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Sizing up APCo’s plan, through customers’ eyes

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company's resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy's role going forward.

Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company’s resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy’s role going forward.

Dozens of energy customers gathered in Roanoke on Tuesday evening for one reason: the electricity system in this country is undergoing some exciting changes, yet utilities’ choices can still hold Virginia back from rapid progress toward a diverse energy mix.

Residents are showing they want to learn more and get involved in these critical decisions.

Utilities in Virginia must submit plans, called Integrated Resource Plans, discussing their intended approaches to meeting customer demand. State regulators require these plans at intervals, providing a window for customers to engage with their electricity provider. The State Corporation Commission is currently considering Appalachian Power Company’s latest plan, which is set to be heard in an official proceeding before a regulatory panel on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

This newest plan is notable in many ways. The company acknowledges that market changes have made renewable energy economically advantageous. Meanwhile, federal standards on carbon pollution are in a final form, another factor that can drive change. But here are a few points that illustrate how APCo’s plan stands to impede Virginia from harnessing its full renewable energy potential at the scale that would most benefit for customers and the economy.

The Effect of the Clean Power Plan

The CEO of APCo parent company American Electric Power, Nick Akins, recently stated that “The Clean Power Plan is no doubt a catalyst for the investments … to support not only the movement of the customers but also reducing the environmental footprint.”

Though rather non-specific, this comment is encouraging and reflects a recognition of the beneficial nature of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s actions.

The flexibility, even leniency, that characterizes the Clean Power Power offers protection against legal challenges but is also a potential shortcoming when it comes to achieving long-term pollution reductions while states go about complying with the standard. Sophisticated computer modeling can help utilities determine cost-effective ways of meeting targets. At this point, APCo has only modeled the consequences of a carbon tax. The review process for its current resource plan is an opportunity for regulators to ask the company to show different possible approaches for reducing carbon emissions enough to meet new standards. If they do, it could present ways to meet the standards that will economically benefit customers, like greater reliance on bill-shrinking energy efficiency programs to meet demand.

Capping the Amount of Solar APCo Develops

The headlines over the summer when APCo released its resource plan were striking: “Appalachian turns toward sun and wind for future energy.” It sounded like a major shift was taking place. And there was a perceptible change in tone in the plan itself: “In the recent past, development of [renewable] resources has been driven primarily as the result of renewable portfolio requirements. That is not universally true now as advancements in both solar [photovoltaic] and wind turbine manufacturing have reduced both installed and ongoing costs.”

But how big a shift is APCo really proposing, how fast would it happen? After several weeks of analysis, we can say this much: the shift could be bigger, but APCo is imposing some strict, arbitrary limits on the solar projects and energy efficiency programs it’s pursuing.

Coal is decreasing in APCo’s resource mix, as one plant goes out of service and other is converted to natural gas, which seems as though it would make room for increased use of a popular, proven technologies like solar. But APCo’s preferred plan includes 835 megawatts of new natural gas-fired power, which detracts from renewable energy investments. A new gas-fired power plant would lock us into decades of dependence on a fossil fuel with potentially more volatile price swings and an environmentally degrading life-cycle that includes fracking and transmission by pipeline.

Why does APCo propose to stop at 510 MW of solar between now and 2029, when the fuel source is free and the resource is cost-effective? It appears these limits are without reason or rhyme, so regulators will likely ask APCo to explain where its numbers come from and demonstrate why is preferred plan is the best deal for customers.

An Energy Efficiency Economy under APCo’s Plan?

Energy efficiency programs seek to capture energy that otherwise gets wasted, capitalizing on home auditing technology and expertise, modern appliance and HVAC design, and other strategies to make sure customers enjoy the same amount of comfort and convenience while using less energy. Utilities including Duke Energy and Georgia Power are reducing demand through from efficiency programs, in the neighborhood of 1 percent energy saved every year,, avoiding the need for some costlier new peak or baseline generation additions — like natural gas fired plants. The question is: does APCo approach energy efficiency in a way that values these benefits as lasting and quantifiable?

APCo’s plan only expects a 1 percent improvement in energy efficiency over the next 15 years. As with the company’s solar modeling, it’s our sense that APCo is artificially limiting efficiency as a resource in its plans. The company also cites customer “acceptance and saturation” as a factor that stands to determine program cost and potentially the total impact on energy use. We know from listening to customers that people are eager to better control their energy use, and efficiency programs are a popular, basic service. When several new programs become available Jan. 1, 2016, we look forward to seeing them promoted and Appalachian Voices will do its part to get the word out about how residents can shrink their bills.

