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2014 Grassroots Anti-Coal Movements To Watch

MBC cover screenshotWherever there are coal mines, coal shipping ports, and power plants around the globe, local communities are fighting back against deadly pollution and economic destruction. Today, the Sierra Club released our fourth annual report on some of the world’s major, ongoing grassroots coal fights around the world. Pitted against unimaginable wealth and power and too often facing violence and intimidation, these are the people that refuse to be silent.

This year, the danger coal poses to local communities has never been more apparent.

In January, a chemical used to wash coal was leaked into the water supply in West Virginia, causing drinking water to be shut off to over 300,000 Americans across the state. Just weeks later, a coal ash dam pond failed in North Carolina, dumping up to 82,000 tons of toxic material into the Dan River, and again, forcing the shut off of local drinking water. In February, a fire broke out in Australia’s Hazelwood mine, which would last for 45 days and force residents of the nearby town of Morwell to endure weeks of smoke laden with dangerous materials. In May, 301 miners were killed in an explosion in Soma, Turkey.

These are just a few of the reports that grabbed international attention in the past year. What was less reported though were the daily fights in these locations and other places around the world as affected communities worked to protect their air, their land, their water, and their health. Here are their stories.

In September, the Indian Supreme Court cancelled almost all the coal blocks that would be life threatening to several communities in the Madhya Pradesh region of India. Following intensive local campaigning, even the Mahan forest coal block -- which would threaten the livelihoods of over 50,000 people -- was cancelled. Local communities continue to fight against re-allocation of these coal blocks.

Similarly, the island of Palawan in the Philippines also faces the threat of having two coal-fired power plants built in the region. A state university and a catholic church are leading the fight against the coal industry in Palawan. A huge network of anti-coal activists in Krabi, Thailand, are fighting against a planned 870-megawatt coal-fired power plant. Over the past few months, non-profit organizations, community groups, research scientists, and local fisherman have all come together and denounced the destructive power plant project. Finally, the people of Kosovo, along with several organizations, are pressuring the government to ensure clean energy future free from dependency on dirty lignite coal. This year, the government of Kosovo and the World Bank were pressured to begin the first steps at assessing the environmental and social impacts of the Kosovo Power Plant.

These communities are proving that all the wealth and power of the coal industry is still not enough to silence the dedicated people who are standing up for their right to breathe clean air, drink uncontaminated water, and live on safe land. They will not give up, and every year more people from around the world join in the fight.

You can check out our report here.

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program, and Neha Mathew, Executive Coordinator, Beyond Coal Campaign

Holiday Season Brings Big Developments For International Coal Financing

Coal picWhile we were celebrating the start of the holiday season last week, there were a lot of big developments around the world to be thankful for, and a few to be wary of.

As the world turns its eyes to Lima for the COP20 climate negotiations, which kicked off on Monday, France decided it was not going to wait until next year’s negotiations in Paris to show leadership. President Francois Hollande announced an end to export credit financing for coal, making France the latest domino to fall as countries and banks commit to ending support for this deadly fossil fuel, whose pollution kills up to 100,000 people in India and 250,000 people in China every year. With policies in place at the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Nordic countries, and the Netherlands, the pressure is mounting on the rest of the world’s major economies comprising the UN’s Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to make a commitment before Paris.

But while France is stepping up, Japan is once again falling behind. It appears Japan has not learned its lesson from the fight over the Batang coal plant in Central Java, Indonesia. There, strong local opposition to this plant backed by the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) has delayed construction over two years as residents refuse to sell their land as they protest the project. Even still, both JBIC and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) are reported as possible financiers of Sumitomo Corporation’s proposed 4,000 MW coal-fired power plant in Andhra Pradesh, India. Reports from the ground indicate Baruva village is under consideration as a possible site, despite the fact it is located near Sompeta -- the village that “launched” the anti-coal movement in India when over 3,000 people rose up to stop a coal plant. A resulting crackdown by police and security forces left three community members dead yet stiffened the resistance of citizens who are standing up to coal -- meaning Japanese investors may be picking another fight they will have trouble winning.

But Japanese institutions aren’t just supporting coal plants that threaten the land, air and water of communities in India and Indonesia; the nation is attempting to claim that these projects actually benefit the climate. Around $1 billion that Japan has pledged under a U.N. initiative to help developing countries fight global warming has actually gone to support Japanese coal-fired power plants in Indonesia, despite the fact that coal is the most carbon intensive fuel in the world. U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres has said that such unabated coal projects have "no room in the future energy system.” But the Japanese government isn’t just denying any wrongdoing - it’s denying justice to the people in villages like those in Cirebon who have lost their livelihoods to these coal projects.

