Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Saying no to a fracked-gas future

Monday, October 24th, 2016 - posted by tom

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

The powerful stories of Native Americans standing together to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would carry crude oil and threaten the water rights of the Standing Rock Sioux, have riveted national attention to the risks inherent in our dependence on dirty energy. Appalachian Voices supports this tribe’s resistance, recognizing the common ground between their struggle in the Great Plains and the fight for environmental and energy justice in the Appalachian Mountains.

Across the country, we are at an energy crossroads. In the mid-Atlantic, the fossil fuel industry is pushing to build multiple interstate pipelines to carry fracked natural gas through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina — even though several reports show that they are not needed to meet expected demand.

The choices are clear. We can spend our hard-earned money to support more fracking and the construction of hundreds of miles of massive pipeline, degrading our treasured landscapes and waterways along the routes and posing health and safety risks to families. Or, we can invest in truly clean energy, creating jobs in our region and helping us break free from our dependence on fossil fuels. Energy experts say that supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy would cost ratepayers less than building the pipelines.

Deepening our reliance on fracked gas — a top source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas — would also hasten climate change, which is already affecting Appalachia. These shortsighted expenditures on fossil fuel infrastructure would pump up the bottom line of utilities and gas companies at the expense of ratepayers and landowners. To counter those special interests and advance the common interests of a stable climate, healthy communities and a clean environment, we need to stand together.

Fortunately, a vigorous, multi-state citizen movement to defeat these pipelines continues to grow. Environmental advocates concerned about the potential for leaks as the pipeline traverses rugged terrain are working side by side with local landowners who are opposed to their land being seized for private companies’ benefit.

The coming months are critical. Federal regulators are now accepting public comments regarding the environmental impacts of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, and a public comment period for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline is expected to begin in December. This gives citizens a clear opportunity to be heard. Let’s seize it together.

Submit your comment on the Mountain Valley Pipeline to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission today.

For a healthy and sustainable future,


Boone community comes together to tackle energy waste

Thursday, October 20th, 2016 - posted by Katie Kienbaum
Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil addresses attendees of the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil addresses attendees of the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting.

Last week, the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting brought together stakeholders from across Boone, N.C., to discuss the problem of energy waste in the town and explore possible solutions.

Attendees included Boone Mayor Rennie Brantz, Karla Rusch from Appalachian State University, Phil Trew from the High Country Council of Governments, Jeremy Barnes from Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Tommy Brown from F.A.R.M. Cafe and Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina Energy Savings team.

One of the biggest challenges identified by the stakeholders was the quality of Boone’s existing housing stock. Properties that were built quickly to house Boone’s growing population and Appalachian State University’s students often prioritized expedience and profit over energy efficiency. The design of some properties even encourages energy waste.

Several stakeholders shared stories of students and ASU staff having to open their apartment or office windows during winter to control the room temperature because there was only one thermostat for the entire building. Boone resident Barbara Talman also pointed out that many homes in the area were originally built for summer use only and were therefore not properly insulated. Now, those homes are being lived in all year round, , and the residents are stuck with high energy bills in the winter.

Weatherizing and retrofitting these inefficient buildings is a challenge. The high upfront costs of upgrades are a barrier to improving home energy efficiency, not only in Boone but across the nation. Boone also has a high proportion of renters. Owner-occupied housing accounts for just 20.2 percent of housing units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Landlords for rental properties are less likely than homeowners to invest in energy efficiency because they don’t pay the electricity bills, or otherwise lack incentive to invest thousands of dollars to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. The programs that do exist to help finance home energy upgrades are often not available to renters. This includes Blue Ridge Electric’s new Energy SAVER Loan Program and the housing rehabilitation programs administered by the High Country Council of Governments.

Even if financing is available for retrofits, finding qualified workers to complete the upgrades can be a headache. Tommy Brown, the volunteer coordinator at F.A.R.M. Cafe and a participant in the Energy SAVER Loan Program, pointed out the lack of local contractors, especially in the heating and cooling sector. Brown received the loan in June, but he is still waiting for work on his home to begin because no contractors are available.

