Archive for the ‘All Posts’ Category

A moment of truth for Kentucky’s coal regulators

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes.

A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes. Photo from LRC (Ky.) Public Information.

In June 2013, mine operator and Kentucky state representative Keith Hall went to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with a complaint.

Kelly Shortridge, a mine inspector with the Division of Mine Enforcement and Reclamation in Pikeville, had been soliciting Hall for bribes to ignore violations on Hall’s Pike County surface mines.

Hall told two cabinet officials that he had already paid Shortridge “a small fortune,” and that the mine inspector “liked the Benjamins.” A report was drawn up, forwarded to the cabinet’s investigator general and Secretary Len Peters, and went nowhere.

The FBI began investigating the matter when the Lexington Herald-Leader published Hall’s complaint report through an open records request. In June, Hall was found guilty of bribing Shortridge to ignore Hall’s safety and environmental violations.

During the trial, the bureau submitted evidence that strongly suggests Keith Hall was not the only operator paying Kelly Shortridge. Shortridge himself has admitted to taking bribes from other Pike County operators.

So how deep does the conspiracy go? That’s the question many are asking in the wake of Hall’s trial. The Herald-Leader published a recent editorial that pointed out the familiar territory here:

This is not the first time questions have arisen about the Pikeville office of the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement where Shortridge, an inspector for 24 years, worked.

Other Pikeville-based inspectors allowed a surface mine (not owned by Hall) to operate without a permit for 18 months, until July 2010, when rain dislodged the unreclaimed mountain and flooded out about 80 families. One of the inspectors retired a month later.

Remember, too, that the division went years without penalizing coal companies for filing bogus water pollution reports by copying and pasting the same data, month after month.

This falsified water pollution data was only discovered after a coalition of environmental and citizen groups including Appalachian Voices discovered water monitoring reports that the department had neglected to review for over three years. The fact that the FBI had to find out about Hall’s allegations by reading the newspaper – and not through the cabinet itself – reveals a similar pattern of negligence.

How committed is the cabinet to enforcing Kentucky’s environmental and safety regulations around mining? The answer may lie in the phenomenally small salary that the state was paying Shortridge at the time of his 2014 resignation: $45,160 a year.

This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it speaks volumes about how our regulatory systems function, what they prioritize, and what motivates the individuals who operate within them. Shortridge was using his small salary, in addition to the bribes he was taking from Hall and others, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. It’s impossible to speculate about his personal character, but it does seem clear that he was responding to a specific set of material conditions in a way that most individuals on that kind of salary – and in that kind of position – very likely would.

Without much incentive to enforce existing regulations, and knowing that it pays more to cozy up to the industry than to fight it, we really must ask: how many other Kelly Shortridges are out there? This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask of a regulatory system that, at best, lacks the political capital and material resources to enforce violations, and, at worst, is overseen by the very mine operators it’s supposed to be regulating. (Before being voted out of office in 2014, Keith Hall was the vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.)

Finally, Keith Hall’s remark that Kelly Shortridge “liked the Benjamins” – an incredibly condescending statement from a man who once appropriated his own county’s coal severance tax to the benefit of one of his companies – is revelatory. It hints that there are boundaries to what is and what isn’t acceptable within relationships between the coal industry and the state: Shortridge was getting ambitious; his greed was somehow different than Hall’s. Keep in mind that this was confessed to two cabinet officials, mob-style, as if Shortridge was breaking a set of established rules. Hall needed Shortridge until he didn’t, and then sold him down the river when he became an annoyance.

Now that they’re both paying for breaking the rules, will Governor Steve Beshear’s administration adequately investigate further possible corruption? It unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

As the Herald-Leader editorial notes, “This should be a moment of truth, but history tells us not to expect an aggressive self-examination of the state agency’s love affair with the coal industry.”

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Virginia city first to support POWER+

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015 - posted by Adam

Welcome to Norton6

The city of Norton, in southwest Virginia, just took an important, forward-looking leadership position in the effort to diversify the region’s economy and create a healthier, more sustainable future.

