[1THING] Blog: Archive for April, 2012

[ Cherrypicking the Evidence in the Energy Jobs Debate ]

Can jobs be more than a talking point in the debate over energy?

It’s not just a rhetorical question. It’s not a surprise that jobs and the economy consistently show up as the number-one issue for voters this election year. It’s also no surprise that the both sides of the energy debate use estimates of how energy policy affects jobs to make their larger points.

The Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University looked at some of these job estimates in a recent report and concluded they varied widely depending on the economic model and data used. In addition, the institute said the limitations of these estimates are “inconsistently reported and too often ignored.” The differences are huge, ranging from losing more than a million jobs to gaining nearly that many.

“In an advocacy context, job impact analyses can tell very different stories, often depending on the narrator,” the report said. The institute said there are estimates predicting everything from a 1.3 million job loss to a 723,000 job gain from the imposition of renewable energy standards, depending on the model. On EPA power plant regulations, sci-fi fans can choose from two different “mirror universes”: the rules would create or destroy 1.4 million jobs, depending on whether you believe the industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity or the Political Economy Research Institute.

Different models are going to produce different results, and different advocacy groups and candidates are going to cherrypick the results to make their points. That’s just what happens in the real world, and why it’s important to provide some context and balance.

But there are other things that will happen in the real world that we can’t ignore when it comes to jobs and energy policy.

The energy business is changing. We’re undergoing a historic shift in how we get and deliver energy. The combination of rapidly rising global demand and the threat of irreversible climate change are combining to force change in our fossil-fuel based world. Even the staid International Energy Agency says the world’s energy system is “unsustainable” as it exists today.

Work in general, and energy work in particular, is going to change. Massively. The world of work is also shifting under our feet. The Great Recession destroyed more than 8 million American jobs, and getting them back would be challenge enough. But at the same time, technology and globalization are enabling more jobs to be done elsewhere, or maybe to not be done by humans at all. These trends will affect energy jobs just like they affect jobs in other fields That means some of those lost jobs aren’t coming back, and new ones need to be found.

The economy itself is never static. There’s always “churn” as we create and destroy jobs all the time. If the economy is working well, you’re always creating more jobs than you destroy. But the bigger the social change that’s going on, the bigger the churn – and the more disruption there’s going to be. A massive shift in energy will produce job shifts. There’s no way around it.

The fundamental question is how we help people cope with change. If you look at the broad economic statistics over time, it’s easy to take comfort in the fact that jobs lost in one field are usually made up somewhere else. If you’ve lost your job or trying to hang onto the one you have, that’s another story.

For example, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the federal government’s official best estimate of job prospects, projects employment in utilities will fall 11 percent by 2018 and by 14 percent in mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction – in both cases at least partly because of greater automation. By contrast, employment in professional, scientific and technical services is supposed to grow by 34 percent, with 2.7 million new jobs. But how many people in mining or utilities are ready to move over to manage computer networks?

Sure, most people adapt and find new jobs, eventually. But people who lose a job often take years to regain lost economic ground. And the longer people are unemployed, the harder it is to get back into the workforce.

Americans don’t want to hear that “it’ll all work out.” They want to know how it will work out, and they want to know that the country’s leaders in government and business are thinking about how to manage the transition and avoid its most painful aspects.

Unless people understand how the new energy future will affect them and their communities and unless they are confident that their concerns and fears are taken seriously, they’re not going to buy into it. What’s more, manipulating their hopes and fears for short-term political advantage will just feed the cynicism and gridlock that keeps us from doing what needs to be done.

[ The Wilderness Society joins local veterans and business owners in praising President Obama for protecting Fort Ord in California ]

The Wilderness Society applauds the president for preserving this cultural and natural treasure by using the Antiquities Act

The Wilderness Society today applauded President Obama on designating Fort Ord National Monument. The designation of the Fort was trumpeted as a top issue by local and national veterans, local business owners, elected officials, conservationists and recreation enthusiasts.  The California delegation — consisting of Congressman Sam Farr (CA-17) and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — all urged the protection of Fort Ord.

“The Wilderness Society applauds President Obama for listening to the people who want to protect Fort Ord for the enjoyment of future generations,” said William H. Meadows president of The Wilderness Society. "Fort Ord draws people from all walks of life to its cultural, historical and natural wonders, and thanks to the leadership from people near and afar, this place will be forever protected.”

Fort Ord, a former Army base near Monterey California, served as a training facility for roughly 1.5 million Americans. The area has nearly 15,000 acres of coastal oak woodlands, marine chaparral, scenic grasslands and ephemeral pools. These coastal public lands house 35 rare animal and plant species and 86 miles of trails open to hiking, biking and horseback riding. All of this makes Fort Ord is a strong contributor to the tourism sector of the county, which employs 24,000 people and attracts eight million visitors annually who spend roughly $2 billion there.

“Many of the soldiers who went through Basic and Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Ord lost their lives in service to our country. In memory of the soldiers who did not return home to their family and friends, I would like to thank President Obama for honoring them for answering our Nation’s call and for recognizing their contributions and sacrifices in war,” said Gordon Smith, Vietnam Veteran and past commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 5888, Santa Cruz.

