Archive for the ‘All Posts’ Category

Virginia General Assembly compromises on solar

Thursday, February 11th, 2016 - posted by hannah

Bills Headed to Special Subcommittee this Summer

Legislation being considered by the Virginia General Assembly would make a big difference for residents who want to go solar but can’t currently afford the upfront cost.

Legislation being considered by the Virginia General Assembly would make a big difference for residents who want to go solar but can’t currently afford the upfront cost.

While football fans were pumping up for the Big Game last weekend, supporters of clean power in Virginia were gearing up for a different showdown as key committees in the General Assembly prepared to take up important clean energy legislation.

Usually, these committees simply take a straight vote to pass or kill each measure. This week, however, several bills met with a different fate that we could not have predicted, and it could actually mean real progress for the solar solutions we want to see.

Where’s the controversy over freedom of clean energy choice?

A great group of bills were before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and the House Special Energy Subcommittee this past Monday and Tuesday. If passed, they would make a big difference for residents who want to go solar but can’t afford the upfront cost or do not have a roof or yard well-suited for an array of their own, or for a school or church that needs a no-upfront-cost option.

HB 618 and HB 1285 would allow community-scale solar installations to which customers could opt to subscribe; HB 1286 would clarify that it’s legal in Virginia for a company to sell a customer renewable energy from a system on the customer’s property; SB 140 would remove the punitive monthly fees called “standby charges” for accounts with solar arrays under 20 kilowatts, while increasing the allowable size of a residential solar array that can be connected to the grid.

Proponents of these measures point to the vast difference between the solar power installed in North Carolina and Virginia to date — our neighbors to the south have so far outpaced us 30 times over. It’s reasonable to expect that by adopting policies modeled on those states that have accelerated solar power, we can catch up and become more attractive to businesses that demand clean energy. It’s a point that Governor McAuliffe made in his State of the Commonwealth speech, which may turn out to be a motivating factor for legislators to begin getting serious about prioritizing solar development through innovative means.

Going into this week’s docket of energy bills, the leadership of the Commerce and Labor Committee must have found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea: that is, between utilities’ preference for the status quo and reticence to embrace distributed clean energy, and fired-up constituents and renewable energy businesses calling for movement on bills that can grow jobs and enhance customer options. Advocates even planned a Clean Energy Lobby Day around the House subcommittee, so seats in the room were filled with representatives from energy efficiency and renewable energy firms and organizations from across the commonwealth.

Can’t table them, can’t pass them — they’ll tackle them this summer

So presented with these bills, in a committee room packed with interested parties, rather than table them (“table” being the customary polite term for unceremoniously kill), committee chairmen Terry Kilgore and Frank Wagner announced they are both forming a new special committee to consider these bills during the coming year. The committees then carried all the bills they did not “have sufficient time” to hear this week to 2017 with a letter directing the bills to these committees will meet in the summer — that is, almost every bill relating to clean energy financing, connecting to the grid, community scale, or in fact how efficiency programs are evaluated.

We do not yet know the membership of these committees; they will be selected from among the legislators who serve on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and House Energy Subcommittee and who contact the respective committee chair asking to be placed on the panel. We are aware that Dominion and Appalachian Power will bring their formidable influence to this committee. But we can take it as an indicator of the strength of our rationale for making these vital changes to our energy policy and of the progress of our movement that these bills weren’t tabled (killed) in committee.

Credit goes to everyone who took action in the past year: each constituent who met with their legislators, called their offices, sent an email. Every consumer that spoke out against standby charges, policies that block solar, programs that inflate the cost of solar and let utilities extract value from environmentally conscious customers had a hand in this outcome.

We’ll keep in touch about opportunities to inform the members of these special committees on our issues. For now, Governor McAuliffe has the authority to guide Virginia’s energy policy away from deeper dependence on gas-fired power plants and toward a renewable energy-centered future so take a moment to sign our petition to Governor McAuliffe.

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POWER+ Plan has a place in Obama’s final budget

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016 - posted by brian

new-economy-main

Last year, the Obama administration accelerated the conversation about economic transition in Appalachia when it proposed a multi-billion dollar plan to invest in economic development in areas most affected by the coal industry’s decline.

