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A summer of clean energy progress ahead in Virginia

Friday, May 22nd, 2015 - posted by hannah
Photo courtesy of Community Housing Partners.

Photo courtesy of Community Housing Partners.

Summer is upon us, which means a season of hot sun, blockbusters at the movies, and developments at the state and federal levels that could spell significant progress toward a clean energy system.

With the imminent release of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final rule to limit carbon pollution from power plants and vigorous discussion about how to meet state goals, events are in motion that are sure to shape the future of clean energy deployment across Virginia. Here are a few snapshots of the policies and programs we’re watching:

Appalachian Power Company’s renewable generation pilot program

At the moment, there is no option for Appalachian Power Company’s Virginia customers to buy power from a third party that installs and owns a solar installation. Hurdles have existed in the past keeping the utility from offering such programs, while a pilot program remains open for qualified Dominion customers until the end of the year.

Now an analog is in the works in APCo’s service area because of interest on the part of area universities in pursuing similar arrangements. Grant funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SUNSHOT initiative are also a factor in helping to give clean energy a foothold at institutions of higher learning.

These resources can be put to good use if the schools are permitted to enter into agreements to host solar generation and purchase power from systems owned by a third-party, reducing upfront costs relative to buying a system of its own.

APCo is seeking approval from state regulators to commence a program for systems larger systems 250 kilowatts for non-residential customers, including allowing for aggregation of systems on the rooftops of many different buildings that applies to non-profit universities.

This proposal may be subject to some major modifications before becoming available; these changes may pertain to charges imposed on renewable energy buyers, the size of the systems that are eligible, and even the legal ramifications of treating these arrangements so differently from net energy metering.

On July 1, Appalachian Power will release its latest long-term plan outlining how to meet demand over the next 15 years. Because of our community’s efforts and customer engagement in the process, the utility is already modeling ways to comply with the EPA’s new carbon pollution reduction targets including through energy efficiency programs.

But given the cost burden that low- and moderate-income utility customers bear and how far our utilities’ emissions need to come down to reach targeted reductions, we are counting on robust renewable energy commitments and ambitious efficiency goals in its forthcoming plan.

Solarize Montgomery and Solarize Abingdon programs come out and shine

Solar energy is now much more accessible and affordable in Montgomery County, Virginia, thanks to Solarize Montgomery. Launched on Earth Day by a partnership formed by Community Housing Partners, Montgomery County, the Town of Blacksburg, the Town of Christiansburg, the New River Valley Planning District Commission, and VA SUN, the program builds off of last year’s successful Solarize Blacksburg program. Since April, 90 Montgomery county residents have signed up for the long-awaited program.

Abingdon’s Solarize program is kicking off on June 9. Meanwhile, Solarize Harrisonburg is soon to close, but sign up numbers there have exceeded expectations. A huge credit goes to all the program organizers who helped their neighbors achieve savings that could spur solar commitments house by house, while also supporting local renewable energy businesses.

New Clean Power Industry census, and efficiency goals fast-tracked

The Virginia Energy Efficiency Council will soon announce the full results of a recently-completed statewide industry census that takes stock of all the employers and employees in the clean energy sector. After extensive surveying and research, the council found that more than 13,000 jobs in Virginia are currently associated with energy efficiency, and more detailed census information will be posted soon on the organization’s website.

In a presentation given in Virginia, a representative of the American Council on an Energy Efficient Economy shared that the Clean Power Plan can be implemented in Virginia in a way that creates at least 54,000 jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has recently taken steps to accelerate our state’s efficiency progress, forming an Executive Committee on Energy Efficiency to harness expertise and strategize for solutions to reduce consumption in the private sector while moving up by two years Virginia’s energy savings goal of 10 percent by 2020. With leadership from the McAuliffe administration and energy providers across the state, that goal is within reach.

Reflections from the second SOAR Summit

Friday, May 22nd, 2015 - posted by Adam
SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. But the initiative must foster a more inclusive conversation if it hopes to create lasting change.

SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. But the initiative must foster a more inclusive conversation if it hopes to create lasting change.

I remembering hearing about the SOAR Initiative when it was first announced in 2013.

Like a lot of people working for a better Appalachia, I was excited to hear that the question of “what comes next?” was finally receiving some high-level attention.

Last week’s summit was the first time I had connected directly with the initiative and I had high hopes. Although SOAR focuses specifically on enhancing economic opportunities in eastern Kentucky, I was counting on bringing back ideas and inspiration that could be applied to Appalachian Voices’ economic development work in far southwest Virginia.