Tuesday evening, the city council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution supporting the POWER+ Plan, the federal budget proposal to steer billions of dollars for economic development and diversification to Appalachia’s coal-impacted communities, including those in Virginia. It’s the first such local resolution of support in the nation for the plan, proposed earlier this year by the White House.

The city’s resolution also urges U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Congressman Morgan Griffith (9th District, Va.) to support “any plan that targets redevelopment funding opportunities for our region.”

Please contact your Senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachia.

Appalachian Voices championed this resolution with Norton’s leaders, and commend them for leading the way on this vital issue. We and our partners have been working throughout Central Appalachia to promote this vital opportunity, which would fund job retraining and infrastructure investments, as well as direct new funding to clean up abandoned mines.

The POWER+ Plan creates new funding and bolsters existing federal programs designed to diversify the economy in areas that have relied heavily on coal and have seen job losses as a result of the contracting coal economy in recent years.

Here’s the text of the resolution:

WHEREAS: The POWER+ Plan is a component within the 2016 federal budget proposed by President Obama; and

WHEREAS: The POWER+ Plan, if approved by Congress, would authorize billions of dollars in federal programs targeted to improve the economy of the Appalachian Coalfields, including the economies of Southwest Virginia and the City of Norton; and

WHEREAS: The Plan specifically includes increased funding for the Abandoned Mined Land Fund, Appalachian Regional Commission, and the United Mine Workers of America Health and Pension Plan; and

WHEREAS: The City of Norton desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances facing our region and the increased federal funding targeting our region that would help to leverage local efforts;

NOW, THEREFORE, LET IT BE RESOLVED THAT the City of Norton supports any initiative, such as the proposed increased funding noted above as included in POWER+ Plan, and that the City encourages Senators Kaine and Warner and Congressman Griffith to support any plan that targets redevelopment funding opportunities for our region.

Ask your senators to support the POWER+ Plan.

Va. City First Locality Nationwide to Support POWER+

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015 - posted by cat

Contact:
Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator, Appalachian Voices, 276-679-1691, adam@appvoices.org

Norton City Council voted unanimously yesterday evening in favor of a resolution supporting a federal budget proposal to steer billions of dollars for economic development and diversification to Appalachia’s coal-impacted communities, including those in Virginia. It’s the first such local resolution of support in the nation for the “POWER+ Plan” proposed earlier this year by the White House.

The city’s resolution also urges U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Congressman Morgan Griffith (9th District, Va.) to support “any plan that targets redevelopment funding opportunities for our region.”

The POWER+ Plan creates new funding and bolsters existing federal programs designed to diversify the economy in areas that have relied heavily on coal, and have seen job losses as a result of the contracting coal economy in recent years.

Environmental groups across Appalachia have been promoting the plan, which would fund job retraining and infrastructure investments, as well as direct new funding to clean up abandoned mines.

“We are excited to see this resolution passed with unanimous support from the Norton City Council,” said Adam Wells of Appalachian Voices, which championed the resolution. “The city just took an important, forward-looking leadership position in the effort to diversify the region’s economy and create a healthier, more sustainable future. I commend the members of the council for leading the way.”

Text of the resolution:

WHEREAS: The POWER+ Plan is a component within the 2016 federal budget proposed by President Obama; and

WHEREAS: The POWER+ Plan, if approved by Congress, would authorize billions of dollars in federal programs targeted to improve the economy of the Appalachian Coalfields, including the economies of Southwest Virginia and the City of Norton; and

WHEREAS: The Plan specifically includes increased funding for the Abandoned Mined Land Fund, Appalachian Regional Commission, and the United Mine Workers of America Health and Pension Plan; and

WHEREAS: The City of Norton desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances facing our region and the increased federal funding targeting our region that would help to leverage local efforts;

NOW, THEREFORE, LET IT BE RESOLVED THAT the City of Norton supports any initiative, such as the proposed increased funding noted above as included in POWER+ Plan, and that the City encourages Senators Kaine and Warner and Congressman Griffith to support any plan that targets redevelopment funding opportunities for our region.

