Unsustainable Practices Are Eroding China’s Green Achievement

Smog in Beijing recently reached record levels. (Source: Flickr user michaelhenly)

China recently announced that it would be joining the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), as a global leader in terms of installed capacity and investment. This acknowledgement of its status as a clean energy leader may come as a surprise to some, given the recent headlines about the country’s astounding air pollution. But in 2012, China invested US$ 68 billion on developing renewable energies, 55 percent greater than U.S. investments, making it the largest clean energy investor in the world. Installed capacities for hydro and wind power rose to 249 and 63 gigawatt (GW), achieving another two global “top spots.” Looking into 2013, with aims to add 21 GW of hydro, 18 GW of wind and 10 GW of solar power in a single year, it seems that nothing can stop China’s clean energy ambition.

However, what matters to the energy sustainability is not only the scale of clean energy products, but also the environment-friendly approaches through which the sector is built and operates. While clean energy is certainly not to blame for the large portion of pollution problems, China’s efforts to develop renewable energy so quickly have generated some environmental problems, too. A lack of effective environmental policy-making and regulation has led to unsustainable practices in the renewable energy sector that cast a shadow on those “top spot” numbers.

The Reality of Environmental Impacts

While they constitute a critical building block of a sustainable future, if not managed correctly, production of renewable energy technologies can have some environmental impacts, and sometimes can even create hazardous pollution.

Hydropower is China’s largest renewable energy resource. However, without incorporating sufficient ecological consideration into basin-level planning and engineering design (like fish ladders), dams built for hydropower projects can cause disruption of the natural flows of water that sustain balanced aquatic ecosystems.  The country’s heavily-dammed river system has led to decreases or even extinctions of fish and cetacean species.

For example, long before the Chinese River Dolphin (or “Baiji”) was last spotted by humans, studies rang the alarm that numerous hydropower projects along the Yangtze River, including the Gezhouba Dam and the Three Gorges Dam, had segmented and altered the creature’s habitat. Dam discharges also caused abrupt changes in water temperature, which disrupted the temperature-sensitive reproduction process of Baiji, further pushing it towards extinction.

Wind turbines, if not sited properly, may accidentally hurt birds and bats due to rotation of wind blades and related barotraumas. Therefore, wind farms are suggested to avoid migration pathways and sites of high population density. There is no traceable record showing that China has been conducting such impact assessment before planning on new wind farms. Without strict enforcement of environmental regulations – unfortunately often the case in China – wind power may generate other environmental impacts as well.

According to a life cycle assessment (LCA) of wind turbines, the making of concrete foundations generates particle emissions; the blades and nose-cone (containing fiberglass) are linked to heavy metal emissions. One indispensible component of a wind turbine is the strong Neodymium-Iron-Boron magnet which is located inside the generator and converts kinetic energy into electricity. In this sense, the rich rare earth reserves (especially neodymium) in Inner Mongolia should be a boon to the region, but without stringent implementation of waste treatment regulations, residents of the industrial capital Baotou have to wear masks on the street to protect themselves from acids, heavy metals and other chemicals emitted from the extraction and processing of rare earths.

Hundreds of local residents protested at Jingko’s manufacturing site in Haining, Zhejiang Province. Source: ChinaFotoPress

Likewise, LCAs of solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing reveal that the some processes are energy-intensive and could produce toxic by-products. Released without proper treatment, the pollutants pose health problems for humans and the environment. In the late summer of 2011, a heavy rain exposed poor waste handling practicesat a crystalline silicon PV factory run by Zhejiang Jinko, which led to a 3-day protest from local residents.

Similar cases related to pollution in China’s clean manufacturing and renewable energy sectors are still taking place, revealing loopholes in regulation and especially in enforcement.

Wasted Generation Capacity and Beyond

As discussed in an earlier ReVolt article, wasted installed capacity is a huge problem concerning China’s renewable energy industry. In 2010, only 77 percent of China’s wind turbines were connected to the grid. For 2011, given the considerable growth in total installed capacity and the increase in turbines connected to the grid (62.63 and 47.84GW, respectively), the ratio remained the same. The winter of 2012 witnessed a great curtailment in wind.  Turbine idling is spreading like the flu, and many component manufacturers are cutting their staff, if they haven’t already suspended production. In addition, the estimated proportion of solar PV installed capacity that is connected to the grid is 72 percent (calculated with data from the State Electricity Regulatory Commission and Solidiance).

Various aspects have contributed to such a gap in China between installed renewable generation capacity and actual units connected to the grid. Without proper guidance, the blind investment, fueled by local officials’ pursuit of track records and renewable subsidies from the central government, completely saturated the wind and solar industries.

