Labor of Love: How My WV Small Town Launched a Game-Changing New Model to Go Solar

Mary Anne at her solar church

This week, my small town in West Virginia cut the ribbon on a solar project that isn't just the largest crowd-funded solar project in the state, but also launches a new model making it possible for any WV community organization to go solar. On a perfect sunny day, 100 elementary school students and dozens of community members joined my husband, Than Hitt, and my daughter Hazel, who cut the ribbon for a 60-panel solar system at the historic Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. It was an unforgettable day that crystalized all our hopes for the future of West Virginia, and exemplified the power of regular people to change the world.

The genius of this project was that the church went solar for just $1, thanks to over 100 community members who contributed - but they donated their water heaters, not their dollars. Maryland-based Mosaic Power pays homeowners $100 per year to have smart meters installed on their home water heaters that save energy and, in the aggregate, operate as a safe, efficient mini-power plant. These community members are each donating their $100 per year to the church solar project, collectively raising enough money to pay for the solar system. The financing model was developed by our brilliant friend Dan Conant and his company Solar Holler, and now that we have proof of concept in Shepherdstown, he's taking it statewide.

Than Hitt at the solar churchThe church is going to generate nearly half of its electricity from the sun, reducing pollution, saving money, and living out the congregation's commitment to caring for the Earth. I'm a member of this remarkable church, where we've spent many a Sunday morning lamenting the destruction polluting energy development has wreaked on our state, from mountaintop removal mining to the coal chemical spill in Charleston earlier this year.

By going solar, we’re not only reducing our reliance on dirty energy, but we've demonstrated a model that other WV nonprofits are lining up to replicate. Making this project work was a labor of love three years in the making, dating all the way back to 2011 when my family was the first in our historic town to go solar, which helped get the community talking about how we could do more. Take it from me, when you go solar, it's like creating ripples in a pond - you may set into motion changes bigger than you ever imagined.

Continue reading "Labor of Love: How My WV Small Town Launched a Game-Changing New Model to Go Solar " »

100+ Indian Organizations Sign Letter Opposing Export-Import Bank Coal Project

After the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) stated last month that it was considering financing Reliance Energy’s 3,960-megawatt Tilaiya Ultra Mega Power Plant (UMPP) and associated coal mine in the Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand, India, over 100 organizations in India signed a letter urging the the Bank to reject the coal project.

The fact that Ex-Im would consider financing Tilaiya is particularly shocking given the human rights and environmental abuses the Indian Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) uncovered at Reliance Energy’s 3,960-megawatt Sasan UMPP and associated mine. These abuses have been documented in the CSO’s report:  Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project, Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh: A Brief Report.

Additionally, the Sasan coal project has been dogged by allegations of corruption, and as a result, the Supreme Court of India ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct an investigation into reported irregularities surrounding the allocation of coal blocks -- the land used for coal mining -- to Reliance. Sasan received over $900 million in financing from Ex-Im, but despite Reliance Energy’s precarious past, instead of working to prevent financing energy companies with environmental and human rights abuses, the Bank is digging in its heels and doubling down with Reliance Energy and Tilaiya.

And we’ve already seen evidence to suggest that Reliance Energy is prepared to follow the same pattern of infamous environmental and human rights abuses when it comes to Tilaiya. In 2012, more than 200 people at risk of being affected by the Tilalyia coal project were arrested for peacefully protesting at a public hearing. A week later, 20 villages in Hazaribagh decided against allowing Reliance to mine coal in their region, but Reliance pushed on, ignoring the objections of local people.

Even more vexing is the fact that Ex-Im voted last December to stop funding coal plants overseas following the announcement of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). Prior to that plan, the Bank financed some of the largest coal plants in the world, including Sasan and South Africa’s 4800-megawatt Kusile coal-fired power plant.  In total, Ex-Im has provided over $7 billion to destructive coal projects since 2007.

It’s time for Ex-Im to listen to the 109 Indian CSOs and all the communities affected by these dangerous coal projects and commit to rejecting the unnecessary, outdated coal agenda once and for all.

--Neha Mathew, Executive Coordinator, Beyond Coal Campaign

More Than A Light Bulb: How Clean Energy Is Powering Health Clinics Beyond the Grid

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/hires.aviary.com/k/mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp/14082517/84f7adfe-fd9c-486c-bfbc-dd63d4ae311a.png
Photo courtesy of SunFarmer

It is hard to overstate the effect that access to reliable electricity can have on people’s lives in rural communities worldwide.  

