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Announcing the Energy Savings for Appalachia webinar series

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016 - posted by Amber Moodie-Dyer

Three-part series highlights energy efficiency on-bill Financing as a unique opportunity for our region

If you happened to miss our first energy efficiency on-bill financing webinar on May 11, don’t despair. You can watch a recording of the webinar, which is the first in a series describing the benefits of on-bill financing entitled “Leveraging Energy Savings: On-bill Financing as an Economic Opportunity in the Southeast.”

At this point you may be wondering, what is on-bill financing and why might I want to watch a webinar about it? Do you care about saving money on your electric bills, minimizing energy waste, helping the environment and your local economy? Energy efficiency on-bill financing can address all of these concerns. With on-bill financing, people can make energy efficiency improvements to their home without having to foot the bill upfront. Instead, residents pay for the improvements over time through a monthly charge on their electric bill. With a well-designed program, many residents will have lower bills even while paying back the project cost because of the energy savings they’re achieving.

Curious? Watch the webinar below to learn more!

You can watch the one-hour webinar, or simply review the slides here. In the video above you’ll hear Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil discuss the effects of energy waste in the Southeast and Appalachian region, how energy efficiency programs can benefit communities by saving people money and creating jobs, the best practice Pay-As-You-Save® model of on-bill financing for weatherization improvements, sources of capital for on-bill financing programs, case studies of successful on-bill finance programs and ways you can engage in our campaign.

Keep a look out for an announcement about the second webinar in the series next month that will delve into what we’re learning about on-bill financing from a number of electric cooperatives throughout the country who offer this program (including some in our own region and state). Visit the Energy Savings for Appalachia homepage to learn more about campaign, and while you’re there, be sure to go to our Energy Savings Action Center to submit a letter to your utility provider a letter asking them to offer on-bill financing.

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Connecting the economic dots in Southwest Virginia

Thursday, May 19th, 2016 - posted by cat
Tammy Owens, owner of Foxfire Farm in  Dickenson County, Va., at the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum in May.

Tammy Owens, owner of Foxfire Farm in Dickenson County, Va., at the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum in May.

At a recent economic summit in Wise, Va., Tammy Owens paused at a display booth about the benefits of reclaiming abandoned coal mines as sites for new business. Owens owns land in nearby Dickenson County that years ago was a strip mine; it’s now in pasture for livestock as part of her organic commercial farm, established in 2011.

She also owns land along the Russell Fork River and wants to start an outfitter company that runs river trips. She’s working with the county and the U.S. Forest Service to put the take-out site downstream from her property, on another abandoned strip mine.

“It all circles back to sustainability, with the way our land is, the way it’s laid out, and keeping the natural beauty while we have a new economy,” she says. “It’s really exciting, there’s so many possibilities.”

Owens was one of more than 300 people who attended the 2016 Economic Forum on May 12, hosted by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. The school is a key player in efforts to improve the region’s economy, and hosted the forum — with the tagline “Discover. Connect. Ignite.” — as a way to bring together the many public, private and nonprofit entities working on economic development initiatives to help move Southwest Virginia forward.

Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development addresses the audience. Copyright Tim Cox.

Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development addresses the audience. Copyright Tim Cox.

“Our commonwealth cannot be successful unless all our communities and regions are successfully growing,” said Matt Erskine, Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary for Commerce for Economic Development and the morning’s featured speaker. “Yes, there are longstanding challenges in this region … but there is good reason to be optimistic.”

Under the Obama administration’s POWER Initiative to boost areas around the country hit hard by coal’s decline, the 2016 federal budget includes a total of $65 million for matching grants. The key, Erskine said, is partnership and collaboration. “It is not and cannot be a silver bullet,” he said. “It’s not a hand out. It’s all merit-based and competitive, and regional and local entities have to have skin in the game.”

at-tables-web

To help encourage the dialogue needed to foster collaboration, the conference planning partners — which included Appalachian Voices — set up a series of breakout sessions for the afternoon. Topics covered education, workforce development, health and wellness, keeping and supporting existing businesses, attracting new businesses, developing the region’s agricultural and natural assets, and tapping into emerging industries like solar energy.

Appalachian Voices, along with many other groups, companies and government agencies, had an information booth at the conference, and solar was one of our featured topics. Over the past several months, Appalachian Voices has been intensively researching the opportunities for community-scale solar energy in the region. It’s one of the fastest growing sectors in the U.S. economy, and we’re seeking ways to help Southwest Virginia tap into it. Our emphasis is on building local wealth, developing local systems and capacities that “in-source” labor, services, materials and procurement.

Adam Wells, Appalachian Voices' Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator, who is based in our Norton, Va. office.

Adam Wells, Appalachian Voices’ Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator, who is based in our Norton, Va. office.

The other topic displayed at our booth was the opportunity for turning abandoned mine lands (generally strip mines closed prior to 1977) into a force for positive development, including solar energy but also a variety of other economic endeavors. Appalachian Voices is currently working to identify optimal sites for potential funding under the RECLAIM Act, bipartisan legislation that would release $1 billion over five years for remediation of sites that have a post-cleanup economic benefit.

The concept resonated with Didi Caldwell, an international expert in industrial site selection. Caldwell stopped by the Appalachian Voices booth to talk about reclamation opportunities, and during her address to the conference she mentioned the idea and our work.

It’s also what intrigues Tammy Owens of Dickenson County.

“How do we go from the industry of coal that all these generations have grown up with … into something that’s drastically new?” she asks. As she has talked with people in the region, she has found some still deny coal’s decline, but more often she finds hesitation, misgivings, a “fear of the unknown.” “We’re at the point now, coal is gone forever and it’s not coming back. We’ve had lean years before and could wait it out.”

