a 7.2 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase by 2100. If we do reach those temperatures, we’ll be well past the point of no return.

This could spell disaster for not only our climate, but our shorelines, our wildlife -- including hundreds of bird species -- and our future.

Luckily, there’s still time to make sure this doesn’t happen. What better way to do that than to join with tens of thousands of your fellow activists to let our world leaders know we want climate action now?

That’s exactly what’s happening in New York City on Sept. 21, and you can be a part of it. The People’s Climate March is bringing together environmental, labor, faith, and social justice activists from more than 1,000 organizations and businesses to collectively raise our voices and call for real climate action around the world.

If our leaders won’t act, we have to. And that’s exactly what we are doing in New York on Sept. 21. Join us.  

RSVP for the People’s Climate March today!

 --Sierra Club Media Team

Categories: Sierra Club National

Even polling from Koch-backed group finds support for clean energy

12 September 2014 - 8:08am

The American Energy Alliance (AEA), a group with deep ties to the Koch brothers, has released a new national poll they claim shows voters are wary of the federal government’s involvement in energy policy. But two of their primary conclusions -- that “many Americans are skeptical of [the] EPA’s proposed power plant rule” and “voters are pretty skeptical of all facets of the wind production tax credits” – are inconsistent with nearly every other national poll I’ve seen recently. In June, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that two-in-three Americans supported new EPA rules limiting carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. And a USA Today poll released in December found 73 percent of Americans favored extending tax reductions for wind companies and other sources of renewable energy. Sure, the samples and questions are not identical to the AEA poll, but the spread between these numbers is stark.

Has public opinion really shifted so dramatically?

For answers, I turned to the AEA’s poll questionnaire (which you can read here). While I found several instances where the question wording and ordering appeared to be biased, I honed in on the questions pertaining to the new carbon pollution standards and wind energy tax credits.


After being told that “the Obama Administration recently proposed rules which would require States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within their borders,” survey respondents were asked whether they thought it was a “good” or “bad” thing that “as a practical matter, the rule would require States to impose mandates on their citizens to buy certain amounts of renewable energy, whether or not it is cost-effective.” Given this phrasing and its vague – if not scary – implications, it is not surprising that 60% of respondents said this was “mostly a bad thing”. The description of "mandates" (itself a loaded term) could be interpreted in a variety of ways. The respondent could take this to mean that the state government will force them to buy renewable energy themselves (as opposed to through their utility) or even to purchase more energy than they need. Furthermore, there is no benchmark or context given about the price issue, so a respondent could assume that renewable energy costs are much higher than they actually are. With biased language likely skewing responses from those polled, it is not surprising that AEA got the results they were looking for. But, as a result, this poll does not prove that Americans are skeptical of the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards themselves.

Some of the poll’s other findings actually seem to go against the anti-wind energy agenda the Koch Brothers have been pushing. While AEA’s press release claims that “the majority of voters are skeptical of preferential subsidies like the two-decades old wind PTC [production tax credit]”, even their own data does not support this.

In a rather ironic twist, their poll actually found majority support for tax breaks for wind energy companies, which help expand and create jobs in this sector. Before being asked for their opinions of wind tax credits, respondents heard a series of questions that framed tax credits in a negative light. One being “Do you think foreign companies should get tax breaks from American taxpayers?” and another being “Do you think that companies that are already making a profit on a new technology should get tax breaks for using or producing that technology?” Even after hearing such questions -- which hardly define the reality of the American wind energy manufacturing across the country -- 51 percent of respondents said still they thought it was a “good thing” that “companies that generate electricity using wind power get a tax credit from the federal government which is paid for by taxpayers.” This level of support is surely lower than the ones found in other national polls (another example), but it is comforting to know that most voters are not easily swayed away from their support for renewable energy -- even when some of the technology’s biggest opponents offer up what they believe are their strongest arguments.

If this American Energy Alliance poll tells me anything, it is that it is tough to hide the overwhelming public support for renewable energy.

--- Grace McRae, Polling and Research Director, Sierra Club

Categories: Sierra Club National

The Voice of Bart Simpson Wants You to Check Out Electric Cars Next Week

11 September 2014 - 1:59pm

I knew the fourth annual National Drive Electric Week would be big, but I didn't realize it would be this big! We're having free events in 135+ cities September 15-21 to share the fuel cost-saving, clean-air, and fun-driving benefits of electric vehicles (EVs); there is probably an event near you. The Sierra Club, Plug In America, and the Electric Auto Association -- the three national organizers of Drive Electric Week -- are pleased to announce this week that we've hit the quarter million mark of EVs on the road in the U.S. EVs are turning the corner -- and fast.

Even (the voice of) Bart Simpson is excited. "I bought a Nissan Leaf about two years ago," said The Simpsons actor Nancy Cartwright. "I shaved nearly an hour off my driving to The Simpsons set and back because I can drive in the carpool lane. Got lots of thumbs up on the freeway. That said, I am a HUGE fan of Tesla and can't wait to 'fly' with my 'falcon-doored' bird, the Tesla Model X…Aesthetic, functional and sets a great example for safeguarding our environment."  

Ever wonder what it's like to drive an electric car? Have questions about where and how to charge them, whether they're reliable, and whether they are actually better for the environment than conventional cars? EV drivers will be on-hand to offer test drives, provide honest information, and -- in many cases -- feed and entertain you, too. Check out the web site and register for an event near you.