The designation will protect the Fort as an important part of our national history, and marks the President Obama’s second use of the Antiquities Act. The Antiquities Act has been used to designate and protect national monuments by 16 presidents — both Republican and Democratic — since it was enacted by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. All of the presidents who used the Antiquities Act have had the foresight to employ this bipartisan tool to protect some of our nation’s most treasured natural and cultural wonders, like the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree.

A large step toward critical conservation in the U.S., The Wilderness Society is excited that the designation of Fort Ord as a national monument is another step in President Obama’s efforts to work with people on the ground to continue the tradition of preserving America’s most valued natural and historical places.  The designation of Fort Ord as a national monument ensures that this important and living part of American history will be upheld for future generations.
 

[ Gulf Still Struggling Two Years After Deepwater Horizon Disaster ]

Two Years After Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater

Although it’s been two years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the people and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico are still feeling the impacts of the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Many of EarthShare’s member charities have been working in the Gulf since the disaster, including scientists, doctors, policymakers and economists who are documenting the long-term effects of the spill. Here’s what they’re finding:


Deformed aquatic life: “Louisiana fishers have pulled up entire nets of eyeless shrimp… Fish and shrimp have tumors and lesions. Such deformities happened even before the spill, but the high number of diseased and deformed animals being found after the spill shock both fishers and scientists. In some areas after the spill, a startling 50% of fish have these lesions.” – Oceana

Sick dolphins: “Dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico are dying in unprecedented numbers. This month marks a record-shattering 26 consecutive months of above-average dolphin strandings. Only 5 percent of the stranded dolphins were recovered alive and their prognosis was usually poor.” – Restore the Mississippi River Delta

Health impacts on humans: “Fishermen, cleanup workers, and kids report strange rashes, coughing, breathing difficulty, eye irritation, and a host of other unexplained health problems that have persisted in the years since the disaster.” – Natural Resources Defense Council

Damaged coral reefs: “After months of laboratory work, scientists say they can definitively finger oil from BP’s blown-out well as the culprit for the slow death of a once brightly colored deep-sea coral community in the Gulf of Mexico that is now brown and dull.” – Associated Press

Declined fisheries: “Crabbers are harvesting 75 percent fewer crabs than in years before the spill, and the crabs they do catch are often dead, discolored, and riddled with holes or missing sections of their shells.” – Defenders of Wildlife

Contaminated zooplankton: “Contaminated zooplankton were actually chemically fingerprinted with certainty back to origins from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. And since zooplankton serve as food for baby fish and shrimp, they help move oil contamination and pollutants up the food chain.” – Defenders of Wildlife

Stagnant economy: “Seasonally-adjusted unemployment numbers for nineteen metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) adjacent to or on the Gulf of Mexico show that while some metro areas reported declines in unemployment between May 2010 and May 2011, most did not.” – Environmental Defense Fund


What can you do to help? Consider making an Earth Day gift to support the organizations committed to ongoing restoration in the Gulf, visit Restore the Mississippi River Delta, a collaborative effort from several of our member charities, and read these reports from our members on the lasting effects of the spill:

A Degraded Gulf Of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands Two Years into the Gulf Oil Disaster – National Wildlife Federation

Offshore Drilling Reform Report Card – Oceana

The Chaos Of Clean-Up – Earthjustice

In Deep Water: Weak Governance and the Gulf Oil Spill, a 30-Year Timeline – World Resources Institute

[ Rio+20: Nine Ways Young People Can Get Involved ]

By Brendan Schoenman, 2012 Human Impacts Institute Environmental Leadership Intern, and Tara DePorte, Founder and Executive Director, Human Impacts Institute

As United Nations’ Rio+20 conference on sustainable development approaches, youth around the world have the opportunity to speak with a unified and influential voice on the issues that will be discussed in June. The United Nations has set up a campaign to invite public input called The Future We Want. Beyond submitting ideas there, here are ways that young activists can take part before, during and after the conference, courtesy of the Human Impacts Institute.

Before Rio

  • iMatter Earth Day March: On Earth Day, which is Sunday, April 22, iMatter will march for the Future We Want in Washington, DC.  Can’t make it to D.C.? iMatter is welcoming people from all over the world to march for climate awareness. 45 countries and 200 cities were represented last year, and this year the need to mobilize is only becoming more important.
  •  Rio Mas Vos Project (Rio+You): This global youth organization invites the young and young-at-heart to take collective action this Earth Day for Rio+20.  With events all over the world, you can join one or easily create your own march, concert, party, festival, or whatever to bring Rio and sustainability to your community.
  • Win a Date With History: Inspired by Severn Suzuki’s speech at 1992s Summit,  this global competition is using the power of the youth’s voice to inspire today’s leaders in order to ensure that the necessary steps are being taken towards global sustainable development. Until April 30, anyone who is between the ages of 13 and 30 can submit a 2-to-3-minute video describing the “Future I Want.” Videos will be shown in Rio throughout the conference, and one winner will receive a trip to the conference in June and the opportunity to share their vision as a speaker at Rio+20.