But this time, Owens says, the region has to embrace the chance to reinvent its economic future. Judging from the turnout and enthusiasm around the UVA-Wise Economic Forum, she’s not alone.

“We wanted it to build positive energy and we definitely accomplished that,” said Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor at UVA-Wise and head of the school’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement. As far as she knows, it was the first time in the region so many people had come together to focus on solutions. “I think there’s power in getting that many people together who care about the region, and their neighbors.”

Hundreds of ideas came out of the breaking sessions, which Blevins and others have grouped into six broad areas and will post on UVA-Wise’s website inviting people to join those groups and keep the conversation going.

In the week since the forum, Blevins has heard positive feedback from people who attended, including one woman who told her it felt like a pivotal moment, “like in five years we’ll point back to the forum as the day things really started to turn the corner.”

DEQ dodges legitimate coal-ash safety concerns

Thursday, May 19th, 2016 - posted by amy

Editor’s note: The following op-ed about how far the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has strayed from its mission appeared in The News & Observer on Monday, May 16. On Wednesday, the department announced tentative closure deadlines for coal ash ponds at Duke Energy facilities across the state, but told lawmakers it wants to revisit those rankings in late 2017. Read our statement on the tentative rankings here.

Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.

Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.

Sworn testimony of a state epidemiologist that became public over the weekend confirms what many North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds already assumed. Health experts who developed the drinking water standard that led officials to tell hundreds of residents last year that their water is not safe did not support the McCrory administration’s decision in March to rescind the warnings.

The disclosure comes as state lawmakers consider a bill that would prohibit local health departments from issuing health advisories to private well or public water users unless contaminants exceed levels set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But that law is intended as a backstop to be built upon, not as a floor for states like North Carolina that are content with the bare minimum.

From the state’s perspective, the bill is a quick fix to make certain that officials with the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services never again suffer the backlash they have seen since lifting the warnings about high levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium – potentially due to proximity to coal ash ponds. Residents were told their water was unsafe to drink or use for cooking. There is no federal drinking water standard for vanadium or hexavalent chromium.

These are just the latest examples in a long pattern of attempts by the McCrory administration to insulate itself from outside criticism and, more importantly, from citizens’ legitimate concerns. These tactics have been central to the dismantling of DEQ, where I worked for nearly nine years. I resigned in 2013, around the time former Secretary John Skvarla pledged to transform the agency into a “customer-friendly juggernaut” with the primary role of serving industry.

After Skvarla’s departure, the promotion of Donald van der Vaart to the position showed McCrory’s skill at hand-picking leaders guided by an ideological compass that points away from environmental protection. Enabled by anti-regulatory powers in the legislature, DEQ’s leadership has abandoned the principles necessary to serve the public. North Carolinians across the political spectrum should be alarmed at the state of the agency today.

As we await the announcement this month of DEQ’s final plans for closing coal ash ponds across the state, we recognize that there has been progress toward addressing this significant problem. But the pledges to safely close ponds and protect communities after the Dan River disaster are distant memories now. Instead, DEQ’s top-down decision-making has dominated the process.

Read More: NCDEQ wants changes to coal ash law before finalizing rankings

The final months of the coal ash pond ranking process have been particularly frustrating for citizens, advocates and, presumably, many of the rank-and-file at DEQ. After a draft report leaked last December revealed that DEQ’s own experts recommended full closure of most coal ash ponds, van der Vaart stepped in, assuring the public that the draft was based on “incomplete data.” Two weeks later, the agency’s final report listed only eight of the state’s 32 ponds as being “high” risk and deserving full closure. Most are now proposed as “low” or “low-intermediate” risk, meaning the coal ash could be capped in place and continue to threaten to water quality.

What would have been the only remaining line of defense, the Coal Ash Management Commission, was created in part to review DEQ’s recommendations before they become final. But McCrory disbanded the commission in March as a series of hearings to gather public input on the state’s coal ash sites was underway. Rather than acknowledging the independent role the commission was created to play, van der Vaart has asserted that his department has everything under control.

DEQ leaders know citizens are concerned about their water and health. The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, a statewide coalition of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash sites, has made that evident. They’re concerned with good reason. When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights arranged a town hall meeting in Walnut Cove near Duke’s Belews Creek power plant, it wasn’t to spotlight DEQ’s success mitigating an environmental injustice.

Some state lawmakers are taking urgent action to re-establish the Coal Ash Management Commission. I’m glad; a strong independent commission is critical to earning the public’s trust and properly closing coal ash ponds. But dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become.

Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on coal ash cleanup, not continuing to enable an agency that has lost its way.

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NCDEQ wants changes to coal ash law before finalizing rankings

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016 - posted by brian

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality announced on Wednesday tentative closure deadlines for coal ash ponds at Duke Energy facilities across the state.

A statement from Appalachian Voices’ N.C. Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams:

“Residents threatened by Duke Energy’s coal ash want results, not headlines. Today’s announcement has no guarantee that DEQ is taking swift and real action to protect these communities. In fact, kicking the can down the road by a year and half — until after the elections — suggests the agency is playing politics with people’s lives. This is typical of how DEQ has approached the coal ash crisis in North Carolina.

“While it may appear the department will require full cleanup of all ponds by 2024, that’s secondary to its plan to get the legislature to change the coal ash law in ways that would make today’s cleanup rankings meaningless.”

Energy efficiency success in western N.C.

Friday, May 6th, 2016 - posted by rory

This post was co-authored by North Carolina Energy Savings Outreach Coordinator Amber Moodie-Dyer.

Will Haddaway, owner of HomEfficient, seals Blue Ridge Electric member Vance Woodie's leaky air ducts before insulating them.

Will Haddaway, owner of HomEfficient, seals Blue Ridge Electric member Vance Woodie’s leaky air ducts before insulating them.

