Category Archives: Environmental Policy

Combatting the Effects of Climate Change and Global Disparities in Energy Access through Solar Electrification

 

Climate Change: Current State

Source: NASA

Climate change discussions are nothing new. Fossil fuels and alternative energy discussions have been in place since before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth in 2006, and will continue long after this year. NASA reported that 2016 was the warmest year globally, and 2015 was the warmest before that, illustrating gradual increases in temperature. In turn, rising temperatures have contributed to increased intensity of weather related threats such as hurricanes, like the devastating Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina last year. Rising temperatures have also contributed to warmer water and air around the Antarctic, which recently resulted in a large iceberg, the size of Delaware, breaking off from Antarctica and “fundamentally changing the landscape of the Antarctic peninsula.” As the landscape around us reacts to changes in the environment, what does the future hold?

David Wallace-Wells, a journalist focusing on climate change and the environment, recently outlined his vision to this question in a New York Magazine article “The Uninhabitable Earth.”  He paints a bleak future where disease burden increases, increased violence erupts, economic instability rises, and humanity faces the consequences of the resulting turmoil. Wallace-Wells warns “parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.”

Global Disparities in Energy Access

Source: USAID

In order to feel the gravity of climate change consequences, one should first understand the disproportionality of electricity access and energy consumption. In the United States, virtually everyone has access to electricity. At the same time, the U.S. is also one of the highest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. The country produced 6.587 million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide in 2015, with 29% from electricity use.

Compare this to the 1.2 billion people (16% of the global population) who lack access to electricity. Nearly 95% of this energy-poor population resides in rural Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, revealing one of the largest development challenges of our time. The world’s population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050, with half the growth occurring in Africa. If these individuals were to gain access to electricity via natural gas or coal, given the expected population growth, it is likely that the Wallace-Wells perspective of climate change will be a quickly emerging reality.

So how are businesses tackling both the development challenge of increasing global electricity access while simultaneously understanding the importance of sustainability and limited resources?

Sustainable Developments in Solar Electrification 

Source: Matthieu Young, USAID

Enterprising companies have been creating alternate sources of renewable energy to bring electricity to individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. By moving straight to clean technology and renewable energy in the form of solar and wind powered electricity initiatives, these companies are “leapfrogging” past the detrimental effects of natural gas and coal. This is right in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number seven to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

Electrifying Sub-Saharan Africa is important – not just for those living in the region but also for the world. Increased access to affordable and reliable electricity will help poverty alleviation, as there are increased opportunities for business growth, longer hours of operation, and the ability to integrate technology into daily life. Hospitals are able to treat patients in better conditions, leading to overall health improvements. Schools are able to increase students’ access to education through different information communication technologies leading to increased teacher retention and student completion rates.

The main push, as described by Bill McKibben in the New Yorker, has been a “Race to Solar-Power Africa.” McKibben describes how both American and African led businesses are using innovative and affordable mechanisms to supply electricity though affordable off-grid solar kits in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Off-grid solar power systems do not require the same cumbersome and expensive infrastructure that currently exist in the United States. As a result, these innovative systems help cut labor and capital costs in bringing electricity to regions previously without access. These systems also help lower long-term costs as they are affordable – essentially the same cost, if not lower, as traditional kerosene – and provide clean electricity lasting up to four times longer.

Both the affordability and increased duration of electricity are partially due to the drop in prices of solar panels, coupled with technology advances enabling the creation of more efficient light bulbs.

Innovative Solar Companies

Several solar companies and entrepreneurs are entering the electrification space in Sub-Saharan Africa because it is relatively nascent and not yet monopolized. Companies are entering the market through different avenues including as a solar panel providers, solar panel installers, as utility companies, or as wholesalers or retailers of solar products.

One American company, Off-Grid Electric, sells a starter kit including “a panel, a battery, a few L.E.D. lights, a phone charger, and a radio” priced at just $8 a month for three years. After the three years have passed, the family or individual then owns the kit.

Black Star Energy, a Ghanaian company offers solar power in the guise of a utility company. Black Star installs solar micro-grids in communities needing electricity. Unlike Off-Grid Electric where individuals pay for the physical equipment, Black Star users “will always pay bills, but the charges start at only two dollars a month.” They are essentially paying for the utility of electricity, and therefore, will never own the technology themselves.