That’s why we are so supportive of interventions like off-grid clean energy that not only put power directly in people’s hands, but do it in a time frame that matters: now, not decades from now. That’s something traditional grid extension and centralized power plants simply can’t do.

Despite the important leg up off-grid clean energy provides these communities, we’ve heard some concerns that these interventions can only be used to provide lighting and supplies like light bulbs.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.

To help us understand what kinds of resources these companies are powering with clean energy, we turned to SunFarmer, a U.S.- and Canadian-based non-profit organization, to learn more about off-grid companies powering health clinics.

SunFarmer is a pretty unique organization. As a non-profit, they have learned important lessons all off-grid companies should live by, including not to give things away for free. That’s why SunFarmer employs a rent-to-own business model that specifically seeks to empower local companies to deliver clean energy services to hospitals and health clinics. SunFarmer’s value to these companies is simple, but big: it unlocks crucial financing. Given how hard financing is to come by in this market, that’s incredibly important.

Continue reading "More Than A Light Bulb: How Clean Energy Is Powering Health Clinics Beyond the Grid" »

Big Clean Air Victory in Indianapolis

Power-Indy-Forward

After a two-year campaign by 50 organizations in the Power Indy Forward Coalition, Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL) has announced its intention to stop burning coal at its downtown Harding Street power plant in 2016 and close the unlined coal ash lagoons at the plant, located on the city's south side.

Harding-Street-victory

"Harding Street is the largest single source of industrial pollution, sulfur dioxide, soot, and carbon in our city," says Megan Anderson, an Indianapolis-based organizer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. (That's Anderson at center, below, delivering petitions to IPL headquarters in 2012.) "This retirement marks the 500th coal boiler to be retired since the launch of the Club's Beyond Coal campaign in 2010, so we're dubbing this victory the Indy 500."

Delivering-petitions-to-IPL

[Note: Coal plants are made up of one or more boilers, or "units" -- Harding Street has three. With the Aug. 21 announcement that TVA's Allen plant in Memphis will be retired, the Beyond Coal campaign has helped retire 178 coal plants and 503 boilers since the campaign launched in 2010.]

Indy-clean-energy-activists

A long-standing tradition at the Indianapolis 500 car race is for the victor to drink a bottle of milk immediately after the race. Below, local volunteers toast the Harding Street victory in downtown Indy.

Harding-Street-victory

IPL's August 15 announcement came as the Indianapolis City-County Council was preparing to vote on a resolution urging IPL to stop burning coal at Harding Street by 2020. Resolution 241, which also urged IPL to invest in greater amounts of clean, renewable energy, had 11 co-sponsors, and a majority of council members had pledged to vote yes.

Harding-Street-victoryPhoto by Alicia Tucker, courtesy of A.L.T.ERNATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY

The measure passed the Community Affairs Committee 4-1 last month, with supporters of the resolution vastly outnumbering opponents at the hearing. Hours earlier, the Sierra Club released a poll showing that nearly 7 in 10 Indianapolis voters supported IPL phasing out coal entirely in Marion County, and for the utility to increase its energy efficiency and use of renewable energy like wind and solar.

July-hearing

Among those who testified at the July hearing was Amber Sparks, below in tan jacket, who lives about three miles from the Harding Street plant. She told the City-County Council how asthma-related illnesses have regularly kept her children home from school, led to about 20 emergency room visits and half a dozen intensive care stays, and thousands of dollars in medical bills.

July-hearing

"Asthma has changed our lives," she said. "We continue to adjust and eliminate as many triggers as possible … but there are some triggers I can't control. On bad air days, the children must stay indoors, limit physical activities, and have round-the-clock breathing treatments. Their quality of life is affected, and it breaks my heart each time they look at me and ask why they have asthma."

Below, clean-air activists at the hearing.

July-hearing

According to the EPA, Harding Street was responsible for 88 percent of the toxic industrial pollution released in 2012 in Marion County. It is also the largest source of dangerous soot and sulfur dioxide pollution in the county, contributing to central Indiana's failing grades for air quality announced earlier this year by the American Lung Association.

Harding-Street-StationPhoto courtesy of NUVO News

Over 55 churches, neighborhood associations, student groups, and other organizations comprising the Power Indy Forward Coalition passed resolutions urging IPL to power our city with clean energy and put an end to toxic pollution in Indianapolis. Hoosier Chapter volunteers knocked on doors, talked to people at festivals and on the street, made phone calls, and spoke out at rallies and public hearings about the public health impacts of burning coal.

