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It turns out Michelle Bachmann has something in common with the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All campaign goals of delivering electricity for the world's poor - energy efficient lighting. While Michelle Bachmann really, really hates it the world's poor love it. That's because energy efficiency lighting has revolutionized the economics of distributed clean energy for the poor. The reduced demand from LED lighting brings the size, and therefore cost, of everything down from solar panel to battery. This lesson - energy efficiency unlocks distributed energy for the poor - is the basis of a novel new approach to mini-grids that serve poor populations in developing countries dubbed by my colleague Stewart Craine of Village Infrastructure Angels 'Skinny Grids.'

The concept begins with a lesson I need to tack on to the four we learned from Solar Crowdfunding: Energy Efficiency leads to 'Skinnier' Grids that cost less. Let's start on the demand side.

Two of the most pressing basic needs the poor have are for lighting and mobile phone charging (the latter coming from an unprecedented number of unelectrified mobile phone users - an enormous market opportunity). Serving those needs with yesterday's technology (Michelle Bachmann's favorite the incandescent bulb and even her despised CFLs) is very tough. So tough it has basically meant the economics to serve these markets with clean energy didn't work.

Enter the LED. Advances in LED white lighting have revolutionized the amount of power poor households now need. That changes everything from component to system size which has cut costs dramatically. For example, the light supplied by 100W of incandescent bulbs can now be met with just 5W of well designed LED lighting. Since a phone charger takes similar power, we can now provide basic services with 90% less power.

That's a story many may know and, outside of Michelle's coterie, likely support. What is far less explored is the impact beyond the individual solar home system. That's because the drop in demand lowers the current in the "poles and wires" that connect households in conventional grids. This enables companies to use much thinner and cheaper wiring. Combined with smaller poles and longer spans, or locally dug underground trenches, the cost per household for reticulated wiring can be vastly reduced via thin-cable designs not previously imagined - our aptly named Skinny Grids.

Combine this with innovative 1-2kV transformers that take this lower power and current as core to their design (like those promoted by Micro Former) and Skinny Grids could reach households 5-10km from power sources quite cost-effectively. That means they could service many hundreds of households if we ran them from existing off-grid sources of power (think Tower Power) or from the edge of the grid.

In some countries, over 95% of all households are within 5-10km of an off-grid telecom tower or the edge of the grid, and these towers are often grossly under loaded compared to the power demand for the tower (eg. 3kW load compared to 15kW installed capacity). That means the power generation to connect 10-20W of load per household may already exist for the majority of the unelectrified population. Even better, the only investment needed is $1/m of Skinny Grid connections.

Think about that for a minute. All the handwringing about the massive energy investments and grid expansion that's needed to electrify the world (a big driver in the Power Africa initiative and the related fight over the Overseas Private Investment Corporation's GHG cap) may be obviated (at least in part) by existing power sources that just haven't been tapped. All of that thanks to the LED light bulb (Michelle Bachmann eat your heart out ).

At the end of the day Skinny Grids are just one of the many innovations coming from the off-grid sector. Many of the entrepreneurs believe that their innovations will boomerang to traditional grids in developed and developing country markets (over the heated objections of our leaders like Mrs. Bachmann I'm sure). Skinny grids seem closest to fitting that prediction given that fact that the LED is to the off grid market what the CFL is to those in the on-grid market. It looks like Par Almqvist of OMC may be right: the future for highly innovative clean energy deployment is off the grid.


Wed Jun 26, 2013 at 10:25 AM PDT

USA Closed for Overseas Coal Business

by Jguay

Phillip Bump at The Atlantic Wire summed up yesterday's climate speech by the president nicely: "Less Coal, Finally". From throwing his weight behind carbon pollutions standards for new and existing coal plants to a ban on overseas coal plant investments, it's clear the president sees no place for dirty fuels in a 21st century clean energy economy. But of all the policies outlined in the President's plan, the international proposals surprised people the most. Here'™s why they are so important.

In his big climate speech on Tuesday, the President said "Today, I'm calling for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas." The institution most impacted by the overseas coal ban is the U.S. Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank. As I wrote Monday, President Obama needed to tell the Ex-Im Bank to move beyond coal because it is careening wildly out of control when it comes to fossil fuel finance, particularly compared with its sister organization, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) who hasn't financed a coal plant in a decade. Not only has Ex-Im been on a spree, but the projects it is considering now are simply embarrassing (coal exports in the Great Barrier Reef anyone?). Putting an end to this finance is a big deal.