In Scottsdale and Tucson, AZ, Las Vegas, and other cities there will be solar-powered public EV charging stations. In Los Angeles, actor Ed Begley, Jr. will talk about charging his EV with rooftop solar at his home. In Worcester, MA, event go-ers will be able to check out an all-electric transit bus that takes people to work cleanly and quietly. In Cupertino, CA, a group will attempt to set the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest parade of electric vehicles ever held. In Hartford, CT, the state's Commissioner of Energy & Environmental Protection Rob Klee and other leaders will offer test rides and present an award to the state's dealership that has sold the most plug-in cars.

Several mayors, including those in Cupertino and Huntington Beach, CA, Storrs, CT, Charlotte, NC, and Melbourne, FL, are expected to speak and or issue Drive Electric Week proclamations and will talk up the benefits of EVs for their residents. Below, Oldsmar, FL, Mayor Doug Bevis (at right) presents a Drive Electric Week proclamation last week to the city's Sustainability Coordinator, Estevan Baza, with Helda Rodriguez of NovaCharge and Florida Sierra Club organizer Phil Compton. I wish I were closer and could take my kids to the street festival planned for this Oldsmar event.

I'll be attending events in my home state of Massachusetts next week. Then on September 21, I'll be joining an 'EV Bloc' at the People's Climate March. If you're planning to attend the People's Climate March, expected to be the largest climate rally ever, calling on world leaders gathered at the United Nations to take aggressive action on climate disruption, I hope you'll consider joining our EV Bloc; you can register here.

"Clean energy prosperity is on the way and there's no turning back," said Sierra Club director Michael Brune. "National Drive Electric Week and the dramatic increase in the number of plug-in electric vehicles on the road are just the latest examples of how American consumers are demanding 21st-century solutions to energy and the climate crisis, and given the choice would leave dirty fossil fuels in the ground."

Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club's Director of Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative. You can learn more about electric cars at the Sierra Club's online EV Guide.

Top photo from Huntsville, AL, courtesy of Tennessee Valley EV Drivers; middle photo courtesy of the City of Oldsmar, FL; bottom photo courtesy of Christina Rohrbacher. Drive Electric logo courtesy of National Drive Electric Week.

Categories: Sierra Club National

EPA Takes Real Steps Toward Curbing Smog Pollution - Now We Need Your Voice

11 September 2014 - 12:25pm

The Environmental Protection Agency recently found that we’ve been doing it wrong for years; our air is not as clean or as safe as we once supposed. The agency’s smog pollution policy assessment, released in late August, found that current “safe” levels of smog pollution are actually not strong enough to protect our communities, our kids, or the air we breathe.

Doris Toles could tell you that.The Baltimore resident struggles with serious respiratory issues which are only made worse by the poor air quality in the city.

“I had my first asthma attack when I was two. I’m now living with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD),” says Doris. “A person gets COPD like I have after years of asthma attacks permanently weaken the lungs, and there is no cure.”

Doctors told Doris that her asthma is triggered by pollution in the air where she lives. “I have to be very careful and keep my inhaler close at hand on days when smog levels are high.”

When smog is inhaled, the harm it does has been likened to getting a sunburn on your lungs. Thankfully, we’ve got a chance to put things right. This December, the EPA will propose new smog pollution protections that can get America’s air quality back on track.

 “Safe” smog pollution levels were first lowered in 2008 from 88 parts per billion (ppb) to 75 ppb, but it turns out those protections were not enough to ensure clean, safe air for children and vulnerable populations living near the sources of this pollution. New recommendations from scientists since the 2008 protections have found that we need to ratchet them down to 60 ppb, in order to guard against dangerous air. The recent smog pollution policy assessment echoed this sentiment, recommending that the levels be reduced to a range of 60 to 70 ppb.   

While we applaud the EPA’s assessment for acknowledging the need to strengthen the current safeguards, it’s important to note that the devil is in the details, which is why we need your help. Thousands of lives hang in the balance between 60 ppb and 70 ppb, and are pushing hard for the EPA to propose 60 ppb protections in December.

At Sierra Club, we have strongly advocated for a 60 ppb standard for years because the science is clear that it will better protect families from smog pollution from power plants and tailpipe emissions. Smog pollution can trigger respiratory problems like asthma attacks and cardiovascular problems. Over time, continued exposure can even lead to premature death.

Doris has lost friends and family to severe asthma attacks. For her and many others, it’s a matter of life and death. “Cleaning up this pollution helps people like me stay alive,” she says.

A 60 ppb standard would safeguard families, especially young children and the elderly, from these health hazards and save roughly $100 billion in health care costs. The EPA also estimates that cutting back to safer levels of smog pollution (60 ppb) would prevent 12,000 premature deaths, 21,000 hospitalizations and the stop the loss of 2.5 million work and school days each year. In view of this, the smog pollution policy assessment is an important step toward holding polluters accountable and lifting this huge burden off our communities.

In the months ahead, we work to secure the strongest possible protections for those who need them most. Let EPA know you support strong standards here.

--Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director

Categories: Sierra Club National

China’s Coal Imports Drop For The First Time Since Country Became Net Coal Importer

10 September 2014 - 1:40pm

All is not well with the Chinese coal industry.

A recently published analysis compiled by Lauri Myllyvirta and Greenpeace International showed the unthinkable -- Chinese coal consumption fell for the first time this century in the first half of this year. Even more striking is the fact that China’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth and coal consumption have decoupled, suggesting a structural shift in the Chinese economy.

Taken in sum, with potential policy shifts associated with the upcoming five year plan and China’s war on coal, these look like the first indications of an approaching peak in coal consumption.