APCo does provide much-needed weatherization programs for its low-income customers that are managed by providers in the service area, which can provide work in good, often career-length jobs. But program offerings that are not income-qualified remain limited, and in order to reach Virginia’s voluntary goal of 10 percent energy efficiency by 2020, a non-binding target endorsed by General Assembly and Governor McAuliffe, APCo must design and get approval for much more robust programs.

Meanwhile, more and more APCo customers are opting to go solar each year, investing in their energy future and using less energy from the grid. Yet, that trend is also not encouraged in APCo’s plan — rather, the company tacitly subscribes to the existing system of fees, system size limitations, permit waiting periods, and other restrictions.

Plans Are Not “Set in Stone” — Stay Committed to Change

Clean energy investments proposed in APCo’s plan such as solar farms and wind installations aren’t exactly set in stone; they are contingent on approval by the State Corporation Commission, which may depend on whether current federal tax incentives are extended, reduced, or allowed to expire. According to APCo’s plan,decisions about whether or not to proceed will be made later, based on whether there are “suitable opportunities.”

It is critical that APCo customers remain engaged to support energy freedom and diversifying Virginia’s energy mix with renewables during the review of APCo’s energy plan and beyond. So take a moment to send a comment now.

Want to help spread the word? How about taking a picture of yourself holding a handwritten message or captioned with text about APCo’s plan? Try something like:

  • APCo: Don’t CAP Solar in your plan — Re-evaluate clean energy
  • Stop whittling our energy freedom away — Let people go solar
  • ​I urge APCo to expand efficiency programs for affordable bills

Tag us on social media or email your photo to, and thanks for supporting clean energy!

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North Carolina lawmakers put fracking first

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 - posted by amy
Stokes County, N.C., resident Tracey Edwards speaks in favor of a moratorium on fracking during a meeting of the Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

Stokes County, N.C., resident Tracey Edwards speaks in favor of a moratorium on fracking during a meeting of the Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

The town of Walnut Cove, N.C., and Rockingham County recently joined the small but growing list of localities where commissions of elected officials have passed anti-fracking moratoriums.

On Nov. 10, a little more than a month after the passage of a county-wide moratorium, residents of Stokes County once again raised their concerns with fracking, this time seeking a moratorium from the board of commissioners of Walnut Cove — the first municipality to take up the issue.

Tracey Edwards, a lifelong resident of Stokes County, spoke to the commissioners and other community members when she said, “We have people here out of a four-letter word: love. It’s love of where they live, They love their county, they love their neighbors and they want to live in peace and have a clean environment. That is all anybody really wants.”

Residents across the state are looking to their local government officials to oppose fracking since pleas to decision makers in Raleigh have largely fallen on deaf ears. Thousands of citizens have called or emailed their representatives during the past two years asking to ban fracking in the state. During the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission’s comment period on rules proposed to regulate fracking in North Carolina, a record 200,000 comments were submitted, in vast majority against the rules and against the practice of fracking itself.

“The people at the local level want a voice in what affects our way of life,” Linda Hicks of the group No Fracking Stokes County said “The Mining and Energy Committee has formulated regulations that protects the oil and gas industry and not us”

Last year, the state legislature prohibited local bans on fracking. And in the final hours of this year’s session, in an attempt to usurp all power over oil and gas decisions in the state, lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting any local control and regulation of the fracking industry.

More than 70 mayors, commissioners, and other local elected officials across the state sent a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory on Nov. 5 describing why oversight of such a potentially harmful industry is critical at the local level:

“The notion that our communities have the right to bar or limit activities which threaten public health or the quality of life of their residents has a long tradition in North Carolina’s law. This principle is the basis of common health ordinances and local land use rules, including zoning, which often involve trade-offs with property rights and other interests. Yet the oil and gas industry has the audacity to insist that this basic principle of local control should not apply to its operations.”

The restriction of local authority came under fire during both recent moratorium hearings, and residents concern with handing over control to Raleigh extends beyond fracking. A poll released yesterday by the N.C. League of Municipalities found that more than 75 percent of respondents preferred their local governments have control over billboard regulations.

“We need to send a message to the legislators in Raleigh that they can’t mandate to us how we run our county … I commend you and applaud you for taking this stance,” Rev. Hairston of Stokes County told Walnut Cove commissioners.