The president’s eighth and final budget intends to continue that conversation.

On Tuesday morning, President Obama sent his plan for the federal government’s expenses during fiscal year 2017 to Congress. It lays out the president’s vision for spending on everything from clean energy to cancer research. We’re happy to announce that the POWER+ Plan is included.

Read the White House’s fact sheet: Investing in Coal Communities, Workers, and Technology: The POWER+ Plan

The version of POWER+ in the new budget essentially mirrors last year’s plan. It calls for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to be spent cleaning up abandoned strip mines, and to support economic development and workforce training in mining communities facing massive layoffs as coal is increasingly outcompeted in America’s energy mix.

The most significant difference may be the increased urgency of investments in Central Appalachia as some of the nation’s largest coal companies announce more layoffs, close mines and file for bankruptcy.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog or The Appalachian Voice, you know we’ve tracked the ups and downs of POWER+ over the past year. This time around, we hope to see Congress give this promising plan the attention it deserves.

Learn more about or work to diversify central Appalachia’s economy.

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Action needed: Va. General Assembly considers pipeline policy fixes

Thursday, February 4th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Virginians expressed their opposition to proposed natural gas pipelines in front of the Capitol Building in January.

Virginians expressed their opposition to proposed natural gas pipelines in front of the Capitol Building in January.

Late last month, we learned that the U.S. Forest Service rejected the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route. This development significantly checks the lickety-split pace of the project.

If that renews your desire to take action, there are opportunities channel that feeling into these important legislative fights in the General Assembly.

Lobby days in Richmond displayed pipeline opposition — now, committees coming up

As the chorus of Virginians voicing opposition to fracked gas pipelines in our region grows and becomes more diverse, we took our movement to the General Assembly for a major day of action to educate legislators about our agenda to safeguard land and water. On Tuesday, Jan. 19, participants from across Virginia came to Richmond and held dozens of meetings with state delegates and senators. Addressing attendees the morning of the event, State Senator John Edwards made it clear that he stands with Virginians who are concerned about the risks of the dirty pipeline proposals.

Citizen lobbyists covered issues including the landowners’ right to deny pipeline companies permission to enter their land to conduct invasive surveys (SB 614 and HB 1118) and the importance of requiring rigorous site-specific sediment and erosion control plans to protect streams and ensuring unrestricted public access to such plans (SB 726). Now these bills have been scheduled for upcoming committee meetings, so here are directions on informing your legislators:

SB 726 in Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 4

SB 726 would fix a serious problem with how Virginia limits erosion and sediment pollution from utility company construction projects, including pipelines. The status quo system would allow the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline to avoid proper regulation through a loophole. Area legislators in the relevant committee include senators Emmett Hanger and Mark Obenshain.

Tell your senator the current system is wrong — and here are some reasons why: it allows utility companies to avoid proper government agency oversight; it exempts utility companies from requirements that apply to all other construction projects; it excludes the public and local governments from involvement; and it greatly increases the threat of damage to the environment and property due to the extensive and complicated nature of these projects.

Virginia State Senator John Edwards speaks with citizens about pipeline legislation.

Virginia State Senator John Edwards speaks with citizens about pipeline legislation.

Urge your legislator to restore proper government oversight of these developments and revoke the free pass that companies now have to pollute Virginia waterways. Use the blue tab at the top of the General Assembly’s website to look up who represents you and find contact information for his or her office.

If you can make it, we encourage you to attend the committee at the General Assembly in Senate Room B on Thursday afternoon starting at or around 2 p.m. to impress the importance of these decisions upon our legislators in person.

Help Win Repeal of the “Survey Without Permission” Statute — Bills Up Soon in Commerce Committee

On Feb. 8 and 9, respectively, committees will take up SB 614 and HB 1118 related to companies’ ability to survey without landowner permission. You can contact your legislation in support of these measures by going to the General Assembly’s website and clicking the blue bar up top to find out who represents you and how to email or call their offices.