But achieving it is no small task. It will take real leadership to bring the Ex-Im Bank into a place that will have real impact. The institution now needs to it had in its pipeline prior to the announcement. That decision will be critical to the validation of the policy as the Ex-Im Bank has a sordid history of implementing its existing low carbon policy. With the President's climate credibility on the line, Ex-Im President Fred Hochberg has no choice but to close the door on coal at this institution for good. When he does, the single largest spigot for US tax payer dollars for overseas coal projects will dry up.

The best part is that this signal will reverberate throughout the international financial institution world. Both the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are in the process of revising their energy policies. It's clear that curbs on coal lending will be front and center for both. Of the two, the World Bank's is particularly important as it helps set policy at scores of other financial institutions. How World Bank President Dr. Kim deals with deadly new coal plants like the one in Kosovo will define his climate legacy, just as it is defining Obama's.

As you can see, Obama's leadership on international coal finance extends far beyond the agencies directly under his purview. His signal, that this deadly source of energy is simply not deserving of public financing support, is incredibly important. So for all those project developers seeking cheap cash to develop destructive new coal projects our President has a message:  The USA is closed for business.


Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 11:42 AM PDT

U.S. coal exports causing death in Europe

by Jguay

Co-authored by Lauri Myllyvirta Greenpeace International

Increasing coal burning in Europe caused 2,000 additional premature deaths, with exports from the U.S. accounting for two thirds of that increase.

Coal-fired power plants are silent killers. Hour after hour these plants fill the air with toxic pollutants, including mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium and tiny sulphate and nitrate particles that go deep into people’s lungs and bloodstream. These emissions caused 22,000 premature deaths in the European Union in 2010, through strokes, heart attacks, lung cancer and other diseases, as estimated in a new report from Greenpeace, based on research by the University of Stuttgart.

The EU has seen a problematic short term rise in coal burn over the past three years (though the long term trend is down, down, down).  New statistics from BP place the increase at 11% with imports increasing a whopping 26%. One of the biggest sources of those deadly coal imports was the U.S. whose exports to the EU almost doubled. In fact the U.S. accounted for 65% of Europe’s increased coal consumption. Which means, according to Greenpeace modeling results, 65% of the 2,000 premature deaths in the EU were caused by US coal exporters. Not exactly an export to be proud of.

Leaving U.S. culpability in this increased mortality aside for now, what’s up with the clean, green EU? It turns out a number of factors are conspiring to improve coal’s short-term fortunes: a plummeting CO2 price, lack of political leadership, and some national factors, particularly in the UK. This has combined with lower prices for imported coal, driven largely by the U.S. dumping its surplus output on the seaborne market (because as Mayor Bloomberg rightfully points out the US coal industry is a dead man walking) to increase coal burn.

But what has not been behind this rise is the building of new coal power stations, or fossil fuels covering for Germany’s nuclear closures. Very few new coal plants have come online, and fossil fuel fired generation as a whole has dropped as renewable generation has grown rapidly (for a full analysis go here).

The problem is with ongoing economic turmoil Europe’s decision-makers have decided to pamper dirty industries in false hopes of protecting jobs, rather than pushing forward with a clean energy economy to put Europeans back to work. The biggest culprit here is the UK, where utilities have run their old coal power plants at full steam before the country’s upcoming carbon tax and air pollution regulation force the plants to retire. The good news is that these factors will reverse in the near future: air pollution norms and UK’s carbon tax will kick in, renewable energy growth will start eating into coal output, and decision-makers will face increasing pressure to start leading on climate again.

But what of those amoral U.S. coal exporters? The ones peddling death and disease to our friends in Europe? The situation feels eerily reminiscent of tobacco companies seeking ‘growth’ markets outside US borders as the country collectively awoke to the industries real impact. As US decision makers weigh the costs and benefits of dramatically increasing this deadly export it’s worth asking ourselves is this an export we can justify? Thanks to this new report from Greenpeace we can conclusively give you 2,000 reasons it’s not.


1.3 billion people around the world live in darkness lacking access to even small amounts of life changing electricity. The good news is we can change their fate and help solve climate change at the same time. The bad news is those tasked with solving the problem aren't getting the job done because they are products of two broken systems - energy and finance. That's why we need disruptive solutions like solar crowdfunding to transform these systems so that they deliver outcomes that benefit the poor and the planet.

Crowdfunding works by aggregating small amounts of funding through online portals like the one maintained by SunFunder SolarMosaic or Milaap. These platforms aggregate small 'crowdsourced' amounts of funding into larger sums that directly finance clean energy entrepreneurs. All told it's a $90 billion clean energy access opportunity that can help transform people’s lives and the fate of our planet.

But more than the sheer amount that can be raised, what makes crowdfunding so important is that it fills a gaping hole left by traditional financial institutions. These institutions simply aren't financing enough clean energy – let alone decentralized clean energy that serves the poor. That's a big problem because we know that to end energy poverty we need to dramatically ramp up decentralized clean energy (at least according to the International Energy Agency). Because after all small is big.  