The event was well attended — an estimated 1,300 people showed up. But, even with so many who care deeply about transitioning the eastern Kentucky economy gathering in one place, there was disappointingly little time or space created for discussion amongst the people who are doing the lion’s share of the on-the-ground work in Appalachian communities. There was a lot of “talking at” and not nearly enough “talking with.”

MACED’s Ivy Brashear had a similar reaction and shared her thoughts in an eloquent post titled “SOAR still important, but second summit falls short of expectations.”

This is not to say that some of the “talking at” portions of the summit were not inspiring or worth hearing. U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez was on the scene, and he gave a very enthusiastic and hopeful speech about the future of the region.

During his plenary address, Secretary Perez officially rolled out $35 million in federal implementation grants available through the POWER Initiative, a coordinated effort led by the U.S. Economic Development Administration to invest in communities negatively impacted by changes in the coal industry and power sector.

These grants were first announced back in March, and were described by the Obama administration as “a down payment” on the POWER+ Plan.

There was plenty of talk in the hallways among my colleagues about POWER+, and I heard a few related questions asked during Q&A section of multiple presentations. But I was surprised that no one on stage that I saw throughout the day mentioned it on their own. My most recent post was all about how POWER+ deserved a warmer welcome, and it seems like that’s still the case.

Even though POWER+ got the cold shoulder, there was a lot of attention given to other worthy issues such as broadband expansion, technology job creation, local foods, youth leadership development and the arts.

Taken as a whole, SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. When so many different players come to the table with varying backgrounds and interests, it’s naturally a delicate process to keep the boat afloat.

It was never a secret that the coal economy was headed for an eventual collapse. Regional production peaked in 1997, but a web of social and political forces have kept clinging to the past. Finally, we’ve reached a place where we see a robust regional discussion and federal programs focused on diversifying the central Appalachian economy.

The role of Appalachian Voices and our allies is, and will continue to be, ensuring that promising initiatives like SOAR include new ideas and ways of thinking are not stuck in that old and tired web that no longer serves the best interests of Appalachian communities.

A “crass abuse of power” in the N.C. Senate

Thursday, May 21st, 2015 - posted by brian
North Carolina Sen. Bob Rucho must be hard of hearing since several of his Senate colleagues attest that a bill to freeze the state's renewable portfolio standard failed on a voice vote before he declared the bill passed.

North Carolina Sen. Bob Rucho must be hard of hearing since several of his Senate colleagues attest that a bill to freeze the state’s renewable portfolio standard failed on a voice vote before he declared the bill passed.

The disgust with North Carolina Sen. Bob Rucho today is broad and bipartisan.

Yesterday in the state Senate finance committee, which he chairs, Rucho prevented any debate on provisions of House Bill 332 that would undermine a policy central to the success of North Carolina’s solar industry.

Then he broke Senate rules by refusing to allow an individual tally of votes and declared a failed bill passed.

North Carolinians: Send a message to your state senator telling them to oppose anti-solar provisions in H322.

As the News & Observer reports:

Senate finance chairman Sen. Bob Rucho pushed through a bill freezing renewable energy rates on Wednesday, cutting off discussion and refusing to allow a head count instead of a voice vote.

He declared the bill had passed, despite a louder and possibly more numerous chorus of “no” votes. The meeting ended with several senators, including at least two Republicans, openly complaining about the way Rucho had handled it.

“It wasn’t even close,” Sen. Jerry Tillman, a seven-term Republican from Archdale, told Rucho afterward.

Rules adopted by the Senate earlier this year require the presiding officer to hold a “division,” an individual tally rather than just by voice, if it is called for prior to the vote. In this case, the committee’s leading Democrat, Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, called for a division. Rucho refused and moved forward with a voice vote.

After the committee meeting, Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte tweeted:

Even former Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers called out legislators for their regressive tack on proven clean energy policies. “They are not focused on the future,” Rogers told an audience at Charlotte Business Journal’s Energy Inc. Summit today. “They are focused on the past.”

The benefits of clean energy are abundant, but the game in Raleigh is rigged. Since opponents of sound energy policies that promote job growth and create billions in local economic benefits can’t win adhering to the rules, they break them. Bob Rucho has more than earned his nickname, “Napoleon Rucho.”