As background, HB 1118 and SB 614 are House and Senate versions of a bill to repeal VA 56-49.01, which allows Dominion to force surveys on unwilling property owners. That means that under Virginia law there is really no legal way for property owners to unequivocally demonstrate opposition to a gas pipelines, no matter the size, going through their property.

Be sure to contact your legislators before committees deal with these bills so that your comments will be most effective: the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee will discuss SB 614 Monday, Feb. 8, starting at approximately 2 p.m. The House Subcommittee on Energy will discuss HB 1118 on Tuesday, Feb. 9, starting at approximately 4 p.m. Again, feel free to attend, and contact hannah [at] appvoices [dot] org if you have questions about how to participate in these committees’ decisions.

What else does recent news tell us about these risky pipelines?

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) letter to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (that is, Dominion Resources) states that alternative routes cannot cut through “highly sensitive resources … of such irreplaceable character that minimization and compensation measures may not be adequate or appropriate and should be avoided.” The pipeline company has not, in the USFS’s view, demonstrated “why the project cannot reasonably be accommodated off National Forest Service (NFS) lands.”

If Dominion tries to stick with the original route, it will have to say why it thinks the pipeline has to be built on USFS lands. The company could propose a new route, impacting a different set of landowners and their properties, or it may have to go back to the drawing board with a new application. -We hope Dominion will turn in an entirely different direction, as this project, like the other pipelines proposed in Virginia, is unneeded, hazardous and misguided.

Communities in our region have been on the receiving end of the fracking boom. A major build-out of this kind of infrastructure will only worsen the impacts of fracking in those communities while locking us into decades of dependence on dirty energy. At the same time it defers our collective chance to harness the cleanest, most-sustainable energy sources — which happen to be a great deal for customers too.

Our work seems to be provoking a reaction. Dominion recently went into high-gear in its public relations. Spokesman Jim Norvelle said last week that gas-fired power plants are widely viewed as essential to meeting the goals of the Clean Power plan. To anyone who understands the economic opportunity presented by the EPA’s carbon pollution standards, or for those who have been reading recent reports describing the benefits of prioritizing renewable solar power, wind power and energy efficiency in Virginia, that probably sounds ludicrous. Whatever the polluters say or do next, and whenever there’s a chance to take action, we’ll be keeping you in the loop.

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Abandoned mines bill directs federal investment to communities hit hardest by coal decline

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016 - posted by brian

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

Washington, D.C. — A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress today would allocate $1 billion for cleaning up abandoned mine lands and advancing economic development in communities across the country that have been hardest hit by the coal-mining industry’s decline. The Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act would expedite the release of existing money in the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, which comes from a per-ton fee on all coal mined in the United States.

The bill was introduced by Reps. Hal Rogers (Ky.), Matt Cartwright (Penn.), Morgan Griffith (Va.), Don Beyer (Va.), and Evan Jenkins (W.Va.). The bill will be referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

“The RECLAIM Act is an imperative effort to help reinvigorate our hard-hit communities through economic and community development,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith in a press statement today. “I will continue fighting along with Congressman Rogers and others to advance economic development strategies such as this which would help keep and grow jobs in Appalachia.”

“Many coal communities in Appalachia simply do not have the resources to reclaim the abandoned mine sites within their borders,” Rep. Hal Rogers said. “This bill allows these communities to be proactive in restoring these sites and utilize them to put our people back to work.”

The bill is designed to help coal-dependent communities diversify their economies while addressing pollution that remains from inactive coal mines. The money would be distributed to states with existing abandoned mine programs over a five-year period. The funding proportions going to individual states would mirror the formula currently used by the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, which is based on historic coal production. State agencies would be encouraged to work with local governments and planning commissions to identify projects that meet the bill’s requirement of creating a lasting, positive economic impact.

Local support for such a program has been growing across the Appalachian coalfields for the past year. As of the end of January, 28 local government entities and organizations in the coal-bearing regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have passed resolutions endorsing the plan. (See list below.)

The current Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, which is administered by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, prioritizes remediation of old mining sites that pose immediate health or environmental hazards. By expanding the funding criteria to focus on the economic potential of clean-up projects, the RECLAIM Act would encourage state and local governments to collaborate on laying the groundwork for creating permanent jobs.