Instead financial institutions tasked with ending energy poverty are dumping billions into the problem – large scale coal plants (like the one in Kosovo). This outrageous use of public funds leaves us with the maddening task of banging our collective fists on the brick wall of institutional inertia until the system changes. And change it will.

But in the meantime people living in the dark need solutions now. That's why myself, and the Sierra Club, are working to increase awareness of the power crowdfunding holds. Not only does it empower individuals to make concrete change in the world, it also sends a political message: we won't stand by while the planet burns and the poor get screwed – even if our leaders are.

That's why I personally am putting my money where my mouth is starting with a new project SunFunder is financing near Kampala, Uganda. SunFunder has already provided clean energy to over 22,757 people by sourcing $75,000 from the 'crowd.' Now they're looking to raise another $15,000 to provide 375 people with solar power via Fenix Ready sets to help power off-grid wireless communications for nearly 4,000 people. Deploying this clean energy will generate over $100,000 in village income over the next three years, increasing poor household income by 36.4% while eliminating 15,000 liters of kerosene and 37 tons of CO2. As you can see, a little finance can go a long way."

But it doesn't end here. Supporting these off grid entrepreneurs holds tremendous promise in the battle to disrupt the fossil fuel dominated grids in the Western world. By supporting clean energy where the playing field is actually level – off grid areas -  we can create a base of power to launch an insurgency against the industries fueling climate change. That's why how we power the world's poor is just as important, and perhaps even more, than how we power the rest.

The Sierra Club is doing its part to bring its 1.3 million members to this revolution. Help us build our ranks by spreading the word. Because with crowdfunding the future is literally in our hands. Check out the project here and tweet: "What if you could shine light for billions living in darkness while fighting climate change? @SunFunder is doing just that


In justifying its decision to revoke the environmental clearance for a huge 1,050 MW coal plant the Indian National Green Tribunal (NGT) described its original approval as 'smacking of non-application of mind.' I couldn't agree more. In fact if the world moves forward with the massive coal pipeline it has planned future generations will have much stronger words than these. Hell, with climate change impacts today roasting Australia and disastrous air pollution killing hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens we should have stronger words now.  But of course actions speak much louder than words and the NGT is letting its rulings do all the talking.

It turns out that this is just the latest in a string of rulings by the NGT that strike at the heart of India's proposals to dramatically expand its reliance on coal. Back in February of 2012 the NGT made its first ruling when it ordered a halt to construction of a coal plant in Kutch home the country’s first 'Ultra Mega Power Project' Tata Mundra as well as a slug of new coal proposals. After the Kutch ruling the NGT struck again revoking the environmental clearance for a coal mine in Chattisgarh. With the latest move the NGT is demonstrating that these decisions are anything but unique.

But to truly understand the importance of the latest ruling it's important to understand where the project was sited. Chattisgarh along with neighboring Jharkhand makes up the heart of Indian coal country. This is where India's remaining forests, coal, and indigenous peoples combine to form a volatile mix. It’s also where opposition to the coal industry is so dangerous you can be murdered for it even if you are a nun. It's here that the coal industry figured plans for yet another big coal plant would hardly be noticed, let alone challenged.

That is until some brave locals decided that enough was enough. They took advantage of the fact that the NGT gives locals the right to challenge any project anywhere in the country on environmental grounds. It’s an incredibly progressive institution first created by India's 'Green Crusader' Jairam Ramesh. An irony if ever there was one as the project locals just defeated was illegally granted approval by none other than Jairam Ramesh himself.

As it turns out the NGT had some choice words for Ramesh and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). According to the NGT the project was granted "…environmental clearance…by the MoEF hastily, without proper application of mind and without applying the principle of sustainable development and the precautionary principle since the power plant was proposed to be located in a critically polluted area…where the MoEF itself had imposed a moratorium on further projects." Moreover the NGT cited the fact that the MoEF "had not properly considered the comments and grievances raised during the public hearing." That was enough for them to drop the hammer, "The Tribunal observed that the MoEF's hasty action in granting clearance smacked of non-application of mind."

Scrapping a previously granted coal plant clearance on environmental grounds? Citing sustainable development and the precautionary principle? Dropping the proverbial smack down for rubber stamping such projects in the coal industry's wild west? It’s enough to make an activist swoon.

Policymakers in the US would do well to take note. After all the 'business knows best' anti-environment anti-regulation atmosphere that pervades the country has enabled one of the most destructive forms of mining - Mountain Top Removal (MTR) – to occur within a few hours drive of our nations' capital. The practice is so destructive it makes Indian advocates like Debi Goenka from Conservation Action Trust blush. If Indian activists react this way one can only imagine the words and actions the NGT would reserve for MTR. I'd be willing to bet they'd be a hell of a lot stronger than what we are doing about the problem.