Meeting participants came up with several ways to expand the number of qualified contractors, including improving communication of workforce needs and increasing funding for workforce training. In addition, developing affordable housing in the town of Boone would ensure that the newly trained workforce stays in the region and can help make the town more energy efficient.

The issue of energy efficiency is just one piece of a larger affordable housing puzzle here in Boone. According to Mayor Rennie Brantz, only two town employees live within town limits because the high demand for housing makes finding an affordable place to live nearly impossible. For the same reason, many of the employees at ASU commute to work from outside of Boone. The creation of affordable, non-student housing in town would cut down on energy waste from long commutes and contribute to the development of a sustainable economy.

Another solution proposed at the stakeholder meeting would be for the town government to actively promote energy efficiency. Officials could create something similar to the town’s successful water conservation program that would target energy waste in Boone. Housing ordinances could also be used to mandate certain efficiency measures.

Several participants noted ASU’s longstanding commitment to sustainability and pointed out that there’s an opportunity for the university to collaborate with the Town of Boone to develop efficiency solutions. The students at ASU are also a useful resource. Many students care about environmental issues and could be leveraged to demand energy efficiency upgrades from rental companies. The student rental market is very competitive due to an excess in supply of at least 2,000, so the rental companies would likely respond to student pressure. ASU could even develop a system to rank student rental properties based on how efficient they are to encourage companies to invest in energy upgrades.

Overall, while some key local stakeholders were unable to attend the meeting, Appalachian Voices and the stakeholders who attended agreed that it was a good first step toward identifying comprehensive solutions that could help tackle the problem of energy waste for the Town of Boone. To continue the conversation, Appalachian Voices will be organizing a second meeting in early December to further discuss these solutions.

Do you know someone that should be at these meetings, or are you interested in attending yourself? Contact Rory McIlmoil at 828-262-1500 or to let us know.

Hurricane Matthew flooding elevates coal ash concerns

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016 - posted by amy

Environmental justice groups express solidarity with impacted communities

More than a million tons of coal ash at Duke Energy's H.F. Lee plant along the Neuse River were submerged by flood waters after Hurricane Matthew. Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance.

More than a million tons of coal ash at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee plant along the Neuse River were submerged by flood waters after Hurricane Matthew. Photo on Flickr by Waterkeeper Alliance.

Earlier this month, North Carolina was devastated by the impacts of Hurricane Matthew. Flooding occurred across much of the state, with the hardest impacts felt in the east.

Many of the communities hit the hardest, including lower income communities and communities of color, are those that are the least able to bounce back from such a catastrophic event. And much like they bear the brunt of industrial pollution, these communities are disproportionately suffering from the environmental impacts caused by flooding.

While the flood waters are still receding, we are learning about the impacts left in their wake. Flooding at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee Plant, near Goldsboro, caused a breach in one of the plant’s cooling ponds. In a separate incident, one of the inactive coal ash basins was overrun, releasing an unknown amount of coal waste into the Neuse River.

It is critical to point out that the ash flowed out of an inactive pond. It underscores the notion that simply capping these sites and leaving them in place is not enough to keep detrimental impacts from occurring in the future. The only way to ensure these sites cause no future harm is to remove the ash from compromised locations, including flood prone areas and place it in either appropriate landfills, or even more promising, recycled into products for the concrete industry which wants and needs Duke Energy’s ash for its production facilities.

Hurricane Matthew reminds us that we are living in a time of less predictable weather patterns and more extreme storms With an eye to the future, we must continue to insist that leaving coal ash in unlined, vulnerable pits is not a solution the problem of pollution.

The North Carolina citizen group Alliance of Carolinians (ACT) Against Coal Ash released the following statement to express solidarity with those impacted by the floods and took a hopeful and determined stance to continue to fight not only against the threat of coal ash, but for all those for whom environmental justice has not been served.