Perhaps most disappointing, though, is the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) and its Chairman Fred Hochberg, which appear ready to flout President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and its pledge to end financing for overseas coal.

Continue reading "Holiday Season Brings Big Developments For International Coal Financing" »

Grassroots Activists Leading The Fight For A Nuclear Free Future

Nukes picSusan Corbett, team leader of the Sierra Club Nuclear Free Campaign, has been a leader in anti-nuclear
activism since the 1970’s. Growing up in South Carolina, the state with the highest dependence on nuclear energy in the US, she was drawn into the anti-nuclear movement when a nuclear plant was built 10 miles from her childhood home.

This past weekend, Corbett joined over 70 other leaders in the anti-nuclear movement, representing over 30 U.S. states, Canada and Japan for The Summit for a Nuclear Free Future in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The Sierra Club’s Nuclear Free Campaign was there in force, along with groups from around the country committed to ending nuclear power.

These leaders met and discussed ending nuclear power, dealing properly with radioactive waste, fighting nuclear industry attacks on clean energy, getting to a nuclear free and carbon free future, and many other nuclear related topics.

“Everyone was so thrilled to be there. We had a packed audience”  said Corbett, noting that at the conclusion of the summit “all participants were saturated with information and willing to fight” against nuclear power.

When asked why about the anti-nuclear movement is important now, Corbett explained that nuclear power is not safe -- with a poor track record made worse by the recent Fukushima disaster.

Furthermore, Corbett notes that “without government subsidies and support for nuclear, it would be too expensive." Nuclear energy “would be priced out of the market without the government propping up the nuclear industry.”

Corbett notes that nuclear energy production creates a host of other problems, like radiation and toxic waste, which are harmful to our environment, our wildlife, and our families. Additionally, nuclear by-products are “harmful and long-lived”.

“We can barely keep a trash container from leaking for 50 years,” said Corbett. “Byproducts can’t be safely isolated for 10,000+ years.”

Continue reading "Grassroots Activists Leading The Fight For A Nuclear Free Future" »

The World’s First Rural Feed-In Tariff?


How do we move clean energy access beyond just a light bulb?

With millions of dollars in new investment capping a record year for beyond the grid solar markets, that’s the question many are now asking. This record investment is building markets, starting with pico solar products like lanterns, from the bottom up. But just over the horizon lies much larger solar home systems and the next big opportunity capable of powering whole communities -- mini-grids.

One way to get us from here to mini-grids is a novel new concept: rural feed-in tariffs, or RFITs for short.  

What an RFIT does is adapt the principles that made feed-in tariffs (FITs) wildly successful in Germany and other parts of the world -- including certainty for investors and early stage support for nascent clean energy markets -- to a radically different operating environment. That’s because policy making beyond the grid requires a whole new approach steeped in the realities of the communities it’s attempting to serve. That’s how you tame the wild west of beyond the grid policy making.

So what exactly is an RFIT? Here’s a checklist:

Guaranteed Minimum Revenue: An RFIT provides a targeted payment per household ‘connected’ to either a large solar home system or a village power/micro-grid  installation. This guaranteed revenue will make projects bankable and investable, triggering much needed capital investment without the need for capital cost subsidies.

Target Energy Services, Not Kilowatts: An RFIT guarantees a minimum level of energy service delivery -- one set by policymakers above what the private market is currently delivering. That means an RFIT adheres to the number one rule in beyond the grid markets: energy efficiency unlocks clean energy for low-income populations by prioritizing service delivery, not kilowatt hours.

Sunset Payments Over Time: An RFIT sunsets over time with volumetric reductions (as did the much ballyhooed California Solar Initiative).

All of which is well and good, but are there any RFITs actually in use?

Continue reading "The World’s First Rural Feed-In Tariff?" »

Beyond-the-Grid Is Not Just About Light, It’s About Resiliency

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Photo courtesy of Prudhvi Mitra

At times when the grid fails, distributed generation offers a way to keep the lights on -- not only in areas beyond the reach of the grid but in cities as well.

People often highlight the cost-effectiveness and rapidity of deploying beyond-the-grid solar solutions. As the story goes, beyond-the-grid solar companies are providing power to rural places in developing countries where the grid hasn’t yet reached and at a lower cost than other available options. But distributed generation has other important benefits: it can offer more reliability than a centralized grid, too.  

Following Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the eastern seaboard of the United States and the Caribbean and left 8.1 million homes without power, the term “grid resiliency” gained new popularity as utilities and regulators scrambled to think about how to modernize the grid to avoid blackouts in places following superstorms of the future.  