As advocates and organizers working to solve big problems, we often forget to celebrate the incremental success of our campaigns and jump right into the next problem to solve. Just last month, one of those noticeable steps toward achieving our larger goals occurred in our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign, so we want to acknowledge the moment even as we continue to expand our work throughout the region.

The Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BRE) rolled out a pilot energy efficiency financing program called the Energy SAVER loan program. In short, the co-op pays the upfront costs of energy efficiency home improvements for eligible members, who repay the money over time as a charge on their electric bill while immediately benefitting from a more comfortable, healthy home.

Appalachian Voices has worked for two years with BRE and organizations, residents and businesses throughout the High Country to establish this kind of “on-bill financing” program with the co-op. These days it is rare to come upon an issue that is a win-win for everyone involved and on-bill financing offers just that kind of opportunity.

Our Energy Savings campaign is focused on promoting energy efficiency programs to benefit the people, economy and environment of our region. Our goal is to help rural Appalachian communities tap into these benefits by working with electric membership cooperatives to develop a financing program that simultaneously reduces energy costs, makes people’s homes more comfortable and healthy, creates local jobs in energy services industries and reduces our carbon footprint. We’re now expanding this work to the French Broad and Surry Yadkin co-ops.

On-bill financing enables people to make energy efficiency improvements without having to foot the bill upfront. Instead, residents pay for the home improvements over time through a monthly charge on their bill. With a well-designed on-bill financing program, many residents will have lower electric bills because of the energy savings they’re achieving.

BRE provides electricity to more than 65,000 residents of all or parts of seven counties in western North Carolina, so its commitment to this program has the potential to make a big impact. We commend BRE for taking this step and we thank the many partners and volunteers who worked to make it happen. Residents, volunteers and allied organizations knocked on doors, made phone calls, spoke at press events and shared their stories at the BRE annual member meeting last year to ask for such a program, and BRE listened.

John Kidda, owner of reNew Home Inc., conducts a blower door test on the home of Blue Ridge Electric member Sean Dunlap.

John Kidda, owner of reNew Home Inc., conducts a blower door test on the home of Blue Ridge Electric member Sean Dunlap.

The Energy SAVER program will provide loans of up to $7,500 to qualifying BRE customers to make energy efficiency improvements such as increased insulation, air sealing, duct sealing, basement and crawl space sealing and upgrading heating and cooling systems. These types of upgrades can save between 10% and 40% of energy use consumed.

While we applaud this achievement, based on what we’ve seen with other on-bill finance programs in North Carolina and other states in the Southeast, we also know there is room for improvement. For instance, eligibility for BRE’s program is limited to owner-occupied properties, meaning that renters — which account for approximately 9,500 dwellings in the BRE service area — cannot apply.

Additionally, because the program is structured as a loan, anyone who sells their home before paying off the loan must repay the full remaining principle to BRE before the home is sold. As a result, anyone who is uncertain whether they will remain in the same house for the next seven years may not want to take on new debt, regardless of the benefits they would receive from the energy efficiency improvements. So unfortunately, the cycle of energy waste and higher-than-necessary energy bills would likely continue for subsequent property owners.

Another shortfall of BRE’s loan program is that the repayment term is limited to seven years, making it unlikely that most participants would see a lower monthly electric bill. Only participants who consume around 3,000 kilowatt hours (approximately $300) a month or more–at a $7,500 loan amount–would see a net reduction in their electricity costs, while most others would likely see a net increase due to new monthly loan charge that is greater than the savings achieved as a result of the efficiency improvements. This provides a disincentive for most customers to participate in the program.

Despite all of this, BRE’s Energy SAVER loan program is an important first step toward expanding access to energy efficiency financing to all of BRE’s members. Appalachian Voices will continue working with BRE to make the necessary adjustments to the program to achieve that goal.

The most important adjustment we’d like to see in BRE’s program is to convert it from a loan-based offering to a program structured on the Pay As You Save (PAYS) tariff-based model of on-bill financing. The PAYS model solves each of the problems listed above by: (a) tying the repayment obligation to the meter instead of the customer; (b) extending the repayment term to a maximum of 15 years; and, (c) only financing appliance upgrades or weatherization improvements that can achieve an annual cost savings that exceed the annual payments to the utility over the repayment term.

While loans of all types have been around since the dawn of capitalism, tariffed on-bill financing is relatively new, debuting with the launch of the How$mart Kansas program in 2007. Since then, tariffed programs based on, or strongly reflecting the PAYS model have been developed in Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Arkansas. Each one is achieving significant energy savings of between 25% and 40% for participating customers while achieving a net reduction in annual energy bills of as much as $300. And in order to maximize the local economic benefits associated with the new energy efficiency investments, some programs such as Roanoke Electric’s Upgrade to $ave program are combining the on-bill financing with a concerted workforce training and development component in collaboration with Advanced Energy.

Given the success these other co-ops have achieved through tariffed on-bill energy efficiency financing, we hope that BRE will ultimately follow their lead and adopt the PAYS model as well. Only by doing so can BRE, and all rural electric co-ops across Appalachia and the Southeast, achieve a measurable impact for their members and for the local economies in the communities they serve.

If you’d like to add your voice to the chorus and send a letter to your electricity provider asking for a tariff-based energy efficiency on-bill financing program, visit our Energy Savings Action Center. And to volunteer with our campaign contact Amber by email or phone at 828-252-1500.

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Drinking water problems still plague eastern Kentucky

Friday, May 6th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Basic needs must be met to ensure successful economic transition

A creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow in April. The state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. Photo via Facebook

A creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow in April. The state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. Photo via Facebook.

When Rockhouse Creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow last month, Tomahawk resident Gina Patrick said she had one major concern: that the pollution might ruin her water well.