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Stream “protection” rule falls short

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015 - posted by tom

spr_tom

On July 16, the Department of the Interior released a draft of the long-awaited Stream Protection Rule to regulate surface coal mining. If done right, the final rule could safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

While the proposed rule appears to take steps in that direction, it is far too weak and would still allow coal companies to blow the tops off mountains and bury mountain streams with the waste. Comments from citizens like you demanding a strong rule will be critical. (We’ll have more details soon on how you can get involved.)

In announcing the proposal, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell spoke of the body of science that demonstrates the health threats and ecological harm caused by mountaintop removal. We commend this recognition of the facts.

She also tacitly acknowledged that the destruction wrought by mountaintop removal severely impedes efforts to make “coalfield communities more resilient for a diversified economic future,” and we vigorously applaud that.

But we emphatically disagree with the secretary’s statement that the proposed rule represents a “balanced approach to energy development.” There is nothing balanced about blowing the tops off ancient mountains and jeopardizing the health of thousands of Americans.

Appalachian Voices, our partner groups and citizens directly impacted by mountaintop removal have met repeatedly with the Obama administration to press for a rule that would make a positive and profound difference on the ground. Many of you have contacted the administration as well. Still, this proposal falls short.

Our experts are working with our partners to analyze the 2,600-page document, paying particular attention to provisions regarding valley fills, stream buffers, water quality monitoring, watershed impacts, bonding requirements and standards for stream restoration and land reclamation.

This is the administration’s first, and probably only, rule directly addressing mountaintop removal. It’s taken five years. In the meantime, mountaintop removal is still happening, and it’s moving closer to communities. It remains the overwhelming environmental threat to Appalachia’s communities and natural heritage. This rule is the president’s best opportunity to institute lasting protections against the abuse this region has suffered for decades. We need him to take it.

For Appalachia,
Tom

Ginseng’s growing role in the new Appalachian economy

Monday, July 20th, 2015 - posted by Adam
The cultivation of ginseng, a medicinal plant native to Appalachia,

The cultivation of ginseng, a medicinal plant native to Appalachia, could provide a boost for local economies.

Most people who live in or come to visit the mountains know that just being here, surrounded by lush green hills and clear, fast-flowing rivers, can have a healing effect on the soul.

But not as many people know that many of the plants that make the mountains’ forest floor so lush and green have real medicinal properties and, when used properly, can help treat ailments ranging from sore throats to cancer.

Growing and marketing those wild medicinal plants and herbs was the subject of a recent workshop offered by the group Appalachian Communities Encouraging Economic Diversification (AppalCEED) in Norton, Va. Based in the heart of Virginia’s coal country, AppalCEED works to promote sustainable ways to diversify the local economy. The workshop focused on helping local landowners, farmers and gardeners gain the information they need to break into this innovative and sustainable market.

Turnout to the workshop was a testament to the possibilities and enthusiasm for new ideas to boost local economies. The room was overflowing with interested people who came from as far away as Williamson, W.Va. — an hour-and-a-half drive.

Part of the draw was the expert panel that AppalCEED assembled for the workshop, which included three experts on the cultivation of wild and medicinal plants and herbs. Scott Persons, Jeanine Davis and David Grimsley are each highly regarded as “gurus” in their niche field of study, and each gave detailed presentations on their respective areas of expertise. Persons and Davis have co-authored a book together that is held as The authoritative text on growing and marketing the plants.

Another big draw is the fact that wild ginseng, perhaps the best known of Appalachian wild medicinal plants, fetches anywhere from $700 to $1,200 per dried pound. While it’s possible to cultivate ginseng on a commercial scale in large fields, the resulting crop is deemed to be of lower quality than its wild-grown counterparts.