Power-Indy-Forward

Above and below, clean-energy activists celebrate IPL's August 15 announcement.

Harding-Street-victory

"For the past two years, thousands of Indianapolis residents have demanded clean air for our community," says Jodi Perras, Indiana representative for Beyond Coal. "They've signed petitions and postcards, rallied on the steps of Monument Circle (above) and at the Indiana State Museum, and urged their City-County Councilors to call on IPL to stop burning coal at Harding Street. Today, those calls have been answered."

Harding-Street-victoryPhoto by Alicia Tucker, courtesy of A.L.T.ERNATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY

Perras gives a shout-out to coalition partners Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light, Citizens Action Coalition, Indiana NAACP, Organizing for Action, Concerned Clergy, and students and faculty at Purdue University Indianapolis and Butler University.

Cleaner-air-in-Indy

Chinese Coal Consumption Just Fell For The First Time This Century

.
Sources: Compiled from China National Bureau of Statistics and China National Coal Association statistical releases.

There may be a light at the end of the long dark tunnel: It appears China’s coal boom is over.

While positive signs have been emerging from China for well over a year, it appears the ‘war on pollution’ is not just talk. According to analysis produced by Lauri Myllyvirta and Greenpeace International in the first half of this year, China’s coal use dropped for the first time this century - while the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) actually grew.

You read that right: coal and GDP growth have decoupled in China.

At the same time, the growth of imports -- the seemingly endless source of optimism for the moribund U.S. coal industry -- ground almost to a halt, with only 0.9 percent growth so far this year, as opposed to more than 15 percent yearly figures we have seen since China first became a net importer. Topping off the trifecta of good news is that domestic production dropped by 1.8 percent [article is in Chinese]. While uncertainty over the changes in coal stockpiles still exists, we’re confident that the unbelievable may be at hand: peak coal consumption in China.

It’s hard to understate just how historic this shift is. Analysts have been arguing over if, and when, Chinese coal consumption would peak. Some were forecasting a peak before 2020 while others -- including Wood Mackenzie -- have been loudly claiming Chinese coal demand may not ever peak but would instead double by 2030. This new data exposes the wide gulf between reality and hype that those predictions rely on.

In a sign of just how dramatically the tables have turned on the previously skyrocketing projections for the coal industry in China, consider this: the China National Coal Association is now calling for a 10 percent reduction in second half domestic coal output in many of the main coal-producing provinces. That about face comes as quite a shock considering as recently as December, the Association was busy advocating for a billion tonnes of coal to be added to the Chinese coal market by 2020. My what a difference a year makes.

Continue reading "Chinese Coal Consumption Just Fell For The First Time This Century" »

BMW i3: A Subtle and Sublime Revolution

BMW-i3Photo courtesy of BMW

The BMW i3 made its debut in U.S. markets in May. The best way to describe the car is that it's radically different. It really looks like a concept car; its design is futuristic and colorful, with the added bonus that you can actually buy it today. The i3, though dead silent, has impressed with a 22kwh battery that has a range of 81+ miles between electric charges and can take you from 0-60 in under 7 seconds.

"It takes off like a rocket!" says i3 owner Charlie Rabie, a Tufts University professor and former business leader, who took delivery of the first i3 in the U.S. [Check out the Sierra Club's electric vehicle guide.]

So what's all the fuss about?

We met with Rabie, pictured below at right, to discuss the car. He explained why he found himself drawn to it. "[The car] is flawless… it drives like a BMW…I don't have to deal with gas stations. The car had been built from the ground up to be electric, and it shows."

Charlie-RabiePhoto courtesy of Charlie Rabie

Rabie went on to show us some of the innovative functionality that is available to smartphone users through the i3's own app. You can remotely view charge levels, check historical efficiency stats, lock and unlock your doors, start and stop charging, precondition the battery's temperature for optimal efficiency, and even see how many pounds of CO2 you've avoided releasing into the atmosphere.

Charger-&-CO2-calculator

Additionally, BMW seems to have come up with a solution to the range anxiety issue experienced by some. My dad, who also happens to be an i3 owner, decided to go for the Range Extended (REX) model. The REX version comes with a small gasoline engine that effectively doubles the car's range, kicking in only when the battery is about to drop below 5 percent.