Mon Mar 11, 2013 at 06:53 AM PDT

Coal Killed 100,000 in India in 2012

by Jguay

Coal Killed 100,000 in India in 2012

A groundbreaking new report has, for the first time, estimated the human toll from India’s dirtiest fuel source. According to the study 80-115,000 people died prematurely as a result of emissions from coal-fired power plants in 2012. Those deaths, along with a slew of other health impacts, including millions of cases of asthma, respiratory distress and heart disease caused by coal emissions, cost the Indian government $3.3 to $4.6 billion. The toll is staggering and it comes at a time when the Indian government seeks to dramatically expand its reliance on this destructive fuel source with a pipeline of coal projects matched only by China.

The study, conducted by Delhi based research group Urban Emissions (India) and commissioned by Conservation Action Trust in partnership with Greenpeace reveals the health impacts of some of the weakest air pollution standards in the world.

Debi Goenka of Conservation Action Trust says of Indian emission standards, "They are either absent or shamefully behind those of even China, let alone the EU or US. Does the Ministry of Environment consider Indian lives to be less valuable?"

Dr. Sarath Guttikunda, Director and Scientist at Urban Emissions, also an adjunct faculty at Desert Research Institute (Reno, USA) and Adviser to the Clean Air Asia program in India, was the lead author. According to Dr. Guttikunda, "Thousands of lives can be saved every year if India tightens its particulate emissions standards, introduces emission limits for pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury and institutes mandatory monitoring of emissions at plant stacks, making the data publicly available in real time."

Even worse, the burden caused by woefully inadequate emissions standards is not borne equally. The study's results show that the burden of death and disease falls most on the Delhi-Haryana and Kolkata-West Bengal-Jharkhand regions as power plant concentrations, wind patterns and population density conspired to cause an estimated 8,800 and 14,900 deaths in 2012 respectively. That means that while coal plants may be far away from India's growing middle class, their pollution is finding its way into the lungs of Delhi residents and their children. To see how this pollution travels widely across the country check out the visualizations here. (Additional information from the study can be found at the Urban Emissions website).

Perhaps more worrying however is the direction India is headed. Coal kills 100,000 today, but what if an estimated 588 GW of new coal comes online? That is five to six times the number of existing coal plants (and twice the size of the US coal fleet) all being built without modern pollution control equipment. India may be facing an environmental disaster of Chinese proportions.

But that is not the only impact these plants will have. Their construction is causing a social crisis with local opposition leading to violent repression, death, and arrest. At the same time economic realities caused by skyrocketing international coal prices and  domestic coal shortages,  have created a wave of sub prime coal loans so great that Indian banks worry it poses systemic default risk. On top of it all the Indian government is pushing to mine what remains of the country's pristine forests to plug the growing shortage of fuel the pipeline requires. All to say that India is paying a far greater price for its coal reliance than even these numbers reveal.

But it need not happen. While the US and India are clearly very different contexts in many ways this reminds me of what happened in the US just a few short years ago. Between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. almost locked itself into a generation of 180 costly and unneeded coal-fired power plants. Campaigns led by the environmental community, the enacting of state renewable energy standards, and more-abundant competitive sources like energy efficiency, wind and natural gas, headed off that almost catastrophic coal rush.

Now India faces a similar problem. And just like the U.S. civil society is waking up to the threat. As Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace puts it, "This is a wake-up call for our planners; the ongoing coal expansion is irrational and dangerous. Pollution from coal power plants is killing thousands; the coal is mined by sacrificing India’s forests, tribal communities and endangered species. And at the end of it all, coal has failed to deliver energy security. We need a moratorium on new coal plants and ambitious policy incentives to unlock the huge potential India has in efficiency measures, wind and solar."


Three out of every four new mobile phone subscribers are now in the developing world. This monumental shift has created a unique population of hundreds of millions of off grid mobile phone users who don’t have access to basic necessities like energy or water let alone essential services like banking. Thanks to mobile phones however, they have access to a distributed infrastructure through machine to machine technology (M2M) that can enable access to these vital services. That's what new GSMA research is telling us and the implications are too exciting to ignore.

Let's start with the basics. The rural poor lack access to just about everything. From basics like energy and water to inclusion in the financial system their lack of 'connectedness' to the world inhibits their escape from poverty. Until now the solution to this problem was to invest large sums in centralized infrastructure to enable it to extend out to these communities. The problem is this approach is not only top down and ineffective it is really expensive and contributes enormously to problems of corruption, mismanagement, and environmental degradation.  But mostly it just hasn't worked.