ACT Against Coal Ash Statement on Hurricane Matthew:

The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash stands together in support and solidarity with individuals, families, and communities across Eastern North Carolina devastated by the floods of Hurricane Matthew. The damage caused by this hurricane is compounded by contamination from coal ash, hog farms and other environmental hazards in their impacted communities.

Our alliance was formed and acts to protect and promote our health, the water we drink, the air that we breathe, and the land that sustains us. Hearing each other’s cries about coal ash and its threats to our communities, we’ve become a loud, unified voice for the rights of everyone to live in a healthy community. We are a family and there are times we need to lean on each other. Not all of us are impacted by this particular disaster, but, as in this case, the risk is exacerbated for us who live next to coal ash, whether now or in the future.

North Carolina’s people and elected officials cannot control a hurricane or other natural disaster, but if we heed the proactive pleas and concerns of our citizens, we can control the extent of the damage done. Much more needs to be done to secure coal ash, industrial hog waste and other threats to the health of our communities. Responsible and urgent action must be taken because natural disasters, and even more destructive ones, are happening with more frequency and intensity and will be sure to happen again. We are committed more than ever for permanent and safe solutions that protect all communities from all forms of environmental harm.

Environmental justice in Buckingham County

Thursday, October 13th, 2016 - posted by Lara Mack

NO Compressor Station = NO Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Andrew Tyler, from the Cherokee and Pamunkey nations and a representative of the Coalition of Woodland Nations, gave words of support to local residents and discussed the importance of fighting pipelines across the country for native peoples before the public hearing started.

Andrew Tyler, from the Cherokee and Pamunkey nations and a representative of the Coalition of Woodland Nations, gave words of support to local residents and discussed the importance of fighting pipelines across the country for native peoples before the public hearing started.

Stand with community members in Buckingham County on Monday, October 17 at the next Planning Commission meeting.

On Monday, September 26, the Buckingham County Planning Commission held a public hearing about the special use permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s 57,000-horsepower compressor station. Dominion Resources and Duke Energy’s joint project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), is proposed to carry fracked gas 600 miles from West Virginia, through Virginia, into North Carolina. The ACP’s three proposed compressor stations would run engines 24/7 to provide the pressure to push the gas through the pipeline. This permit would allow for huge industrial construction in an otherwise very rural and agricultural community and county. If approval for the construction of these compressor stations is denied, it would severely impact the viability of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project overall.

Dominion, the project’s lead developer, has already purchased the land for the Buckingham County compressor station from plantation-owner descendants in a largely black historic community called Union Hill. Over the last two years, Buckingham County has received much less media attention than other counties fighting the ACP. When we held a press conference before the public hearing, only one reporter attended from a local newspaper in a neighboring county.

This is an environmental racism and justice issue at the core. If built, this compressor station would be one of the largest in the country. Surrounding communities would be severely impacted by noise pollution, air pollution, and disruption of the community’s culture. Dominion is doing its best to take advantage of a historically marginalized, low-income, rural and isolated community by locating the compressor station in an area where people are less likely to have the resources to resist. Despite Dominion’s efforts, word is getting out about Buckingham’s fight. Friends and neighbors are rallying to support the effort against the compressor station and pipeline there.

Members of the Buckingham County Planning Commission look over a packed room of people speaking out against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station.

Members of the Buckingham County Planning Commission look over a packed room of people speaking out against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station.

The September public hearing served as an opportunity for those of us working against the pipeline to support Buckingham County residents on the ground. Local folks, neighboring activists and friends flooded the County Administration Building, with almost all attendees wearing “No Compressor Station” stickers to give the planning commission a clear sign of where we stood on the issue.

Fifty-four people signed up to give public comment, nearly all of them local residents concerned about the potential compressor station. The public comments lasted so long that the planning commission took the rare step of setting up another meeting to hear the rest of the community input. This means that we also delayed the progress of the compressor station a couple more months. The planning commission will hear the rest of the public comments on October 17 and will eventually give a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which will make a final decision on whether or not to allow Dominion the special use permit to build the compressor station.

