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

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

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Photo courtesy of OMC Power.

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "Millions in New Investment Cap Record Year for Beyond the Grid Solar Markets" »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Grace McRae, Sierra Club Polling and Research Strategist

Quiz: Is an Electric Car Right for You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sasan coal-fired power plan and coal ash pond. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ghio.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Continue reading "Are U.S. taxpayer dollars supporting coal industry human rights violations overseas?" »

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

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The Harrahawa Village was relocated to make way for the Sasan coal ash pond. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ghio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal campaign director

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

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

What Utilities Want: Fixed Charges and Flat Rates

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


-- Andrew Linhardt, Associate Washington Representative

College students continue to lead the way on clean energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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