The fact of the matter is that the range extender is a foolproof safety net; it doesn't just double your mileage range; it gives you total freedom to drive i3 to its full electric range every time you charge it. Most times, you'll drive in only electric mode. But if you happen to run out of electric charge, you can rely on gasoline and even fuel up at a gas station if you don't have access to or time for EV charging. However, all the i3 drivers I've spoken to, including my dad, say that the vast majority of the miles they're driving are electric.

"I've driven 6,000 miles, 95 percent of that was on electricity, and I've never gotten stuck " said my dad, Jack Mark. "For a city, it's the ideal size. And it's so quiet, my wife and I can sit and chat as if we are in our living room."

[That's Joe and Jack Mark with the i3, below.]

Jerry-CuranPhoto by Joe Mark

The Sierra Club's New Hampshire chapter chair Jerry Curran is another i3 driver. He also adores his new wheels and recently gushed:

"The i3 is the most advanced electric car in America in terms of sustainability. To reduce energy consumption, it was built with light weight carbon fiber and aluminum... The carbon fiber was produced in Washington with Bonneville hydro power. The assembly plant in Germany is powered by three wind turbines. Recycled materials comprise half of the interior. It's a blast to drive, handles like a BMW, and will drop any other BMW muscle car off the line from 0 to 45." 

- Joe Mark, an incoming senior at Tufts University, is an intern with the Sierra Club's Electric Vehicle Initiative.

Predators, Prey, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

IStock_000008201545_Medium
If you’re one of the 29 million Americans that can’t wait to tune in to this week’s Shark Week spectacular, you’re probably familiar with the incredible power, grace, and agility of the world’s 460-plus species of sharks.

For the past 27 years, audiences have been captivated by the annual week-long tribute to the world’s majestic aquatic predators. But what you might not realize is that sharks are in serious danger.

In fact, tens of millions of sharks are mercilessly killed each year. More than 160 species of sharks are categorized as at risk of extinction, ranging from near threatened to critically endangered. But what’s the biggest threat to these crucial and magnificent creatures? Shark finning.

Shark finning is the increasingly rampant and highly profitable process of stripping sharks of their fins and throwing the sharks back into the ocean, very much alive but unable to swim. This leaves the helpless sharks at risk of bleeding to death or becoming prey for another predator. Shark fins -- the most profitable part of a shark -- are then traded in a billion-dollar annual market.  For centuries, shark fins have been mainly used in the wildly expensive shark fin soup, a delicacy in some countries.

Continue reading "Predators, Prey, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership" »

Tar sands pipelines and their cumulative climate impacts

Syncrude111110__MG_9810

Last summer, President Obama delivered a major climate speech in which he laid out his plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020. He also committed to deciding the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline based on its climate impacts, stating unequivocally: "The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward."

While the evidence (PDF) shows that Keystone XL would result in significant greenhouse gas emissions and should be denied in its own right, it is only one of many proposed tar sands pipelines on the Obama administration’s desk. The State Department is currently preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) for an expansion of Enbridge's Alberta Clipper pipeline, which would increase its capacity to over 800,000 barrels per day (bpd) - roughly the same size as Keystone XL.  An expansion of Enbridge's Line 3 would transport up to 760,000 bpd of tar sands crude through the Great Lakes region; and a reversal of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline could bring up to 600,000 bpd through New England.

Because the tar sands deposits are landlocked in Alberta, the oil industry needs these pipelines to carry tar sands crude to U.S. refineries and overseas markets. Each one is a key part of the industry's plan to triple tar sands development to around six million bpd by 2030. Without these pipelines, much of the high-carbon tar sands would stay in the ground.

Last week, the Sierra Club and allies urged (PDF) the State Department to evaluate the cumulative climate impacts of these pipelines as part of its Alberta Clipper EIS. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires an analysis of the cumulative environmental impacts of a proposed project combined with other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable projects. Federal courts recognize that "the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change is precisely the kind of cumulative impacts analysis that NEPA requires."

Continue reading "Tar sands pipelines and their cumulative climate impacts" »

On the Contrary, World Bank President Dr. Kim, Renewable Energy Is the Future

Panels
In the 21st century, it’s hard to take anyone seriously who thinks coal, not clean energy, is the future for dynamic, emerging economies.

But that’s exactly what Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, did this week during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Dr. Kim disparaged clean energy as incapable of powering development and even worse, suggested coal needed to remain on the table for the World Bank to be “taken seriously.”