Now, new statistics [source in Chinese] from August show another first: Chinese coal imports in the first eight months of 2014 dropped by 5.3 percent. This is the first time the import rate has dropped since the country became a net importer in 2009. More importantly, the industry forecast indicates an even steeper 8 percent drop by year’s end. So much for the Asian supercycle, Peabody Energy.


But there is something far more important happening here than simply putting an end to the last remaining lifeline of the moribund U.S. coal industry. China has single handedly driven the growth in coal consumption we’ve seen over the past decade. But, it is increasingly clear that the time of unending coal growth is nearing an end.

Peak coal consumption is one thing, but avoiding the entrenched emissions of the enormous coal fleet China has already built is another. The crucial decisions to secure a peak in coal consumption -- and reduce that consumption in absolute terms -- will be made in China’s new five-year plan, currently under preparation and covering the years 2015-2020. That means all eyes are on China’s next moves in its war on air pollution.

For citizens struggling under the weight of ‘airpocalypse,’ those moves couldn’t come a moment too soon.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program, and Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace International

Categories: Sierra Club National

No to Fast-Tracking Harmful Trade Pacts; Yes to a New Model of Trade

10 September 2014 - 12:02pm

There’s growing opposition to trade deals that the Obama administration is pushing and to so-called fast-track trade authority, an outdated mechanism that would limit Congressional and public oversight over trade negotiations. From national polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose putting the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the fast track to demonstrations across the country against fast tracking such deals, there’s no denying that the tides are turning.

The U.S. is negotiating what could be two of the world’s biggest trade deals -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Pacific Rim nations and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union. But the meat of these deals goes beyond traditional trade issues like tariffs -- they deal with important everyday things, like our jobs, the safety of our food, and our access to clean water and air. The dangers of these deals seem endless, yet they’re being rushed through in near complete secrecy.

Click image to download full infographic.

Trade negotiators are writing these deals behind closed doors, with little to no involvement of the public and our elected officials. Despite this, there is still a push in the U.S. administration and among some in Congress to even further limit public and Congressional oversight of these massive trade pacts. If fast track were to pass, for example, signed trade pacts like the TPP and TTIP could be rushed through Congress with a guaranteed vote in 90 days, a maximum of 20 hours debate, and no possibility for amendments. In other words, fast track makes it impossible for Congress to ensure that trade pacts actually deliver for workers, communities, and the environment.

That’s why today, nearly 600 national, regional, and local organizations are reiterating their opposition to fast track and calling for a new model of trade. The time is now to fix the flawed model of trade that has cost us jobs and degraded our environment.  

Groups including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the AFL-CIO, the Communications Workers of America, the NAACP, and Public Citizen sent a letter to Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) firmly rejecting fast-track trade promotion authority and calling for a new system for negotiating and implementing trade agreements.

The Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune said it best: “Fast track is the wrong track for Americans who care about the health of our families and access to clean air, clean water, and land. We need a new model of trade -- one that protects communities and the environment while keeping the public engaged in the policy-making process.”

In January, then-Senator Max Baucus and Congressman Dave Camp introduced a fast-track bill, the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, which would strip Congress of its ability to amend or sufficiently debate trade pacts. Sen. Wyden, the current Senate Finance Chairman, is now drafting a new trade authority bill.

In place of the way-off fast-track method of rushing trade deals, the letter calls for a new model of trade authority that includes a number of key elements, including:

  • A Congressional role in selecting trade partners;

  • A set of mandatory negotiating objectives to ensure trade pacts deliver real benefits;

  • Enhanced transparency, including the release of texts; and

  • Congressional certification that negotiating objectives have been met before trade negotiations can conclude.

Today’s trade agreements affect our daily lives in countless ways. It’s time that the process for negotiating and implementing these trade pacts evolves to reflect that reality. Congress has regularly created new trade authority mechanisms throughout history. Fast track first went into effect under President Nixon in the 1970s. It was last granted during the George W. Bush administration, but that law expired on June 30, 2007. And as our letter to Senator Wyden proves, it’s time for something new.

If this broad coalition of environmental organizations, labor unions, and organizations working at the center of public health, consumer rights, sustainable farming, and more can agree that a new model of trade that supports families and communities is absolutely necessary, then Congress should join with us and bring trade policy into the 21st century.  

Ask your Members of Congress to take action in support of response trade and against fast track by sending them a message here.

--Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program


Categories: Sierra Club National

David Keeps Winning: 10 Recent Victories That Will Give You Hope for the Planet

9 September 2014 - 12:56pm

Wow. That's the word I repeated over and over this summer, as news rolled in of one clean energy victory after another. These are David and Goliath campaigns, led by community groups fighting for the health of their families, for clean air and water, and for a safe climate. Over and over, against all odds, from the deep South to Oregon and everywhere in between, David keeps winning.
Each one of these campaigns represents a major victory for local families, who point to these coal projects as threats to the safety of their kids and communities. They also add up to a sea change in how we make electricity in America: 178 coal plants and 505 coal boilers, one-third of U.S. coal plants, are now retired or slated to retire. On top of that, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission just reported that 100 percent of new electricity on the U.S. grid in July was renewable, mostly wind and solar.
If you find yourself falling victim to despair or cynicism about the fate of our planet, look no further. These 10 recent clean energy victories will give you hope for the planet. These were made possible by the work of dozens of allies, big and small.