In particular, the bill highlights the importance of engaging community stakeholders in the process. It would also have other positive economic impacts such as benefiting tourism, removing visual blight from public areas, and improving the livability of communities. Examples of such projects include manufacturing facilities, forestry or agriculture projects, alternative energy facilities, and public parks and other tourism venues.

“We applaud Congressmen Griffith, Rogers and their colleagues for introducing this forward-thinking legislation,” said Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator with Appalachian Voices’ Wise County, Va., office. “More than two dozen local governments have called for federal investment in their communities. Releasing this funding now would support efforts taking place all across Central Appalachia to secure the region’s economic future.”


Local governments and other local entities that have passed resolutions in support of expedited federal funding for cleaning up abandoned mine lands and diversifying Central Appalachia’s economy:

Virginia:
City of Norton
Wise County
Cumberland Plateau Planning District
Town of Appalachia
Town Of Wise
Town of Dungannon
Town of Cleveland

Kentucky:
City of Whitesburg
City of Benham
Benham Power Board
Harlan County
City of Evarts
City of Vicco
Letcher County
Pike County
Bell County
Perry County
Floyd County
Hindman County
Knott County

West Virginia:
Fayette County
Lincoln County
City of Morgantown
Wyoming County
Kanawha County
Raleigh County

Tennessee:
Campbell County Commission

Organizations:
Appalachian Renaissance Initiative Student Senate (Kentucky)

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Va. leaders urge Gov. McAuliffe to reject Dominion’s climate-polluting plan

Thursday, January 28th, 2016 - posted by brian
This week, a wide array of Virginia leaders released a letter asking Gov. McAuliffe to reject efforts by Dominion Power that would increase carbon pollution in the Commonwealth. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This week, a wide array of Virginia leaders released a letter asking Gov. McAuliffe to reject efforts by Dominion Power that would increase carbon pollution in the Commonwealth. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s the latest news from Appalachian Voices’ Press Room:

Earlier this week, a wide array of Virginia civic, health, faith, and environmental leaders released a letter asking Governor Terry McAuliffe to reject all efforts by Dominion Virginia Power to push for implementation of historic federal clean power rules in a way that would increase carbon pollution in the Commonwealth.

Leaders representing 50 organizations, including Appalachian Voices, reminded McAuliffe that only he, as governor, is authorized to make the final decision on how to implement the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Power Plan” in Virginia. It is therefore his explicit responsibility to reduce carbon emissions while strengthening Virginia’s economy and helping improve public health. Anything less will support more pollution, which is “fundamentally contrary” to existing U.S. policy and the interests of Virginia residents, the groups write.

Tell Governor McAuliffe: Create a Bold Clean Power Plan for Virginia

“I cannot remember such a diverse range of groups weighing in on a pollution issue in Virginia before,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the group New Virginia Majority. “This letter calls for action on what we hope will be the governor’s greatest legacy. The governor can adopt a plan that will strengthen our economy while protecting people’s health now and for generations to come.”

The letter states that Virginia should reduce its total carbon pollution from power plants at least 30 percent by 2030, by applying the same standards to both existing and new power plants, and increasing our use of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

But Virginia utilities, led by Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, want a plan that would apply the federal rule only to old, existing power plants – not new fossil fuel power plants. This would allow Dominion to increase carbon pollution for decades more.

Read our full press release here.

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Do bankrupt coal company executives really deserve bonuses?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 - posted by brian

Debt-ridden companies are slashing worker benefits, struggling to clean up pollution — and handing out bonuses.

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Early Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr.

Before we explore that question, I’ll admit, the immoral logic of corporate compensation used to justify gigantic executive bonuses has always mystified me. I’m not highly educated on the matter, nor am I impartial.

Sure, I’d be willing to entertain an answer in the affirmative. But in the case of Alpha Natural Resources, which is swimming in debt and trying to navigate its way out of bankruptcy, it really seems resources could be better spent elsewhere. Paying taxes, for example. Communities in Appalachia could put millions of dollars owed by Alpha to good use.