Before Rio and Beyond

  • Throw Your Own House Party: Use the Human Impacts Institute’s guide for putting on a Rio+20 house party. The guide has ideas for how to start a conversation on healthy communities and environments with friends, neighbors and colleagues. Your party might include petition-writing, creating videos and PSAs for national campaigns, or simply discussing the state of today’s sustainability movement.
  • Join Mobilize US!: MobilizeUS! is a national coalition founded and coordinated by the Human Impacts Institute to engage Americans in supporting healthy communities, good governance, strong economies, and the environment  through grassroots action, advocacy, and coalition building. The 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit is an opportunity for us to redefine our relationship to development and the environment. Individuals can join MobilizeUS! by joining the MobilizeUS! discussion group and participating in  MobilizeUS! actions for Rio+20.
  • Road to Rio+20 Coalition: This coalition is aggregating, amplifying, giving visibility and support to the initiatives that various youth and youth-led communities, groups and organizations are taking on issues of sustainable development, with a link to Rio+20. Check out their website for ways to participate.
  • MyCity+20: This initiative invites high school and university students to fully immerse themselves in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development negotiation process by creating their own simulation of the upcoming conference. Simulations may seem dry to some people, but there are few other ways to truly understand the work that goes into the production of such conferences, as well as the work that it has/does/will take to create binding sustainable policy. You’ll find more information about simulations in cities around the world, including how to participate, at this website. The New York+20 event, for example, takes place April 27.

Before, During and After Rio

  • Major Groups of Children and Youth (MGCY): MGCY works to ensure that the interests of children and youth are taken into account in the planning and decision making processes, and that youth in particular participate meaningfully in the UNCSD-processes. Joining the MGCY allows for youth all over the world the ability to access resources, collaborate with similarly minded young people, and to help develop policy for Rio+20 and other Commission on Sustainable Development meetings.   While the MGCY is a great resource, it’s also a resource for those mostly interested in high-level policy development and networking with youth from around the world. In order to remain accessible for as many young people as possible, they have also created a series of  Rio+20 webinars that are great resources when first exploring the world of global sustainable development, as well as a Part 1 and Part 2 “how to” guide for youth action for sustainable development.
  • Youth in Rio for Rio+20: Youth Blast: From June 7-12, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro, the Major Groups of Children and Youth is hosting the Youth Blast Conference of Youth for Rio +20, the official Rio+20 event of the Major Group for Children and Youth Major Group. With so many youth mobilizing around the world, the MGCY saw the need for a space in which youth, who have been working together from across the planet, can assemble and create a unified youth vision for the future of sustainable development and inclusive policy.

This post was adapted from the Human Impacts Institute Blog with permission.

[ EarthShare Staff Show How Easy it is to Go Renewable ]

EarthShare Staff Go Renewable

Aurora - solar panel
Aurora Oliva, Project Coordinator at EarthShare Oregon installed solar panels on her roof in 2010

“We’re buying some of the sun!” That was the proud proclamation Max Woodfin’s then 7-year-old son made when their family started purchasing solar power 20 years ago. Woodfin, Director of EarthShare Texas, lives in Austin and has been helping his utility, Austin Energy, integrate solar power into their local grid by paying an extra fee on his energy bill each month (in an arrangement known as green pricing).

Max Woodfin

Max Woodfin

Woodfin is only one of the many EarthShare staff members around the country who’ve made the switch to renewable energy. Their stories illustrate how easy it is to support the greening of the American grid and how diverse the options for clean energy purchasing are becoming.

Austin as a whole has been upping its commitment to renewable energy each year – Houston, TX is the only city in the country that purchases more green power. By this year, every Austin municipal building will run on 100% renewable energy. By 2030, at least 35% of the city’s energy must be generated by renewable sources.

The growing interest in renewables is reflected on the individual level too: Woodfin has noticed an uptick in the number of people taking part in Austin’s green energy programs and in conversations about the topic on community listservs. Although it costs a bit more to support renewable energy in his region, Woodfin says it’s worth it. “You’re putting your faith and your pocketbook in future generations,” he says.

Estx
Max Woodfin of EarthShare Texas buys solar power through his utility for his home in Austin

William Borden, Director of EarthShare Washington agrees. “You’ve got to believe that for people who know about climate change, especially if you have grandkids, renewables make sense.”  Borden’s household participates in Seattle City Light’s Green Up program which, like Austin Energy, charges consumers a monthly fee to integrate more renewables into the grid.

“Seattle is a city that prides itself on being sustainable,” Borden says, pointing to a recent mayoral race in which the two leading candidates tried to “out-green” each other for votes.

Bill

William Borden

Nearby Portland, OR is also renowned for its commitment to sustainability and EarthShare Oregon is no exception. Everyone at their office either purchases renewable energy or generates their own electricity from solar panels, with tax incentives and zero or low interest loans from the local utility, Portland General Electric.