Persons has spent his career developing a technique known as “wild simulated” cultivation, where ginseng plants are deliberately planted in small patches in woodlands. This allows for resources and energy to be concentrated, streamlining the process. He’s also developed techniques that can produce a product identical to that of ginseng that would pop up naturally in the wild.

While Scott’s presentation was exclusively on ginseng, Davis and Grimsley focused their talks on other plants, such as goldenseal, black cohosh and even some medicinal plants native to China. All three presenters stress how cultivating these plants in our woodlots and gardens can help to preserve threatened wild stock from being over harvested.

They also discussed strategies for cultivators to supplement their income through strategic marketing. Grimsley in particular is working to develop co-op-like arrangements among consortiums of growers in Floyd County, Va., to reduce production costs and increase collective selling power.

At the end of the day, we’re still talking about farming, even if it’s on a small scale. And while farming these plants won’t make anyone a millionaire overnight, the extra income can certainly help. Anything helps these days.

The coal bust has created some harsh economic realities here in Central Appalachia. The implications of our reliance on one major industry for a century are finally becoming unmistakably clear. No one industry or sector can or should replace coal as it fades into history. We could do well to take a lesson from Appalachia’s forests: there’s strength and healing in diversity.

Virginians’ electric bills could shrink under Clean Power Plan

Monday, July 20th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Appalachian Voices' members deliver a petition supporting a strong Clean Power Plan to the office of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Appalachian Voices’ members deliver a petition supporting a strong Clean Power Plan to the office of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. A new report from Public Citizen underscores the economic benefits of investing in energy efficiency to comply with the plan.

A new report from Public Citizen’s Climate Program details how the EPA’s soon-to-be finalized standards on carbon pollution could lower Virginians’ power bills.

The strategy for achieving this benefit is simple: invest in cost-effective energy efficiency programs first.

You may be wondering why yet another document is necessary to make the obvious case for improving energy efficiency. After all, Virginia already has a state goal of reducing retail electricity 10 percent by 2020.

But Public Citizen’s report is so important now — just a few weeks ahead of the final Clean Power Plan’s release — because the EPA’s detractors continue to argue that the plan will be very costly for Virginians.

Ever since the EPA announced the proposal last summer, misconceptions and red herring arguments have circulated, some stranger and more exaggerated than others. At a committee meeting in Richmond, for example, an opponent of the plan made the mind-boggling claim that more premature deaths will potentially result from the standards than would be prevented.

Beyond baseless arguments about negative health impacts, opponents of the Clean Power Plan weave a tangled web when they attack the standards on the basis of rising energy costs.

As the report points out, rates are not what consumer advocates should be most concerned with in this case. Customers’ utility costs are determined by the price they pay per megawatt hour and their usage. According to the report, Virginians can expect to see electricity bills go down on average about $147 annually.

Before anyone decides how to spend that extra $147, note that that figure is likely conservative, and monthly savings for customers may be greater for a couple of reasons. First, that number was arrived at using the EPA’s estimates of what it costs to run programs that save energy, and the EPA indicates that those estimates are 60 to 100 percent higher than they should be given more recent studies that show energy efficiency can be done for much less.

Second, it doesn’t consider the cost of energy efficiency gains coming down as economies of scale are reached, treating efficiency instead as a tree from which fruit gets harder to collect once the low-hanging ones are already picked. So it is quite possible that customers will save much more through participating in efficiency programs, eliminating the need or desire by utilities to construct new natural gas and nuclear facilities.

An introductory summary as well as the full Public Citizen report are online. This Media Matters piece from last year breaks down the myths and the facts about the Clean Power Plan, which will be finalized next month.

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Interior Department Issues Draft Stream Protection Rule

Thursday, July 16th, 2015 - posted by brian

Contact: Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

Today, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a long-awaited draft of the Stream Protection Rule, which the agency has been working on since 2010. The purpose of the rule is to prevent or minimize the impacts of surface coal mining on surface water and groundwater. The agency’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement to accompany the draft rule includes several alternative options, some of which include sections that are stronger than the agency’s preferred alternative.