But, no, they want their bonuses. So let’s hear them out.

Back in December, lawyers for Alpha asked the U.S. bankruptcy court to approve an “Incentive Plan for Certain Key Insider Employees,” a fancy way of saying $12 million for 15 top executives. Their argument is pretty simple — bankruptcy stinks and high-level employees may decide to cut their losses. The obvious solution: make it seem like they’re not losing — at all costs.

According to Alpha’s court filing, bonuses will go to executives “who are vital to the [the company’s] successful restructuring and the maximization of value for the benefit of all parties in interest.” OK, I can sort of see how this becomes logical for a company in bankruptcy.

Alpha has been struggling for years, though, and these bonuses actually exceed the payouts executives received in years past, even as the company barreled toward bankruptcy. The last time Alpha recorded a profit was in 2011. In the past five years, the company’s stock fell from $65 a share to around 35 cents.

Over the same period, it laid off 4,000 employees and shut down dozens of mines, mostly affecting communities in Central Appalachia where the company operates. Just yesterday, Alpha announced plans to close 10 mining complexes and lay off 886 coal miners and other personnel in southern West Virginia.

But in 2015, the year that Alpha declared bankruptcy with billions of dollars in debt, the maximum bonus pool for top staff was $8.4 million, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. If only Alpha’s balance sheet looked like its executives’ bank accounts.

It’s becoming difficult to give Alpha the benefit of the doubt. We don’t even know the names and positions of these supposedly high-performers keeping the company on course. And it looks like we never will.

Alpha’s lawyers argued that disclosing the executives’ identities, salaries and bonuses “may facilitate the hiring” of those executives away from Alpha “by competing businesses and, therefore, increase the likelihood that the Debtors will lose the valuable services of the [executives].”

Now it’s too hard to fake. Witnessing the irresponsibility and one-sidedness of the major coal bankruptcies in Appalachia and their aftershocks goes to show who has a voice and whose voices the system values.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee's scathing objection to Alpha's bonus plan.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee’s scathing objection to Alpha’s bonus plan.

Last year, Patriot Coal — while in its second bankruptcy — hatched a plan to pay a portion of its legal fees with millions of dollars earmarked for workers’ health care. There is growing concern nationwide that bankrupt coal companies, a group that now includes Arch Coal, won’t be able to afford to clean up their mines. And right now, Alpha is trying to revoke medical and life insurance benefits from retired miners and their spouses to save around $3 million a year.

The U.S. Trustee, a watchdog division of the U.S. Department of Justice, summarized the vast disconnect between what is right and what Alpha wants in its objection to the bonuses:

Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time incurring more than $1.3 Billion in losses for 2015. Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time seeking to cut off the health and life insurance benefits to some 1,200 rank-and-file retirees because it claims it desperately needs to save $3 Million a year. Alpha seeks this relief after demonstrating to this Court that it is so hopelessly insolvent that its shareholders have no chance of seeing any return on their investments into the companies.

Makes sense so far. Go on …

According to Alpha, these executives need these bonuses as an incentive to do the very jobs they were hired to do, that they are already highly compensated for with generous salaries, and which their fiduciary duties already compel them to do. Such bonuses cannot be justified under the facts and circumstances of this case.

Another common argument is based purely on the merits of the bonuses. How can it be possible that the same handsomely compensated executives who took home bonuses while steering Alpha into bankruptcy get sizable bonuses to help Alpha exit bankruptcy? Well, as lawyers for the United Mine Workers of America argue in their objection, the bonus plan was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it.”

Until recently, I never thought of “bankruptcy” and “bonanza” as being synonymous. Maybe rather than being mystified I’m just mad, and I can’t claim anything close to the level of outrage or broken trust thousands of Appalachian families can. But, like U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennekens said last week as he OKed Alpha’s bonus plan, “Cash is king.”

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Our hope for the year ahead

Friday, January 22nd, 2016 - posted by tom

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Appalachian Voices is beginning 2016 stronger than ever and positioned to advance a positive future for the region we all love. Standing with citizens from across Appalachia and from all walks of life, we are hard at work and have high hopes for the year ahead.