Allies from Richmond hold up a supportive message to Buckingham County: Heart of Virginia, we’ve got your back.”

Allies from Richmond hold up a supportive message to Buckingham County: Heart of Virginia, we’ve got your back.”

Though a lot of work needs to continue to support and amplify the most marginalized voices in Buckingham County and along the ACP, local residents appreciated the show of support and were invigorated by the strong presence against the compressor station.

“It was amazingly heartening and inspiring to see all the people that showed up,” said Chad Oba, a local resident and member of Friends of Buckingham. “Every time we come together it gives us all energy to keep the momentum going and it sends a message that we are here and we care about what happens to our air, our water, our homeplaces and all that we hold dear.”

Solar and energy efficiency…like peanut butter and jelly

Thursday, October 13th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Special to the Front Porch: Our guest today is Steven Nadel, executive director of American Council on an Energy-Efficient Economy, a key voice in the national conversation about our energy future. Steven’s post first appeared on the ACEEE Blog.

Steven Nadel ACEEE

Solar and energy efficiency need to work together like peanut butter and jelly. Energy efficiency and solar advocates have on occasion butted heads over which option should be implemented in homes and buildings first and how much should be installed before the other is considered. Here at ACEEE we believe that, like market solutions vs. energy efficiency programs, this is a false choice. Both are valuable and can, and should, work together as an integrated solution to create cleaner and cheaper energy. While energy efficiency is just as clean as solar when it comes to emissions, efficiency by itself can’t produce energy for customers looking for a clean energy option, and solar without energy efficiency can’t reach the full extent of its potential.


However, in recent years, some solar companies and some consumers have been employing a solar-first strategy in the residential sector—installing solar systems without paying much attention to energy efficiency. This strategy has been spurred in part by substantial solar tax credits, net-metering rules in place in most states, and the availability of solar financing that reduces or even eliminates the initial purchase price, replacing the up-front cost with monthly payments that extend over many years.

Despite these incentives, it still generally makes sense to implement as much efficiency as possible when installing generation. To look more closely at this issue, we conducted two illustrative analyses. The first compares the cost per kWh produced or saved from solar and energy efficiency when done individually or together. The second compares solar technical potential and residential electricity use, with and without efficiency. We find that when efficiency and solar are implemented in tandem, costs are lower, and solar can meet a larger share of residential loads.

Cost per kWh

For this comparison, we looked at the average cost per kWh produced from a typical solar system today, the average cost per kWh from residential energy efficiency, and the cost per kWh when efficiency and solar are done together. Our results are summarized in the table below. A solar system costs about 17-23 cents per kWh produced (the low-end estimate is based on very sunny Las Vegas, the high-end on Washington, DC). Energy efficiency costs less—about 8 cents per kWh. But when solar and efficiency are combined, the cost is 3-6 cents less per kWh than solar alone. Energy efficiency has a lower cost, and it also reduces the size and cost of the needed solar system. PB&J (solar and efficiency) is less expensive than PB (solar) alone.


This analysis ignores the federal 30% solar tax credit and also ignores utility incentives that are commonly available for energy efficiency measures. If tax credits and incentives are included, the overall result is still generally the same—a combined approach is less expensive per kWh than solar alone. This is just a simple analysis for typical measures and hence is only useful as a rough approximation.

Solar production relative to residential electricity use

For this analysis, we compared estimates of the technical potential for rooftop solar systems in each state (as estimated in a GIS-based analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) with residential electricity use (from the most recent EIA Residential Energy Consumption Survey or RECS). We looked for states where the solar technical potential in the residential sector was at least 50% of current residential consumption, or of residential consumption if energy efficiency were to reduce consumption by an average of 30%.