Edwards shared that sentiment in her remarks. “We do not want the state to define what we can do,” she said. “You guys are our local elected officials, we need you to take care of us, that’s why we elect you.”

While the three-year moratorium passed in Walnut Cove, and more localities are considering similar measures, officials in Raleigh remain hell-bent on bringing fracking to the state — even if that means ignoring the rights of citizens that could suffer the consequences.

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I heard it through the pipeline

Friday, November 6th, 2015 - posted by brian
Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects' primary backers. Photo by Will Solis,

Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects’ primary backers. Photo by Will Solis,

From Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s perspective, it’s probably best to just keep a lid on what state officials say publicly about the controversial natural gas pipelines proposed to cut through the state.

Based on reports this week, that’s exactly what he wants to do.

According to the Roanoke Times, a new policy compelling officials to brief McAuliffe’s office before commenting on the pipelines resulted from a meeting in Richmond that included representatives from 13 state agencies involved in overseeing permitting and construction.

“There’s no effort to muzzle anyone,” assured Brian Coy, a spokesperson for McAuliffe.

McAuliffe backs both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline and spoke strongly in favor of each months before either had been officially filed with federal regulators.

READ MORE: Pipe Dreams: The push to expand natural gas infrastructure

I get it. Having more than a dozen agencies handling projects as contentious, and politically precarious, as the pipelines would be difficult enough. Knowing that the press and the public are prodding officials at those agencies for information only complicates things further for the administration.

But that doesn’t make suppressing speech any less problematic. And regardless of how representatives from Richmond describe the tactic, that’s what it is. Rather than speak out of turn or hold their breath while waiting for the official OK, we can assume agency officials will just speak less often and be more guarded when they do.

“This is a gag order, pure and simple,” said Ernie Reed of Friends of Nelson County, in a press release yesterday.

Among opponents of the pipelines, the administration’s actions have only deepened skepticism of McAuliffe and his relationship with Dominion, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s primary backer.

“There’s only two possible reasons the Governor would want state agencies to ‘coordinate’ their comments — one is to control those comments and the other is to vent them through his contacts with Dominion,” said Friends of Nelson President Joanna Salidis.

Friends of Nelson and many other groups across Virginia have been dismayed at McAuliffe’s repeated emphasis on the pipelines’ potential benefits, especially when paired with his apparent ignorance of the threats they pose to landowners, natural resources and the climate.

TAKE ACTION: Urge Complete Environmental Review of Pipeline Proposals

Last week, Friends of Nelson invited the governor to visit Nelson County to speak to residents about his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and, presumably, to hear their concerns. As of today, McAuliffe has not responded to that invitation.

The Roanoke Times reminded readers of how McAuliffe campaigned on a platform of government transparency. Friends of Nelson added that the governor promised to prioritize clean energy. His abiding support of what’s good for the pipelines is putting both of those positions at risk.

In another half-hearted attempt to defend the decision, McAuliffe spokesperson Brian Coy told the Roanoke Times, “Things work better when the left hand is aware of what the right hand is doing, preferably before it winds up in the paper.”

I’m glad that wound up in the paper.

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Pro-solar group gets on Duke Energy’s bad side

Monday, November 2nd, 2015 - posted by brian
Duke Energy wants to smack down NC WARN for setting up a small experimental solar project on the rooftop of Greensboro’s Faith Community Church to test a state law prohibiting third-party electricity sales in North Carolina. Photo by NC WARN

Duke Energy wants to smack down NC WARN for setting up a small experimental solar project on the rooftop of Greensboro’s Faith Community Church and testing a state law prohibiting third-party electricity sales in North Carolina. Photo by NC WARN

Duke Energy wants to smack down a small nonprofit for testing a law prohibiting third-party electricity sales in North Carolina.

As the Greensboro News & Record and other outlets reported today, the nation’s largest utility is asking state regulators to fine Durham-based NC WARN “up to $1,000″ per day for setting up a small experimental solar project on the rooftop of Greensboro’s Faith Community Church.

In a statement this morning, NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren said Duke’s tactics are meant to punish and silence one of its most persistent critics. Warren says the fine, which could total more than $120,000, is “vindictive and counterproductive.”

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is expected to decide whether the project is legal, and whether NC WARN should be fined, later this month.

Today’s news is just the latest development in a local fight with statewide implications that has been brewing since early summer. NC WARN first announced back in June that it had entered a partnership with Faith Community Church to install solar panels and sell the clean power to the congregation while also purposefully putting itself “on a collision course” with Duke.