1. Mississippi: After six years of grassroots pressure and legal challenges against the Kemper coal plant, a landmark legal settlement was announced in August that will bring $15 million in energy efficiency and clean energy investments to Mississippi. This was an especially big deal for solar in the deep South - one headline described it this way: "A landmark deal in Mississippi could give a big boost to utility scale solar."
2. Indianapolis: The city is home to a polluting downtown coal plant, long targeted by community leaders as a source of dangerous air and water pollution. After an intensive two-year campaign lead by local community groups including the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and dozens of others, Indianapolis Power & Light announced it will stop burning coal at its Harding Street power plant. The announcement came on the eve of a much-anticipated vote by the Indianapolis City-County Council on a resolution calling for the phase out of the plant, which we expected to win. Check out this post for some great photos from the campaign.

3. Oregon: In a decision heralded around the nation, in August the Oregon Department of State Lands rejected a vital permit for one of the last remaining proposed coal export terminals in the Northwest, Ambre Energy's proposed Morrow Pacific coal export project along the Columbia River. The rejection is the first time a Pacific Northwest state agency formally rejected a permit for one of the proposed coal export terminals – some are calling it a "death rattle" for the coal export plan.
This comes after years of tremendous pressure from residents of all backgrounds – from doctors, parents, people of faith, small business owners, Tribal communities, and many others.

In total, three out of six proposed Northwest coal export terminals have been abandoned and the fourth is now teetering in the wake of this decision, the result of an electrifying campaign that has turned out 17,000 people turn out to hearings and generated 410,000 public comments opposing the projects.
4. Missouri: In July 2014, in the hometown of coal giants like Peabody, utility Ameren announced that its board had passed a resolution to phase out the 932 MW Meramec coal plant in 2022, citing that the 61-year-old plant had reached the end of its useful life. This came after a relentless coalition campaign to phase out the plant, which was home to leaking coal ash ponds and a significant contributor to air pollution in St. Louis.

5. Tennessee: The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced in August that it will retire the Allen coal plant in Memphis, which emits thousands of tons of pollutants in the air every year. Local residents had pushed hard to replace the plant with renewable energy, and TVA pointed specifically to community pressure as the reason they chose to go with a smaller natural gas plant and leave room for clean energy options:

TVA president Bill Johnson said TVA evaluated gas plants as large as 1,400 megawatts in their Environmental Assessment, but they went with a smaller plant in consideration of comments received urging TVA to "preserve the opportunity to use other kinds of energy resources such as solar or wind to meet future demands."

6. Illinois: In a partial victory for Illinois activists, in August NRG announced its plan to stop burning coal at two of its coal facilities in Romeoville and Joliet. Our coalition is continuing to work for more clean energy, a solid transition for the workers, and the phase out of additional coal plants that pose a public health threat to surrounding communities, including the 60-year-old Waukegan coal plant on the shore of Lake Michigan.

7. Los Angeles: This summer we scored a major clean energy victory in Los Angeles, when the city utility board voted to increase its 10 year energy efficiency target from 10 percent to 15 percent. To hit that target, the city is going to jump from a low of around 0.5 percent energy savings per year in 2011 to saving two percent per year in the coming years. That puts L.A. on par with the highest achieving energy efficiency savings programs in the nation, creating lots of new green jobs in the process. This victory is the latest accomplishment by an amazing coalition that has been racking up clean energy victories in LA, including successfully pushing the city to end coal use by 2025.

8. West Virginia: In late August, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision and ruled that environmental and historic preservation groups, including Sierra Club, have standing in our campaign to protect the historic Blair Mountain Battlefield, which is threatened by a proposed mountaintop removal coal mine. Blair Mountain was the site of a pivotal battle in the struggle to unionize the coal mines, the largest armed insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War, where 10,000 miners clashed with paid coal industry operatives.

As Sierra Club's Bill Price put it, “Blair Mountain is an asset to the people of Appalachia. It must not be destroyed. This decision brings us one major step closer to preserving our history.”
9. Utah: We won a big solar victory in Utah this summer, when the state Public Service Commission ruled that Rocky Mountain Power could not charge a “solar tax,” a proposed monthly fee to homeowners who go solar. This decision came after months of opposition to the fee from a broad coalition, including Sierra Club, and over 10,000 comments to the PSC opposing the fee.

10. Hollywood: And in some great news for ground-breaking television, in August the Showtime documentary climate series "Years of Living Dangerously"one episode of which featured amazing coal activist Anna Jane Joyner, TV star Ian Somerhalder, and yours truly – won the Emmy for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series!

I was so honored to be part of this groundbreaking project, and my congratulations go out to everyone on the Years team for this much-deserved recognition. It is such a great series, and in case you haven't seen it yet, it just came out on DVD and iTunes.
I'll say it again – wow. I can't wait to see what this fall will bring. These were grassroots powered victories, one and all - thanks to everyone who helped make them happen!

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal campaign director

Categories: Sierra Club National

September 10: Slowing Down for Net Neutrality

9 September 2014 - 11:41am

It’s estimated that nearly two billion people use the internet each day. In the past two decades alone, it has not only become one our main sources of news, but our social hub, our answer-giver, and our forum to speak up about some of today’s biggest issues.

But what would you do if one day the internet as we know it became impossible to use?

That’s exactly what will happen if big cable companies get their way as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nears the deadline on its net neutrality decision.

But what is net neutrality?

Essentially, it’s exactly what it sounds like. A policy of net neutrality ensures that all governments and internet service providers treat all information on the web equally. So all those cat videos you love to watch in your spare time take the same amount of time to load as, let’s say, your favorite websites and news outlets. The petitions you sign to keep dirty fuels in the ground, support efforts to get kids outdoors, or curb carbon pollution are treated the same as the websites of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world. Basically, you’re able to access all the information you want equally. Sounds pretty common sense, right?