Mobile phones have famously bypassed traditional infrastructure efforts to enable connectivity to even far flung communities through the creation of a distributed network of off grid cell phone towers. This distributed infrastructure flies in the face of decades of traditional policy making and its squandered investments. More importantly it offers unique opportunities to change course that entrepreneurs, NGOs, and policymakers must seize.

The foundation of these efforts is being laid by what industry calls Machine to Machine (M2M) technology. M2M refers to the ability of one machine (say your cell phone) to communicate with another (say a solar array) via wireless networks. It provides remote monitoring and operation, data collection and insights into consumer behavior (which ultimately improves product design). But it is the ability to unlock business models that deliver basic services like energy, water, and banking access that is simply staggering.

Let's start with energy access. GSMA's new report estimates that 411 people have access to a mobile network but lack access to energy. I've written here on the opportunity to deliver these people energy through mini grids anchored by cell towers powered by clean energy. I've written here on the financial opportunity this provides cell companies because it means the poor have more energy to charge their phones and therefore use them. And I've written here on real life examples of this so-called 'community power.'

Suffice to say, the opportunity is real, it's huge, and it's just waiting to be tapped. It's important to note that solar crowdfunding may be instrumental in making it happen. That's because the financial system has been designed for large bulky centralized investments – not the nimble, small-scale, distributed investments of the future.

To this clear and present opportunity can now be added clean water access.  GSMA estimates 165 million people with access to a mobile network also lack access to clean water. The value proposition is similar to energy but it relies not on the towers themselves, but on the financial inclusion the services provided by their mobile phones represent. Let me explain.

Currently 2.5 billion adults around the world lack access to the financial system. That means they can't create savings accounts, they can’t take out loans, and they can't make payments for basic services unless they have cash on hand. A solution is 'Mobile Money' - money loaded onto cell phones which the poor can use to pay for their use of services like clean energy and clean water. Mobile money is catalytic because it provides payment flexibility and built in financing through 'pay-as-you-go' business models (Check out Simpa's radical affordability approach which leverages M2M technology on their solar installations to enable their customers to pay with their cell phones). These mobile money platforms are still nascent but already M-Pesa in Kenya has enabled over 15 million people to access the financial system and accounts for $12.3 billion in transactions.

Just imagine if India unlocked mobile money for 1.2 billion people. And if it then combined that platform with financing for social entrepreneurs who provide distributed energy and water services to the rural poor. The world of opportunity this distributed future would open for those failed by business as usual is limitless. Mobile phone infrastructure is our starting point, whether we decide to use it, and where it takes us, is up to us.


Mon Feb 11, 2013 at 06:39 AM PST

The Great Indian Coal Bailout

by Jguay

Those paying attention to the Indian coal sector know that it's in a state of crisis. Coal supplies for the number of planned plants are largely an illusion, plants that have been built are going bankrupt, and financiers publicly call it a 'distressed sector'. Add to that the ongoing Coal-Gate scandal and it's clear that politicians facing elections would want to steer far clear of this mess. Instead they have doubled down with their latest move to bail out financial boondoggles like the Tata Mundra project by approving skyhigh subsidies to imported coal based power plants. But with elections around the corner this may prove a step too far in the great Indian coal bailout.

This latest move came in response to high profile lobbying from companies like Tata, Adani, and Reliance who demanded help for a 'surge' in imported coal prices that threatened the economic viability of some of India's flagship coal projects. Though the scheme is currently only for power producers entitled to Fuel Supply Agreements with Coal India (CIL), the big players have already lined up for subsidized supplies. With the subsidies starting at $32/ton, and likely to get larger as int'l coal prices rise, it's clear why.

The problem is the only reason society accepts the devastation that coal brings to communities and environments is that we get a devil’s bargain – cheap power in return. Now these coastal coal projects are anything but. In fact, they're downright expensive. That means the devil's bargain is broken, which should signal an end to handouts to a financially unviable, environmentally and socially destructive industry.

Instead, the ruling Congress party has bowed to the demands of private companies who want ever more support from the public purse.  The problem for India's politicians is that while the Tata's and Adani's of the world win, many important constituencies will lose. The first and most obvious victim is Coal India itself, which has decried the fact that it will be forced to accept huge losses to subsidize the import needs of private companies. Next are the State governments who are justifiably miffed they have to prop up private profits. Last, and most important are voting citizens all across the country who will see their electricity prices rise, even those in communities that don't depend on imported coal.