“I think most of the west-coast utility companies push efficiency and renewables pretty hard, so it’s easy to be “green” out here,” says EarthShare Oregon Director Jan Wilson.  “Oregon has only one coal-fired power plant (which will be shut down in a couple years), no off-shore or on-land oil drilling, and our hydro-power dams are at capacity.  So it’s either wind and solar, or we have to pipe in more natural gas, and nobody’s up for that.”

EarthShare President and CEO Kalman Stein considered putting solar panels on his Maryland home last year, but he decided to purchase wind power from local renewable energy supplier Clean Currents instead when he discovered optimal sunlight would require cutting some of his trees down.

Jan

Jan Wilson

Stein learned about Clean Currents when he had an energy audit conducted on his home. In addition to suggesting weatherization work, the audit recommended he switch to Clean Currents’ wind power program.

Maryland’s electricity market is deregulated, so residential rate-payers can choose the company that supplies their home’s power. Now Stein’s home is supplied with wind power through Clean Currents. His electric bill still comes through the regional utility provider so there’s no extra paperwork to fill out. Several other EarthShare national staff, both in Maryland and DC, also purchase wind power from Clean Currents.

When customers in Washington DC and Maryland switch to wind power from companies like Clean Currents, they often find that their electricity bills are lower than or at least equal to what a regular utility might charge. In other words, renewable energy is competitive with sources like coal and nuclear, leaving no reason for people not to make the switch. A handful of other states have deregulated energy markets that make renewables not only the more environmentally-friendly option, but the more cost-effective one as well.

Kal

Kal Stein

The Center for Resource Solutions (CRS), which administers Green-e, the country’s leading certification system for renewable energy markets in the U.S., says that there is much more consumers could be doing to support green power. “When utilities offer these programs to their customers, the average subscription rate is 2%. That’s abysmal,” says Jeff Swenerton, Communications Director at CRS. Buying green power is easy and inexpensive and “it makes a difference,” he says.

EarthShare staff recognize that renewables are only one aspect of addressing energy and climate change concerns. Renewable energy, which tackles the supply side, won’t help the problems we face unless we drastically scale back demand for energy too in the form of more efficient buildings and cities. That’s why people like Woodfin, Wilson and Stein link their clean energy purchases to building retrofits and weatherization or point to efficiency measures enacted by local governments.

Ready to make the switch to clean energy yourself? Read our tips on buying renewable power to get started – you’ll be surprised at how easy it is. Then tell us about the status of renewables in your own region in the comments section!

[ As Half the U.S. Contemplates Hydraulic Fracturing, First Liquefied Natural Gas Export Plant Approved ]

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday approved the first large-scale liquefied natural gas export terminal in the lower 48 states despite record falling gas prices. Shipping from the $10 billion Louisiana plant is projected to begin as early as 2015. The Cheniere plant is the third liquefied natural gas plant in the works in Louisiana. Others are planned elsewhere in the country.

The plants aren’t without criticism. Some say plants like Cheniere’s could raise natural gas prices in the country and have adverse environmental effects—due in part to the rise in the use of a controversial natural gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. As of March, 24 states in the U.S. have enacted or have pending legislature regulating drilling for natural gas by way of hydraulic fracturing.

While the government of Nova Scotia is delaying hydraulic fracturing pending further review, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the first-ever rules to control pollution from “fracked” natural gas wells Wednesday. The agency indicated it would delay enforcing the rule until 2015, more than two years later than its initial proposal of July.

Fuel Fix

Oil prices fell following Iran nuclear talks and amid announcements oil supplies grew by more than 3.4 million barrels last week. Meanwhile, President Obama proposed tougher measures to fight the manipulation of oil markets. The move comes in response to claims investors—not supply and demand—are driving up oil prices.

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner made the first biofuel-powered flight over the Pacific Ocean this week, while others in Canada and Australia made similar flights using the alternative energy source. In the lab, NASA is exploring ways to use algae to make biofuel, while a new corn-based biofuel could be pack more energy than ethanol.

Though the thin-film solar market is decliningBloomberg reports these panels may actuall outperform crystalline products in warmer climates. The Los Angeles Times says solar panels are—along with hot sauce, self tanning products and 3D printers—the fastest-growing industries in the U.S.

The French company Total ramped up efforts this week to stem a nearly month-long leak of oil at its Elgin platform in the North Sea. Meanwhile, researchers are making strides in technology aimed at cleaning up future spills, including using sonar to test the effectiveness of deep-sea oil dispersants.

Melting Arctic Brings Threat of New Cold War

Militaries of the world are preparing for a new type of Cold War in divvying up the melting Arctic, which may hold 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the planet’s untapped natural gas. As the Arctic ice recedes, some rogue glaciers in the Himalayas actually are growing, defying predictions that the planet’s “third pole,” as the region is known, would be completely melted by 2035.

Many Americans attribute recent warming and some extreme weather events to climate change, according to a new poll. In fact, 69 percent polled agree global warming is affecting weather in the U.S., despite a new study that finds climate coverage is declining on some broadcast networks.