Patrick has relied on well water her whole life and didn’t want to pay to be hooked up to the municipal water system. That’s because the Martin County Water District is one of the worst water infrastructure systems in the state in terms of water quality and water loss.

Patrick lives on Rockhouse Creek. She said that as she watched the bright yellow plume move down the creek, she took a sample of the water and put it in a paint bucket under her porch. Two curious newborn puppies on her property found the paint bucket and drank its contents. They became violently ill and died later that day.

At the end of April, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet released a report detailing the state’s investigation into the spill, but there was no mention of Patrick’s dead dogs. Although many local residents thought the pollution might have been related to fracking — an oily sheen was noticed on the surface of the water — the state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. According to Lanny Brannock, a spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, regulators do not know if someone intentionally put paint in the creek or if it was an accident.

But many Martin County residents still have questions, and that’s not uncommon in a county that has seen its fair share of coal slurry spills and municipal water problems. The Mountain Citizen, located in the county seat of Inez, has doggedly reported water quality and environmental issues for decades. In fact, the newspaper’s diligence, combined with the hard work of local organizers, prompted the Kentucky Public Service Commission to investigate the county’s water system, which has a water loss rate of more than 60 percent and often delivers smelly, foul water.


In the aftermath of Flint, Mich., this video from Martin County caught the attention of consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who posted it to her Facebook page.

When I spoke with Inez resident Josie Delong back in February, she was very clear about the long-term burdens that come with having bad water:

The biggest [burden] is definitely health issues. But also the fact that most of us are on a fixed income here. Everybody’s losing their jobs in the mines, losing their jobs here or there, and can’t afford these high water bills, and we can’t even use the water. We’re paying these bills and yet still having to go to the store and get water, and we don’t know what it’s doing to us. And that’s the big fear. We have no idea.

In 2015, the Martin County Water District accrued multiple non-compliance violations for known carcinogens such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. In the offices of the Mountain Citizen, editor Gary Ball points to the back of his latest water bill, which includes a notice for anyone with an immunodeficiency disorder: do not drink the water. “In other words, if you’re as healthy as a horse, drink away,” Ball says. “But sooner or later it’s going to get to you.”

Ball and the Mountain Citizen have also extensively documented the unequal way in which water is distributed in the county, and how many customers are often not informed of boil water advisories or shut-offs in the system. According to Gary and Lisa Smith Stayton, owner and publisher of the Mountain Citizen, the excessive water loss rate often impacts the poorer or more remote areas of the county first. As water is diverted to more populated and wealthy areas in the county, some customers are forced to go without.


Sometimes there’s no water at all. As Ms. McCoy explains in this Facebook post, not having water creates all kinds of social and financial hardships on her day-to-day schedule.

Officials in the county have adamantly denied the extent of the problems, and often portray concerned citizens as alarmists and idealists. The Martin County Judge Executive, Kelly Callaham, has publicly stated that the 60 percent water loss rate in the system is due to people stealing water from fire hydrants and industrial coal mine sites. (I reached out to Mr. Callaham and the Martin County Water District; neither returned my requests for a comment).

“Our officials downplay every single issue, and go to great extents to discredit those who speak up,” says Lisa Smith Stayton. She described a recent fiscal court hearing that turned into an attempt to publicly discredit a Mountain Citizen report about disinfection byproducts in the water. Lisa was incredulous. “One magistrate even said ‘you’re more likely to get cancer from eating a hot dog.’”

In late March, due to pressure from citizens like Delong, Ball and Stayton, state Senator Ray Jones convened a meeting at his office in Frankfort to discuss issues with the water system. Watching footage of the meeting is frustrating; a great deal of time is wasted on discussing surreal and overstated accusations of “water theft.” At several points in the conversation, some variation of this statement is heard: “Martin County is not the only county where these problems occur.”

This is a familiar tactic deployed by the powerful: make the victims appear as if their demands are inherently selfish because, after all, it’s happening to everyone. If you can portray the powerless as hyperbolic and alarmist, you eventually start to convince them that their demands are crazy. This is known as “gaslighting,” and it’s a depressingly effective way to evade accountability.

But residents like Delong aren’t deterred. As she told me:

The more people who talk about it and share their concerns, the better. Because, I’ll be honest, I sat back for a long time and said, “Well why should I say anything about it? I’m just one person. That’s not gonna change anything.” And then the very second I did mention it on social media, and posted a picture, I saw a huge response. And that gave me confidence. Maybe we can change this.

Motivated by health problems that she believes to be caused by the water, as well as mounting medical bills, Delong started a public Facebook forum. She began polling her friends to see if they suffered from similar afflictions and medical costs. The results are astounding in their detail and specificity; many respondents reported skin irritations, stomach issues and autoimmune disorders.

It’s obvious from reading the comments on Delong’s poll, as well as the many comments on the Martin County Water Warriors’ Facebook page, that the public health costs of living in coalfield counties are increasingly burdensome. My own experience bears that out; I live in Letcher County, Ky., about an hour and a half south of Martin County. I spend upwards of $50 each month on bottled water, and most of my friends and neighbors do the same. With coal severance funds declining, we’re also forced to pay more for basic services like trash and recycle collections. The Letcher County Recreation Center, built with coal severance funds, is constantly at risk of closing.

In fact, Gina Patrick’s anxiety about having to switch from well water to potentially-dangerous municipal water is not uncommon. Whether it comes from a well or a municipal system, the drinking water of many eastern Kentuckians is at risk of being polluted. When a dangerous acid mine drainage spill occurred five miles upstream of the Letcher County water intake in March, we were reminded of the many times our water system was poisoned by diesel fuel from local oil magnate Don Childers. It doesn’t help knowing that the state actively works to sweep those violations under the rug, or that it neglects to include important factors like dead dogs in its investigation of a bright yellow creeks.