These personal home solar kits are one sustainable method by which to electrify Africa. Innovations, such as Off-Grid Electric, have gained traction due to venture capital support from Silicon Valley and USAID’s Power Africa mechanism which pledged four million dollars to solar start-ups focusing on African off-grid energy.

The benefits from electrification will help Sub-Saharan African nations close the gap in energy poverty while rising against several existing development challenges. Leadership from these nations benefitting from renewable energy initiatives will be essential in curbing global climate change threats, and can perhaps alter the way we currently think about development and growth.

Rohini Ravi is a second year Master of Public Policy focusing on international development and global health.

 

 

Opinion: We’ve Got a ‘Oui’ Problem

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sanford Journal of Public Policy.

The decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement befuddled many experts, precisely because we know the factors that did not inspire the decision. Trump did not pledge to leave the deal because Trump-voting states no longer want to participate. The majority of residents in every state support the Paris deal. Some of Trump’s high-profile advisors and cabinet members came out against the decision, including Gary D. Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council, and Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State. Even Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, opposed the decision to withdraw.

Despite pulling the country out of the Paris Agreement, Trump does not believe America is better off without a seat at “la table” (the French word for table). Trump made it clear he intends to negotiate a new climate agreement that allows America to get more and pay less: The Art of the Deal before our very eyes. Trump has made his (unsubstantiated) billions using this methodology. Buy low, sell high; buy one, get one free. Trump is always looking for a bigger, “better” deal.

Source: Peace Palace Library (2016)

Here’s how Trump’s deal making works: Let’s say I was a billionaire business tycoon (an unrealistic fantasy) with untamed hair (my daily reality). I have something you want, and you have something I want. But you need me more than I need you, so I feign disinterest until finally, in desperation, you come to me with a better offer. Transactional relationships are quite frequently fueled by an uneven power dynamic, and often result in the dominant player coming out ahead. Shoot, I hope I didn’t spoil the ending of Marx’s Capital for you.

But a globalized economic system is a lot more complicated than a two-person transaction. Trump’s constituents are already undermining his refusal to participate in the Paris deal. Individuals, corporations, and municipal and state leaders, including North Carolina’s Governor, Roy Cooper, are pledging their commitment to the Paris Accord. Michael Bloomberg pledged $15 million to the UN’s fight against climate change. $15 million barely scratches the surface of America’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, but indicates, in Bloomberg’s words, that Americans are “forging ahead.”Consumers want to buy green, and companies and governments are responding. Companies are more profitable if they promote and engage in sustainable initiatives. The public has spoken! They want those silly little light bulbs with the curly glass tubes.

Trump’s decision was nothing more than political stubbornness. I have faith in corporate America’s pursuit of profit (is anything more reliable?), and I believe economic incentives will continue to inspire a shift toward renewable energy and sustainability. But if exiting the Paris Agreement leads to a decline in cooperation between America and the rest of the world, then Trump’s “American Exceptionalism” will become “American Isolationism.” If relations with other countries sour, as nearly happened with Mexico, American consumers, particularly low-income Americans, will feel the burden of this artless negotiation.

Annie Krabbenschmidt is a second-year Master of Public Policy candidate interested in social psychology and organizational behavior.

North Carolina City Votes to Phase Out Coal

By: Valerie Jaffee

Just last week, Asheville took a big step for Southern cities—it voted to transition off of coal to clean energy sources. In a unanimous vote, the Asheville City Council approved a resolution to phase out Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant in the city. For North Carolina, where 40 percent of our electricity comes from coal, this could signal a major shift toward less polluting power.

Around the state, coal plays a major role in keeping our economy running. But along with lighting our homes and businesses, coal plants release air pollution that can endanger our health, the landscape, and the planet.

Coal-fired plants produce 84 different types of hazardous air pollutants, according to the American Lung Association. These include acid gases, like hydrogen chloride, along with lead, arsenic, and mercury. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with asthma or cardiovascular diseases are particularly at risk.

NC Coal plant map

Is there a coal-fired plant near where you live? Each black marker above shows a coal-fired plant in NC.
Source:
U.S. Energy Information Administration

Burning coal also produces carbon pollution, which travels up to the atmosphere and traps in heat, driving climate change. In fact, the Asheville Coal Plant remains the largest source of carbon pollution in Western North Carolina. Each year, the plant releases as much carbon dioxide as nearly 500,000 cars, according to the Sierra Club.