It's the impacts on this last constituency that should worry India's politicians. The Coal-Gate scandal awakened the Indian middle class to the blatantly corrupt nature of the coal sector and the role that companies like Tata, Adani and Reliance played in securing cheap coal at rock bottom prices. Now they are in the process of successfully securing Coal-Gate 2.0 even as the coal ministry is forced to continually defend itself against Coal-Gate 1.0. This is like handing out free 2G spectrum at the height of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement; Like providing BP with a tax break for clean up efforts during the Gulf oil spill; Like a golden parachute for bankers during the financial crisis. It's an egregious use of public funds and it’s the proverbial straw that should break the camel's back.

In fact it already has as the Congress 'man of the moment' Rahul Gandhi has been unable to counter an attack on the party that has resonated with the masses. Masses that are dealing with the real impacts of this reckless support for a destructive industry: water wars a land rush brought on by unchecked coal plant development, and the abuse of the rights of tribal communities over the forest land under which much of the remaining coal lies. If Congress has any hopes of clinging to power it needs to act like its job depends on reigning in the coal gate scandal, not deepening it. That is, if the Indian middle class has anything to say about it.


Mon Jan 28, 2013 at 06:11 AM PST

India & Solar’s New Normal

by Jguay

The Bloomberg Cleantech numbers for 2012 are in and the story is one we’re by now familiar with – small solar is a big deal. Despite a slight dip in overall clean tech investment, solar continues to dominate and the big area of growth was, you guessed it, distributed generation. That’s because we’ve entered a new era of cheap PV where installations are up, total investment volumes down (as solar continues its inexorable price decline) and trade wars are expanding as countries fight for market share in tomorrow’s technology. The problem is that India, with perhaps the largest potential of all emerging markets, hasn’t even begun to adapt to this new normal.

The most important reason to adapt is the speed with which it produces results. That’s because small scale, localized deployment is agile and capable of growing rapidly. An attribute that large-scale centralized solar farms lack – especially in India.

To understand how important the nimble nature of distributed solar can be to a country’s market look at what happened in China. Facing an industry meltdown as global market turmoil increased (i.e. massive oversupply), trade wars expanded, and domestic manufacturers faced insolvency the government moved quickly to stimulate domestic demand. Beijing doubled the solar target for 2015 three times in just one year to an astounding 40 GW - eight times the initial target. But most importantly, the centralization happy Chinese ensured distributed solar programs - the Golden Sun and Solar Rooftop program – were in place.

The result was rapid and impressive. Q4 solar investment grew dramatically and China went from global supplier to a significant source of demand accounting for 1/3 of the global market. Most importantly though, demand is increasingly distributed. Distributed solar growth is expected to exceed 90% during 2013 growing to 35% of the total Chinese market.

India’s response is another story all together. Facing a similarly difficult operating environment for domestic manufacturers India has neither amended its original goal of 20 GW by 2022, nor has it created dedicated support for distributed generation. The result is a lopsided market overwhelmingly reliant on large-scale solar farms, which, amongst other problems, is at the mercy of domestic banks that refuse to lend to solar at competitive rates hindering the sector’s growth.

My colleagues at NRDC have great advice for the Indian government that will encourage financing, domestic manufacturing, and deployment. To this must be added: go where the growth is. In a country with enormous peak load deficits, and 300-400 million off grid rural poor, policies that fail to incentivize and streamline distributed solar are a waste of time - and money. What’s worse, a lack of support for distributed generation threatens the entire market.

Take Tamil Nadu which has big plans for solar. A recent tender for a whopping 1 GW of solar was met with lukewarm response with only 500 MW secured. If Tamil Nadu is going to live up to the hype (some project it will constitute 40% of the Indian market) it’s going to need to become intimately familiar with the new normal. Creating a third party financing vehicle (think solar city in the U.S.) backed with public funds (like the World Bank for instance) or replicating dedicated rooftop solar programs (like Gujarat has done) would do the trick.

So to recap, distributed solar is the lone growing clean tech market and China is moving fast to take advantage to support domestic manufacturers. Distributed solar has fast results and in countries like India it has real social impact.  India fails to adapt to this new normal at its own peril.


Tue Jan 22, 2013 at 10:20 AM PST

Secretary Kerry's Solar Surge

by Jguay

On Monday President Obama made it crystal clear that his Administration "will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." But he also made clear taking action is much more than an obligation to posterity, it is also an issue of American leadership: "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it." Now, with Senator Kerry's nomination for Secretary of State, President Obama has a unique opportunity to make good on this rhetoric by leading a solar surge.

Solar power has undergone a historic transition from expensive niche technology to a rapidly expanding cheap technology that is experiencing dramatic growth rates. The best part is that the technology is ideally suited for many developing countries making it an integral part of any U.S. international clean energy strategy. Whether it's reducing peak power deficits, replacing costly diesel, or providing energy access to the rural poor solar power can deliver. As conventional energy costs soar, and solar's benefits are more widely understood, it is placed to grow dramatically. But to truly take advantage of this historic opportunity the U.S. administration needs to lead a solar surge and no one is better placed than Secretary Kerry.