Delong articulates the full scope of this problem and the struggle to stay:

It just feels like we’re going downhill so fast. I’ve had a lot of friends move out of the county. And it’s sad. I grew up here. And everyone’s just leaving. And it’s becoming a ghost town. And I don’t want to leave. I mean, I could, I’m sure. But who’s going to want to buy a home in this county? How could you sell your home? When someone away from here looks up Martin County, they automatically see repeats of all these troubles and problems and people moving away and no jobs and no opportunities. It’s gonna be impossible to sell your home right now. And I don’t want to leave. I want to do what I can — I’m just one person but I want to do what I can to try and make things better for us, instead of just watching it go downhill.

Officials say that they want people to stay. Some even say that they want economic transition. But what are they doing to help us save money where it matters — on very basic needs like food, water and healthcare? The solutions to these needs amount to the most basic and essential forms of economic development: safe drinking water, functioning local services, affordable healthcare and access to adequately funded social programs. They are simple solutions to very real problems that would save people money and help them stay in the region that they love.

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The Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding: Part 2

Friday, April 29th, 2016 - posted by Ridge Graham

Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series about the ways our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign is expanding to increase access to energy efficiency programs in western North Carolina. Read Part 1 here.

Announcing our new Surry-Yadkin electric co-op campaign

Pilot Mountain in Surry County. Photo by Joe Potato / iStockPhoto

Pilot Mountain in Surry County. Photo by Joe Potato / iStockPhoto

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding in western North Carolina.

Throughout 2015, we engaged with communities surrounding our Boone, N.C., office about the widespread benefits of energy efficiency. Now our local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric, is offering the Energy SAVER Loan Program, an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency upgrades. After achieving success in the North Carolina High Country, we are expanding our efforts to additional electric cooperative service territories.

To the east of the Blue Ridge Electric territory is the Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation (EMC). Surry-Yadkin EMC provides utility service to over 27,000 people in the beautiful Yadkin Valley and surrounding areas. This region, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is known for its agricultural heritage, vineyards and music festivals.

Surry-Yadkin EMC currently offers programs that demonstrate its commitment to energy savings for its members, including rebates on the purchase of energy-efficient heat pumps for home and water heating. While these programs are healthy incentives for those in the market for an upgrade, most families cannot afford the upfront costs of standard efficiency retrofits which average $6,500, according to local weatherization programs.

In Surry, Yadkin and Wilkes counties, which make up more than 80 percent of Surry-Yadkin EMC’s service territory, the median household income is approximately $7,000 less than the North Carolina average and $13,000 less than the national average. To put that in perspective, residents of the area who live in manufactured housing have stated that their energy bills are 25 percent of their monthly income in the winter. More than half of all the housing units in the area are at least thirty years old and likely have common needs for efficiency upgrades.

Members of Surry-Yadkin EMC are in an ideal situation for achieving high energy savings because the area experiences cold winters and hot summers. With proper insulation and air sealing, both heating and air conditioning can be maintained efficiently. If Surry-Yadkin EMC introduces an on-bill financing program, members could save on average over $100 each year on their energy costs while enjoying increased comfort and home health.

Download our Surry-Yadkin EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Forsyth, Stokes, Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin counties Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Download our Surry-Yadkin EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Forsyth, Stokes, Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin counties Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Our Energy Savings for Appalachia team has met with community organizations to learn about the need for local residents to lower their energy bills and we’ve met with energy efficient businesses that recognize the benefit that energy savings can provide in job growth and increased local capital. In addition to developing these partnerships, we have presented to local groups about home energy improvements and options their utilities provide with the goal of increasing understanding about energy efficiency and successful programs across the Southeast.

We are hopeful that we can work alongside Surry-Yadkin EMC to provide an accessible program for its members and to cultivate a broad awareness of the need to expand energy efficiency programs throughout the region.

Do you know what energy efficiency options your utility offers? Visit the Energy Savings Action Center to find out! And if you are a Surry-Yadkin EMC member, take action here or contact ridge@appvoices.org to learn about volunteer opportunities.

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The Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding: Part 1

Monday, April 25th, 2016 - posted by eliza

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series about the ways our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign is expanding to increase access to energy efficiency programs in western North Carolina. Read Part 2 here.

Announcing our new French Broad electric co-op campaign

Marshall, N.C. on the French Broad River

Marshall, N.C., on the French Broad River

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding in western North Carolina.

Throughout 2015, we engaged with communities surrounding our Boone, N.C., office about the widespread benefits of energy efficiency through our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign. Now our local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric, is offering the Energy SAVER Loan Program, an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency upgrades.

After achieving success in the North Carolina High Country, we are expanding our efforts to the service territories of the French Broad Electric Membership Corporation and Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation.

It is our goal to see all of the electric membership cooperatives (EMC) in Appalachia join other utilities in offering on-bill energy efficiency financing programs. On the coast, Roanoke EMC started up a distinguished program called Upgrade to $ave in 2015, but there are also more established, successful programs in eastern Kentucky and South Carolina. For Appalachian Voices, western North Carolina is our focus for building a movement around affordable energy efficiency for all.

Covering much of the French Broad River watershed, French Broad EMC provides electric service to more than 33,000 people across northern Buncombe, Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties in North Carolina and part of Unicoi County in Tennessee. The region is rural and mountainous, bordered by the Appalachian Trail and famous for whitewater rafting and its high peaks.

We see great potential for an on-bill energy efficiency financing program here. French Broad EMC has been offering low-interest on-bill financing for mini-split electric heat pumps, a highly energy-efficient heating system, for the past two years. The success of this program has led to its continuance, which we see as a stable foundation for a larger, more encompassing energy efficiency financing program.