Local authorities’ pursuit of renewable energy in some instances reached absurd levels. As early as 2009, solar PV was used to justify land-grabbing in Xing’an, Guangxi Province, resulting in farm lands turning into empty-shell factories. Until last June, totally untrained villagers pretended to work by the assembly lines only at times when government officials visited the facility.

This waste of not only electricity generation, but also of natural and human capital, further drives the industry away from true sustainability.

True Sustainability Needs Regulatory Supervision

If not planned well with strict regulation, stringent implementation and reliable technologies, the establishment of a renewable energy industry in China does not necessarily ensure true sustainability. The ‘Great Leap Forward’ style of thinking will not work. Every step, from the industry’s own life cycle to the institutional regulatory capacity, matters to the overall sustainability of the industry. To reiterate one of the most important lessons from Worldwatch’s China Green Economy and Green Jobs report: building a sustainable future requires using approaches and processes that are sustainable in practice as well.

The good news is that the Chinese leadership is moving forward, though slowly and cautiously, on enhancing regulatory enforcement, improving policy-making transparency, and encouraging media supervision. Our next blog will look into China’s latest policy development on safeguarding the country’s green future.

Wanqing Zhou is an intern with the China program at Worldwatch Institute. Haibing Ma is the China Program Manager at Worldwatch Institute.

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Sea Buckthorn: A Shrub That’s Good for People and the Environment

By Carol Dreibelbis

Sea buckthorn, also known as Siberian pineapple, sea berry, sandthorn, or swallowthorn, is a deciduous shrub that grows natively across northern Eurasia. As its name suggests, sea buckthorn’s branches are dense, stiff, and thorny, but its berries can provide nutrition for both people and wildlife.

Sea buckthorn berries offer benefits to both human and environmental health. (Photo credit: www.seabuckthornberries.info)

Sea buckthorn is valued in parts of Europe and Asia for its nutritional and medicinal properties. Its bright orange berries are high in carotenoids, flavonoids, and vitamins A, C, E, and K; in fact, the concentration of vitamin C in sea buckthorn is higher than in strawberries, kiwis, oranges, tomatoes, and carrots. The berries have a fruity yet sour flavor and are often used in juices, jams, sauces, and liqueurs. The silver-gray leaves yield a tea rich in antioxidants, and the plants are even high in essential fatty acids.

While sea buckthorn is currently used medicinally in Russia and China, it has only recently attracted the attention of researchers across the world. Sea buckthorn oil, which can be extracted from seeds, is said to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and adaptogenic (helping the body develop resistance to stressors). It is used as a treatment for mucositis, ulcers, radiation damage, burns, and scalds, as well as to relieve pain and promote tissue regeneration. While clinical studies are still needed to fully understand its medicinal benefits, a study by Hamdard University in India shows that sea buckthorn may help protect against diabetes.

Beyond its human health benefits, sea buckthorn also boosts the health of the environment in which it grows. Because its extensive root system can bind together even sandy soils, sea buckthorn prevents water and wind erosion on slopes and in open areas. It is fairly drought and frost resistant, tolerates soil salinity and low temperatures, and can withstand a range of soil pH levels. Sea buckthorn also adds nitrogen to the soil through nitrogen fixation, so it can grow in marginal soils and help restore them.

Sea buckthorn provides food and shelter for a variety of animals. In the Loess Plateau of northern China, 51 species of birds are entirely dependent on the shrub for food.

Despite the relative ease of cultivation, sea buckthorn is difficult to harvest, and machines to efficiently collect the fresh berries are still being developed. Harvesting berries by hand is time consuming (some estimate 600 person-hours per acre, compared to the 120 person-hours per acre required for tomatoes). Until harvesting machines become readily available, large-scale cultivation of sea buckthorn may not be viable.

Given the many potential benefits offered by sea buckthorn, groups such as the European Commission’s EAN-Seabuck network have prioritized the development of economical and sustainable production methods for this plant. In the meantime, sea buckthorn retains its ability to improve environmental and human health on a smaller scale.

Have you ever tried sea buckthorn berries or a product made with them? Let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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“The Man Who Stopped the Desert”: What Yacouba Did Next

By Devon Ericksen

In the documentary film, “The Man Who Stopped the Desert,” a farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo struggles to maintain his livelihood in the increasingly harsh land of northern Burkina Faso. Part of Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region, Burkina Faso has suffered from desertification as over-farming, overgrazing, and overpopulation resulted in heavy soil erosion and drying. Desertification has affected many countries in the Sahel, including Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Chad.

Yacouba Sawadogo has worked for more than 30 years to reverse desertification in the Sahel. (Photo credit: 1080 Film)

In 1980, Yacouba decided to fight the desert’s spread by reviving an ancient farming technique called zai, which led to forest growth and increased soil quality. Zai is a very simple and low-cost method, involving using a shovel or axe to break up the ground and dig small holes, which are then filled with compost and planted with seeds of trees, millet, or sorghum. The holes or pits catch water during the rainy season and, when filled with compost, retain moisture and nutrients through the dry season.