The same day, the group filed a petition with the N.C. Utilities Commission asking it to rule that the partnership is lawful, even though third-party sales in North Carolina are not. That’s where the legal lines blur.

Duke’s immovable position is that NC WARN showed “blatant disregard for the law” by setting up the third-party agreement and that it is essentially acting as an unregulated utility. NC WARN argues that by paying the upfront costs of the solar panels and selling electricity to the church for a reduced rate that it is offering a public service and expressly not acting as a utility.

It’s up to the commission to decide whether North Carolina’s law against third-party sales applies when the profit motive is not part of the equation. But even if commissioners do rule in Duke’s favor, it’s hard to see how the massive utility can win the PR battle. The company is certainly not helping its reputation as a monopoly willing to quash any clean energy efforts except its own.

The merits of increasing access to solar speak for themselves. Allowing third-party sales is one of the most successful methods for making renewable electricity more affordable. It increases consumer choice and competition among suppliers, and it has been a boon to the the nation’s clean energy economy.

Third-party sales of electricity are also completely legal in all but four states, including North Carolina, and solar financing arrangements are available to most electricity consumers in the country.

In fact, the N.C. General Assembly had a chance during the legislative session to pass a Republican-sponsored, bipartisan bill to legalize third-party sales that was supported by the solar industry and major employers including Wal-Mart, Lowes and Target. It did not.

In the case of NC WARN versus Duke Energy, the cliche comparisons to David and Goliath would be apt if they weren’t so inadequate. The array on Faith Community’s roof is around five kilowatts. It produces barely enough power to run the church’s central air conditioning for one hour each day, according to NC WARN. Can a company that made nearly $3 billion last year justify imposing a $120,000 fine for what probably amounts to a few hundred dollars of lost sales?

Also, NC WARN has repeatedly called the partnership a “test case” and promises to donate the solar system to the church if the commission decides the partnership isn’t legal — another reason Duke’s request for the fine seems spiteful.

It’s what the group is trying to accomplish that has Duke executives gritting their teeth and telling their lawyers to attack.

Speaking of the benefits of solar, Rev. Nelson Johnson, a co-pastor of the church, told the Greensboro News & Record, “It just makes sense. It makes environmental sense. It makes financial sense. It makes common sense.”

So I suppose it follows that, for all but a few, North Carolina’s law barring third-party sales does not.

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Settlement in Virginia Coal Pollution Case to Result in Cleaner Water

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015 - posted by cat

Ricky Junquera, Sierra Club, 202-625-2392,
Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices, 206-769-8286,

Wise County, Va. – The Sierra Club, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and Appalachian Voices today filed a consent decree resolving the 2012 Clean Water Act enforcement suit against A&G Coal Corp., a subsidiary owned by coal billionaire Jim Justice, and found responsible for toxic selenium pollution from its Kelly Branch Surface Mine in Wise County in 2014. As part of the settlement, the company must pay more than $300,000 in penalties and fees, the bulk of which will go toward three supplemental environmental projects that will clean up legacy coal sites in southwest Virginia. An earlier court order in the litigation required the company to secure enforceable permit limits for its discharges of selenium.

The projects, at three different sites, will each reduce surface water pollution, thereby improving the environment and reducing risks to the environment and to public health. Under the settlement terms, the projects must primarily benefit the public and the environment, not the polluter.

“We are pleased to see controls put on A&G Coal Corporation’s pollution and to have secured a penalty that will be used to benefit the community,” said Glen Besa, Director of Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. “Today, we declare victory for our community against this polluter. It is a shame, however, that it continues to fall to groups like ours to protect our communities and our environment from this dirty industry.”

Today’s filing comes after a July 2014 ruling by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that found A&G Coal Corp. liable for its selenium pollution and ultimately accountable for discharging toxic pollution at levels that exceed state water quality standards. Selenium, a toxic element that can cause reproductive failure and deformities in fish and other forms of aquatic life, is discharged from many surface coal-mining operations across Appalachia. Selenium accumulates in the tissues of aquatic organisms over time and experts predict that waterways across Appalachia could be on the brink of collapse due to increasing levels of the pollutant.

“I am very excited about our ability to secure an agreement that will clean up and enhance these legacy coal tipple sites and that will therefore contribute to water quality improvements in our community’s watershed,” said Jane Branham with Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Without the money coming from this settlement agreement, these eyesores — which should have been cleaned up long ago — would have remained in place.”