That’s not what big cable providers think. If companies like Comcast succeed in influencing the FCC’s decision, the internet could suddenly be divided into slow and fast loading “lanes.” These big businesses will have the freedom to allow certain websites to load faster than others, encouraging users to only visit certain sites -- sites that internet providers just so happen to make a profit from.

Suddenly, our freedom on the internet is limited at the discretion of big business, which means the throttle on what we search, the sites we visit, and things we post are no longer in our power.

So, why is the Sierra Club getting involved?

For one thing, we’re a grassroots organization of 2.4. million members and supporters that goes toe-to-toe with some of the biggest polluters -- and largest companies -- on the planet on a daily basis. We know how important it is to ensure that the playing fields are level where we stand up for our issues -- whether in the courtroom, the voting booth, or on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The problem with giving just a few corporations control over all of the information online is akin to the problem of just a few super-rich people having control over the issues that are debated in our government. Yet, we’re seeing the latter every day as big polluters spend billions on politics and skew the priorities of Congress toward one that launches attack after attack on our air, our water, and the health of our families. We can’t let the same thing happen to the internet - a venue of unrestrained expression and debate.

When you look at exactly who would be at the throttle of the internet if we lose net neutrality, the need to act is even more dire. Big companies -- like Comcast -- are a part of groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - the right-wing “think tank” responsible for writing and pushing legislation all over the country meant to push climate denial, attack safeguards from carbon pollution, and gut clean energy investments. Do you want them with their finger on the button when you are posting a blog about clean energy, sharing an online action about Keystone XL, or emailing your Senator about voting rights?

Net Neutrality keeps the playing field level - and we have to do everything we can to ensure it stays in place. That’s why we’re joining with other organizations like reddit, imgur, Kick Starter, CREDO, Greenpeace, Mozilla, vimeo, and for an “internet slowdown” to show the FCC and big cable companies that our freedom of speech is not for sale. On September 10, get prepared to see that symbolic “spinning wheel of death” on sites all across the internet. It’s just a preview of what will happen if Net Neutrality hits the dustbin and big cable gets its way -- and our way of saying the internet must remain free and open.

TAKE ACTION: Tell the FCC that you support Net Neutrality!

-- Cindy Carr, Sierra Club Media Team

Categories: Sierra Club National

Money Out, Voters In!

8 September 2014 - 3:47pm
Sen. Amy Klobuchar points to the boxes of 3 million signatures in support of overturning Citizens United.

For Members of Congress, today is Day One back on the job after summer recess. And while the 113th Congress has been labeled “do-nothing,” several members of the U.S. House and Senate did something big on their first day back -- they rallied for democracy.

Under ominously grey skies, Senators Tom Udall, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Representatives Ted Deutch and Jim McGovern joined dozens of citizens in front of the U.S. Capitol to send the message to the rest of Congress: We need to get money out and voters in.

The members and citizens were rallying in support of SJ Res 19, the “Democracy for All” bill, which the Senate will vote on tonight. The bill mandates that Congress pass legislation to address the undue influence of money in politics -- money that is drowning out the voices of average citizens who can’t match huge campaign contributions from billionaires. It would help to overturn bad Supreme Court decisions that have given corporate polluters more power and influence in politics.

Senator Udall of New Mexico introduced the bill, and set the stage Monday.

“We are here today to overturn Citizens United,” he said.

Citizens United is one of the bad Supreme Court decisions that stands in the way of democracy. In January, 2010, the Court voted 5 to 4 in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, effectively ruling that corporations are persons under the Constitution, setting the stage big corporations to give unlimited money contributions and essentially buy elections.

Senator Whitehouse from Rhode Island, a co-sponsor of the bill, noted that since the Citizens United decision, Republicans have been silent on things that everyday Americans care about, notably, carbon pollution and the climate action needed to reign in that pollution.

“The Citizens United decision is destined for infamy,” he said.

But this is not a partisan issue, as some of the Members like Senator Klobuchar noted. Campaign contributions for Democrats and Republicans alike should be regulated to level the playing field.

Boxes flanking the speakers’ podium contained comments by more than 3 million Americans to overturn Citizens United by supporting a constitutional amendment. The Democracy For All bill accomplishes that and more. These signatures were collected by dozens of organizations nationwide like the Sierra Club, which also sent a letter to the U.S. Senate today urging for passage of the bill.

“Working alongside reform-minded members of the Senate, a diverse and broad coalition of environmental groups, good government groups, and unions are standing up to champion reform and advance bipartisan legislative solutions to make Congress more responsive to the interests of average Americans – not just the super wealthy and corporate interests,” the letter reads. “The Udall-Bennet amendment is one of the critical steps to repairing our democracy.”

These comments, letters, and rallies are positive steps toward getting big money out of politics and restoring democracy in America.

--Sierra Club Media Team

Categories: Sierra Club National

New EPA safeguard would close major Clean Air Act loophole

8 September 2014 - 2:41pm

In case you missed it, late Friday the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a fix to a Clean Air Act loophole which currently allows facilities in 36 states to dump massive amounts of pollution onto nearby communities. Right now this loophole enables facilities in these states, during periods when the facility is coming online, shutting down, or experiences a malfunction (SSM), to emit huge amounts of pollution that they aren't held accountable for.

What's more, these facilities doing these massive pollution dumps are often located in low income and communities of color -- communities that have already shouldered the burden of excessive hazardous air and water pollution.

Polluters should never get a free pass at the expense of the public health of their neighbors.