As California prepares to implement a cap on carbon emissions, its southern neighbor is following suit with a clean climate law. Mexico’s new climate law would lower emissions 30 percent by 2020 and cut them in half by 2050. The move comes as the EPA reports that greenhouse gas emissions, stalled by the recession, are on the rise with the U.S. recovery. Similarly, in the U.K. officials reported emissions rose 3.1 percent as the economy recovered.

As major U.S. newspapers continue to bleed off environmental reporters, the RAND Corporation says canceling the newspaper can save energy. A single print subscription emits 208 pounds of global warming gases per year, whereas the online version only emits 54 pounds per year. But cloud computing can be a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, NPR reports.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday for National Geographic’s News Watch by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

[ Pay As You Go Sunshine: How Solar Energy and Mobile Phones are Powering the Developing World ]

Every night, something unusual happens in Samuel Kimani’s home on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Samuel, 48, lives with his wife Mary and their three children. Their family supports itself day-to-day through their main source of income, their cow Baraka, whose milk is collected daily and sold directly to customers for about $1.80 a day. Their township has few amenities and grid electricity is available only to the few who can afford it. But at Samuel’s house, two bright lights shine all through the evening.

Samuel used to light his home with a single kerosene lamp, which filled the rooms with smoke and poor-quality light and cost $3 a week. With his low income, Samuel could support his family, but he wasn’t able to make long-term investments in other systems to light his home. That is, until he became the first person in the world to use the IndiGo pay-as-you-go solar energy system. Samuel purchased the system for an affordable $10 and now activates it automatically with a $1 scratch-card each week. Through IndiGo, Samuel’s small home now has two bright lights providing eight hours of light each evening, which enables the kids to study in the living room whilst Mary prepares food in the kitchen. Instead of spending $0.20 to charge each of their three mobile phones at one of the many local kiosks he simply charges them at home, saving $1.50 per week in the process.

 

Samuel Kimani in Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

“With kerosene I couldn’t read comfortably, always straining. But it was the children who suffered most; we used to run out of kerosene four or five times a month, and with no light they couldn’t complete their studies. Now we have clean permanent light, we are saving money, and I am so happy for me and my family.” 

In today’s special edition of “Digital Diversity”, Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant, interviews Simon Bransfield-Garth, the CEO of Eight19, the company providing pay-as-you-go solar energy to people like Samuel. Eight19 takes its name from the time it takes sunlight to reach the earth – eight minutes and nineteen seconds.

Digital Diversity is a series of articles from kiwanja.net about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

Interview by Olivia O’Sullivan

Hi Simon. Can you tell us exactly what Eight19 does?

What we’re trying to do is find novel ways to bring solar power to emerging markets, trying to get over some of the problems that have occurred in the last ten years when people have tried to take solar into those markets.

What we did was to combine mobile phone technology and solar technology. This allows us to create what we call “pay-as-you-go solar.” So just in the same way as you buy a scratch-card for your mobile phone every so often, you buy a scratch-card which enables your solar power to work for a period of time – for example a week or month, whatever it may be.

 

An Eight19 IndiGo unit. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

How does the system work in developing countries? How does solar power change people’s lives?

The solar-as-a-service model plays very well in emerging countries partly because the pay as you go model is well understood; people have pay as you go mobile phones. But also because we’ve eliminated the upfront cost of buying a solar light, so we can give people an economic return on a day by day basis. Where people don’t have electric light their options are kerosene or in some cases candles – about 80% of Zambia uses candles – and in South Sudan, for instance some people even just use grass as a way of lighting their houses. The amount of money people spend on kerosene for lighting is huge – about 38 billion dollars. When you compare the cost of that kerosene light for light with mains electric lighting, the light out of a typical kerosene lamp costs between a hundred and a thousand times as much – just because it’s a very inefficient lamp and kerosene’s expensive. So you end up with a situation where the people who have the least income in the world are paying not just a bit more for their energy but vastly more for their energy.

 

Light provided by a kerosene lamp. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

By providing solar we can eliminate that cost and replace it with something more modern and up to date. For example, in Kenya people are spending the equivalent of about 12 dollars a month for kerosene and for charging their mobile phone. We’re providing the IndiGo solar energy system for just over a dollar a week, so effectively for five dollars a month the user is getting light for two rooms and also power to charge a mobile. So we’ve roughly halved people’s energy spend and we’ve given them the benefit of solar power instead of kerosene.

What we find is that once people have solar power then it has a very dramatic effect on their daily lives. The light doesn’t just allow them to cook but it allows things like children to do their homework. Over time users can upgrade the system to progressively more powerful solar units. As you provide more power, you enable other things – such as access to a radio or a television – and so what the electricity is doing is providing key things that we’ve come to value in the more developed world like access to information and access to media; both of which have an important social impact, including the ability to participate in the political process. It’s much more than just providing light.