“We are pleased that this case not only resulted in addressing the selenium pollution from A&G’s mine, but will also address years of unaddressed coal pollution. Communities in southwest Virginia are working hard toward economic diversification and having clean rivers and streams is an vital part of that work,” said Erin Savage, Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

The consent decree settlement agreement will be lodged with the court for 45 days pending review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The groups were represented in this litigation by attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates.


Gov. McCrory signs “Polluter Protection Act”

Monday, October 26th, 2015 - posted by amy
"H765 may well be the worst environmental bill of McCrory's three years as Governor, and yet he has made it law with his signature."

“H765 may well be the worst environmental bill of McCrory’s three years as Governor, and yet he has made it law with his signature.”

Late last Friday afternoon, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law H765, the “Regulatory Reform Act of 2015.”

This massive reform bill is better known as “The Polluter Protection Act” with its plethora of anti-environmental provisions, regulatory rollbacks and giveaways to industry.

According to Environmental Defense Fund Senior Analyst David Kelly:

This legislation is a hodgepodge of short-sighted provisions that allow a more polluted environment, plain and simple. It encourages irresponsible business practices. It insulates polluters from their responsibility to fully clean up contamination they cause. It removes protections for nearly 50,000 miles of streams that supply our drinking water, provide important fish habitat, and help keep our waterways clean and healthy. H765 eliminates sensible safeguards for our air, water, wildlife, and puts the health of our children and families on the hook when polluters should be.

Over the past weeks, thousands of North Carolinians have called or emailed the governor’s office to urge him to veto this bill.So, just how bad is it? Well, for starters, H765:

  • grants immunity to companies from civil penalties and fines that violate environmental laws if they self-report.
  • shields polluter information of its own violations by preventing use of the information in a civil case and in actions to compel cleanup of environmental contamination. More seriously, it would hide evidence from injured neighbors seeking a remedy in court.
  • weakens controls on stormwater pollution along our coasts, putting at risk the water quality that sustains our fisheries and tourism industries.
  • allows removal of air quality monitors in the state not specifically required by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, significantly reducing the number of these important environmental monitoring stations.
  • privatizes wastewater inspection and permitting — previously the duty of local health departments — removing key oversight by environmental health officials.
  • places risk of fees on environmental attorneys: Attorneys representing environmental, civic, and community organizations would be subject to fees if they lose a case against the state, making it harder for community groups to find legal representation to challenge weak state environmental permits and other regulations.

It also eliminates protections for more than half of all of North Carolina streams, threatening downstream drinking water supplies. See the full bill here.

After the passage of H765, Molly Diggins, state director for the North Carolina Sierra Club, issued the following statement:

H765 may well be the worst environmental bill of McCrory’s three years as Governor, and yet he has made it law with his signature. The Governor missed an opportunity to stand up for clean air, clean water and healthy communities. He also missed the opportunity to stand up for transparency and public process.”

Email Gov. McCrory at or call the governor’s office at (919) 814-2050 and let him know how disappointed you are in his passage of such an environmentally harmful law.

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Understanding the Stream Protection Rule

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 - posted by Erin

SPR Meme 1

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a long-awaited draft Stream Protection Rule. While it’s far from perfect, the proposed rule is a long-overdue update to protections for both surface and groundwater from mountaintop removal coal mining. It also provides much-needed clarification regarding a host of other issues, including reclamation standards and bonding requirements.

Not surprisingly, the industry is fighting the Stream Protection Rule tooth and nail. Instead of focusing on the substance of the rule though, opponents’ rely on tired “war on coal” talking points. The industry also argues these regulations are unnecessary and will undermine an otherwise viable industry — even though several large coal companies have declared bankruptcy. Let’s examine those claims.

First, this new rule was developed to update the rule currently in use — the 1983 Stream Buffer Zone rule — based on new science and realities on the ground. The past 32 years have provided ample time for additional research to prove what many Central Appalachian residents already know: that burying streams with mining waste permanently damages waterways and that mountaintop removal is linked to a host of other environmental and health problems. The Stream Protection Rule aims to address a number of current problems.