If you’re still finding it hard to believe Sen. Rucho could treat the democratic process with such brazen disregard, well, here’s his most recent tweet from back in January 2014.

Sen. Rucho, respectfully, treat people with respect if that is what you expect in return.

If HB332′s flawed passage is allowed to stand, the bill could be brought up on the Senate floor for a full vote. If that happens, we hope the bipartisan outrage with the way the bill has been handled thus far, and the fact that it’s bad policy to begin with, remains.

TAKE ACTION NOW: Send a message to your state senator telling them to oppose anti-solar provisions in H322.

Duke Energy to close aging Asheville coal plant

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 - posted by brian

Duke Energy plans to retire its Asheville coal plant and build a natural gas-fired facility in its place. The announcement should be celebrated as progress, but it also represents another precarious step toward a future reliant on fossil fuels.

A plan to “end an era of coal” in Asheville and enter an era of natural gas.

In a surprise announcement that some predicted and many have long advocated for, Duke Energy shared plans today to “end an era of coal” in Asheville, N.C., by retiring the coal-fired power plant that sits on the banks of nearby Lake Julian.

The aging power plant, which began operating in 1964, has been a constant target for Appalachian Voices and many of our allies in North Carolina working to address coal ash pollution and promote investments in cleaner energy.

The company plans to spend around $750 million over the next four or five years to retire the coal plant and replace it with a 650-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant, nearly doubling the current plant’s capacity. The plans also include building solar generation on the site, but it’s unclear how large — or small — the size of the renewable portion of the project will be.

While the news should be celebrated as progress, it also represents another precarious step along a dangerous road that will prolong our region’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and saddle consumers with long-lived investments in natural gas.

Duke, more than any other southeastern utility, has been at the forefront of the coal-to-gas fuel-switching trend, retiring seven of its 14 North Carolina coal plants in the past five years. The utility is also slated to be the largest customer of the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but, in this case, plans to upgrade an existing natural gas pipeline to supply the new plant.

Even though the company has brought on large-scale solar projects in recent years, Duke’s enthusiasm for clean energy doesn’t come close to its eagerness to expand natural gas generation and infrastructure. That fact is reflected in the mixed responses of environmental groups and clean energy advocates to today’s news.

“The retirement of the Asheville Plant is a step in the right direction, but it is a half measure, undermined by continuing reliance on an economically unpredictable and polluting source of power. Duke can do better, and our community deserves better,” a coalition of groups made up of MountainTrue, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance announced in a joint statement. “We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight for clean energy solutions for Western North Carolina.”

According to Duke, electricity demand in the Asheville area has doubled over the past forty years and the Asheville plant is a “must run” facility, meaning it operates around the clock to maintain reliability. But data charted by SNL Energy shows the plant’s capacity factor has been trending down since 2010, likely due to new capacity at the more-economical Cliffside power plant coming online.

Closing the plant will dramatically reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury, and the new natural gas plant will emit about 60 percent less carbon dioxide per-megawatt hour. But its larger generating capacity could mean overall carbon emissions stay about the same.

The cost of retrofitting the plant’s coal ash ponds to comply with the state’s Coal Ash Management Act is sure to have played a role in the decision to retire the plant. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also cited Duke in February for contaminating groundwater at the facility, which could lead to fines.

The Asheville plant is the only facility out of the four deemed “high priority” by the coal ash law that still burns coal. It is also one of the few still-operating plants involved in the federal lawsuit over coal ash pollution that led Duke to plead guilty to nine misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act.

The case for closing the Asheville coal plant is clear. But Duke must do more to meet its promises to North Carolinians. At a time of tremendous opportunity to expand clean energy, America’s largest electric utility has the obligation and more than enough influence to lead.

Who’s casting shadows over N.C. solar?

Friday, May 15th, 2015 - posted by amy

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I love living in North Carolina. The diversity of our state, its natural beauty, and its glorious Carolina blue skies and sunshine.

On average, North Carolina skies are sunny more than 200 days a year. Those sunny skies don’t just offer us great days for enjoying the beach or Saturday picnics; they also offer us a priceless opportunity for solar energy.

Over the past year, we have heard Gov. McCrory and members of the state Mining and Energy Commission talk about the “opportunities” that fracking will bring to the state, while categorically denying the real opportunities of the solar industry. So, let’s do a quick comparison (find links from chart at end of the post):

Doesn’t seem that this is a difficult equation to solve. So why are our elected officials pushing forward on fracking and offshore drilling, while working on legislation that casts shadows over North Carolinians right to utilize our sunshine?