A solar surge requires four tactical moves that, taken together, would constitute big change: 1) Leverage cheap Export Import Bank (Ex-Im) Bank finance to spur solar development in emerging markets 2) Expand Overseas Private Investment Corporation's (OPIC) renewable energy portfolio with a focus on increasing its off grid solar lending 3) Work with the IFC to establish a $500 million solar PV funding facility for emerging markets and 4) Push the World Bank to establish a $500 million off grid clean energy access fund (like the one entrepreneurs demanded at Rio+20). This may seem like a laundry list of asks but most of these pieces are already moving. All that is needed is leadership - just like the kind President Obama offered on Monday.

So here's how Secretary Kerry builds off Obama's leadership. The first step is to work with OPIC and Ex-Im Bank (the two agencies that contribute the majority of U.S. climate finance) to dramatically increase solar lending in emerging markets. Right now it's a tale of two agencies, OPIC is a clean energy champion and Ex-Im is a basket case. With Ex-Im's cheap finance to catalyze deployment, and struggling domestic US solar manufacturers seeking new markets, this should be an obvious way to support and expand on previous stimulus package investments.

The next step is to take on the World Bank. The US is one of the largest financial contributors to this institution and much like President Obama, the Bank's president Dr. Kim has made clear his desire to lead on climate change. Secretary Kerry can take advantage of this opportunity to work with him to establish a $500 million funding facility that will catalyze distributed solar investment in emerging markets by offering public funds that will leverage private capital. Think third party finance for rooftop solar in the US, but in countries with hundreds of millions of roofs. Given how competitive solar is today this should have already happened. Working with Dr. Kim to establish this fund is an easy win for Kerry and the administration.

The final step will be the toughest but most crucial. Solar and other distributed clean energy technologies are the only way the vast majority of the rural poor will ever receive power - at least according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The World Bank has already helped Bangladesh install 1 million solar home systems so it's clear they can do this. But they also refused a call from the world's leading social entrepreneurs for a $500 million off grid clean energy access fund at the recent Rio+20 conference. The Bank says energy access and sustainability are a priority. Secretary Kerry needs to help them put their money where their mouth is.

These relatively simple steps will put concrete actions behind President Obama's words and set the tone for Secretary Kerry's tenure. A tone defined by his embrace of clean energy and his conviction to take on climate change. Establishing this credibility will be critical because his much larger climate fight - eliminating coal and other international fossil fuel financing - looms large. Starting with a solar surge will rally the troops to his side and set the stage for the State Department to move from climate villain to climate hero and once and for all silence those who question the reality behind the rhetoric.


The World Bank, along with the US Government, is pushing a $58 million Partial Risk Guarantee for a highly controversial coal-fired power plant in Kosovo.  The Bank has pushed for the project to move forward over the objections of local Kosovars who demand that it's their land and their choice. But before it can fast track this project the Bank's Board of Directors must give final approval based in large part on an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA). Already the Bank and the US government are risking the local air quality and Kosovar's health to fast track the ESIA. Now it appears they may be glossing over potentially devastating water impacts as well.

The proposed coal-fired power plant and expanded mining operations will draw water from a local canal, which is already considered "severely stressed." The canal, the economic heart of Kosovo, supports households and agricultural activities in this young nation.  Negative impacts on this critical water source would threaten the very fabric of life in Kosovo.

Nezir Sinani, Nezir Sinani, a member of the Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development, is acutely aware of what a new coal plant means. "Kosovo's citizens already face regular water supply cuts, while many fertile fields are left unutilized due to lack of sufficient water to grow anything.  Despite these significant problems, it is very disheartening to see the World Bank support plans that will deepen the water supply crisis in the country, which will hit directly every citizen of the country and it's much needed economic development."

Nezir, along with Heike Mainhardt of the Bank Information Center, conducted a review of the World Bank's study on Iber Lepenc, and the results confirmed their worst fears. The Terms of Reference (TOR) for the Bank's ESIA stipulate that the Bank's assessment will rely on existing studies, which are based on incomplete and outdated data,  masking the project's true effects on Kosovo's water supply. Heike Mainhardt explains that "the World Bank has based its water supply study on limited and low quality data and only low-growth modeling results. Furthermore, the Bank is supporting the coal project despite not knowing the technical details for the new plant, which will play a core role in water usage."

And if endangering Kosovo's water supply isn't enough, the project threatens the country's entry into the EU.