The Stream Protection Rule aims to improve methods for monitoring for and preventing damage to surface and groundwater. It’s important to note that the rule still allows for mining activities, including waste disposal, in streams. The new rule is actually weaker than the 1983 rule in this regard. The ‘83 rule prohibited mining disturbances within 100 feet of streams and prohibited damage to streams by mountaintop removal mining. In practice, however, states routinely grant variances to the ‘83 Stream Buffer Zone rule, allowing valley fill construction and other mining impacts to streams on a regular basis. This is often done by allowing companies to remediate other areas of streams that have already been degraded as a substitution for the stream miles they will bury or otherwise damage.

While it does not include a stream buffer zone requirement, the Stream Protection Rule does provide a number of added benefits for aquatic resources. New requirements include enhanced baseline monitoring data for both surface and groundwater. The availability of such data will make it easier to identify damage caused by mining. Under existing regulations, coal companies too often escape liability for damage to waterways because there is no baseline data to prove pollutants were not present before mining began. The draft rule also includes a definition of “material damage to the hydrologic balance”, which was never previously defined. Clarifying language like this is an important part of making sure that rules are enforceable on the ground.

An important question to ask is whether this type of regulation is necessary. In this case, the additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed. Research over the past decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. A recent study examined coal companies’ success in restoring or recreating streams as a form of “trade” for other streams damaged or buried during mining. The study found that 97 percent of these projects failed optimal habitat scores for aquatic life. This is strong indication that rebuilding a stream’s form will not necessarily restore its function. Additionally, the study found that a majority of these restoration projects were completed in perennial streams, while mining damage was mostly occurring in intermittent and ephemeral streams. This is important because intermittent and ephemeral streams often provide unique habitat and food resources critical to the survival of many species.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

The science clearly indicates the need for more protection of streams and other environmental resources, but would the cost of these protections be justifiable? Do the benefits to streams — and people, and tourism, and recreation, and … — outweigh the impact that the rule may have on the industry? The industry would like you to believe that this new rule will be so costly that it will create an unwarranted burden on an otherwise beneficial Central Appalachian industry. The OSMRE attempted to answer this debate through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which includes cost-benefit analyses. In most scenarios, the OSMRE expects minimal job loss due to the new rule, in part due to jobs created through the need to comply with the rule.

What the EIS doesn’t adequately do is take into consideration the larger context of surface mining in Appalachia and the impacts it has on local communities. First, the coal industry already has a net negative impact on the economies of the states where it occurs. Several different studies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky indicate this. In 2006, the coal industry cost the state of Kentucky $115 million. In 2009, the coal industry was estimated to cost the state of West Virginia $97.5 million and the state of Virginia $21.9 million.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

The EIS also does not consider surface mining’s global impact. The burning of coal in power plants releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Surface mining in Central Appalachia also exacerbates climate change through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, forests in the region will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by the year 2035. This is due both to deforestation during the mining process and grassland reclamation. The Stream Protection Rule improves reclamation requirements so that more mined lands are returned to native forests, instead of the now-prevalent grasslands.

Lastly, the EIS does not consider the negative health outcomes associated with mountaintop removal. The prevalence of health problems the region is well documented. Most recently, a study showed that dust from surface mines can promote the growth of lung tumors. The negative impacts to the health of communities near mines alone should be enough to justify an end to mountaintop removal.

It is true that the coal industry in Central Appalachia is facing a particularly difficult time. Unlike previous boom and bust cycles, this downturn looks to be permanent. This is exactly why additional safeguards are necessary to protect public water. Companies desperate to turn a profit in a more competitive energy market may be more inclined to bend rules or ignore regulations all together. This time marks a critical and exciting opportunity to address economic diversification throughout the region. Protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region will be integral to a successful transition.

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Follow the leader: A Tennessee electric co-op moves forward

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly
Appalachian Electric Cooperative recently marked its 75th year of service. Today the small East Tennessee utility is a leader among regional electric cooperatives. Photo from

Appalachian Electric Cooperative recently marked its 75th year of service. Today the small East Tennessee utility is a leader among regional electric cooperatives. Photo from

As one rural electric cooperative in Appalachia expands clean energy and technology, other utilities in the region can learn from its example of leadership.

Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC), like many other utilities in the region, was created to provide electricity to underserved areas of rural Appalachia that for-profit companies would not dare touch, and hence serves relatively few consumers. Today, though, AEC is making decisions that set it apart.

Seventy-five years after being established, the co-op is launching a community solar program, conducting a feasibility study for fiber optic internet and leading the way forward for rural energy efficiency programs in Tennessee. In other words, this engaged co-op is proving that East Tennessee has what it takes to be an energy leader in Appalachia.