Download our French Broad EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Download our French Broad EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Over the past few years we have developed strong connections with the kind, hardworking people who serve those in need in the area. We’ve also learned of the high demand for assistance with energy bills in the cold winter months among the area’s residents. In the three counties that make up most of French Broad EMC’s service territory, the median household income is approximately $10,000 less than the North Carolina average and $15,000 less than the national average. Additionally, half of all the housing units in this area are more than 30 years old.

There are thousands of homes and residents in need of energy efficiency improvements, and few programs available to most residents who cannot afford the upfront cost of those improvements. In other words, there exists a gap where many would be supported by an energy efficiency financing program provided by French Broad EMC.

To further Appalachian Voices’ advocacy and education around energy use, I am working on the ground in French Broad EMC’s service territory, generating public dialogue around energy efficiency by talking to the community about how to save money and energy. By helping those who struggle to pay their energy bills and keep their house warm, we hope to raise awareness about the need for a debt-free, on-bill energy efficiency financing program.

Do you know what energy efficiency options your utility offers? Visit the Energy Savings Action Center to find out! And if you are a French Broad EMC member, take action here or contact eliza@appvoices.org to learn about volunteer opportunities.

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Power of Cooperation: Co-ops put solar on rooftops

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Dan Radmacher

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

When Joy Loving decided to add solar power to her Rockingham County, Va., home in the spring of 2012, she did it the hard way. She taught herself what she could, then found an installer through a Google search. A full six months later, she turned on her system. Since then, she’s been working to make the process a lot easier — and cheaper — for others.

“My decision wasn’t driven by economics,” Loving says. “I’m 70 years old, and without state tax incentives or any kind of discount, my payback period for this system will be very long. I might live long enough to reap the economic benefits. I might not. But my primary motivation was about reducing my carbon footprint.”

When she first began looking into solar, Loving thought there might be some sort of program through her electric utility, or state policies that would help. Instead, she found obstacles. Unlike some other states, Virginia mostly forbids power purchase agreements, a solar financing model in which companies own the solar arrays they install on homes and charge homeowners for the power they use.

The state also limits the size of systems residents can build on their homes and caps the power generated by all Virginia residential arrays combined to no more than one percent of all power generated in the state. It also allows utilities to charge minimum monthly fees to solar users — even if the resident generates more power for the grid than they use.

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Loving says all the obstacles to solar put in place by the state and politically powerful utilities irritated her. “It got my back up,” she says. “The freedom to choose my energy source was very important to me. I believe that I need to be a good steward of God’s creation, and this is one thing I can do positively to be a good steward.”

Even after her own system was installed, Loving kept reading and learning. “There was just nothing like the thrill of not having an electric bill,” she says. “I kind of got obsessive about it, checking the system and the power meter and watching what the system could do. After six or seven months, I thought ‘this is something that other people should know about.’”

She reached out to local/regional environmental group Climate Action of the Valley in Harrisonburg, Va. Leaders there ended up connecting with Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods, also known as VA SUN, which is a branch of the Community Power Network in Washington, D.C.

VA SUN helps solar co-op groups — usually collections of neighbors — by providing the experience and expertise it takes to get organized, research installers, issue a request for proposals, evaluate and negotiate with installers, and then see the process all the way through the installation and hookups.

Ben Delman, communications manager for Community Power Network, says the various state SUN groups in Appalachia — DC SUN, VA SUN, WV SUN and MD SUN — have helped around 1,000 people go solar across the region, with about a third of those in Virginia. According to Delman, when individuals organize into co-ops, they gain expertise and save money by negotiating bulk purchases.

Co-ops Accepting New Members

  • Richmond, Va.: Deadline April 30; For information, contact VA Sun Program Director Aaron Sutch, aaron@vasun.org
  • Tucker, Randolph and Upshur counties, W.Va.: No deadline yet
  • Monroe County, W.Va.: No deadline yet. For information on WV co-ops, contact WV Sun Program Director Karan Ireland, karan@wvsun.org

In addition to helping co-ops, Community Power Network has also supported groups that use the “Solarize” model, in which the installer is pre-selected rather than picked based on competitive bids.

After discussions with VA SUN, the Harrisonburg-based Climate Action of the Valley decided to sponsor a co-op in Harrisonburg and Rockbridge County. They asked Loving to lead it.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t know about co-ops when I installed [my system],” she says. “All the co-ops exploding around the state are like seeds — making people more aware and more informed about solar.”

According to Delman, the co-op experience generally works like this: “We start work with one or two local organizations — some sort of community group that can guide the process and begin recruiting co-op members.” The group holds a number of informational meetings during the recruitment phase. “We take them through understanding solar energy, the different ways to finance and help them understand the co-op process,” he says.

“In some ways, it’s the same as doing any home construction project,” Delman continues, “But how great would it be if you’re adding a deck or renovating a bathroom to be able to go through that with a group of people all doing the same thing?”

A critical mass of people interested in installing solar is necessary to move forward to the next step of actually reaching out to contractors. “Once a group gets to about 25 or 30 members, we work with them to issue a [request for proposal] to installers,” Delman says. Co-op members make the final decision. “We help group members review the bids, but it’s up to the selection committee to choose.”

Carl Droms, a member of Climate Action of the Valley, was a member of the Harrisonburg co-op’s selection committee. At that stage, there were 70 or 80 interested households, and about a dozen co-op members on the selection committee. “We all had different ideas about what was important and how to weigh the factors,” he says. “The price per watt — which included everything: panels, wiring, inverters, the electrical work, installation — was important, but there were other factors. Could the installer handle this number of installations and get things done in a reasonable time? Would they use local labor? What kind of guarantee did they offer? How much work had they done in the past?”
“In the end, we were pretty well agreed,” Droms says. “Everybody felt we made the right decision.”