The following is a statement from Thom Kay, Appalachian Voices’ Legislative Associate.

“The people of Central Appalachia have waited a long time for robust federal action to protect their streams and communities from the damages of surface coal mining. At first glance, the draft appears to improve some drastically outdated provisions of an ineffective rule. But it’s not worth cheering for the rule as long as it allows companies to continue dumping their mining waste in our streams.

“Despite the regional coal industry’s decline, existing surface mines have been expanding closer and closer to homes, continuing to put the health of local communities at risk.

“We will continue working with citizens to ensure the agency’s final rule presents the strongest possible protections.

“When finalized, this rule will largely define President Obama’s legacy on the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal coal mining.”

>> Read our blog post from yesterday: How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?
>> Read a brief overview of the Stream Protection Rule.
>> OSM’s press release about the rule with further links.

How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015 - posted by Erin
Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that surface coal production nationwide decreased about 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, while production from surface mines that include mountaintop removal mining in three central Appalachian states had decreased 62 percent.

At first, this seems like a huge win in the fight against mountaintop removal mining, a practice that is devastating to community health and the environment, and yields few jobs compared to traditional mining practices. While it is a step in the right direction, declining production is not a sufficient measure of the ongoing human and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal.

Closer examination of the data calls into question the adequacy of the legal definition of “mountaintop removal” and, more importantly, demonstrates that much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

First, let’s look at the numbers reported by the EIA. The post, published on the agency’s Today In Energy blog, opens by saying, “Coal production from mines with mountaintop removal (MTR) permits has declined since 2008, more than the downward trend in total U.S. coal production.” While this is true, comparing the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in nationwide surface production (62 and 21 percent, respectively) gives the false impression that mountaintop removal, in particular, is on its way out. However, when you compare the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in surface mine production only for Central Appalachia, the picture looks much different: surface mine production in Central Appalachia has declined by 55 percent from 2008 to 2014.

With this new information, it becomes apparent that mountaintop removal production has not declined much more than surface mining on the whole in Central Appalachia. Given the similarity, we can attribute the decline in mountaintop removal largely to the same market forces that are leading to a decline in all coal mining in Central Appalachia.

The EIA report also relies on the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act’s (SMCRA) narrow definition of what constitutes mountaintop removal mining — essentially, a surface mine “running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill” that is exempt from returning the land to “approximate original contour” because the new land use is intended to be of equal or better economic or public value. The problem with this definition of mountaintop removal is that many Central Appalachian surface mines that cross ridgelines and employ many of the same problematic practices — large-scale blasting, mining through streams, and valley filling — are not, under SMCRA’s narrow definition, considered mountaintop removal mines.

The reality on the ground is that the rugged terrain of Central Appalachia makes it difficult to conduct any large-scale surface mine without mining across a ridgeline. Take for example the recently permitted Jim Justice-owned surface mine in McDowell County, W.Va. The Big Creek Surface Mine certainly cross multiple ridgelines and will construct a valley fill within half a mile of a Head Start preschool, yet this mine is not considered a mountaintop removal mine by either the federal government or the state of West Virginia. Furthermore, the valley fill does not require a 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, as it is not being constructed in public waters of the United States.

These facts mean there is little the local community, largely unsupportive of the mine, can do to stop it. Additionally, reclamation of the site requires that the company return the land to its “approximate original contour.” That phrase has never been clearly defined, however, so the land will be returned to a much lower elevation, lacking the fully functioning forest and ecosystems present before mining.

Another issue is that measuring mountaintop removal only by production and permit designation does not lead to a full accounting of the destruction done to the land as a whole.