The solar project is partially funded by one of two grants Tennessee Valley Authority recently awarded for community solar development. AEC will use almost 9,500 photovoltaic panels to produce 1.4 megawatts of electricity — enough to power an estimated 115 homes for a year. So, despite the fact that many of the co-op’s members face socioeconomic challenges, they, too, can participate in the clean energy revolution thanks to AEC’s leadership and upfront investment.

As AEC general manager Greg Williams was quoted as saying in the Jefferson Post:

“Our ‘Co-op Community Solar’ program will make it possible for our residential and commercial members to reap all the benefits of solar generation—including both cost-effectiveness and environmental sustainability—without having to hassle with the challenges involved with installing photovoltaic panels and the ongoing maintenance costs required to keep them performing at maximum capacity. It’s also a powerful feeling to be a part of something with positive environmental impacts that extend much farther than those of any single individual.”

AEC is also providing free energy audits and developing new energy efficiency programs to help its members improve the safety and comfort of their homes while reducing their electric bills. This is especially important for residents in the co-op’s service area, where the average poverty rate is 19.3 percent and the median household income is 30 percent lower than the US average.

Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil (third from right) meets with representatives from AEC and others to discuss the creation of a statewide on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil (third from right) meets with representatives from Appalachian Electric Cooperative and other stakeholders to discuss the creation of an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Appalachian Voices has been focusing on energy efficiency as a first step to ready the region for a new energy economy. The Southeast has 29 percent of the nation’s energy efficiency potential — energy we’re paying for that’s being wasted. Our Energy Savings Program seeks to encourage co-ops to provide upfront financing for customers to do weatherization and other energy efficiency improvements, so they can start reducing energy costs right away while repaying the financing on their monthly bill through those savings.

AEC recently marked its 75th year of service, with more than 1,000 members attending it’s annual meeting celebration. When is the last time you partied down with your utility? As the co-op says in its membership materials, “ … the Co-op is neighbors helping neighbors; at AEC, you’re not just a utility customer, you’re a member owner.”

The Southeast has almost half of the electric cooperatives in the nation, many of which are providing the best kind of power – people power!

Learn about Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program.

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Charlottesville Joins National Day of Climate Action

Monday, October 19th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Concerned citizens and clean energy advocates gather on the downtown mall in Charlottesville for a National Day of Climate Action.

Concerned citizens and clean energy advocates gather on the downtown mall in Charlottesville for a National Day of Climate Action.

In probably the largest and most diverse environmental justice rally our community has ever seen, more than 150 residents of Central Virginia gathered in downtown Charlottesville last Wednesday with a clear, two-point message to our leaders: Stop the gas pipelines and address the climate crisis.

The event was part of a National Day of Action that included more than 200 demonstrations across the country, with citizens calling on leaders at all levels to take meaningful steps now to curb America’s carbon footprint and bring more clean energy online. The day of action was planned as part of the build-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December in Paris where world leaders will make critical decisions that will impact generations to come.

Across the country, some of the largest actions were in places not generally known for big climate actions: Pittsburgh, Orlando, Phoenix and St Louis. In Virginia, folks rallied at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and in Leesburg and Roanoke.

Opening the Charlottesville event was Susan Elliott, the city’s Climate Protection Program Coordinator. “Here in Charlottesville, over 25 organizations have already enthusiastically stepped up to support Energize!Charlottesville, our local campaign to save energy and win the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize. Residents are interested in what they can do to save energy at home and how to make clean energy choices. That’s one way we can take action together to benefit our community and do what’s right for the climate.”

Adrian Jones, a resident of Union Hill, Va., where a huge natural gas compressor station would be located along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, speaks to the crowd about his opposition to the project.

Adrian Jones, a resident of Union Hill, Va., where a huge natural gas compressor station would be located along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, speaks to the crowd about his opposition to the project.

Wednesday’s rally was attended by a diverse crowd of business professionals, students, climate justice activists, concerned energy consumers, and others. A large contingent of people against the proposed massive natural gas pipelines in the region also attended, voicing concerns for both local ecological impacts as well as the climate impacts of the projects.

For a spirited demonstration reflecting Wahoo pride, participants held orange People’s Climate Movement banners and wore blue to show opposition to gas pipelines. The rally was organized by Appalachian Voices, University of Virginia Climate Action Society, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, 350 Central Virginia, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and garnered significant media coverage on TV, radio, and print.