Yacouba’s story attracted international attention when Mark Dodd of 1080 Films created the documentary in 2010, and the African farmer has since told his story around the world, including at an October 2012 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) meeting in South Korea. 1080 Films recently released a short follow-up film about Yacouba’s life since the original film, called “What Yacouba Did Next…,” describing what Yacouba has done since the film’s release and giving an idea of the respect he has received from the international community.

In the follow-up film, UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja discusses the powerful impact of Yacouba’s simple methods. According to Gnacadja, “Almost out of nothing he has generated the change we need…. If we could disseminate and scale up his example, then certainly we can do a lot in advancing the fight against desertification.”

One direct benefit of the documentary has been the donations Yacouba has received in support of his reforestation efforts. As a result, he has been able to fund a new training program, where he travels to other villages teaching the zai technique. Yacouba hopes to spread this knowledge across the region, and has already visited 13 villages. He also hosts workshops at his own farm, teaching visitors and “bringing people together in a spirit of friendship.” “I want the training program to be the starting point for many fruitful exchanges across the region,” says Yacouba.

Yacouba’s reforestation work not only helps farmers restore the local biodiversity by improving the soil, but it helps them prepare for an uncertain future. Chris Reij of the World Resources Institute and an author of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet believes in Yacouba’s work and frequently visits the farm. Reij understands the long-term importance of Yacouba’s work, stating, “what Yacouba has done can also be done by many other farmers across the Sahel. The big challenge is, that in the next 5 to 10 years, we will have to try to motivate millions of farmers to invest in trees because it will help them to improve their food security, and at the same time it will also help them adapt to climate change.”

Since the film, however, life has not been easy for Yacouba. A recent urban expansion project annexed the forest he spent years growing, and homes are already being built on his land without any compensation except small parcels of land for Yacouba’s family. He is currently attempting to raise US$20,000 to purchase the forest back.

Despite these setbacks, Yacouba knows the importance of his work and has doubled his cultivation efforts, expanding into the degraded lands next to the forest. Restoring soil and improving the future of the Sahel will not be easy, but Yacouba’s work provides one model for communities across Africa to adopt in fighting desertification and preparing for future climate uncertainties.

To read our original post on Yacouba Sawadogo, click here.

Devon Ericksen is a former media and communications intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food & Agriculture Program.

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Documentary Sheds New Light on Thriving Community Gardens

By Carol Dreibelbis

There are an estimated 18,000 community gardens in the United States and Canada, according to the group Why Hunger, and thousands more worldwide. Designing Healthy Communities, a project of the nonprofit Media Policy Center, notes that community gardens “can play a significant role in enhancing the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being necessary to build healthy and socially sustainable communities.”

Naasir Ali participates in the “Growing Food…Growing Together” program at the Washington Youth Garden. (Photo credit: Cintia Cabib)

In her 2011 documentary A Community of Gardeners, filmmaker Cintia Cabib offers an intimate look at the vital role that seven community gardens play in Washington, D.C.

At Common Good City Farm, a work-exchange program enables local residents to volunteer in the garden in exchange for fresh produce. One volunteer explains just how important the garden is for her: “The garden plays a big role in my life because it feeds me. I live out of this garden: whatever I get every Wednesday, that’s what feeds me for the whole week.”

At Fort Stevens Community Garden, an organic garden run by the National Park Service, immigrant gardeners from around the world grow fruits and vegetables that are native to their homelands in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The Park Service also provides land and water for the Melvin Hazen Community Garden, which was once a World War II victory garden.

Nature’s Retreat at C. Melvin Sharpe Health School serves as an outdoor classroom. The handicapped-accessible school garden enables physically and cognitively disabled students to undertake a more sensory approach to learning. One student remarks in the film, “I plant marigolds and I water the flower bed. I just like the fresh air.”

The Pomegranate Alley Community Garden occupies an alleyway once known for drug dealing. Neighborhood residents transformed the space into a garden that currently holds 13 plots. Similarly, at the Marion Street Garden, neighbors and volunteers cultivate once-abandoned land. This intergenerational garden offers educational opportunities for people of all ages.

The Washington Youth Garden offers a year-round environmental science and food education program for D.C. youth and their families. Parents and their children work together to grow vegetables while also learning about healthy eating through the garden’s “Growing Food…Growing Together” program.

In addition to exploring these thriving community gardens, A Community of Gardeners provides an historical portrait of community gardens past. Gardens played an important role in the United States during World Wars I and II, as well as during the Great Depression, offering ways to supplement the national food supply, provide jobs for the unemployed, and improve morale nationwide. Community gardens serve similar functions today in countries around the world.