Back in April, Appalachian Voices undertook a mapping analysis to look at how surface mines are impacting local communities. We had noticed that, even though mining is declining in the region, we are still regularly contacted by impacted residents. So we set out to determine if surface mining was moving closer to communities, and through our Communities at Risk project, we confirmed that mines are in fact encroaching even more on local residents.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on iLoveMountains.org.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on iLoveMountains.org.

To complete this analysis, we identified surface mines across the region using satellite imagery and other data to differentiate between mining and non-mining areas. We excluded areas less than 25,000 square meters. This left us with a map layer of large surface mines, including mountaintop removal mines (whether designated as such by any government agencies, or not), across the region.

This data set is useful not only for our Communities at Risk tool, but also for other analysis on the trends in surface mining in Central Appalachia over time. Using this map, we determined the current amount of land disturbance due to mining — basically any area that is barren due to active mining, recently idled or abandoned mines, or mines not yet reclaimed — has declined from 148,000 acres in 2008 to 89,000 acres in 2014.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly compare yearly production numbers to the number of acres disturbed to yield that production. Land within a surface mine is constantly being shifted, blown up, backfilled, and regraded. Basically, not all barren areas are actively producing coal at any given time. Many areas stay barren for years, while other areas of the mine are producing coal (despite legal requirements for contemporaneous reclamation).

The comparison we can make is that the amount of currently barren land is not falling as fast as production numbers. The extent of surface mined area (whether active, idled, or just unreclaimed) has declined about 40 percent, while production from Central Appalachian surface mines has declined 55 percent.

Essentially, we have more unreclaimed land in 2014, per ton of coal produced in 2014, than in previous years. This is likely due to a number of factors:

  • As thinner, deeper seams are mined, more land must be disturbed per ton of production;
  • Recently, mines have been idled, or even bond-forfeited due to market pressures; and
  • Reclamation is a slow and expensive process.

Mathew Louis-Rosenburg, a West Virginia resident, sums up the problem of only considering the EIA numbers without on-the-ground context:

“On the ground, we measure [mountaintop removal] in acres lost, in water contaminated, communities harmed. The steep decline in surface mine productivity means that a lot more land is being disturbed to get that smaller tonnage and idled mines still contaminate water at a similar rate to active ones. The battle here is far from over and stories like this just lead more and more resources and support to leave the region because people from elsewhere think that we have won already.”

It is beyond time for the Obama administration to take action to end destructive surface mining across Central Appalachia. We are hopeful that a strong Stream Protection Rule will go a long way toward protecting the streams and the people of the region. The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) could also go a long way in protecting communities from health impacts confirmed by mounting scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of success on either of these actions decreases every time misleading evidence suggests this problem has gone away. You can help prevent this by telling the Obama administration to end mountaintop removal and by keeping this conversation going among a national audience. We owe that to the people of Central Appalachia.

Eliminating poverty housing with efficient and alternative energy use

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015 - posted by eliza
A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity lays a timber frame on their first house, which was built with energy efficiency and alternative energy to lessen the burden of utility bills on people living in poverty.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity lays a timber frame on their first house, which was built with energy efficiency and alternative energy to lessen the burden of utility bills on people living in poverty. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

When North Carolina’s Ashe County Habitat for Humanity formed five years ago, seven people, some who live off the grid, came together to study how to best build a home.

They made a commitment not only to affordability, but also to energy savings, and the board voted to build all Ashe County Habitat houses to maximize efficiency and place an emphasis on alternative energy.

“The benefits of energy efficiency fell into the basic requirements of the Habitat ministry,” says Gerry Tygielski, construction chairman for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity, which is founded on a “focus to eliminate poverty housing.”

To get a Habitat house, one must have an inherent need, be fiscally responsible, take part in the building process and take courses on house maintenance. The motive of Ashe County Habitat is to not only lower the cost of the mortgage, but also the cost of living in the house. Almost one in seven families in Ashe County live below the poverty line, according to the most recent census data.

“This past winter, we heard of some people having heating bills of $500 a month,” Tygielski says. “When you’re renting for another $500, that can bankrupt some people.”