"Fixing the SSM loophole in the Clean Air Act is the right move for EPA," said Leslie Fields, director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships program. "Communities on the fenceline of polluting industries deserve relief from facilities claiming SSM events. The health and economic effects from these SSM are severe and continous. Environmental Justice communities have demanded these actions for a long time. EPA's closure of the SSM loophole is welcomed and will help protect the most affected communities and all other communities."

The next step is an EPA public hearing on October 7 in Washington, D.C. A final rule is expected before June 2015.

Categories: Sierra Club National

No Greenlight for Expansion of IFC-Funded Tata Mundra Coal Plant

5 September 2014 - 12:19pm
Photo of Tata Mundra, courtesy of Joe Athialy.

India’s king coal is well on its way to being dethroned.

First, the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) refused to finance an expansion of the dirty, destructive Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant back in May. Now it seems Indian courts  have agreed that the wide-reaching effects of this coal project are too controversial to move forward with the proposed expansion.

Last week, the Indian Supreme Court delivered a one-two punch to the Indian coal industry in a series of landmark rulings that further call into question the viability of the nation’s faltering coal industry. In particular, the Tata Group received a major setback when the Supreme Court stayed a planned rate hike for its economically struggling 4,000-megawatt Tata Mundra Ultra-Mega Power Plant.

This week didn’t start off any better for Tata or its Mundra coal plant.

The recently released minutes from the July 31-Aug. 1 meeting of the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) reveal that the EAC refused to greenlight an expansion of Tata Mundra, citing the company’s failure to meet the conditions set in the existing Environmental Clearance (EC) for the project. This includes  providing for mangrove preservation and the establishment of a greenbelt. Instead, the EAC tabled the decision, pending the development of a detailed action plan to bring the coal plant into compliance with the EC, the creation of an action plan with budgetary information for public hearings, and a recommended site visit by an EAC subcommittee.

It’s clear that Tata Mundra has become the poster child for poorly thought out coal projects. Tata initially low-balled its bid for construction costs  in order to win the contract for the project, using estimates for imported coal that allowed no room for increase. That rate increase is exactly what happened when Indonesia decided to link the price of its exported coal to the price on the international market. This led to the Tata CEO calling the Mundra project “financially unviable” and the company asking the Indian government for a bailout in the form of higher rates, which would have allowed Tata to pass on the cost of its mistakes to consumers.

It is this rate-hike that the Supreme Court stayed last week, and it is another plan to save the failing Mundra coal project -- the proposed 1,660-megawatt expansion -- that the MoEF refused to clear this week.

Meanwhile, Tata Mundra has been rocked by allegations of environmental and human rights violations. After initially receiving support from the IFC, a damning report issued by the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) – the independent investigative body of the IFC -- upheld complaints from local fishing communities facing severe health effects and the loss of their livelihoods due to the project. The report found that the IFC failed to follow its own due diligence procedures when approving the project, which led to an internal conflict within the World Bank as the IFC refused to take meaningful action to address the findings.

On top of that, last week, the Supreme Court ruled on the now infamous “coal gate” scandal -- where private companies were given sweetheart deals by the government -- and found that an astounding 218 coal mining leases issued between 1993 and 2010 were illegal.

With all of these verdicts taken together,  it is clear that coal is not just a danger to nearby communities, it is a dangerous industry for investors.

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Dominion, Dump ALEC! Sierra Club Virginia Leads Rally for Climate and Democracy

5 September 2014 - 11:16am
Oceana volunteer Priscilla Lin and Sierra Club Virginia Chapter director Glen Besa in front of ALEC headquarters.

On a sunny, hot September afternoon, 80 protesters turned out alongside a busy highway at the Arlington, Virginia headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They were demanding that Dominion Resources, Inc. withdraw from ALEC, the right-wing legislation factory behind stand-your-ground laws, attacks on voting rights, and anti-climate laws. Among those joining the protest and speaking to the crowd were Bill Euille, mayor of Alexandria—one of the largest cities in Virginia—and the influential blogger and climate science expert Joseph Romm of Climate Progress.

Richmond-based Dominion, a Fortune-300 company, owns Virginia’s largest electric utility, as well as a huge multi-state natural gas storage and pipeline business. The company is Virginia’s largest carbon polluter and has plans to build a large liquefied natural gas export facility in Maryland and a huge pipeline across Virginia. Both gas projects, if built, would expand markets for fracked natural gas, meaning more dangerous and destructive fracking across the U.S. -- near our schools, hospitals, and backyards.

Dominion is an ALEC member. Documents posted online by Common Cause, a public advocacy organization, show that Dominion executives sit on ALEC’s energy, environment, and agriculture task force, along with Joseph Bast of the climate-denying Heartland Foundation and representatives of major carbon polluters and fossil-fuel interests including Koch Industries-related entities and Exxon-Mobil.

ALEC has been described as a “corporate bill mill.” It brings large polluters like Dominion together with state legislators to work on proposed laws that favor corporate interests. Some have mockingly described ALEC’s initials as standing for “A Legislator for Every Corporation.” The organization’s controversial lobbying has included work against measures to address climate disruption and support for voter-suppression efforts and stand-your-ground gun laws, to name just a few. This has caused some 85 companies, including Walmart, Coca-Cola, and most recently Microsoft, to cut ties with ALEC.

Coalition partners working with the Sierra Club on the Dominion-Dump-ALEC rally included Oceana, Black Youth Project 100 (byp100), Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Greenpeace, and Food & Water Watch.

Alexandria Mayor Euille speaking at the September 4 rally.