 

Mwiki, Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

The fact that the weekly fee actually reduces users’ spend, by eliminating the cost of kerosene and charging phones, makes it much easier for us to sell into the market because we sell from the point of view of an economic proposition rather than just ‘solar-power is good’ – if you speak to someone who’s been living with kerosene for fifty years, sometimes it’s quite difficult to persuade them kerosene fumes are harmful things they don’t want to have. But if you say to someone who spends a quarter of their income on energy that they can halve their energy bill, then all of a sudden that has a direct impact – then after that they see the benefits of solar.

Approaching this as an economic proposition seems quite important to this project – it’s not charity – do you think this is the best way to approach alternative energy and development?

There’s been a shift in mindset in the last ten years or so on how to support people who are at the lower end of the income scale. There was a tendency years ago to dive in with the grand gesture –provide a tractor in Africa and so on – and the problem with that is it comes out of context, it doesn’t come with all the infrastructure that’s needed to support it and we saw many examples where the equipment breaks down and that’s the end of it because there isn’t anybody to maintain it and no spare parts. We have a firm belief that sustainable technology needs to have a sustainable business model – so as far as possible what we try to do is to build a local economy around the technology. Where we’re rolling out lights, we have local maintenance, local distribution, local marketing, and so on.  A really simple example of that is we now manufacture our scratch-cards in Kenya as opposed to shipping them in because we’ve got a market for them in Kenya and we have found a local printer.

 

David (SolarAid technician) installing a unit in Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

So why has it been so difficult to sell solar power?

The question we asked ourselves was, “if solar power is so obviously beneficial, how come the world isn’t awash with it?” One of the problems with solar and characteristic of a problem with renewables in general is the need for the end user to buy the equipment up front. Normally, to use electricity I don’t expect to have to buy my own small power station – but with renewables that’s exactly what we expect. So there is a challenge. Fundamentally, people are being asked to change their business model. Instead of using something as you go along, now they’ve got to find their own capital. In Africa if someone wants a reasonable home lighting system, the cost starts at about fifty dollars – in terms of proportion of salary, that’s roughly the equivalent of buying a car in the West. The IndiGo system addresses that by providing solar as a service with a very small initial cost. This is readily understood –  people just seem to intrinsically get what we’re trying to do.

 

Happy customers in Mwiki, Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

One of the things that’s attractive about this approach is that once somebody transitions to solar you can be pretty certain that they’re never going back to kerosene.  Solar gives a completely different class of light, it eliminates the fumes – kerosene fumes are believed to be responsible for the deaths of about 1.6 million people a year, which is more than the number of people that die from malaria, from a combination of chronic respiratory illnesses and from fire.  On top of that, the carbon footprint of the kerosene is about 190 million tonnes, which in context is about the same as the carbon footprint of Argentina, or about 30 million cars on European roads.

You said people, once they get their lamps they start to think about getting radios and TVs and the like – how does that work? How is it affordable?

Off-grid rural customers in emerging markets have the same aspirations as everybody else. They’d like to have TV, radio, internet and a computer, fridges – all the other things that everybody else would like to have. We wanted to create a kind of a journey to help people extend their use of electricity, so we came up with this idea of the “energy escalator.”  If you imagine a rural family in, say, Malawi – we provide a couple of lights and the ability to charge a phone. Over time the customer uses that and saves money at the same time. So after a period of time, their solar unit has been paid off. Then we offer an upgrade to that system. We can afford to charge a little bit more because the customer has just saved 100 dollars or so over the previous 18 months compared with what they would have spent on energy. So now that customer, say, has four lights and a radio. And then that pays off after a period of time, so you go onto the next step, maybe powering a television. And so, over a period of time a rural customer transitions in steps from no electricity to still being a rural farmer, but now having many of the benefits of electricity.

 

The Energy Escalator. (Picture: Eight19 Ltd)

 

We have found that people view electricity very differently to the way that we do in the developed world. In the West, we’ve been brought up with the idea that electricity is relatively cheap so we use it in pretty inefficient ways – a great example is if I want to make a cup of coffee in the morning, then somebody over in a power station takes some fossil fuel which they burn to heat water, to drive a turbine, to generate electricity, to go a long way down a cable to warm up water to make my cup of coffee. There are great chunks of that chain which are inefficient. Whereas for off-grid customers, nobody would dream of using electricity to boil water, electricity’s far too valuable to use for that; you use electricity because it gives you information, it gives you communication, it gives you light – it’s a very valuable commodity.

Do you think that if this does scale up widely, we’ll ultimately have an off-grid, more efficient energy system in the developing world than the one that exists here? And in a sense these countries will just skip the grid?

I think that’s exactly what will happen. When we look at the off-grid market, the numbers are actually very substantial – there’s somewhere between 1.4 and 1.6 billion people, around 22 % of the world’s population without electricity. One of the assumptions prevalent about ten years ago was that the grid would eventually reach everyone. But the cost of extending the grid to rural areas is very high and today power can be delivered more cost-effectively using renewables, generated locally. This is directly analogous to mobile phones which have removed the need to extend landlines into rural areas. IndiGo enables the end user to fund the infrastructure, using the premium they were previously paying for kerosene, in order to get their own power generation without the up-front cost.