A Community of Gardeners has been screened at conferences, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies since its release. The documentary will also air on U.S. public television in September 2013.

Have you worked in a community garden or tended your own home garden?  Please tell us about your experience in the comments section below. 

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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All-In on Climate: Failure is No Longer An Option

Standing in front of the Capitol, President Obama focused on climate change and energy as critical issues for his second term in office. (Photo Credit: Reese Rogers)

President Obama’s decision to make climate change and energy a centerpiece of his Inaugural Address has taken political analysts and partisans on both sides of the issue by surprise. Of the half dozen specific issues raised in the speech, only the economy, foreign affairs, and the social safety net had as many words devoted to them.

Why would a President who has recently made only glancing reference to climate change double-down on one of the most contentious issues of his first Administration?  A second failure on climate would go down as a signature feature of the Obama legacy—and not a positive one.

Hurricane Sandy and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s clarion call on climate change just days before the 2012 election were undoubtedly part of the reason for the President’s decision.  But the speech itself provides a deeper explanation.  With his young daughters standing a few feet away, Obama declared that failure to respond to the threat of climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”  No President has ever faced an issue whose consequences will last so long.  Historians a century now could see it as his most tragic legacy.

The President is also rightly convinced that energy transformation has the capacity to be the great economic engine of our century—equal to railroads in the 19th century and the I.T. revolution in the 20th.  Government-industry partnerships—and national leadership—were essential to both.  As Obama said, “we cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.”

To be sure, building a new energy economy “will be long and sometimes difficult.”  But without U.S. presidential leadership, it would be impossible.  President Obama’s singular commitment to the climate and energy issue will have an enormous impact on decision makers across the country—and on national leaders around the globe.

Chris Flavin is President Emeritus at Worldwatch Institute.

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An Interview with Ela R. Bhatt, Founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association in India

In September 2012, Nourishing the Planet’s Carol Dreibelbis spoke with Ela R. Bhatt, founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India. SEWA is a national trade union that helps women working in informal sectors, like agriculture or childcare, gain the same rights, securities, and self-reliance as those who are formally employed. Ms. Bhatt, a Gandhian practitioner of non-violence and self-reliance, has dedicated her life to improving the lives of India’s poorest and most oppressed women workers.

Ela R. Bhatt (Photo credit: Mihir Bhatt)

In addition to founding SEWA, Ms. Bhatt is the founder of India’s first women’s bank, the Cooperative Bank of SEWA, and one of the founders of Women’s World Banking, a global microfinance organization that works to economically empower women. She served in the Indian Parliament from 1986 to 1989, and is a member of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights, among many other roles.

You gave a speech to the United Nations Development Programme in 2011 on your “100 Mile Principle”; since then, you completed field testing on the Principle. Can you explain what it is? 

The 100 Mile Principle urges us to meet life’s basic needs with goods and services that are produced no more than 100 miles from where we live. This includes food, shelter, clothing, primary education, primary health care, and primary banking.

The 100 Mile Principle ties decentralization, locality, size, and scale to livelihood, suggesting that the materials, energy, and knowledge that one needs to live should come from areas around us. Seed, soil, and water are forms of knowledge that need to be retained locally. Security stems from local innovations, not distant imports. Essentially, the link between humans and nature has to be restored; the link between production and consumption has to be recovered.

The Principle also focuses on the ideas of community and citizenship. I think citizenship has two levels: it is both membership in your community and membership in your nation-state. The social space defined by national citizenship is inadequate, and the nation-state alone can be alienating and coercive without membership in a community. Take food as an example: food has to be grown locally and made locally. When food is exported, the producers have no access to the fruits of their labor.

A community is autonomous when it controls food, clothing, and shelter. Communities lose control when they go beyond the local. When food is exported, when technology is centralized, when shelter depends on some remote housing policy, we lose our freedom as a community. So the 100 Mile Principle guarantees that citizens retain control, inventiveness, and diversity.

Why did you choose a distance of 100 miles?

One simple reason is that you can travel 100 miles and return home by dinner time. But 100 miles does not need to be taken literally—it represents the distance that can provide essential goods and services for a district or state. It could be 200 miles in a desert or hilly region, 50 miles in a dense, produce-rich location, or 10 miles near a town. The distance may also vary for different goods and services: food may come from within a 10-mile radius, but specialized healthcare may require 100 miles or more.

The distance of 100 miles is a starting point for thinking in local terms. Whenever we have used the term “100 miles,” people from all walks of life—students, rural women, economists, academics—have understood the focus on local goods and services.

How did you field test the 100 Mile Principle, and what were some of the most important results?