The first Ashe Habitat house is a net-zero building, meaning that the energy produced by alternative energy on the house is equal to the energy used in the house. The average cost of heating and powering the house is $50 each month, says Tygielski. The second Ashe County Habitat house is currently underway and will be near, but not quite, zero net energy, due to budget constraints, but Tygielski says that they will be close since the price of solar has gone down.

The house is built with insulated concrete form, a novel construction material that uses what we commonly know as styrofoam, and has a higher insulation and fire rating than conventionally built homes with timber, insulation and drywall. It eliminates air leaks, which, on average, amounts to the air that escapes through an open window, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Insulated concrete foam is not widely used, but it is becoming more popular for constructing basements.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity set foam blocks into place. Concrete will be poured over the blocks to create an airtight wall.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity set foam blocks into place. Concrete will be poured over the blocks to create an airtight wall. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

High-quality storm windows also reduce air leakage, a metal roof reduces the amount of energy absorbed in the attic and solar panels provide a renewable energy source. But arguably the most efficient aspect of the house is the heating system, a geothermal heat pump. A six-foot trench, a pond or a well accesses the water table at Earth’s year-round internal temperature of 55 degrees. A compressor extracts heat from the water to heat air and pump it into the house. A conventional heat pump extracts heat from the air outdoors down to five degrees.

In northwestern North Carolina’s High Country, harsh winters are commonplace and days with temperatures below five degrees are increasing.

Conventional electric heat pumps are three times more efficient than a gas or oil furnace, Tygielski says. A geothermal heat pump is three times more efficient than an electric pump, reducing a $300-400 heating bill to $100.

“There is a premium you pay for having that opportunity, but it pays for itself so quickly that it’s a good investment,” he says. Their initial estimate says that the extra costs of making the first Ashe County Habitat house will be paid back in 10 years through lower utility bills, mainly due to greatly reduced heating costs.

This concept has a similar ring to on-bill financing, a utility-led program that provides loans for energy efficiency upgrades. The repayments, made on a homeowner’s utility bill, are structured so that they are equal to or less than the amount of energy savings resulting from the upgrades.

John Parker, an electrician who founded Parker Electric, donated his time to install solar panels on both Ashe County Habitat for Humanity's houses.

John Parker, an electrician who founded Parker Electric, donated his time to install solar panels on both Ashe County Habitat for Humanity’s houses. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

Tygielski recognizes that there is a lack of public understanding about the basics of energy efficiency and that something can be done about high heating bills. Not to mention “people are busy working themselves to death to pay the bills,” he says. “They’re not in the position to be investing in home improvements.” He says an on-bill financing program gives people a chance to do something they probably would never be able to do otherwise.

In the last two years at least six people in Ashe County have been referred to Tygielski that cannot afford their utility bills. His response is to direct them to a Habitat for Humanity house application. Within a year, he may also be able to direct people to apply for an on-bill finance program offered by Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp, an electric co-op that serves the High Country.

The electric cooperative is currently looking into on-bill finance program designs. If you are a member, please sign our letter of support to Blue Ridge Electric!

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Turning down the heat: A collaborative effort to reduce energy bills

Friday, July 10th, 2015 - posted by rory

This piece was co-authored by Jen Weiss, a senior finance analyst at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing easily within reach for all income levels.

The North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing easily within reach for all income levels.

There’s no doubt about it. June was HOT.

While extreme temperatures can make outdoor activities unbearable, they can also send electric utility bills skyrocketing across most of North Carolina and place high demands on the state’s electric utility infrastructure.

As heating and cooling equipment are pushed to the max, the demands are made even more significant due to inefficiently insulated and poorly weatherized houses that lose cool air as quickly as it is generated. But the cost to weatherize a home can make energy efficiency improvements unaffordable — particularly for homeowners who are already burdened with basic housing costs that can outweigh their limited income.

