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.  
 
La ratepayers
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?

Kosovo-Clean-Air-project-World-Bank-Source-Facebook-3502013_2

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!

Why Is The World Bank Failing On Energy Poverty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scorecard 1

Continue reading "Why Is The World Bank Failing On Energy Poverty?" »

Highest Percentage Yet of U.S. Electric Vehicle Sales

Lots of cars on display Montclair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will The UK Phase Out Coal Plants?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Rohan Bhatia, International Climate Program Intern

New Database Shows Solar is Soaring in Schools

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Solar is soaring to the top of the class.

Recently, the Solar Foundation and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) released their National Solar Schools Census, the most extensive database of it’s kind, that catalogues all solar-powered K-12 schools in the U.S.

The goal of the database is to serve “as a starting point for sharing ideas and best practices between schools experienced with solar energy and those seeking to join their ranks.” And from the looks of it, they’ve already got a head start.

According to the report, there have been more than 3,700 solar systems installed on U.S. schools, which in turn powers the education of almost 2.7 million students each day. But that’s just a small fraction of solar’s potential in education. An estimated 72,000 schools -- that’s 60 percent of all schools nationwide -- can still cost-effectively go solar. To put that into perspective, that would be the equivalent of taking one million vehicles off the road.

And that number is expected to continue to grow by leaps and bounds.

In the last six years alone, solar’s rate of installation at schools has jumped by 110 percent, and over the past four years, the cost of installation has fallen by more than 50 percent. If this trend continues -- and experts predict that it will -- we can expect a sunnier future for our students.

At a time when transitioning to clean energy is a key weapon in tackling the climate crisis, that’s huge.  

Already, climate disruption is fuelling an increase in sea level rise, Arctic ice melting, decreasing wildlife, unchecked wildfires, severe droughts, and extreme temperatures. Without immediate action -- both globally and in our own backyards -- our communities will see these dangers increase and our children will come to recognize them as the new normal.

And that’s just the half of it. Already, unchecked carbon pollution from each coal-fired power plant leads to 491 asthma attacks and 22 asthma-related emergency room visits each year, many of those children. When you couple the effects on children’s health with the time spent missing school as a result of illness, the true cost of carbon pollution for children is staggering.

Luckily, many schools are taking action and cutting carbon pollution by switching to solar. These schools are not only helping to protect the health of their students, but they’re giving the next generation a leg up.

With the potential for solar schools nearly endless, that’s an A+ in our books.

Are your curious to see if your school made the switch to solar? Check out the interactive map.

-- Sierra Club Media Team

Food and Our Climate

As the threat of climate disruption becomes increasingly urgent, it makes sense that every  source of greenhouse gas emissions should come under scrutiny. Both the reckless burning of fossil fuels and unsustainable agricultural practices are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. However, as the recent documentary film Cowspiracy rightly points out, the latter are too often overlooked as a potential source of reductions.

In fact, how we farm and what we eat can make a real difference for our climate future, and that knowledge should inform not only our personal choices but also our public policies. Eliminating or reducing meat consumption in your diet is one important way to reduce your contribution to climate change, since animal agriculture is the single largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions from food production. At the same time, the Sierra Club continues to support broader reforms in food production that will also help limit climate disruption.

Many current agricultural practices, such as large-scale monocropping (the practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land) and concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs), consume disproportionate amounts of fossil fuels, pollute our water and air, deplete the soil, and diminish biodiversity. The good news is that we have many opportunities to improve in all of these areas.

We're calling for reform of industrial agricultural and food system practices, to minimize contributions to greenhouse gases and to maximize carbon sequestration in plants and soils. The pollution from concentrated animal-feeding operations in particular is grossly disproportionate to the amount of food produced. Growing heavily subsidized energy-intensive corn to convert to ethanol fuel makes no sense from an energy, food supply, climate or pollution standpoint and it should be opposed.

The single greatest source of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions is livestock, particularly factory-raised animals. Cattle (for both beef and milk, as well as for inedible outputs like manure and draft power) are responsible for about two-thirds of livestock emissions.

Fortunately, we can cut livestock emissions significantly not only by reducing personal meat consumption but also by following best practices and ending our reliance on concentrated animal-feeding operations. The Sierra Club continues to strongly oppose the establishment of new CAFOs and believes we should phase out existing operations as soon as possible.

Furthermore, ensuring soil maintains its carbon stock is a highly effective means of carbon sequestration. Yet, most agricultural soils have had their carbon stock dramatically reduced by soil loss, excessive tillage, overgrazing, erosion, and overuse of chemical nitrous fertilizers. In fact, the world's cultivated and grazed soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stock. In the process billions of tons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere. That's why it's critical that we rebuild soil carbon through regenerative agricultural practices.  

Massive food production operations are at the root of many of these problems. Converting our natural landscapes into intensive agricultural operations can change land from carbon sinks to carbon sources. Deforestation, plowing up prairies, and filling wetlands destroys existing carbon sinks and releases that carbon into our atmosphere, increasing emissions.

As consumers, we each have a personal role to play as well, through our choices about the foods we eat:

  • Whenever possible, we can support locally owned and operated farms, which are generally far less destructive and far more productive. This also reduces the need for long-distance transportation of foods.  
  • We can avoid highly processed, so-called "convenience foods," which are not only nutritionally inferior, but also waste energy and packaging materials.
  • Striving to reduce food waste, through smaller serving sizes, composting, and recycling, will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Organically grown foods that don't rely on chemicals are better for the soil, climate, and our health.

  • If we do choose to eat meat, we should look for grass-fed, responsibly raised beef, which is both healthier and far more sustainable than factory-produced beef.

Addressing climate disruption is important enough that we cannot afford to overlook any strategy for success. Fortunately, just as with transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy, we can reap important collateral benefits by adopting more responsible and sustainable agricultural practices and by making smarter lifestyle choices.

-- Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director

 


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