Right now, a monster of an anti-environmental bill is in the General Assembly. House Bill 760 has many terrible provisions, you can see the disheartening summary here.

On the laundry list of rollbacks proposed in this bill is a major decrease of our Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard. The standard currently requires utility providers to obtain a small percentage (12.5 %) of their power from renewable sources by 2021—a modest amount compared to California, where utilities must hit 33% by 2020. The House bill would cut North Carolina’s requirement to just 6%.

That’s one.

A different bill is under attack that would allow residential customers to get “no money down” solar panels on their homes. House Bill 245, also known as the Energy Freedom Act, would allow residents to contract with an independant solar company which would cover the cost of panels and installation upfront, allowing homeowners to enjoy the benefits of solar power while paying off the cost over time. But Duke Energy is doing all it can to block the bill, and our legislators are listening to them—not us, the public, which polls show want solar.

That’s two.

The North Carolina Energy Tax credit is set to expire. Two bills—House Bill 454 and Senate Bill 447—would extend the 35% solar tax credit through 2021. North Carolina has enjoyed explosive growth in solar due to this tax credit, which has paid taxpayers back handsomely. According to research by RTI International and Scott Madden Consultants, $80 million in state tax incentives resulted in $900 million in clean energy and efficiency investments in 2014, as well as nearly 20,000 jobs. Despite the obvious benefits to our economy and the solar industry, our elected officials are showing no sign they intend to extend the credit.

That’s three.

In baseball, it’s one, two, three strikes……you’re OUT! Our elected officials are supposed to be on our team, so why are they set to strike us out on solar. Only this isn’t a game. This is a real opportunity—if we can just get our elected officials to act on behalf of citizens and take steps to make North Carolina #1 in solar.

Take Action Today!

 

Residents in Mountain Valley path pipe up at hearing

Thursday, May 7th, 2015 - posted by hannah
The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. Siltation from tree clearing and pipeline construction could further threaten the endangered species. Click to enlarge.

Turnout was tremendous at the first of two hearings this week in Virginia, where federal energy regulators are taking public comments on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Residents of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties and nearby areas told their stories and highlighted their environmental concerns on Tuesday night in Elliston in an effort to make sure the impact study process on the project is thorough.

Most commenters shared common themes: that the companies proposing the Mountain Valley Pipeline would not be able to carry out their vision for the 330-mile natural gas pipeline without egregiously damaging the area’s ecological treasures, and that the project is not in local residents’ interest and should not be allowed to proceed.

Citizens voiced a wide range of environmental concerns, many of which relate to issues unaffected by the potential rerouting of the pipeline. Among the risks that can only be prevented in a no-build scenario include:

  • Creek and river siltation from the tree clearing and installation process that threatens populations of James River spinymussel in Craig County. This species was also hard-hit by the Dan River coal ash spill in 2014. A precedent exists for protecting these areas from development based on the potential negative outcome for threatened creatures; in the ‘90s a high-voltage transmission project was undone in part due to the anticipated adverse impact on freshwater mussels.
  • Unique caves in the area, including Pig Hole Cave and Tawney’s Cave, have been used for years by cave diving explorers for recreation and have provided research opportunities for Virginia Tech students. While building is not normally allowed over their mapped passages, the proposed pipeline route lies directly over Pig Hole Cave and would make it inaccessible during construction and possibly permanently unsafe. New species of cave-adapted arthropods and other rare specialized lifeforms have only recently been found to exist there.
  • Numerous area homeowners also spoke about the proximity of their homes to the “centerline” or middle of the up-to-40-yard-wide swath proposed for each of the various possible alternative pipeline routes. Homes, wells, gardens, trees and creeks are all in the path of proposed routes. In the event of a pipeline rupture, if the combustible gas the pipeline would carry were to ignite or explode, some neighborhoods would have no road outlet. Local leaders spoke about those fears, adding that the increase in housing in Montgomery County in the past 20 years makes it difficult to avoid these kind of direct impacts by rerouting.

Several speakers described the sense of looming danger generated by the pipeline proposal, and articulated their feelings about the project in memorable ways: as a tentacle of a symbolic Kraken representing the fossil fuel industry seeking greater profits at the expense of communities; as a wrong-headed distraction from the right of residents’ to their own property; and as a destructive force that perpetuates the exploitation of Appalachian counties threatening what is among the nation’s most valued, biodiverse and scenic environments

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has only scheduled hearings for Virginia in Elliston and Chatham this week. Organizers and local leaders are currently petitioning for an extended comment period beyond the current deadline of June 16.