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

The discount for a co-op member over an individual trying to buy their own solar power system is generally around 20 percent, Delman says. “It’s a good deal for the installers, as well,” he says. “To have a base of interested customers who are educated about solar is really good.”
Once an installer is selected, individuals in the co-op get a site inspection and, eventually, a contract for a system tailored to their individual needs at the agreed-to price. Co-op members aren’t obligated to buy unless they sign that contract.

Droms is very happy with the system he and his partner installed on their home. “Our total bill for the last year has been about $130 — and that includes a $9.50 a month fee just to stay connected to the grid,” he says. “We were really pleased with the co-op. If we had to negotiate everything ourselves, it would have been a lot more complicated.”

There’s not much of a downside to working through a co-op, says Cory Chase, a Tucker County, W. Va., resident who helped organize a co-op in his area. “WV SUN offers a lot of technical assistance that really helps. It might be a little more bureaucratic and slower than going on your own, but we’ll be able to help each other out, buy material in bulk and get a competitive bid,” he says.

According to WV SUN Program Director Karan Ireland, her organization has helped co-ops launch in the towns of Morgantown and Wheeling, and in Kanawha, Tucker and Monroe counties. “A co-op is like Solar 101,” she says. “It can be cumbersome if you’re trying to figure out everything by yourself. With the co-op, you work with friends and neighbors to learn about how to go solar.”

Like Loving, Ireland believes co-ops help create solar ambassadors. “As people understand the benefits of solar, they become invested in the policy as well,” she says. “Because they’re already working together, that creates a network of solar advocates.”

And solar advocates are needed, especially in states like Virginia and West Virginia where fossil fuel interests hold so much sway, says Mark Hanson, president of the Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Association, a do-it-yourself club in Roanoke, Va., that helps members with solar installations and other renewable energy projects.

“Our legislators don’t push the power companies to do the right thing,” Hanson says. “Power companies just see solar as a way for people not to pay for electricity. When it comes to legislators, the power companies pretty much get their way.”

Joy Loving says the co-op model is serving its purpose. “It has increased awareness of solar and gotten more press coverage,” she says. “People have heard about it. People see the panels going up and they talk. Co-ops will bring more people into the solar fold.”

RECLAIMing Central Appalachia

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

Federal efforts could boost local economies, repair environmental damages

By Molly Moore

A rare bipartisan proposal aims to tackle two pressing issues related to the flailing coal industry — the need for new economic opportunities in central Appalachia and repairing environmental damage from decades of mining.

In March, nine grassroots advocates from Appalachia traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional representatives and staff from the White House and federal agencies. The week’s events were coordinated by The Alliance For Appalachia, a coalition of 15 environmental and community organizations including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.

The top priority was to inform regional legislators about the RECLAIM Act — a bill that intends to breathe new life into struggling central Appalachian economies while remediating land and water polluted by decades-old abandoned mines.


    The map shows counties that have abandoned mine lands on the federal inventory. Dark red counties have the most reclamation costs; the lightest shade of red has the least. Source: Daily Yonder from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System. Map courtesy Daily Yonder

Congressional Cooperation

In February of this year, Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from eastern Kentucky, introduced the RECLAIM Act with the support of congressmen from both parties — Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA). The RECLAIM Act would accelerate payments from the existing federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, dispersing $1 billion over five years to projects that would reclaim former mining sites while boosting local economic development.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.[/caption]Jack Kennedy, clerk of Circuit Court for Wise County and Norton, Va., and a former member of the Virginia General Assembly, says that the RECLAIM Act could lead to solar utility projects on abandoned mines and other endeavors.

“The RECLAIM Act passage would provide Appalachian community jobs immediately working to ameliorate brownfield real estate into a productive state for commercial or agricultural or other productive purposes over a period of time,” he wrote in an email.

The bill’s support from legislators like Rogers and Griffith — staunch opponents of environmental regulation, which they allege is responsible for Appalachia’s poor coal market — signals a willingness to cooperate with the administration to provide economic and community development in areas that have depended on the coal industry.

Under the RECLAIM Act, $1 billion from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund would be directed to qualifying states and tribes over a five-year period starting in 2017. The AML fund was established in 1977 to restore land and water contaminated by coal mines that were abandoned before the federal surface mining law took effect that year. The AML program is funded by a per-ton fee on coal production, and the money is distributed based on a state or tribe’s current coal production rather than the amount of damaged land and water.

Protect Our Water, Reclaim Our Future

Join The Alliance for Appalachia in Washington, D.C., to speak with legislators and decision-makers June 5-8. For more information, email Alannah@TheAllianceForAppalachia.org.


Presently, the AML fund holds $2.5 billion that is not dedicated toward specific projects, though the interest helps support a pension fund for roughly 100,000 retired union miners. This $2.5 billion was intended as a reserve fund for states to use after 2021, when the AML program is set to expire — the RECLAIM Act would expedite the disbursal of $1 billion from that pot.

According to a July 2015 report by the AML Policy Priorities Group, directing $200 million annually to abandoned mine lands projects for five years would bring national economic benefits of 3,117 jobs and contribute close to $500 million to the United States economy. The researchers, affiliated with Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and The Alliance for Appalachia, estimated that central Appalachia would see about 35 percent of those benefits. They called for allocating the $1 billion in a way that differs from the RECLAIM Act by also considering economic distress. Such a formula would further boost the benefits for the area.

Even enacting RECLAIM with the current formula could be a powerful catalyst. “By expanding the scope of the AML program to consider economic benefits, Rogers and his colleagues have introduced a forward-thinking solution to one of the biggest challenges facing our region today,” Kennedy wrote in a March op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The fact that the bill continues to gain bipartisan support is noteworthy and speaks to the urgent need for creative approaches to the economic woes of our coal regions.”