Modernizing the grid wasn’t the only lesson from Superstorm Sandy, though; the reliability of distributed generation solutions was revealed as well.  As Stephen Lacey wrote about in Greentech Media’s e-book, Resiliency: How Superstorm Sandy Changed America’s Grid:  

 “But the [centralized electricity] system didn’t fail for everyone. Scattered throughout the ruin,    tiny pockets of resiliency formed -- proving that smaller, cleaner, distributed technologies can be a  powerful defense against crises on the grid.”

As Lacey’s report shows, existing hybrid-solar storage systems provided power in some devastated areas of New York and New Jersey, and off-grid solar generators provided relief to many people without power as part of relief efforts.     

The resiliency of communities using distributed generation has been proven after other storms as well. This is true both in major cities and in rural areas beyond the reach of the grid.   

A recent example of this was highlighted by Kalluri Bhanumathi, whose coastal city of Visakhapatnam in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh was hit hard by last month’s tropical Cyclone Hudhud.  As Bhanumathi explained, the cyclone brought down trees, telephone poles, and buildings in her city, and left the city without power for a week. This affected other basic services such as water supply and communications as well.

However, Bhanumathi’s family has a 5-kilowatt solar power generation system which continued providing power during and after Cyclone Hudhud. The fact that Bhanumathi’s solar system remained intact meant that her household could maintain their own supply of clean water and cooked food. They had greater resilience to the storm than the rest of the city.      

Continue reading "Beyond-the-Grid Is Not Just About Light, It’s About Resiliency" »

Despite Crackdown, Indian Courts Side With Public Health, Against Coal

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In a huge victory for local communities, public health, and the rule of law, yet another enormous proposed coal plant has been denied clearance in India.

In another major setback for the expansion of the coal industry, a panel of judges rejected the environmental clearance (EC) for the 3,600-megawatt IL&FS coal-fired power plant in Tamil Nadu, India. The judges upheld an appeal from local villagers determined to halt the project over concerns about water and air pollution in an already critically polluted area. These are the same concerns that were hastily ignored by the project’s backers -- who, rather than conducting a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA),  haphazardly slapped one together in a mere two weeks.

Luckily for these villagers, the Indian court system is robust.

The information provided by the project’s backers was almost totally absent, including a lack of any baseline data, a limited scope for the study area -- where at least 45 industrial projects are already contributing to a critically polluted area -- and the use of the 2005 National Ambient Air Quality Standard (a convenient year for which standards don’t exist).  Given the missing information, the court had no choice but to deny clearance.

But while the court’s decision may seem like an easy one, consider the political context in which it took place. Since taking office,  India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to do everything in his power to expand the coal industry from reopening mines closed by the Indian Supreme Court, to relaxing environmental rules, to streamlining and speeding up environmental clearances -- all of this while conducting a targeted witch hunt of local and international environmental and public health organizations for daring to question the wisdom of coal expansion.

But this week’s court decision shows that India’s democracy is indeed robust. The system of checks and balances, of which the courts are a part, is capable of surviving harsh political environments and delivering justice. Neither the whims of new governments, nor powerful corporations, can change that -- though try they might.

Most importantly, it shows that the courts are responsive to local resistance, a stance that will go a long way in boosting the morale of communities challenging dirty energy.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program

Our Solar System Kept Us In Orbit Despite The Hudhud’s Wrath

All photos courtesy of Prudhvi Mitra

Kalluri Bhanumathi, Director of the Dhaatri Resource Centre for Women and Children, penned this guest op-ed.

One of the greenest cities of India, known for its serene landscapes along the waves of the Bay of Bengal, was ripped apart by  the violent cyclone called Hudhud recently.

Visakhapatnam, a peaceful coastal city in Andhra Pradesh located on the eastern coast of India between the sea and the Eastern Ghats mountain stretch, shook under the 200 km/h wind speeds of Hudhud cyclone on the 12th of October this year. Within a few hours, the insanity of the cyclone devastated the Hudhud 2 region, tearing down the entire tree cover and bringing down huge trees dating back several decades. Nature’s anger spared neither itself nor man-made structures leaving buildings that came crashing down to their bare frames and brought down most of the electric poles, enveloping the district in complete darkness and powerlessness.

The might of the winds that uprooted all the trees and crops left no shelter for the birds or animals, washing them away mercilessly into the whirlwind waters. An unprepared human population had to simply watch, helplessly waiting for the savage fury to subside and then live through weeks without power or water or any basic amenities. While the well-informed government did all it could to prevent the loss of human life and swung into disaster preparedness work by evacuating vulnerable communities from the coast and widely warning people to remain in safety, it could not also stop the devastation that was beyond human intervention. Hudhud 3So severe was the destruction that it was impossible for the government to bring back order into the region for several weeks, given the extent of damages on all fronts.