With the aim of providing these homeowners with a solution that will reduce their energy bills and improve home comfort, a collaborative working group was recently been formed by leading energy advisors in the Southeast. Working with multiple stakeholders across the state, the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing within reach for all income levels.

The Challenge: High Energy Costs

High energy costs can be particularly challenging for lower income Americans. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average North Carolinian spends $3,714 annually on energy costs. With a median household income of $46,334, this equates to 8 percent of the average residents’ annual income. This is nearly three times the national average of 2.7 percent in 2012. In rural communities where median household income tends to be much lower, averaging $22,000, energy expenditures as a percentage of household income can be as much as 17 percent or higher.

This situation is only going to get worse as it is predicted that energy costs will continue to rise in coming years. Energy efficiency improvements for North Carolinians can alleviate the impact of current and future energy costs. Unfortunately, many homeowners cannot afford the upfront cost to weatherize their properties or purchase energy-efficient appliances that will reduce their energy bills. North Carolina residents of all income levels need access to streamlined and simple energy efficiency finance programs that can help make energy more affordable.

A Solution: Utility On-Bill Programs for Energy Efficiency Financing

Fortunately, proven models exist that expand access to financing for energy efficiency improvements for everyone, including people who may not qualify for loans under traditional underwriting criteria. Known as “on-bill” programs, these financing models provide a mechanism whereby the upfront cost of energy saving improvements and equipment is funded by the electric utility or a third-party financier, and ratepayers are able to pay down the cost through a monthly payment on their electric bill.

Depending on the structure of these programs and the initial source of capital used to finance the program, on-bill programs offer a number advantages to participants, particularly low-income consumers. Advantages include performance-based repayment schedules that align the monthly payback with projected savings achieved, creating a net savings for the consumer. In other words, even with the new charge added to their electric bill, the customer will still pay less on an annual basis than they would have without the improvements. Additionally, on-bill programs can be structured so that they are available to renters and businesses.

Partners in Efficiency: North Carolina’s Rural Electric Member Cooperatives

Together, North Carolina’s 26 electric member cooperatives (co-ops) serve roughly 937,000 members, provide electric service to rural areas in 93 of the state’s 100 counties, and account for 23.7 percent of total electric sales in the state. Many of the state’s electric co-ops and municipal utilities serve communities characterized by ratepayers with lower than average median household incomes and limited access to low-cost financing.

A 2014 study of census data found that these utilities serve the highest concentrations of low-income communities across the Southeast, making co-ops and municipal utilities key stakeholders and powerful allies in addressing this issue. Dedicated to improving the lives and communities of those they serve, many co-ops have developed or are exploring energy efficiency finance programs. It is the goal of the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group to support all of North Carolina’s electric co-ops who are interested in developing an on-bill program for their own members.

Benefits to North Carolina Residents

  • Expanded access to capital for ratepayers at all income levels including homeowners, renters and businesses.
  • Performance-based repayment schedules that align the monthly payback with energy savings.
  • Low- to no-cost opportunity to improve energy performance and home comfort.

Benefits to North Carolina Utilities

  • Reduced complaints from customer regarding high bills and problems paying electric bills.
  • Enhanced customer satisfaction.
  • Reduced need to build new generation facilities by reducing peak demand.
  • Helps to achieve energy efficiency and/or renewable energy goals

About the North Carolina On-Bill Finance Working Group

The North Carolina On-Bill Finance Working Group — a partnership of Appalachian Voices, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Finance Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance — has been formed to work with North Carolina co-ops and other community stakeholders to provide the education and support resources needed to establish on-bill programs and expand access to energy efficiency programs for residents across the state.

As the Working Group ramps up its efforts, we will be reaching out to electric co-ops, community partners and other stakeholders to identify the needs and challenges faced by co-ops, and to work toward solutions that facilitate the development of new on-bill programs throughout North Carolina. If you are interested in learning more about the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group or supporting our efforts, send an email to NCOnBill@seealliance.org.