How do you plan to expand and scale up and how do you think energy use is going to expand in the developing world in the future?

At the moment have products in Kenya, Zambia, Malawi and South Sudan. And our vision is that these products will grow with the dynamics of consumer electronics, rather than the dynamics of alternative energies. It seems just to be something that works. And people really like it. When we did our first trial of 30 units in South Sudan, a queue formed of people standing there with their ten dollars saying ‘I want my light please’ and we had to say ‘sorry, we’ve only brought 30 this time’ and they were quite upset because they wanted their light! It’s just about providing a mix of technology and business model that enables things to move forward.

 

A Panel in South Sudan. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

If you think of the rate at which mobile phones for instance penetrated developing markets, that’s the sort of dynamic that we would like to get. So our goal is to have tens of thousands of customers this year, hundreds of thousands of customers next year and millions of customers the year after.

Ambitious?

It is, but there are three hundred million households which don’t have access to electricity so unless you get into the millions you’re not making a dent in the problem. One of the things that we see is the transformational change that you get when people have access to this power, it’s not just a case of saving money but it enables people to do things that they previously couldn’t, because they have access to information, to media and to light. So a really simple example of one of the things that people do with mobile phones – people can move from just growing subsistence crops to having market information, market prices so they can grow more in the way of cash crops, and get involved in much more energetic economic activity. In a sense it’s a way of helping people get into the information age without having to go through the industrial revolution.

 

Kitale, Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

Simon Bransfield-Garth has 25 years global experience building rapid growth, technology-based businesses in sectors including semiconductor, automotive and mobile phones. His career includes 7 years at Symbian, the phone OS maker, where he was a member of the Leadership Team and VP Global Marketing. Simon was founder of Myriad Solutions Ltd and was previously a Fellow at Cambridge University. He holds a BA and Ph.D in Engineering from St John’s College, Cambridge UK.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in “Digital Diversity” about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

 

 

[ National Park Week: Free entrance April 21-29 ]

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If you're thinking about a spontaneous jaunt to a national park anytime this spring, now is the time to do it. April 21 -29 is National Park Week, which means free admission.

From Yosemite to Shenandoah, national parks and other Park Service units are welcoming visitors for free admission, special events and volunteer days throughout the week.

Plan your National Park Week trip

Check out the National Park Week page, where you can browse the parks and special events taking place at National Parks throughout National Park Week.

Free admissions to all 397 units, including national parks and national monuments.

April 21-29

Can't go? Find other free National Park dates throughout the year.

The Wilderness Society and National Parks.

The Wilderness Society works to ensure that portions of our National Parks are preserved as federally protected wilderness, the highest level of protection afforded by the government.

These wilderness designations are important because they ensure the most pristine portions of national parks remain unblemished from industry and development for all Americans to enjoy year after year.

Learn more about our work on National Parks.

[ Study Predicts Grim Ecological Effects for Proposed Amazon Dams ]

Proposals to build more than 150 hydroelectric dams on Andean tributaries of the Amazon River could have catastrophic ecological impacts, causing the first major breaks between the tributaries and the Amazon and leading to widespread forest loss, according to a study published today in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

The study by researchers at the environmental advocacy group Save America’s Forests, the Center for International Environmental Law, and North Carolina State University found that 47 percent of dams planned for Amazon tributaries in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru would have a high environmental impact, suggesting the need for additional evaluation and increased regional planning.

(Related Photos:  “A River People Awaits an Amazon Dam“)

Examples of high-impact dams, according to the study, include the Andaquí dam in Colombia, which would cause the first major break in connectivity for the Caqueta River and would flood a national park; and the Coca Codo Sinclair in Ecuador, which would disrupt downstream sediment flow for a major tributary of the Napo River and would require extensive construction in primary forest for roads and transmission lines. (See a map with impact assessments from the study).

“If there is continued business as usual, 20 years from now we could be looking at a catastrophic scenario where he have cut off the Andes from the Amazon,” said lead author Matt Finer, a staff ecologist at Save America’s Forests, who received a National Geographic Society grant to gather data on proposed dams and other environmental threats to the region. “The current lack of strategic planning has become an important issue.”

Proposals for hydropower dams are rapidly increasing in the region in response to intense and rising local demand for energy and the abundant untapped potential that fast-moving open tributaries present. Peru, for example, faces a projected 7 percent annual increase in domestic energy demand. In 2010, Peru signed a deal to provide additional energy to Brazil. The three other countries also face dire energy needs.

Regional governments have made dams the centerpiece of long-term plans to meet this demand. If built, the 151 planned dams the researchers studied would be a 300 percent increase over the number of existing dams in the region. Over half would be large dams over 100 megawatts, and 40 percent are already in the advanced planning stages.

Hydropower is often sold as a cleaner alternative to thermoelectric power, but Finer said dams would have their own ecological consequences in one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.