Click here to submit your comment about the Mountain Valley Pipeline to federal regulators.

UPDATE: FERC will also hold public hearings in Weston, W.Va., on May 12 and Summersville, W.Va., on May 13. Learn more here.

A new challenge to fracking in North Carolina

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 - posted by brian
Fracking rig

Clean Water for North Carolina filed a constitutional challenge to the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission’s authority to strike down local ordinances on fracking. Photo by Bob Warhover

Clean Water for North Carolina and three residents of counties where fracking could occur are challenging the authority of the state to preempt local ordinances offering communities greater protections from the practice.

The group’s complaint, which was filed in Wake County Superior Court last Friday, alleges that the law legalizing fracking in the state unconstitutionally grants the Mining and Energy Commission judicial powers, including the authority to determine whether local ordinances restrict fracking and can be overturned.

The complaint cites a section of the North Carolina constitution declaring “the legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from one another.”

“The courts, and not the Mining and Energy Commission, which is stacked with pro-industry legislative appointees, should rule on ordinances enacted by local governments,” Clean Water for North Carolina Executive Director Hope Taylor said in a press statement.

“Last year, tens of thousands of people, including many [Clean Water for North Carolina] members, commented at hearings or in writing to say the Oil and Gas rules do not come close to protecting their communities,” Taylor said. “And yet we’ve been told to accept drilling and fracking 650 feet from our homes, drinking water wells and schools, and 200 feet from our streams. If local governments decide democratically to enact protections that their citizens need, the MEC shouldn’t be able to toss them out.”

North Carolina prohibits local ordinances that could restrict drilling, because, according to the language in the law, it is “the intent of the General Assembly to maintain a uniform system” for fracking statewide. But dozens of North Carolina counties and towns have already passed resolutions calling on the General Assembly to hand over control, while others urge lawmakers to reinstate the ban on fracking altogether.

The challenge follows lawsuits disputing the constitutionality of several state commissions — including the Mining and Energy Commission and the Coal Ash Management Commission — with a majority of members appointed by the legislature.

Appalachian Crayfish: Canaries in a Coal Mine

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Dac Collins

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that two species native to Appalachia — The Big Sandy crayfish (pictured) and Guyandotte River crayfish — be listed as endangered under federal law after determining the species are in danger of extinction “primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities” such as mountaintop removal coal mining. Photo by Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University on Flickr

If you find yourself at a crawfish boil anytime soon, don’t be afraid to go back for seconds. The two species that are sold commercially — red swamp and white river crayfish — are prolific. They can be found in the wild throughout the South and are especially abundant in Louisiana, where they are also farm-raised in ponds.

But here in Appalachia, some of our native crayfish populations are teetering on the brink of extinction, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Whether or not they are pushed past the point of no return depends largely on the outcome of a recent proposal by the agency to add them to the federal list of endangered species.

Like most creek-dwelling crawdads, the two species in question — the Big Sandy crayfish, which are native to the Big Sandy River basin in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, and the Guyandotte River crayfish, a closely related subspecies found in West Virginia — spend a majority of their lives wedged into the crevices of the creek bottom. These nooks and crannies shelter the crayfish from predators and serve as places to lie dormant during the winter months. But when these rocky creek beds are covered up in sediment, the habitat that these creatures depend on to survive is lost entirely.

This is precisely what is occurring in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River drainages of West Virginia. The sedimentation has become so severe in recent years that the Guyandotte crayfish population has retreated to the mid-reaches of a single stream, Pinnacle Creek, in Wyoming County.

If the crayfish disappear completely, the ecology of these creeks could change drastically. The freshwater crustaceans are a primary food source for many of the native fish species, including smallmouth bass and trout, which also happen to be the two most sought after sport fish here in Appalachia. Take away the food source and these creeks might eventually be fishless.

The cause of siltation is obvious when you look at where these creeks are located. There are 192 active coal mines in the area, many of which are mountaintop removal mines that are dumping their waste into the headwaters of streams, effectively burying them. And that’s just standard operating procedure. If an accident occurs, a toxic slurry of silt and chemicals spills into the creeks that feed the rivers that run into the reservoirs we drink out of, wreaking havoc on species like crayfish along the way.