Dahvi Wilson of Apex Clean Energy, a renewable energy company based in Charlottesville, summed up a business perspective: “Those of us who are watching closely can already see a tectonic shift beginning. The writing is on the wall. Corporations are seeking to source more of the power they need from renewable generation facilities. The U.S. is recognizing our role in creating this problem, and we are embracing our responsibility to help solve it.”

In brief remarks to the crowd, Del. David Toscano described the political lay of the land in Virginia’s General Assembly: “Some of my colleagues are voting and talking as if they don’t believe in science. … Well, let me tell you, we have the people on our side, the times are changing and we’re going to get more renewable energy in this country and in Virginia.”

Earlier this month, Governor Terry McAuliffe emphasized in a newspaper commentary that the effects of climate change are happening now, here in the commonwealth, and stressed the broad benefits of building a clean energy economy.

Planning for more national climate actions for the weekend of November 28 is now taking shape to keep the drumbeat of citizen involvement building and the grassroots momentum growing in every corner of the country.

In Central Virginia, we can take this opportunity to realize that as we vigilantly fight the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the other natural gas pipelines proposed in the region, we do so alongside other communities across the country and around the world working to prevent fossil fuel extraction, transmission and combustion in their communities. We resist them as communities have resisted new coal mining operations and coal-fired power plants, both because the direct environmental harms are too serious and because we know it is essential to transition to large-scale clean energy to combat the climate crisis.

We carry that spirit forward.

>> Learn more about our work on climate change
>> Learn more about our work on fracking and pipelines

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N.C. General Assembly restricts local governments on fracking

Monday, October 19th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Maggie Simmons

Stokes County, N.C., residents applaud after county commissioners approved a three-year moratorium on fracking. A new state law seeks to invalidate the Stokes ordinance and others like it. Photo by David Dalton of No Fracking in Stokes

Stokes County, N.C., residents applaud after county commissioners approved a three-year moratorium on fracking. A new state law seeks to invalidate the Stokes ordinance and others like it. Photo by David Dalton of No Fracking in Stokes

In the early morning hours of Sept. 30, the North Carolina General Assembly approved Senate Bill 119, which contains a provision that invalidates local ordinances put in place to regulate oil and gas operations.

The provision was added to the legislation just days after commissioners in Stokes County, N.C., unanimously approved a three-year moratorium on fracking.

The provision does not counteract the moratoria already in place in communities across the state, nor does it bar local governments from approving a moratorium. But it does make it easier for the N.C. Oil and Gas Commission to preempt such an ordinance. So it may deter the efforts of some counties aiming to pass similar ordinances, such as Chatham and Lee, which both removed fracking moratoria from their agendas following the approval of Senate Bill 119.

Previously, in order to preempt a local ordinance, state law required the Oil and Gas Commission to determine that it was put in place with the intent to “‘prohibit’ oil and gas exploration, development or production,” according to Richard Whisnant, a professor of public law and policy at the UNC School of Government. “Now, it just has to find that the local action is intended to ‘regulate’ oil and gas.”

At least one legislator regretted his vote in favor of the bill. Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-King, whose district includes Stokes County, voted in favor of the bill under the impression that it covered only technical changes. “Had I known the provision was in there, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” Holloway told reporters.

The provision “was not introduced in any bill during the session, was not germane to [Senate Bill 119], was introduced after the crossover deadline, was never heard in an appropriate committee and was never analyzed for the fiscal burdens it placed on local governments by a fiscal note,” said Ryke Longest, a professor at Duke University School of Law and Nicholas School of the Environment.

“Therefore, this changed language violated the rules which the legislature enacted for itself to govern how it handles legislation,” Longest said. Given the nature of how the provision was added to the bill, a court may have to determine its legality.

According to the text of Senate Bill 119, the provision aims to “maintain a uniform system for the management of oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities.”

Many doubt the provision was included solely for that purpose. Mary Kerley, spokeswoman for No Fracking in Stokes, released a statement condemning the General Assembly’s actions:

“[Stokes County] commissioners listened to the people of both parties and did the right thing. But this sneaky act by the legislature is not just an insult to the people of North Carolina, it also shows yet again that this legislature has no respect for local government. It couldn’t be any clearer that big money and out-of-state interests now own Raleigh, lock, stock and barrel.”

Similar concerns are rippling throughout the state, but some local governments are not backing down. On Tuesday, commissioners in Walnut Cove unanimously voted to hold a public hearing regarding the proposal of a three-year moratorium on fracking.

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