Rain and melted snow flows from the Andes Mountains foothills to the Amazon through six major tributaries—the Caqueta, Madeira, Napo, Marañon, Putumay, and Ucayali Rivers. The rivers wash into the Amazon, providing the vast majority of sediment, nutrients and organic matter important for the survival of birds, fish and other organisms. Many Amazonian fish species spawn in the tributaries, including a number that migrate all the way to the foothills of the Andes.

Any break in water flow would alter this dynamic. The study, however, found that 60 percent of dams planned across the six major tributaries would cause breaks in connectivity. More than 80 percent would lead to deforestation from flooding, road building, and power transmission lines, a consequence Finer said often escapes consideration by planners. “There is this whole other world of impact that few people are talking about because they are focused on the impacts to the river,” he said.

Beyond the environmental concerns, the study says the high impact dams would directly affect indigenous communities. People living upstream from new dams could be displaced by flooding, while those living downstream may suffer from disruption of the river’s flow.

The study is the first to consider the ecological impacts of proposed dam projects for all major rivers connecting the Andes to the Amazon, and offers a contrary assessment to previous published accounts. Most of the data the researchers used came from government sources. “We dug in,” said Finer, who spent four months in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia gathering data. The researchers hired help to gather data on dams proposed in Columbia.

Currently, almost two-thirds of the world’s largest rivers are dammed, leaving few major free-flowing river systems, many of which are in South America. With their natural decline in elevation and deep canyon walls, the rivers of the Andean Amazon are ideal for building dams, Finer said. That combined with the explosive need for energy has made it the frontier for the technology.

“There really aren’t a number of other options,” said Finer, who stressed that the study was not designed to show that dams should or should not be built, but rather was meant to be a tool policy makers can use to better understand the consequences of projects. “A lot of these dams are going to happen and they are happening,” he said. “The idea is how can we use more strategic planning to minimize the impacts?”

Among the proposed dams the researches studied, the largest number, 79, were in Peru, which currently has 26 dams, the most among the countries in the study. Ecuador has the second highest number of dams planned at 60, followed by Bolivia with 10, and Colombia with one.

[ Air Pollution from Fracked Natural Gas Wells Will Be Regulated Under New U.S. Rules ]

Under a new rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, new oil and gas wells that are hydraulically fractured—or “fracked”—will have to use new equipment to capture the gases that escape, rather than releasing them into the air or burning them off.

Hydraulic fracturing has been in use since the 1950s, but in the past several years the volume of water has been dramatically increased and the technique has been combined with long horizontal drilling, allowing companies to unlock oil and gas trapped in shale formations, leading to a boom in extraction in states from Pennsylvania to Texas to North Dakota.

(See Interactive: “Breaking Fuel From Rock” and “Photos: The Science of Shale Gas“)

Regulators are trying to keep up with the fast pace the rollout of fracking by writing new rules under the Clean Air Act. The agencyunveiled the proposed rule last July, then revised it after receiving more than 150,000 comments from the public and industry, the EPA said today.

One of the major concerns about natural gas fracking is whether companies are allowing a significant amount of natural gas to escape, since methane—the main component of natural gas—is a potent greenhouse gas, more than 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide (CO2). If too much of the gas leaks, then methane’s benefit as an electricity fuel that produces lower carbon emissions than coal would be greatly reduced.

The new Clean Air Act regulation will drastically reduce these greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA said today in a press conference, cutting an estimated 1 to 1.7 million tons of methane emissions per year. This, the EPA estimates, would be the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off the road.

“Today’s rules don’t directly target greenhouse gases,” saidEPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy during a news conference. However, “the technologies and practices that capture [other pollutants] also capture methane.” The rule targets emissions that are well established as pollution targets under the Clean Air Act: volatile organic compounds that can cause smog, as well as benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals. “These technologies will not only reduce 95 percent of the harmful emissions from these wells that contribute to smog and lead to health impacts,” the EPA said in a press release.

Until 2015, companies would have a choice of either flaring—burning off the emissions—or capturing the gases and other compounds with special equipment. According to the EPA, right now, about half of fracked wells are using the equipment for capturing gases and other equipment, making them, in industry lingo, “green completions.” But at the start of 2015, the new rule requires flaring to stop, and all wells switch to capturing the emissions.

The regulations would actually save companies money in the long run, the EPA estimates, since companies could sell the methane and other compounds they capture, which would more than pay for the new equipment.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said the new rules are “an important step forward,” but added that “the EPA needs to do more to protect people living near oil and gas production facilities.”

Like the EPA, the NRDC argues that being clean pays off. A report the NRDC published last month estimated that the industry could reduce methane emissions 80 percent, while bringing in additional revenue of $2 billion per year.

However, much depends on the price of natural gas. The breakeven point for these regulations is a natural gas price of $3.66 per thousand cubic feet, the EPA estimates. If the price goes higher, companies will profit from following the regulation, and if the price stays lower, it will cost them money.

On spot markets, the natural gas prices recently have fallen to a 10-year low, below $2 per thousand cubic feet, but experts surveyed by Reuters expect prices to rebound next year to around the EPA’s estimated breakeven point.

(See Special Report: “The Great Shale Gas Rush”)