The Fish and Wildlife Service specifically mentioned mountaintop removal coal mining in its report on the two crayfish species. The agency determined that, “the Big Sandy crayfish and Guyandotte River crayfish are in danger of extinction, primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities that increase erosion and sedimentation, which degrades the stream habitat required by both species,” and that, “an immediate threat to the continued existence of the Guyandotte River crayfish is several active and inactive surface coal mines, including MTR mines, in the mid and upper reaches of the Pinnacle Creek watershed.”

The FWS report also called attention to impaired water-quality — especially hazardous concentrations of sulfate and aluminum — in areas where most of the mines are closed, proving that “the detrimental effects of coal mining often continue long after active mining ceases.”

The proposed endangered species listing could have considerable impacts on the coal mining industry. If the Big Sandy and Guyandotte crayfish are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it would lead to more strictly enforced water quality regulations, which could affect ongoing mining operations in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River basins as well as coal companies seeking permits to mine in the area.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on this proposal until May 16. Click here to take action and ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect these two Appalachian species.

The economic impact of energy efficiency

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly

Making the case for utility on-bill financing in the High Country

Several High Country businesses would see their customer base grow dramatically if an on-bill energy efficiency financing program was adopted by Blue Ridge Electric.

Several High Country businesses would see their customer bases grow dramatically if an on-bill energy efficiency financing program was adopted by Blue Ridge Electric.

While not as exciting as solar panels glimmering in the sunlight, energy efficiency retrofits can be just as important in reducing energy consumption, lowering utility bills, and making an economic impact. One such program that makes energy efficiency retrofits accessible on a large scale is utility on-bill financing.

On-bill financing programs are a way for utilities to offer energy efficiency upgrades with no up-front cost to customers. After receiving the upgrades, customers see immediate savings. A portion of the savings goes back to the utility to pay for the upgrades through residents’ monthly bills (hence the name on-bill). When the improvements are paid for, residents pocket all their utility savings, which could be up to a 40 percent reduction in their bill. In turn, residents are able to use what they would otherwise be spending on electric bills to further stimulate the local economy.

Energy efficiency upgrades covered by most on-bill financing programs include air sealing, insulation, duct sealing, and heat pump repair or replacement, depending on what needed improvements are identified through energy audits. General contractors have specialized in energy efficiency certifications in order to do this work. Because this work is more labor intensive, every dollar that is redirected from the energy sector and spent in the home improvement industry has a more prominent impact on the local economy and jobs.

According to The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a dollar spent in the local economy has more than double the positive effect on domestic employment and wages of spending a dollar on utility bills. John Kidda is the founder of reNew Home, Inc., a Boone-based home energy improvement company. “An additional $300,000 annual revenue stream would be a game changer for my business,” he says. “It would mean at least two new employees.”

The ideal on-bill financing program is accessible to everyone because it is tied to the meter, meaning once the renter or homeowner moves, the on-bill financing charge will not follow them but will instead be paid by the next occupant or owner who will also see savings. The program that works best also operates without a credit check, with eligibility instead being based on utility payment history, thereby removing traditional barriers of getting a loan.

Appalachian Voices is working in the High Country to promote and help develop programs that will benefit residents who are suffering from poorly constructed or aging homes. Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BRE) provides electricity to most of the High Country. The rural electric cooperative serves approximately 66,500 residential customers.

A report produced by Appalachian Voices in early 2014 found that a larger portion of BRE members’ income goes to utility bills than the national average. If Blue Ridge Electric offered on-bill financing, and, if just 1 percent of its residential customers took a $7,500 loan:

• $5 million could be spent on energy efficiency projects in a 5-year period
• 70 total jobs could be created from that investment
• $600 a year could be the amount the average household saves (the customer would pocket $120 a year until the improvements are paid in full.)
• Another 80 jobs could be created from the reinvestment of this saved money in local goods and services

Several businesses already focus on weatherization and energy efficiency improvements in the High Country, and could see their businesses grow if an on-bill finance program were in place. “If there were financing available, I would be hiring local contractors to improve the homes in our local area,” says Sam Zimmerman, President of Sunny Day Homes. “It means local jobs and reduced reliance on fossil fuels while improving home value and comfort.”

With an average 23 percent poverty rate in Blue Ridge Electric’s service area, this program would help raise the market accessibility for companies such as Sunny Day Homes and reduce the cost of living for families some of whom are barely making it. “The economic benefits are dramatic for the people who get the jobs and the people who get the work done,” Zimmerman says.