Alexandria’s Mayor Euille said, “We must push back hard against groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization which has expressly opposed the EPA’s effort to curb carbon pollution from power plants as well as fought renewable energy while promoting dirty fossil fuels.

Noting that Alexandria already suffers from flooding due to sea-level rise, he said, "we must not permit our future well-being to be held hostage by fossil fuel companies and others with a vested interest in maintaining the dangerous, unsustainable status quo.”

Climate Progress blogger Romm, echoing Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on obligations owed to future generations, said, “it is immoral for one generation to destroy another generation’s vital soil — or its livable climate. What Dominion is doing through its support of ALEC is immoral. It is time for them to stop.”

Sierra Club Virginia Chapter chair Ivy Main stood before the group of protesters and said, “ALEC's agenda is anti-EPA, anti-clean energy, anti-consumer, and anti-worker. And because the only ones who can block the ALEC agenda are the people, ALEC is also anti-voting rights. ALEC is not an organization any public utility should belong to, and Dominion's customers deserve better. Dominion should quit ALEC now.”

At the rally, Jonathan Lykes represented the D.C. chapter of Black Youth Project 100, a group dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all black people. In a powerful speech, Lykes said, “there is a new youth movement budding in our generation -- a movement that is fighting for democracy and the worth of all people. ALEC’s policies on stand-your-ground laws, voting rights, and the environment make it clear that we all need to dump ALEC.”

Hundreds of thousands of Virginians pay electricity bills to Dominion every month. These protestors stood up for the Virginia ratepayers whose money is working against them. If Dominion listens, they will dump ALEC once and for all.

--Seth Heald, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Vice Chair


Categories: Sierra Club National

Are Mini-Grids The Next Big Opportunity Beyond The Grid?

4 September 2014 - 11:13am
Photo courtesy of Devergy

Beyond the grid solar start-up Devergy believes the time has come for the next evolution in clean energy access markets: mini-grids.

The mini-grid systems Devergy deploys are essentially many solar home systems connected to a battery back-up and charge controllers distributed to individual homes throughout a village. Each of those individual units are connected to the system via old fashioned wires as well as smart, Devergy-developed machine-to-machine (M2M) technology which allows Devergy to balance the energy load, remotely monitor usage and outages, and, most importantly, collect lots and lots of really useful data.

With a highly conservative estimate of a $5 billion market opportunity and the $1 billion Beyond the Grid Power Africa Initiative launched earlier this summer, many investors have waited with baited breath to see if mini-grid operators like Devergy will succeed. Meanwhile exciting mini-grid operators like Mera Gao and OMC Power have pioneered innovative models like ‘Tower Power’, but overall the market is still very nascent. In the meantime, high-profile investors like Solar City and Bloomberg Philanthropies have started investing money in fast-growing pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar lanterns and solar home system companies.

But that may be about to change.

Source: Sierra Club Clean Energy Services For All

To better understand the current state of play for the burgeoning mini-grid market, we caught up with Fabio de Pascale and Gianluca Cescon, respectively the ‘Chief Energising Officer’ and ‘the Chief Operations One’ at Devergy, a company at the cutting edge of mini-grid deployment in Tanzania. 

It turns out Devergy’s entry into the mini-grid market started by posing a simple question: Do we need to follow the traditional approach and copy what utilities do to supply electricity? Given the abject failure of utilities to serve these off-grid, rural customers, it made little sense. Devergy realized that not paying attention to the customer’s needs was a big part of why utilities and past mini-grid operators had failed, and the reverse may help Devergy become a success.

But what exactly does that mean?

The Devergy approach has one important value proposition highly attuned to the realities of these energy markets -- the ability to start small. Because most of these communities can only afford a few initial energy services -- usually mobile phone charging and lighting -- companies that oversize these services are making them unnecessarily expensive. While oversizing is commonplace for traditional mini-grids to compensate for technological or operational constraints, this rule of thumb can hold true for individual solar home systems as well. Ultimately, if there are even a few spare watts of unused energy capacity created by these oversized services, that’s money that didn’t need to be spent.

By creating mini-grids that add solar panels modularly and balancing the energy demand across multiple users, Devergy solves this oversized problem by ‘right sizing’ their systems. That means Devergy builds systems based on actual demand instead of guesswork around what demand will be. This ultimately makes investments safer and power more affordable.

Even better, as money that would have been spent on kerosene is freed up, new power supplies can be quickly and easily added to the mini-grid. Unlike massive development projects that can leave investors and governments on the hook when costs skyrocket -- see the International Financial Corporation- funded Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant as example A -- distributed clean energy is never ‘too big to fail.’

But thinking about modular mini-grids is one thing. Building them is another. That’s why the next step toward making this mini-grid approach a reality is pretty technical. In order to realistically bring mini-grids into the mainstream, companies need to switch from Alternating Current (AC) in favor of Direct Current (DC). Currently, most grids in the developed world rely on AC, but solar panels create DC power.

In order to be compatible with traditional energy grids, this DC power needs to be converted, requiring costly equipment and electrical losses. But by switching the entire system to DC, it would save 20 percent of the system costs right off the bat because it eliminates the need for a costly inverter. Edison would be pleased.

It just so happens that once you’re working in a DC-powered world, something remarkable happens -- distributed solar generation (DG) makes a lot more sense.

Devergy runs what can best be described as a networked mini-grid reliant on DG. By using the M2M technology, it is the “smartness” of the system that enables the mobile-money pay-as-you-go approach, which is fundamental to provide financially-sustainable energy services.


