Efficiency a Win-Win for the Mountains and the Economy

Posted by Tom Cormons | February 7, 2012 at 11:20 am


It can seem like a very long way from the ridges, hollows, and creeks of our part of Appalachians to the austere headquarters of the State Corporation Commission ( or SCC) in Richmond. The SCC regulates electric utilities in Virginia, however, and as removed as its financial number-crunching can seem from the bucolic Appalachians, the decisions made there have profound impacts on these mountains – and on our health and natural heritage in general.

This is why Appalachian Voices, along with partners like the Southern Environmental Law Center, is committed to engaging the SCC – and why we are urging citizens to do the same. The SCC regulates utility decisions that affect Virginia’s energy mix, and if we’re going to shift the Commonwealth away from dependence on destructive sources of energy like coal and toward clean energy solutions like energy efficiency and renewable energy, we need to advocate for this shift before the SCC.

The environmental impacts of our over-dependence on coal are no secret. Coal is a staple energy source in Virginia, where the majority of it comes from our neck of the woods, the central Appalachians, including Southwest Virginia. About half of this coal is strip mined, usually through mountaintop removal, which is destroying many of our region’s mountains and filling creeks with waste. Moreover, in addition to climate change, pollution from coal-fired power plants causes hundreds of premature deaths in Virginia each year, the haze that too often obscures the Blue Ridge, and the mercury deposition in rivers that leads to strict fish-consumption advisories. To get these impacts to our mountains – and our region as a whole – under control, we need to advance alternatives to coal.

The SCC’s plays a critically important role. It is charged with putting the interests of the public and consumers first, in a world where the public interest can differ significantly from the interests of the big corporations it regulates. At this point, the SCC tends to evaluate electric utilities’ energy mixes based on how they impact ratepayers financially. While we’d like to see it take the environmental and health impacts of different energy sources into account too, the good news is that we have a major, underexploited clean energy resource that can both reduce our electric bills and boost the economy: energy efficiency.

Making the case for efficiency before the SCC can advance technologies that save consumers money while also seriously reducing our reliance on destructive energy sources. Efficiency – which involves improving HVAC systems, building envelopes, lighting systems, etc. – puts a lot more people to work than any other way of meeting electricity demand, at a fraction of the cost. A 2009 analysis by McKinsey Global Energy and Markets found that the Southeast has the largest untapped cost-effective (i.e., cheaper than other sources of energy) energy efficiency resource of any region of the country. We’re making real progress when it comes to advancing efficiency in Virginia, but we have a long way to go before efficiency is treated as an equal alongside conventional energy sources. The SCC is currently accepting written public comments related to efficiency on Dominion’s grid and there is a hearing in Richmond on March 6. Citizen engagement before the SCC can make a difference, because it’s our interests the Commission is charged with protecting! To get involved and stand up for efficiency in Virginia, please click here.

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