Energy efficiency and on-bill financing programs would have a significant and positive impact on all of the area’s weatherization businesses says Will Hadaway, founder of HomEfficient. “My usual crew consists of myself and two others,” Hadaway remarks. “This would equate to 2/3 to 3/4 of a years worth of work for us, and that is very significant to say the least.”

Kent Walker of Blue Ridge Energy Works agrees that the program could have a significant impact and provide a steady stream of work for his business. “BRE could really stimulate the economy with this program!” says Walker.

You can help bring energy efficiency programs like on-bill financing to the High Country. If you’re a member of BRE, sign a letter to support on-bill financing today! If BRE is not your electric provider, visit Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Action Center to ask your utility to support energy efficiency initiatives.

The job estimates were calculated using state and region-wide values reported from a 2013 Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance report. Loan investment and average annual household savings were calculated by Appalachian Voices.

Appalachian communities at growing risk from mountaintop removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 - posted by brian
Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Announcing a new tool to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams

Coal is in the news a lot these days. The market forces and much-needed environmental and health protections cornering the dirty fuel are topics of endless interest as America’s energy landscape shifts toward cleaner sources. And yes, all signs point to coal’s continued decline.

In many ways though, the forces chipping away at coal’s historic dominance are overshadowing another big story — one that Appalachian citizens still need the public and policymakers to hear — about just how much the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal coal mining persist in Central Appalachia.

That mountaintop removal is an extremely dirty and dangerous way to mine coal has never been better understood. The overwhelming body of evidence is built on a foundation of the countless personal stories found in communities near mines and bolstered by dozens of studies investigating disproportionate health problems in coal-producing counties compared to elsewhere in Appalachia. More recently, advocates have employed technological tools to visualize complex data and add another dimension to arguments against the practice.

Appalachian Voices is committed to both creating a forum for those personal stories and sharing the most up-to-date data available about the ongoing risks mountaintop removal poses to our region’s communities and environment. Today, we’re excited to share a web tool we developed to reveal how mining continues to close in on nearby communities and send a resounding message to President Obama that ending mountaintop removal is a must if we hope to foster economic and environmental health in Appalachia.

Explore Appalachian Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal on iLoveMountains.org

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

The centerpiece of “Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal” is an interactive mapping tool on iLoveMountains.org that allows anyone to explore mountaintop removal’s expansion over the past 30 years.

Created using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, and mapping data and consultation from the nonprofit SkyTruth, the tool gives users greater perspective into the decades-long scourge surface mining has had on the Appalachian landscape and generations of families that live in the region.

The Communities at Risk tool also concentrates on impacts at the community level, where the powerful personal stories that first brought mountaintop removal to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and agenda for environmental change are found.

Fifty communities spread across Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are identified by the tool as being the most at risk. By clicking on a community icon on the map, you can see the number of acres classified as active mining within a 1-mile radius of a particular place over time. In some communities, the number has fallen. In others, it has grown dramatically in recent years even as regional coal production has plummeted.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at a handful of these communities, sharing local perspectives on how the proximity of mountaintop removal has affected local livelihoods. Our first “featured community” is Inman, Va., a small town in Wise County, where residents have successfully battled back a proposed mountaintop removal mine while experiencing the devastating impacts of another that began operating in the early 2000s. You’ll also see stories about featured communities on AppalachianVoices.org and in upcoming issues of The Appalachian Voice newspaper.

Learn about Inman, Va., from local residents Matt Hepler and Ben Hooper

If you want a fuller picture of the data we used to create the mapping tool, check out the companion white paper, which describes the background, methods, results and implications of our initial research.

Over time, we’ll work with impacted citizens in communities near active and proposed mines to expand the use of the tool and update our maps with current, high-resolution satellite imagery we’ll obtain through a partnership with Google’s Skybox for Good project.

Read our white paper for an in-depth look at the ways mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk.

The constant flow of news describing something close to the death of the Appalachian coal industry could leave outside observers with the impression that the problems of mountaintop removal have been resolved by the industry’s impending collapse. That impression, however, is at odds with the personal experience of many Appalachian citizens, the visible impacts of mining in communities across the region and the data that comprises Communities at Risk.

Visit CommunitiesAtRisk.org to explore the mapping tool, learn more about the 50 most at-risk communities and tell President Obama that more must be done to protect Appalachian communities.