Mara Silina of the European Environmental Bureau elaborates: "it will be nearly impossible for Kosovo to implement EU energy and environmental legislation if the coal based plant is built. The water, soil and air will continue to be heavily polluted, preventing Kosovo from being integrated in the EU."

Not of course to mention the pesky fact that Kosovo already gets nearly 97% of its electricity from coal. Adding yet more coal to the mix precludes its ability to meet the EU's increasingly stringent renewable energy standards.

Given the wide range of concerns with the projects, and the incredibly substandard level of data and information upon which the Bank's decision will be made, civil society groups from Kosovo and abroad have ramped up a calls for the World Bank to drop plans for more coal in Kosovo. After all, it's own former chief clean energy specialist Dan Kammen has been telling them for a year now that low carbon options will create more jobs at a lower cost.  If the institution, and its leader Dr. Kim, is really concerned about climate change and public health, this should be an easy decision. But with other coal projects already in the pipeline, we'll need to see real leadership to assuage our deep doubts.

The full review is available here:

This post was co-written Nezir Sinani, a member of the Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development, Mara Silina from the European Environmental Bureau, and Justin Guay and Nicole Ghio from the Sierra Club.


If we are going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change we need disruptive innovations that fundamentally alter the broken systems that continue to build out inequitable, fossil fueled societies. Solar and other renewable energy technologies can do that to energy markets. But it won't happen without fixing another broken system - finance. Now it appears that the energy innovation axiom - small is big - also applies to financial innovation as solar crowdfunders prove that aggregating small investments from individuals can break down financial barriers to a clean energy revolution.

Crowdfunding is a potentially disruptive financial innovation that unlocks and aggregates small amounts of capital to ensure what society deems socially and environmentally important receives the capital it requires. The disruptive potential of this 'social bankability' was on full display last Monday when Solar Mosaic officially opened its doors to investors in California and New. In just 24 hours three solar projects (built on affordable housing projects) totaling $313,000 were fully funded by average people contributing as little as $25. Including its beta testing Solar Mosaic has raised $1.1 million for distributed solar.

Seeing this happen in the USA is truly awesome given the painful obstruction to climate and clean energy solutions our politicians have put forward on a global stage. Combining crowdfunding with other financial innovations like opening Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT's) and Master Limited Partnerships (MLP's) to renewable energy in the US (something on the table in the form of the Coons Bill) offers a unique opportunity to further tear down financial barriers. Doing so will help unlock US clean energy leadership and not a moment too soon.

But the real opportunity for crowdfunders lies with distributed solar in emerging markets where the world's poor pay obscene amounts for dirty fuel based lighting. It's the 1.3 billion people living in off grid communities for whom the economics of solar make the most sense and have the most impact.

That's why the Sierra Club advocates for international financial institutions (IFIs) (like the World Bank) to fund distributed solar in emerging markets. But despite the high profile calls from entrepreneurs like Jigar Shah to capitalize on the opportunity IFI's have simply not stepped up to the challenge. In fact, getting them to pony up even relatively small amounts of public money to make solar bankable - like the $313,000 Solar Mosaic raised in one day - is like pulling teeth (except, of course, for the renewable energy champion OPIC).

That's because providing funding in these relatively small amounts to 'new' technologies is just not what these guys do. They don't because their business and operations model is suited to a different age, one which helped produce the problem of climate change and inequality but is ill equipped to solve it. That means that solving energy poverty and climate change is up to those capable of financing and deploying small scale distributed renewable energy - at least according to the radicals at the International Energy Agency.

So while Solar Mosaic's first day is exciting, it's their next steps that hold the truly disruptive potential. Solar Mosaic and other crowdfunders like SunFunder are already eagerly eyeing emerging markets like India where the coal sector is a mess, grid expansion isn't happening and diesel prices are unbearably high. These conditions along with exciting new business model innovations like community power offer a potent alternative to the status quo. But the only reason they will happen is that a new age of entrepreneurs and financiers have deemed them socially bankable.

Already India is home to Milaap, a domestic Indian crowdfunder funding solar lanterns in West Bengal with ONergy, and improved cookstoves in Orissa. As Uttar Pradesh and Bihar continue to incubate distributed solar revolutions the need for financing becomes more stark. While IFIs fund feasibility study after feasibility study watch for the crowdfunders to step in and catalyze the market.

It's clear that in the United States at least, our current financial system is broken. Which is why rooting out entrenched financial power must happen alongside efforts to root out entrenched fossil fuels. Because climate change is not just about technology, it's about systems that produce equitable outcomes for people and the environment. It's clear our current financial and energy systems can't, or simply won't, do that. Let's work to make sure the systems of the future, built on a foundation of social bankability by disruptive innovators like solar crowdfunders, do.


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