Frantically working around the clock to restore normalcy, the government and the public have gotten together to clear the roads and restore basic services. Yet for an entire week, the city of Visakhapatnam remained in darkness as it was impossible to put back the brutally damaged power transmission systems with electric poles sprawled in every street corner of the city.

Without power, all the other basic services were badly affected as supplying water to the multi-storied housing colonies and the slums that were submerged in the flooded city was impossible. Most people had not prepared themselves for a disaster of this proportion and faced severe problems accessing drinking water and essential commodities. Communication networks were completely destroyed, and physical access in most places around the city was  difficult due to roads being blocked with huge trees and electric poles. Manpower and machinery that came pouring in from different states to help with the restoration work was no match for the extent of damage caused by the cyclone.

Hudhud 5

Amidst this havoc, we, a small community tucked behind the hills of Visakhapatnam, lived through the devastation and survived even when marooned from the rest of the world. Our farm and all its humble structures made from bamboo, grass, tiles, and other local material stood the test of nature’s fury. While they put up a resistance for a most part of the cyclone, they finally gave way with the thatched roof and tiled structures getting blown off by the winds, leaving us hanging on to each other under one leaking roof. Most of the trees - some more than 50 years old - all had to bow down to the might of Hudhud. The ten acres of mango, coconut, tamarind, cashew, and diverse other trees were uprooted and crashed to the ground and so were all our crops. Hudhud 4

The only single structure that proudly survived intact and remained our life line was the solar system - our recently fulfilled dream of several years to be a self-reliant community.

A five kilowatt power generation system has been helping us slowly withdraw our dependence on the main grid and has enabled us to meet most of our energy needs for our domestic and office uses. The moment the rains stopped and the sun peeped out, or rather plunged out of the sky, blazing the earth which had no tree shade, our solar system got into the act of giving us power. While all around us, the world stood in darkness, we were blessed by the shining sun giving us electricity and protecting us from facing any food or water crisis.  On our farm, we were able to light our houses at night, pump up the ground water to meet all our domestic water needs, and charge our basic communication systems.

Hudhud 6This ray of light through the eerie nights of darkness around us gave us and our cattle a sense of security and safety. We were spared the ordeal that the city had to face for lack of basic amenities after the cyclone. As we write this piece, we are still totally supported by our solar power as the government machinery has not yet been able to reach our suburban villages to restore the power lines or the communication systems.

Thanks to our own alternate energy system, we were to have sufficient water, good, hot cooked food, and enough water to bathe every day - a luxury that none could afford in the rest of the city for an entire week. It is a learning experience and blessing, both how small, self-reliant, and decentralized systems that create minimum stress on the environment can come to our rescue not only in normal times but in times of serious Hudhuds.  

Hudhud 7

Move Over World Bank: Bilateral Institutions Lead Investment Beyond the Grid

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Photo courtesy of GSMA

While investments are continuing to flow into beyond the grid clean energy markets, most public institutions are missing in action.

The Sierra Club and Oil Change International recently released an assessment of multilateral development banks’ (MDBs) investment beyond the grid, and the findings aren’t good. MDBs -- including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and African Development Bank -- haven’t been ponying up as much financing as they should for the sector. Instead, their investment is heavily skewed toward grid extension and polluting power plants. That’s a big problem because the slow process of extending the grid will leave many people without power for years or even decades to come.

As disappointing as lack of beyond the grid support from MDBs is, a different set of public actors are stepping up in their absence: bilateral institutions. Programs such as USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s (OPIC) U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative (ACEF) are building impressive pipelines of companies serving populations beyond the grid. With millions of dollars in grants to catalyze early stage clean energy companies, these bilateral institutions are already having a big effect.

And U.S. agencies aren’t the only ones stepping up.  

GSMA, Group Speciale Mobile Association -- the industry association for mobile operators -- just announced £6 million (U.S. $9.6 million) in funding for these clean energy markets with support from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), to expand support for the Mobile for Development Utilities program. The program, previously branded as the Mobile Enabled Community Services program, provides support to projects that leverage mobile technologies to deliver important services related to water, sanitation, and energy.  

The exciting thing about GSMA’s approach is that it seeks to piggyback on the most successful leapfrog technology to date: the mobile phone. Instead of extending telephone landlines, the developing world has turned to mobile phones to meet their demands.