The truth is clean energy is the future of energy access efforts with a $12 billion pot of gold awaiting those innovative enough to catalyze it. Even more exciting is that much like cell phones, distributed clean energy is poised to leapfrog the ineffective centralized grid and put power in the hands of the people living beyond the grid today - not decades from now. But that’s only if leaders of important development institutions -- like the World Bank -- finance the clean energy technology of the future, rather than prop up the dirty industries of the past.

Dr. Kim’s statements are even more troubling because they come at a time when we are making great strides to do just that. President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative presented a historic Beyond the Grid program set to catalyze new technologies -- like off-grid distributed solar -- which will end energy poverty.

But rather than moving investment into these exciting and innovative clean energy markets, Dr. Kim is insisting that one of the world’s largest international financial institutions, the World Bank, can’t be taken seriously unless it continues to fund dirty and dangerous coal projects. And, he wants to use public money -- your money -- to do it.

Tell Dr. Kim and the World Bank to join us in the 21st century and put money into catalyzing beyond the grid solar, not dirty coal. It’s time that those who lead development institutions realize the only way to be taken seriously is to move beyond 19th century energy sources to our modern energy future.

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

Weeks, Months, and Years Later, Still No Coal Ash Safety Standards

Dan River coal ash spill - courtesy Appalachian VoicesThis week marks the six-month anniversary of the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina. In February 2014, a broken pipe released up to 82,000 gallons of toxic coal ash and wastewater into the Dan River. The cleanup still continues today as Duke Energy drags its feet.

But if you think that sort of coal ash water contamination happens only once in a blue moon, you'd be wrong. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine. Coal ash waste is stored in more than 1,400 sites in 45 states -- and just this week coal ash waste was found buried beneath a softball field at a middle school in Brunswick County, North Carolina.

From the article:

The source of the ash: Southport's Cogentrix coal-fired energy plant, which distributed the ash in the early 1990s.

"It wasn't documented, because back then it wasn't deemed hazardous waste," said Stephen Miley, Brunswick County Schools' director of operations.

Well guess what - coal ash still isn't deemed hazardous waste despite its toxic contents. For that matter, it isn't subject to any national protections at all! There simply aren't any federal standards to govern how to safely dispose of coal ash, to keep it out of our streams, rivers, lakes, and drinking water. That's right – no Environmental Protection Agency safeguards for toxic coal ash. And yet, according to the EPA, coal ash has already contaminated waters at 200 sites in 37 states across the country.

TVA Coal Ash Spill 2Every year, the nation's coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution, the second biggest waste stream in the country, after household garbage.

All that ash has to go somewhere, and because we don't have any federal standards to guide safe disposal, much of it is dumped in the backyards of power plants across the nation, into open-air pits and flimsy surface waste ponds -- and sometimes it ends up stashed under softball fields where kids play, or used in the construction of golf courses, or dumped into an old quarry. Monitoring these sites is left up to the states, and in the absence of federal standards, most states lack either the resources or the will to do the job.

Coal ash doesn't just pose a threat to water – it pollutes our air, too. Our friends at EarthJustice just released this new report entitled "Ash in Lungs: How Breathing Coal Ash is Hazardous to Your Health." Here is one shocking quote from the report release:

"Breathing toxic coal ash dust can lead to disease and even death," said Dr. Alan Lockwood, co-author of the report and emeritus professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "This is a dangerous pollutant that not only damages the respiratory system, but even increases the rate of heart attacks and strokes."

How long will we let this happen? The EPA must finalize strong coal ash standards this year to protect our health and ensure that we have clean air and water. It shouldn't take a massive spill, water contamination, or billowing dark clouds of coal ash dust to convince the agency to make this happen, despite opposition from the coal industry. Let the Dan River spill be our last coal ash spill – we don't need any more wakeup calls to tell us that now is the time for EPA coal ash safeguards that will protect our health.

What will it take? It will take all of us working together, raising our voices, and keeping the pressure on, until strong, long overdue national coal ash protections are in place.

TAKE ACTION: Tell the EPA to finalize strong coal ash standards. And while you're at it, tell your state legislators to demand action from the EPA as well.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign


User comments or postings reflect the opinions of the responsible contributor only, and do not reflect the viewpoint of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of any posting. The Sierra Club accepts no obligation to review every posting, but reserves the right (but not the obligation) to delete postings that may be considered offensive, illegal or inappropriate.

Up to Top

Find us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Rss Feed



Sierra Club Main | Contact Us | Terms and Conditions of Use | Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights | Website Help

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2013 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.