Since we launched our economic diversification program and opened an office in Southwest Virginia early last year, the conversation about how to hasten a just economic transition in Appalachia has only grown. A forward-thinking plan to expand funding for economic development initiatives is on the table. But for those initiatives to succeed, both political parties must make supporting investments to strengthen Appalachia’s economy a priority.

Beyond advocating for federal investment in workforce training, infrastructure and land restoration, Appalachian Voices is enlisting experts to develop plans for clean energy and other economic development opportunities in the coal-bearing region, including utilization of abandoned mine sites. By adding technical and policy resources where they are they needed most, we’ll further efforts to build the pillars of a healthier, more resilient regional economy.

Of course, the foundation for that renewed economy must be a healthy environment. And without science-based environmental protections that are fully enforced, we fear the movement to diversify the region’s economy will fall short. This year, the last of Obama’s presidency, is our best chance to see a long-awaited rule finalized to protect Appalachian streams from mining waste.

As we push for an effective Stream Protection Rule, we will remain focused on holding polluters accountable. Pursuing the same strategies that led to our landmark victory over Frasure Creek Mining in Kentucky late last year, we’ll sue coal companies that violate clean water laws, and we’ll put grassroots pressure on regulators to step up enforcement of existing protections.

Our goals demand that we stay deeply involved in action at the state level, where we are combatting the continued threats of fossil fuels. In Virginia, the movement to move beyond dirty energy is opposing proposed multi-billion dollar investments in huge pipelines that would lock the Southeast into an increased dependence on natural gas and exacerbate the impacts of fracking. In North Carolina, residents are coming together to fight the threat of fracking and address the ongoing crisis of coal ash pollution.

Appalachian Voices is committed to these important battles. We’re also increasingly focused on securing investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy by promoting policies and technologies that can reduce harmful pollution and create thousands of jobs. As a result of our efforts, rural electric cooperatives in both North Carolina and Tennessee on are the verge of developing cost-saving energy efficiency programs for their members.

We’re sure to encounter obstacles. Successful renewable energy policies in North Carolina will again face attacks by policymakers. Our electric utilities will tout natural gas and attempt to undermine consumer access to cleaner energy options. The familiar partisan battles over coal and climate change will intensify as election season nears. And states, some more reluctantly than others, will take steps toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan. But we know the landmark climate rule will help states expand clean energy and cut pollution — if only they embrace its potential.

The year is just getting started. But the stage is set for 2016 to be a historic year for clean energy, climate action and efforts to diversify economies that have long depended on the coal industry. With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Please consider joining to donating to support Appalachian Voices today.

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The 2016 General Assembly session begins in Virginia

Thursday, January 21st, 2016 - posted by hannah
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Clean energy is a major area for potential policy changes during this year’s General Assembly session. Here is a roundup of energy bills to watch.

Clean energy is a major area for potential policy changes during this year’s General Assembly session.

Governor Terry McAuliffe touched on the subject in his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, pledging to “stimulate economic growth by expanding our use of renewable energy” and touting recent commitments that amount to a 100-fold increase in solar generated in the state.

Still, some of the most exciting measures that legislators are considering face significant challenges. Here is a roundup of energy bills to watch.

Solar Power Solutions

Legislators who are allied with our clean energy agenda admit there are barriers to making meaningful change during this session. In a radio interview last week, Senator Creigh Deeds invoked lyrics from a familiar Talking Heads song to describe the partisan divide: “Same as it ever was.” This sentiment pointedly captures utility companies’ opposition to basic provisions governing customer freedom to select clean energy options and others aimed at reducing wasted energy in Virginia.

Last month, we discussed the vital need to legally clarify that it is legal in Virginia for an electricity customer to enter into an agreement to purchase power from a company than can install a renewable energy generating system on their property. Power Purchase Agreements can encourage arrangements that involve no upfront cost for the customer, present attractive cost-saving opportunities for schools and churches, and avoid more costly forms of generation while relieving grid congestion, among other benefits to the whole customer base. SB 139, SB 140, SB 148, HB 618 and a bill currently being finalized by Delegate Randy Minchew entitled the Renewable Energy Provisions Bill will all be considered as ways to promote solar affordably in Virginia.