The field study involved over 100 households in 10 rural villages from Surendranagar and Anand/Kheda districts in Gujarat, a state in Western India. We spoke with households about how they meet their basic needs and how far they would need to travel for primary education, health care, and banking.

The study revealed that rural populations have some amount of control over their food through a combination of growing their own, bartering, community and caste practices, and the Public Distribution System. A great deal of local food production and consumption is already occurring. In the case of clothing, though, most prefer cheaper, easier-to-maintain synthetics and ready-made garments from outside of 100 miles. The study showed that many desire “city-type” homes: this could be achieved with use of local material and local manpower, meeting the 100 Mile Principle and maintaining freedom of choice.

Primary education is available in all of the villages, but there is limited capacity for technical or skill-related education. Very few of the villages have a local trained doctor, meaning residents must travel to the nearest town for health care. Home herbal remedies are still used but are now less favored than medicinal tablets from the village grocer.

How can the 100 Mile Principle help communities deal with some of the most pressing issues they face, such as food security?

Food security cannot be guaranteed by foreign imports. Instead, we encourage local seed banks, owned and run by small and marginal farmers. Local, small-scale warehousing would largely overcome the problem of food scarcity, as well as rampant waste of edible food products due to lack of storage. The possibility of setting up smaller grain storage units owned by and managed by a group of small-scale farmers needs to be explored. There should also be local tool banks so that farmers can borrow these when required.

We also suggest that every primary school at the rural level develop an agricultural training center. Here, young people can learn improved farming techniques, farm-related IT skills, food processing, and on-farm processing. Prompt actions should also be taken to release the mortgaged land of small and marginal farmers. Land is their only source of livelihood.

Many small and marginal farmers can grow enough food for their own needs as well as some surplus to sell. But, for a number of reasons—including increasing cultivation of cash crops instead of food crops, animal pest management problems, and the rapid sale of land for industry—the situation is changing.

To combat hunger and to achieve food security for all, we have to protect ways of life and livelihoods of the farming communities. This is the fundamental policy point. Growing food grains should be a viable and profitable occupation for the farming community. But, broadly speaking, the producer currently gets about 60-70 percent of the price paid in the market, and the balance goes to the middleman or the enterprise that sells the products. Therefore, middlemen should be removed where possible. It is also important to bring down the input costs, including the costs of irrigation, seeds, and fertilizers.

As the founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association, you work to organize women for full employment and self-reliance. What role does the 100 Mile Principle play in women’s success?

After field testing the 100 Mile Principle, I am convinced more than ever that without the active participation of women farmers, hunger cannot be reduced. When the 100 Mile Principle is put into action, productive work opportunities and income will increase, the health of women and girls will increase, infant and maternal mortality will decrease, and housing will improve. In addition, there will be a decline in compulsive migration of youth from villages to cities, increasing local assets. Local farmers will take active interest in crop planning and learning new agricultural skills. Farmers, artisans, and village officials will strengthen their community.

What criticisms has the 100 Mile Principle faced?

We have received a variety of criticisms. Some people consider the Principle to be too theoretical, or irrelevant to urban areas. Others feel that it is inhibiting progress in this era of globalization. And others have suggested that it goes against the ideas of freedom of choice and the power of market forces—particularly competitive advantage.

Despite this criticism, we know through SEWA experience that ideas can be translated into a measurable influence on the lives of people. At the same time, I want to make clear that the Principle is a guide or a philosophy rather than something to be forced on anyone.

What are your plans to continue refining and spreading the 100 Mile Principle?

At some point I would like to carry out fieldwork in other parts of India to gain more data on the Principle. In the meantime, my major aim is to propagate this idea, especially among young people and urban consumers. Some of the findings also have implications for public policy, especially measures that help small-scale farmers and family farms.

There are some policies and government schemes already in place for health care and nutrition, but there is a large communication gap that prevents these policies from being as effective as possible. Control and implementation of these schemes need to be in the hands of local people who are aware of the realities on the ground. I am in the process of putting the field study results in the form of a book.

Now it’s your turn: How important do you think it is to keep basic goods and services on a local scale? Please let us know in the comments below. 

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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Jamaica’s Electricity Wheeling Program Must Include Solar and Wind Power

Last month, Jamaica’s electricity regulator, the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR), released recommendations for the country’s anticipated electricity wheeling program. Electricity wheeling has been proposed in Jamaica as a way to promote distributed power generation, especially from renewable energy sources. Under the proposed wheeling program, a company or individual could generate electricity in one part of the country and pay the grid operator – the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) – a fee to transport that power to another location where it will be used.

Wind power in Jamaica. Photo credit: Mark Konold.

Wind power in Jamaica. Photo credit: Mark Konold.