The final interesting piece of Devergy’s approach to clean energy access is its focus on energy services as a whole, not just kilowatts. Gianluca and Fabio explained that while many people love stereos and TVs, these products  increase power demand tenfold. Luckily, DC-powered appliances are highly efficient and would enable people to have access to televisions and stereos without overloading the system. The problem is that people in developing countries can't find DC appliances in local markets, driving up the demand and harmony for a DC-based system from the energy services suppliers like Devergy.

Thus, Devergy embeds these DC-based energy services in their business model and calls itself an energy services company, not a utility. The dream is to one day create universal standards between concurrent energy systems, like off-grid electric and M-Kopa, so appliances are interconnectable, and a standardized market is formed.

But while large-scale dreams are still a ways off, Devergy is making progress. The company, which only started a few years ago, already has 800 customers and is looking to triple that number that by the end of next year, mirroring the growth in solar lantern and solar home systems that investors are used to. It’s also why Fabio and Gianluca believe the market for mini-grids will soon start to grow rapidly.

But even though investors believe ‘mini-grids are game changing’, they haven’t put their money where their mouths are. Fabio and Gianluca explained that on more than one occasion, Devergy has been told by investors to ‘come back when [the company is] profitable.’  The underlying problem is the market can’t expand if money is sitting on the sidelines.

It’s time for impact investors, multi-laterals like the World Bank, and foundations to step up and catalyze this mini-grid market. Because when it comes to mini-grid investment, the time is now.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

CES14: Clean Energy is a Good Bet in Vegas

3 September 2014 - 2:30pm

I'm looking forward to attending the 2014 Clean Energy Summit (CES14) on Thursday, sponsored again by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  I'm not really a Vegas guy, but I'll brave the onslaught of flashing lights to listen to some of the nation's pre-eminent leaders in energy and politics talk about where we are and what's in store for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the rapidly changing utility landscape.

This is a pivotal time to be having this conversation.  Prices for solar and wind power are falling fast while outdated coal and gas driven utilities are frantically pulling the wagons into a circle to address the threat that rooftop PV solar, demand response, grid storage, and other cutting-edge technologies pose to their 19th century business models.  Meanwhile, the oil rich Koch brothers and their petro-thugs are fiercely attacking federal and state clean energy laws in a desperate attempt to knock out competitors to natural gas and clear the field to dominate future electricity generation.

In fact, CES14 comes as decisions loom for Congress about whether to renew clean energy incentives like the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and geothermal -- which expired last year, threatening tens of thousands of jobs -- as well as the Investment Tax Credit for solar energy (expires in 2016).  The Kochs have been pouring millions into the coffers of Congressional Republicans and pushing them to vote against wind power and the PTC, despite the fact that more than 75 percent of wind energy projects are located in GOP districts, creating jobs in for these politicians’ constituents and providing tax support for rural schools and infrastructure.

That’s why the supportive dialogue of the Clean Energy Summit can be so important. Its an opportunity to hear what some of the most innovative and creative people in the clean energy economy are doing to create new technologies and new jobs. And its a chance to hear why some of the highest profile leaders in the country are backing clean energy more strongly than ever.

The array of speakers at the Summit is definitely impressive. Senator Harry Reid continues to be a staunch believer in a transition to a clean energy economy that can stem the worst effects of climate disruption while creating jobs and broad economic benefit. In addition to hearing his latest take, I'll be all ears to see where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants take the nation on energy and climate - if, for the sake of conversation, she were to run for President someday. The agenda also  features long-standing oracles Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and John Podesta, a strong voice for wind and solar now serving as one of the President’s key advisors. The slate also includes less predictable people like John Huntsman, who is likely to make a strong case for business leadership in addressing climate change with clean energy solutions and prove that not all Republicans have their heads in the sand. The growing calls for climate action among economic leaders are isolating the fossil fuel barons and creating space for entrepreneurs to step up and propose practical business solutions -- facts that will no doubt be highlighted at the Summit  Also speaking tomorrow are old friends like Billy Parish (Mosaic) and Alex Laskey (OPower) who have used their passion, wits, and creativity to innovate and provide some of those needed answers for the economy and environment.

The dialogue among these leaders and many others at the Summit is absolutely vital. And I’m looking forward to being a part of the fight to ensure its constructive in paving the way to clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. So, lets’s hope that this time around what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. 

Follow @SierraClub on Twitter and Instagram for more from CES14    - Dave Hamilton, Director for Clean Energy, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign
Categories: Sierra Club National

Solar Energy to Light Up Myanmar

3 September 2014 - 9:06am

 Myanmar is on its way to a brighter future.

In one of the largest U.S. investments in Myanmar since the U.S. government began to ease sanctions in 2012, ACO Investment Group signed an agreement with the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power to build a $480 million solar power project in the Mandalay region.

A first of its kind in the region, once the project is completed in 2016, the two 150-megawatt plants are expected to supply 10-12 percent of the country’s power. Members of the Obama Administration were present to witness the signing.

After decades of military dictatorship and subsequent sanctions, Myanmar, also known as Burma, became one of the poorest countries in Asia with one of the lowest rates of electrification. An estimated 70 percent of Burmese people currently do not have access to electricity. The proposed solar project will not only help address Myanmar’s growing power demand, it will also create an estimated 500 jobs.

Following the reforms in Myanmar that led to the reduction of U.S. sanctions and the election of Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament, many now have hope that many of the country’s long-standing needs will begin to be addressed. With the promise of job creation and a clean, reliable source of electricity on the way, it is clear that solar energy is a step in the right direction for the future of Myanmar.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National