Energy Efficiency Policy Reform

Year after year, one roadblock that has kept Virginia from improving energy efficiency is the fact that state regulators evaluate proposed energy efficiency programs using a flawed process. This method practically guarantees that the most thorough demand management measures, such as home and business assessments, will be denied. This results in fewer cost-saving options for customers and perpetuates a system that makes rewards utilities for pursuing more expensive ways to meet demand.

A bill sponsored by Delegate Lee Ware, HB 352, could reform these tests to give robust energy efficiency programs a better chance of being approved by the State Corporation Commission. HB 1053 and SB 395 are companion bills that are intended to address another dimension of this problem: in theory, electric utilities that operate energy efficiency programs are allowed to request recovery of the revenue that they have lost from the energy saved, that is, the energy the utility would have sold to customers. But regulators tend to be apprehensive about approving programs that could result in such future costs to ratepayers, and they can turn down programs based on that consideration. Other states have dealt with this by rewarding utilities a lesser dollar figure for the energy they save by running such programs — this a reform that the McAuliffe administration supports and one that should get traction this year.

Who’s Grandstanding Against the Clean Power Plan this Year?

Three bills introduced this year would impede Virginia’s compliance with federal carbon pollution standards and interfere with our path toward a clean energy future. HB 2, SB 21 and SB 482 all would require the General Assembly’s approval of the compliance plan prepared by the state Department of Environmental Quality. This approach is being advocated by the likes of the industry-friendly American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which recently lost American Electric Power as a member, apparently because of this very issue.

Governor McAuliffe expressed his intention to veto such legislation should both houses approve it, which is good news for the state’s economic and clean energy outlook. Even a consulting firm that Virginia’s utilities often look to has shown that the Clean Power Plan will reduce customer bills and grow clean energy, a sector that created $3.9 billion in revenue in Virginia in 2014.

Ensuring a Strong, Beneficial Clean Power Plan with the Virginia Coastal Protection Act

HB 351-SB 571 is the bipartisan Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act, which would authorize our state to join a carbon trading program with other states, providing more than $250 million in the first year through the auction of emission allowances. These funds would be divided to combat the effects of worsening sea-level rise, support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, and assist with economic development in Southwest Virginia.

Take a moment to fill your legislators in on the energy issues that matter to you most. Visit the General Assembly’s website and pull down the blue tab from the top of the page to look up who represents you, find email addresses for your state delegate and senator, search bills introduced this session and familiarize yourself with the civic process that determines Virginia’s energy policy. Then buckle up for a fast two-month-long General Assembly session!

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Open for business — APCo’s energy efficiency program

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016 - posted by hannah
APCo's website for customers seeking to make energy efficiency improvements.

APCo’s website for customers seeking to make energy efficiency improvements.

The frigid temperatures that are dominating Virginia drive us to seek warmth and comfort. The rough weather can also serve as a reminder for all of us to make sure our homes have a basic level of energy efficiency, which can shave some real money off of monthly bills.

Just in time for the arrival of the harshest winter chill, Appalachian Power Company has news we can use — the company has introduced a new set of energy saving programs in Virginia that you can opt to participate in.

One would think that utilities would have long ago made saving energy a priority: after all, companies often say they are seeking more ways to get greener while protecting ratepayers from expenses. Well-designed energy efficiency programs can achieve significant reduction in wasted energy and the pollution associated with it. As a recent study shows, this strategy can and should be part of Virginia’s plan to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan in a way that barely affects rates and will reduce bills by using less energy. Moreover, for households facing the tightest budgets, energy saving programs can make a real difference.

If you’re an APCo customer, your menu of energy saving options now includes quick choices like an appliance recycling program for unwanted working refrigerators or freezers, in-store discounts on efficient products, and a markdown on Energy Star manufactured housing. There is also a whole-house assessment called the Home Performance Program, which you can think of as a check-up for your home. Skilled, friendly contractors will perform a clipboard walkthrough over about two hours covering your entire home. Any recommended improvements will be listed for you, and financial incentives will be applied to approved energy saving measures.