Because JPS currently has a monopoly on electricity transmission and distribution on the island, a company would only be able to send electricity over the grid to be consumed at a location that it also owns. For example, a sugar company that generates electricity at a sugar refinery using bagasse can send excess power to its offices in Kingston to avoid paying high electricity bills there, but cannot sell electricity to another entity.

Several of Jamaica’s large energy consumers are considering participating in the forthcoming wheeling program to support investments in renewable energy. Hotel chain Sandals)the Caribbean’s largest poultry producer Jamaica Broilers and the National Water Commission, the largest single electricity consumer in the country, all have plans to wheel solar power. A National Irrigation Commission project using wind energy to power irrigation pumps also wants to participate in the program.

At a recent public consultation however, OUR officials confirmed that the electricity wheeling program will be intended only for firm generation capacity – meaning it will exclude variable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Electricity wheeling provides an opportunity to promote distributed renewable generation, especially at the large commercial or industrial scale (over 100 kilowatts to several megawatts). For this reason, Worldwatch has submitted a public comment to OUR recommending, based on our research in renewable energy transition in Jamaica, that the regulator reconsider its exclusion of variable capacity and open the electricity wheeling program to all renewable energy sources.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller’s administration has publicly committed to the ambitious goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2030. In our view, the Jamaican government has every reason to ensure that Jamaica can meet these targets by allowing all renewable energy sources to participate in programs such as net wheeling. For its own economic development, Jamaica’s government would be well advised to mandate that the utilities regulation office and the national utility continue and expand ongoing efforts to strengthen Jamaica’s national electricity grid in order to accommodate new, variable renewable generation in accordance with national targets.

In the meantime, however, Jamaica’s electricity generation mix is dominated by diesel and fuel oil (and planned liquefied natural gas capacity), which can be rapidly fired up or down in response to variable renewable generation and changes in electricity demand. So long as JPS and OUR undertake precautions to address grid congestion, voltage regulation, and other issues associated with distributed generation, Jamaica’s grid should be capable of integrating variable renewable capacity through the wheeling program.

Commercial- and industrial-scale renewable electricity generation is a cost-effective way to meet the Jamaican government’s renewable energy targets. Electricity wheeling should therefore include variable generation capacity in order to promote development of solar and wind energy technologies at this scale. For this to be successful, it is critical that regulators assure that fees are reasonable enough to insure that distributed generators will have an incentive to participate in the program.

Guidance from the regulatory office is also needed to clarify eligibility criteria for a single entity under the wheeling program. For example, if the Sandals resort chain participates in a wheeling program, why should it not be allowed to send electricity generated at one resort to another? However, each resort in the Sandals chain is registered as a separate entity, creating uncertainty as to whether such use of the wheeling system would be permitted. Resolving this issue before electricity wheeling guidelines are finalized will help avoid potential delays and allow ready projects to be implemented on schedule.

As Jamaica’s electricity regulator, it is the responsibility of the utility regulatory office to ensure that the national electricity grid is prepared to accommodate the new renewable electricity capacity – both firm and variable – needed to meet the government’s 30 percent target. Given the high cost of the current petroleum-based electricity system and the country’s strong renewable energy resources, Jamaica can transition to a secure and reliable renewable energy system while still reducing electricity costs for consumers.

The Worldwatch Institute is currently finalizing a Sustainable Electricity Roadmap for Jamaica that details Jamaica’s abundant renewable energy potential and recommends grid integration and policy solutions for reliably harnessing these resources to help achieve the country’s long-term sustainable energy goals.

Shakuntala Makhijani is a Climate and Energy Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute.

Supported by the International Climate Initiative of the German Government, Worldwatch currently works on Sustainable Energy Roadmaps for the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica.

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OP-ED: Organic Farming Movement Marginal but Growing Worldwide

Check out this op-ed published in the Inter Press Service news agency, about Worldwatch’s recent Vital Signs report on organic agriculture.

The article discusses the benefits and opportunities of organic farming worldwide. Irganic farmland has grown more than threefold since 1999; in this time, certified organic products have created a niche market, allowing farmers to earn premium prices over conventional products, particularly when selling to supermarkets or restaurants.

To read the full article, click here.

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Opportunity Knocks: Reforming the Dominican Republic’s Energy Sector

The DR’s National Energy Commission leads by example using Net Metering to reduce monthly bills. This solution also provides surplus renewable energy to the grid, reducing the country’s total amount of fossil fuel-based energy.

Since October 2012, the energy sector in the Dominican Republic has been in the spotlight as a result of President Danilo Medina’s efforts to deal with the country’s larger fiscal crisis. Over the years, decisions made within the sector have led to an unsustainable level of debt, poorly maintained infrastructure, and a reliance on fossil fuels that, in 2010, cost the government US$2.6 billion.