Community Support

The premise of the RECLAIM bill is based on one of the components of the president’s POWER-Plus Plan. The plan was first introduced as part of the president’s 2016 budget proposal and was reintroduced for the 2017 budget.

POWER-Plus received a warm welcome from local governments and community groups in the region, many of which were already working to diversify the historically coal-dependent economy. Twenty-eight local governments and organizations passed resolutions supporting the economic revitalization package, including 12 entities in Rogers’ home district.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy The Alliance for Appalachia

Among those were the Benham Town Council and the Benham Power Board, a municipally owned utility. In early 2016, Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner in Harlan County, Ky., and member of the Benham Power Board, wrote to Rogers and asked the congressman to help secure the funding needed to implement the POWER-Plus Plan. Citing the local declarations of support, he wrote, “As the resolutions say, we believe our transition should be one that ‘celebrates culture; invests in communities; generates good, stable and meaningful jobs; is just and equitable; and protects and restores the land, air and water.’”

Lawmakers incorporated some of the president’s plan in their one-year federal budget for 2016 including a proposal by Rogers to direct $90 million in AML funding to projects with economic potential in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, the three states with the highest remaining costs for cleaning up abandoned mines.

As of early April, the RECLAIM Act — which would go a step further with its $1 billion allocation — had an equal number of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. As the bill picks up more backers, a number of regional stakeholders are paying attention to how the bill is structured, and how the federal funds would be distributed.

“The Alliance [for Appalachia] is working to ensure that a strong public engagement process is included in RECLAIM,” Economic Transition Coordinator Lyndsay Tarus wrote in an email. “If the intent of the legislation is to boost economic transition, then communities most in need of the funding need their voices heard.”

During their March trip to Washington, D.C., the Alliance representatives also spoke with federal agency staff about the need for reliable oversight of clean water regulations, including a strong Stream Protection Rule to protect waterways from mining damage.

“The Alliance understands that meaningful and sustainable economic transition is just not possible when the basic necessity of clean water isn’t available,” Tarus states.

A POWERful Big Picture

The expedited release of abandoned mine lands dollars is one piece of a broader effort to assist central Appalachia and other communities around the country experiencing economic hardships due to coal’s decline.

In addition to the abandoned mine lands proposal, President Obama’s POWER-Plus Plan would strengthen the healthcare and pension plans for approximately 100,000 retired coal miners and their families. The Miners Protection Act, a bill to enact the pension change, is currently in the Senate. The POWER-Plus Plan also calls for two new tax credits for power plants that use carbon-capture technology.

Another core component of the plan is the proposed Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, which would grant $75 million in economic development funding to the region. These funds would provide more support for former coal workers through programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. An additional $5 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program would also clean up contaminated lands that have economic potential in formerly coal-dependent communities.

This POWER funding would help these agencies provide workforce training and bolster economic developments such as broadband access to attract new business.

In fall 2015, the Obama administration announced what it called a “down payment” on the plan — nearly $15 million in grants to kick-start some of these initiatives. So far, the grants have been allocated to strengthen Kentucky’s local food supply chain, bring agriculture to reclaimed mines in West Virginia, provide job training in fields such as technology and local food, develop community-specific economic diversification plans, create a substance abuse treatment center, and help new and existing industries capitalize on an expanding broadband network. Read more at right.

Kennedy waxes enthusiastically about the prospect for economic revitalization embodied in the RECLAIM Act and the POWER-Plus Plan. “Restoring Appalachian opportunity is essential,” he states. “We need to be among the first providing multiple 20 to 80 megawatts of small commercial-scale solar utility farms to learn and culturally accept the energy transition underway in our nation and around the globe.”

“Change is hard, but it is the only constant even for us in the more isolated mountains,” he continues. “We must adapt, improvise and overcome multiple challenges.”

As legislators, agency administrators and regional advocates work to pass these various federal economic proposals, one of the challenges for local supporters will be to make sure citizen input and priorities are reflected in the implementation of these programs.

“The key thing is citizen involvement,” says Mary Love, a Kentucky resident and member of The Alliance For Appalachia’s federal strategy team who met with legislators about the RECLAIM Act. “They have to show that they have citizen involvement in deciding what projects to fund. You can bet that we’ll be all over that.”

Grants Power Area Projects

➤ In southeast Kentucky, the POWER Initiative provided funding for the nonprofit media institution Appalshop to work with Southeast Community & Technical College and ten local employers to develop a one-year certificate program in technology. The three-track program would offer classes geared towards web coding, graphic and web design, and network infrastructure and security services. According to Ada Smith, Appalshop’s institutional development director, a formal certificate in technology would provide “a marked signifier to others that this person is interested, available and ready to work.” Smith hopes that courses will begin in fall 2017, and is optimistic that the program could be replicated at other community colleges.

➤ The Southern Appalachian Labor School in Robson, W.Va., received a planning grant to evaluate how both abandoned and reclaimed surface mines in the area might be used to provide economic benefits. “Right now we’re going to try to scope post-mining sites in the county, see what’s available, do a solar site analysis and see if it’s feasible to put in a solar farm,” says Director John David. The team will be looking at issues such as grid connectivity and cost, in addition to considering other projects like orchards and a senior living complex.

➤ The organization Friends of Southwest Virginia received a POWER Initiative grant to advance ongoing tourism, recreation and entrepreneurship projects. Among the endeavors is a new ecological education center near the Guest River that will serve as both an educational and entrepreneurial hub. Another project will improve riverfront access from the New River to five downtown centers in Giles County. In Wise County, local tourism partners plan to create a visitors center in Norton to provide information about the region’s assets.