These are examples of the kind of services that will in the long run help to bring the housing stock in our region into the 21st century with elements like insulation, HVAC tune up, and eliminating outside air leaks. The involvement of highly trained, professional building auditors helps ensure that residents will be happy with the results and that improvements are scientifically sound and will likely make a building healthier and more comfortable to live in.

Virginia has enormous potential to capitalize on efficiency. We currently rank 31st in efficiency, so we have a ways to go. We’ve often had to fight for the energy saving programs that our utilities now offer. Expanding these programs in the future to a more robust level will take the dedication of many Virginians voicing their support for the most unsung energy source.

Energy efficiency advocates are committed to increasing access to and participation in these programs, which in turn sends a signal to APCo that customers value the programs they are now offering and want the utility to expand from modest plans toward even more ambitious efficiency operations in the future.

So look over the options that APCo is now providing. If you’re interested, don’t delay! Use the utility’s website to apply for a home energy efficiency assessment now.

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Federal agency considers restricting surface mining in Tennessee

Monday, January 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Charlotte Wray, Spring 2016 Editorial Assistant

speakers at public hearing

Carol Judy of the Clearfork Community Institute and Willie Dodson, right, of Appalachian Voices speak in support of the Lands Unsuitable For Mining designation at a January hearing in Jacksboro, Tenn.

The Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee are home to diverse habitats and headwater streams that are vital to tourism and safe water, but these have been jeopardized by the threat of coal mining.

The federal government is deciding whether to grant the State of Tennessee’s 2010 request to designate a portion of land in East Tennessee unsuitable for surface coal mining.

Stand up for the Cumberland Mountains! Send your comment to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

In 2010, Tennessee petitioned the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to prevent surface coal mining on land within 600 feet of certain ridgelines in a 67,000-acre area. The land is located north of Knoxville in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and the Emory River Tracts Conservation Easement.

The state contended that surface coal mining would not be in accordance with state or local land use plans for the areas, and that mining operations would “significantly damage the natural systems and esthetic, recreational, cultural, and historic values of the ridge lines and their viewsheds that exist within these fragile lands.”

The federal surface mining agency’s draft Environmental Impact Statement released on Dec. 10, 2015, outlined several possible responses to the state petition. The agency’s preferred alternative would designate the requested ridgetop corridors in the 67,000-acre area as unsuitable for coal mining. Appalachian Voices and our allies, including the Tennessee-based grassroots advocacy group Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, support this ban and urge the federal agency to list the area as “fragile lands” to ensure the greatest protection.

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

The agency’s preferred alternative would also allow certain areas that were abandoned prior to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to be re-mined, if mining companies acquire the necessary permits. SOCM believes that any re-mining should be strictly limited to areas where it is the only solution to the significant environmental problems at the abandoned sites.

At the hearing in Jacksboro, Tenn., on Jan. 14, Tom Chadwell, a resident of Campbell County who lives beside the petition area on land that has been owned by his family since 1872, voiced his support for the ban. He acknowledged the heritage of mining in both his family and Campbell County. His grandfather and grandmother were both in the mining industry before the stock market crash in 1929, he said, but that was a way for economic growth then and it should not be so now.

“Just because Campbell County is having tough times, and we are, doesn’t mean that we do whatever we can whether it’s right or wrong,” he said. “I do believe tourism is a way to go, we have a beautiful county, a beautiful community and I don’t want to see us [risk] our land that nature has spent most of the last 50 years trying to recover.”

This land, including the Cumberland Trail, is a highly valued tourism area, generating $177.4 million per year, creating 1,420 jobs and producing more than $16 million in state and local tax receipts, according to SOCM. Surface mining operations would destroy vibrant lands, clean water and natural resources and negatively impact Tennessee’s growing tourism industry.

The federal agency’s draft Environmental Impact Statement determined that the areas at stake are “fragile lands” that are ecologically significant and contain fish and wildlife habitat and recreational resources that could be severely damaged by coal mining activities.

A final decision on the proposal will be made after the 45-day public comment period ends on Jan. 25.

Submit your comment here.

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