With all of this attention, the opportunity exists to overhaul the floundering electricity sector and bring it in line with the country’s vision of a sustainable future. The Dominican Republic has a stated goal of obtaining 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. And at the recent United Nations climate talks in Doha, Qatar, Mr. Omar Ramirez, Executive Vice-President of the Dominican National Council for Climate Change and the Clean Development Mechanism (CNCCMDL), said the country will reduce its carbon emissions 25 percent from 2012 levels by 2030.

These are ambitious targets for a country that relies on fossil fuels for more than 90 percent of its primary energy. But they can be achieved if decision makers seize this moment and embrace new thinking. It will not be enough to just add more generating capacity to the mix. Real reform will come when subsidies not longer hide the true cost of fossil fuel use, when renewable energy promotion is prioritized, and when energy sector agencies are structured in a way that provides transparency and accountability and is in line with stated long-term energy goals.

Solving the electricity sector’s debt challenge

The largest opportunity seems to be in dealing with the electricity sector’s current fiscal deficit (the subject of a related post last November). The sector’s soaring debt stems in large part from the government’s use of a convoluted formula to determine electricity rates, rather than simply charging a rate that is indexed to the cost of the fuel used to generate the electricity (the former being less expensive than the latter) and subsidizing the difference.

A 2012 report from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Analysis of the Current Situation of the Dominican Republic’s Electricity Sector, addressed this exact issue and recommended that the government change the pricing mechanism to one that is indexed to the actual cost of fuel. It also recommended that large consumers pay a single rate for total consumption.

Right now, energy consumers in the Dominican Republic are divided into different categories (e.g., residential, small business, large business, industrial, etc.). Within those categories, customers pay varying rates for various levels of consumption (e.g., RD$3 for every kilowatt-hour between 0 to 200, $5 for every kWh between 200 to 300, etc.). Revising this scheme would help reveal the true cost of consumption and address fiscal challenges in the electricity sector.

In addition to internal fiscal issues, the Dominican government faces a US$2 billion debt to Venezuela as a result of the regional Petrocaribe agreement. The government buys oil at a favorable price and receives a drastically low interest rate and a very long period of time to finance the oil it can’t afford up front. However, given the current uncertainty in Caracas, some in Santo Domingo fear that the loan will be called early, the inexpensive solution will disappear, and the country will not be able to afford its energy import needs.

Prioritizing renewable energy

The Dominican government also has to the opportunity to truly put renewable energy at the heart of all future planning. It has already put in place some strong mechanisms to promote renewables growth, but it is currently not utilizing them to their potential.

In 2011, the government implemented a net metering provision that allows customers to take advantage of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology to help reduce their electricity bills. The country also passed a very strong law to incentivize the growth of renewable energy: the law waives import duties for renewable energy equipment, allows for the writing off of 75 percent of sales tax on electricity sales from renewable sources for 10 years, and makes the tax on equipment deductible up to 75 percent for that same period.

Sadly, however, decision makers are reverting to choices that only entrench the country’s fossil fuel dependence. The government chose to remove the aforementioned fiscal incentives to collect more revenue. After serious backlash, they settled on reducing the sales tax write-off from 75 percent to 40 percent. Another questionable move is the government’s decision to install 1,200 megawatts of new coal-fired generation to replace an equal amount of outdated fuel-oil generating capacity. The government is also considering exploration of the island and the surrounding waters for oil and gas resources it might be able to exploit.

Instead of gutting renewable energy support, the Dominican government should be strengthening the mechanisms that promote a cleaner, more sustainable, and more independent energy sector. It should also direct more support to expanding the financial sector’s ability to underwrite large-scale projects. Right now, funding for renewable projects is limited to a pool of money that supports smaller projects with payback windows of only five to seven years.

Instead of taking steps that keep the country overly reliant on dirty fuel sources—and bringing associated health and environmental costs that will be more costly in the future—the govenment should be taking larger steps to make it easier to capitalize on the abundant renewable resources it already has.

As the Worldwatch Institute pointed out in its initial Sustainable Energy Roadmap assessment of the country, the Dominican Republic has very strong solar resources, comparable to the U.S. southwest. Given high transmission losses and the scale of the country’s two largest load centers (Santo Domingo and Santiago), solar PV could see tremendous success in bringing more affordable electricity to consumers and reducing the amount of electricity—and by extension, fuel—necessary to meet customer demand.

Electricity sector reform

Lastly, the Dominican government has a great chance to significantly reform the electricity sector. It has a chance to bring some much-needed coordination to a sector that currently comprises various autonomous actors. The closest thing the government has to a leadership agency is the state-owned utility, Corporación Dominicana de Empresas Eléctricas Estatales (CDEEE). However, the Superintendencia de Electridad (SIE) and the Comisión Nacional de Energía (CNE) are supposed to make recommendations that agencies like CDEEE are meant to follow, but there is no mechanism for enforcement. In addition, all actors must make sure their decisions are in line with the CNCCMDL. This lack of defined leadership leads to a lot of confusion.