The question now is how, nationwide, we can transition our electricity sector off of coal and onto cleaner sources of energy. It won’t be immediate – coal is still responsible for about 37% of the electricity generated in the United States. But already, we are seeing a big move to natural gas due to dropping gas prices. And renewables are adding power to the electric grid at a higher rate than coal and nuclear combined.

As we move from coal to other sources, we’ll need to ensure that coal workers have opportunities for other jobs. That’s why Asheville’s resolution establishes a partnership between the city and Duke Energy, laying the groundwork for a smooth transition for workers.

The coming months and years will tell whether Asheville can smoothly make the switch to cleaner fuels. The city has committed to be a strong leader in the fight against climate change. Now, Asheville must put its money where its mouth is, developing fuel sources that are better for the environment and the local economy.

Environmental Flip-flop Over Natural Gas

Images via alaska.sierraclub.org and localizedusa.com

By Kris FitzPatrick, Staff Editor

It was revealed last month in the New York Times that the Sierra Club secretly accepted $26 million in donations prior to 2010 from Chesapeake Energy, the second largest producer of natural gas in the U.S. (Natural Gas Supply Association). The revelation spurred criticism of the Sierra Club for not disclosing the donation, particularly as the group spoke positively of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future.

The incident reflects uncertainty among environmental groups over how to handle the resurgence of U.S. natural gas production in the last several years. Exhibit A, as explained by the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), is the unusual alliance between the Sierra Club and the American Chemistry Council to oppose the export of U.S.-produced natural gas.

For environmental groups, keeping natural gas in the U.S. market offers some huge benefits, in the form of lower carbon and particulate emissions resulting from electric companies using more natural gas and less coal. The groups also have concerns that exports will spur more drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a method they worry contributes to emissions from escaping methane at wells and from pipelines.

On the other hand, low domestic natural gas prices are hindering renewable energy penetration in the U.S. Exporting more natural gas could increase natural gas prices domestically and be a boon to struggling renewables.

Aftermath of Fukushima Now Reshaping Natural Gas Markets

Image source: http://blogs.cas.suffolk.edu/cyberdad/2012/01/30/fukushima-daiichi-and-japans-nuclear-history/

 

By  Kris FitzPatrick, Staff Editor

The impacts of Japan moving rapidly away from nuclear power after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster are now being felt globally. As the Wall Street Journal explains in video and written form this past week (subscription required for written), Japan is the world’s third largest economy and relied on nuclear power for roughly a third of its electricity in 2010. Suddenly, most of that nuclear power is offline and may not return any time soon, given Japanese domestic opposition.

To make up for the loss, Japan is hurriedly attempting to secure natural gas to fire its alternate power plants. Japan is investing in increased Australian gas production and aggressively seeking liquid natural gas (LNG) imports. This sudden increase in demand coincides with exploding natural gas production in the U.S. and a growing call for the U.S. to begin exporting its new glut of gas. And with European and Asian natural gas prices as much as six times higher than those in the U.S., look for domestic gas producers to continue this export push.

Texaco’s Legacy in Ecuador

Image via Guillermo Granja/Reuters

 

By Kris FitzPatrick, Staff Editor

Many of us know the stories of oil-rich developing countries sacrificing environmental health for oil revenues. The term “resource curse” was coined because these countries paradoxically suffer from economic stagnation and corruption due, at least in part, to the effects of abundant oil, gas, or mineral resources.

A recent piece in the New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe tells the winding narrative of an eighteen-year-long case against Texaco (now Chevron) brought by a group of Ecuadoreans. The group claims Texaco polluted parts of the Oriente region during the twenty-three years that Texaco and other companies conducted drilling operations in the area. In February 2011, a local Ecuadorean judge found for the plaintiffs and ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion, the largest judgment ever in an environmental case. Chevron no longer has assets in Ecuador and has refused to pay.

The Ecuador case highlights the question of how multinational oil companies should be held accountable for past environmental damage. Keefe’s piece may leave the reader exhausted and frustrated, and perhaps questioning whether we should all complain so much about four-dollar gasoline.