In turn, this technology is already unlocking distributed solar with mobile-enabled money transfer platforms through machine-to-machine (M2M) devices and helping to change how utilities and basic services are delivered in developing countries. It is this combination of mobile phones, mobile money, and distributed solar that is unlocking rapid pay-as-you-go (PAYG) growth. This is especially true of countries in East Africa, but is now steadily expanding to new markets (for a case in point, see the dramatic growth of bKash in Bangladesh).     

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Advertisement for bKash, Bangladesh’s leading provider of mobile financial services.

With the new funding, GSMA is inviting applications for seed grants (up to £150,000 in funding), market validation grants (up to £300,000 in funding), and utilities partnership grants (up to £300,000 in funding). The application process has two stages; the first step is submitting a Concept Note by December 7, 2014 following the online instructions.  

To understand why we are so enthusiastic about this new round of support from GSMA, look no further than the first and second round of innovation fund grant awardees. They included industry leaders M-KOPA in Kenya, which was able to offer a new pay-as-you-go solar product, Mobisol, which was able to pilot prepaid solar home systems in Rwanda, and Kamworks, which is testing rental services for solar home services in Cambodia.  With its latest round of funding from DFID, GSMA may just build a pipeline of companies to rival both USAID’s DIV and OPIC’s ACEF program.

All of this is incredibly exciting for those who have been working to unlock financing for these markets and ultimately unlock energy access for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Innovative programs like those being run by GSMA prove that public institutions can indeed step up to the plate and end this problem in our lifetimes.

But it also begs the question: With bilateral institutions able to support cutting-edge approaches to how basic energy services are delivered, shouldn’t MDBs, like the World Bank, be able to do the same? The only good news is that no one seems willing to wait around for the answer.

All of thiswhich is incredibly exciting for those who have been working topounding the drum that unlocking financinge for these markets and ultimately  means unlocking energy access for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Innovative programs like those being run by GSMA prove that public institutions can indeed step up to the plate and end this problem in our lifetimes.

But it also begs the question: Withth bilateral institutions able to support cutting- edge approaches to how basic energy services are delivered, shouldn’t MDBs, like the World Bank, be able to do the same?why can’t multilateral development banks like the World Bank?  The only good news is that no one seems willing to wait around for the answer.

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

More Than 700,000 Tell Congress: Fast Track Is The Wrong Path

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Photo courtesy of Teamsters

The saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same. This couldn’t be more true for the two largest trade agreements currently in negotiation, the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). While the Obama Administration and congressional supporters of the pacts have rekindled timeworn talking points that describe these deals as “21st century” trade agreements, in reality, they strongly resemble the failed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that went into effect more than two decades ago.

That’s why today, representatives from environmental, labor, food and farm, consumer rights and other fair trade allies delivered to Congress more than 700,000 petitions opposing “fast track”--a piece of legislation that would push these harmful trade agreements through Congress without any meaningful oversight or assurances that the trade pacts would actually benefit workers, families, and the environment.  The delivery, which comes days before President Obama leaves for Beijing, China, where leaders will once again make a push to finalize the stalled TPP, sends a clear message that, in the words
 of Sierra Club executive director
Michael Brune, “fast track is the wrong track for Americans who care

image from
Photo courtesy of Teamsters

about the health of our families and access to clean air, clean water, and land.”

Today’s delivery wasn’t the first time members of Congress has heard that message. As I wrote about
, back in September nearly 600 organizations including major environmental, labor, civil rights, and consumer rights groups sent a letter to Chairman Wyden reiterating their opposition to fast track and calling for a new model of trade.  And, it’s important to note that the recent election results in which the Republicans took control over the Senate and increased their majority in the House does not mean that fast track is any closer to completion.  In fact, there is considerable Republican opposition to fast track, and polling from this year demonstrates that giving fast track authority to President Obama is overwhelmingly unpopular among Republicans;  87 percent of Republicans polled, for example, oppose giving fast-track authority to President Obama.  The majority of democrats polled also oppose fast-track authority.

So why are members of the public so concerned?  Well, take a look at just a few parts of the TPP and you'll understand why.  While the TPP has been negotiated in near total darkness, leaks have revealed that the pact is laden with giveaways to big corporations. The pact includes, for example, rules that empower foreign corporations to challenge public interest and environmental policies in private trade tribunals and that give corporations right extract millions or billions in compensation from taxpayers if the corporation wins. The TPP also would require the United States to automatically approve all exports of liquefied natural gas to countries in the agreement, which would mean more dangerous fracking, more coastal export terminals, and more unstable pipelines here at home.

Continue reading "More Than 700,000 Tell Congress: Fast Track Is The Wrong Path " »

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