Legislation is currently being formed that would create a Ministry of Energy and Mining. The administration and the National Congress have produced their respective drafts, which are now being reconciled and merged into one document. Such a ministry could bring a more regulated structure and a uniform set of laws to which all agencies are accountable.

If this new ministry were to form, however, it is hard to say what the impact of any previous recommendations might be. The 2012 IDB report was created in the context described above—many actors without a single set of rules to coordinate them. But, since it appears that the government is trying to better organize things, it has a great opportunity to ensure that renewable energy receives stronger consideration and preference than it has in the past.

Up until now, CNE has been responsible for making recommendations to support and foster the growth of renewables. But that is where its authority ends. There is no real mechanism to ensure that its recommendations are prioritized or implemented. A strong mandate for an energy ministry could change all of that.

But it is hard to say if that is even part of the discussion. The proposed energy ministry legislation is not available to the public. Since the energy aspect will be combined with the mining activities of the country, there is uncertainty over which of the two will have more influence on the final legislation. In addition to major reforms, a much more open and transparent process to ensure alignment with future energy goals is needed—and right now, that element is sorely missing.

A new future needs new solutions

In the haste to solve a pressing crisis, it is easy to see how decision makers will opt for an expedient and familiar solution: focus on the bottom line, add more capacity as cheaply as possible, and bring down prices immediately. These are not bad ends in themselves, but it could end up costing the country even more in the long run if all they are doing is papering over the problems of a broken system.

What they should be doing is taking a longer-term approach that is in line with the vision and political will they have shown in the past for implementing more-sustainable and lasting solutions (i.e., net metering, Renewable Energy Support Law, etc.). As Worldwatch is finding in its continued Sustainable Energy Roadmap work, these solutions exist, and now is the time to implement them.

 

Mark Konold is a Project Manager for Worldwatch’s Climate & Energy Program.

Supported by the International Climate Initiative of the German Government, Worldwatch currently works on Sustainable Energy Roadmaps for the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica.

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Urban Agriculture Helps Combat Hunger in India’s Slums

By Catherine Ward

In 2010, nearly 830 million people around the world lived in slums, up from 777 million in the year 2000, according to the United Nations.

Back street of an Indian slum. (Photo credit: http://shabanaadam.wordpress.com/)

The New York Times describes Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, as a “cliché of Indian misery,” with approximately 1 million slum dwellers living on 8 percent of the land in the western city of Mumbai. Although Dharavi lacks sufficient infrastructure to provide sewerage, water, electricity, or housing for residents, this dense community in the heart of India’s financial capital has a thriving informal economy with an annual economic output of up to US$1 billion.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development observes that “slum dwellers may be at the bottom of the urban heap, but most are better off than their rural counterparts.” Urban centers, both in India and around the world, offer economic opportunities that rural areas do not. For this reason, some migrants voluntarily move to slums in hopes of learning new skills, setting up businesses, and sending their children to school.

India has a massive population of 1.2 billion, second only to China, and is home to an estimated 93 million slum dwellers. According to WaterAid, the country’s slum population has doubled in the past two decades. Slum communities can be hotspots for hunger, with an estimated 36 percent of slum children in Mumbai malnourished, reports the website Urb.im.

One important way to mitigate hunger in Indian cities is by enabling the urban poor to grow their own food on local land. Urban farming is a growing trend within middle-class Indian communities, some of whom practice rooftop gardening and community farming. Although densely populated slums pose challenges for urban agriculture, non-developed land (i.e., dumping grounds) can sometimes be converted into open space for gardening. Such was the case with a former dump site in Mumbai’s Ambedkar Nagar slum, which is now a community garden.

Pockets of slum dwellers throughout India practice urban agriculture in an effort to increase community food security. In the city of Cuttack, slum dwellers rely on organic farming to grow the vegetables needed to meet their dietary requirements, and are even able to sell the surplus to local markets. Local fruit and vegetable production in and around urban Delhi allow poor communities to access cheap, healthy food, which would otherwise be too expensive.

Although slums can be politically contentious, Charles Kenny claims that, “all things considered, slum growth is a force for good. It could be an even stronger driver of development if leaders stopped treating slums as a problem to be cleared and started treating them as a population to be serviced, providing access to reliable land titles, security, paved roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and clinics.”

Numerous organizations, including Solidarités International and the Norwegian Refugee Council, believe that urban agriculture—which is credited with producing 15 to 20 percent of the world’s food in 2011—can bring new life to deteriorating slums and serve as a driving force for community development.

Do you know of any projects that use urban agriculture as a means to combat hunger in slums? Please share your comments below.

Catherine Ward is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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