Our analysis only covers 24 states, as those are the states with detailed data in RECS at the single- or two-state level. Results of our analysis are shown in the map below. With efficiency, 23 out of the 24 states could hit the 50% solar threshold, including six reaching 75% solar (California, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Nevada). Without energy efficiency, only nine of the 24 states could meet at least half of the residential load with rooftop solar. Only in two states (California and Colorado) does solar potential exceed 75% of residential consumption. In other words, solar can meet a much larger proportion of residential loads if efficiency is included.

ACEEE table

This analysis doesn’t include potential growth in electric loads such as from increased use of electric vehicles, or conversion of gas and oil space- and water-heating systems to heat pumps. Details of our analysis, including a case where all gas and oil space-heating systems are converted to heat pumps can be found here. In this alternative case, only two states meet the 50% threshold without efficiency, while 12 states meet the threshold with efficiency.

As with our first analysis, this is a rough analysis that assumes all of the solar potential is achieved and that all homes implement energy efficiency. Also, this simple analysis ignores the fact that some homes can produce more solar power than they use while other homes are not suitable for solar, such as those heavily shaded by trees or that do not face south. This analysis should be considered a yardstick and not a definitive analysis.


Energy efficiency will generally be less expensive per kWh than solar. And by lowering consumption, energy efficiency will stretch the available rooftop solar resource farther, allowing solar to serve a higher percent of residential consumption while also allowing a smaller and less expensive solar system. These are two simple analyses but they make a clear case that jelly (efficiency) is needed to help peanut butter (solar) do its best.

Protecting a unique Kentucky fish from mountaintop removal coal mining

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by Erin

By Erin Savage

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Kentucky arrow darter, a fish found only in eastern Kentucky, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The listing also includes protection for 248 miles of stream habitat throughout 10 eastern Kentucky counties. The darter has disappeared from approximately half of its historical range, primarily due to water pollution from surface coal mining and other extractive land uses.

Kentucky arrow darter photo by Dr. Matthew R. Thomas, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

Kentucky arrow darter photo by Dr. Matthew R. Thomas, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

The listing results from a 2011 settlement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity, which requires the agency to decide the protected status of 757 imperiled species — 55 of which are found in Kentucky. To date, 177 decisions have been made under this settlement.

Despite some protection provided by the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, surface mining still causes significant damage to streams and rivers in Central Appalachia. Over the last several decades, extensive research has demonstrated the serious and long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal mining. Some of the most recent studies indicate that impacts to streams can last for decades after reclamation is ostensibly complete.

The new protective status of the Kentucky arrow darter ensures that the Fish and Wildlife Service will provide oversight on the permitting process for surface mines that may impact the fish or its habitat. This oversight will go a long way not only in protecting this small, colorful fish, but other species that may rely on similar habitat. It also means protection more broadly for healthy ecosystems and communities. When coal mining companies are required to more fully account for the damage done through mining, fewer of those costs are pushed onto nearby communities.

Join our “Daylight Savings Challenge”

Thursday, October 6th, 2016 - posted by Katie Kienbaum

LED with bill

November 6 marks the official end of Daylight Savings Time. At 2 a.m., clocks will be turned back one hour. For most folks, this means an extra hour of shut-eye. However, for a group of students at Appalachian State University (ASU) it’s an opportunity not just to get some extra sleep, but to help their neighbors save on energy costs as well.

As winter approaches and days get shorter, lights will need to be turned on earlier and earlier. In mountain communities, home energy bills can be much higher in winter due in part to this increased need for lighting. High energy bills pose a great burden for many families in Appalachia, sometimes amounting to more than 20% of total family income. Unfortunately, the upfront cost of energy efficiency upgrades prevents some families from making the home improvements they need to help lower their electricity bills and make their homes more comfortable in the winter months.

To help folks with their winter energy bills, the Appalachian Voices Energy Savings team has come up with the “Daylight Savings Challenge.” We proposed the idea to almost 100 ASU students in the Sustainable Development and Appalachian Studies departments in late September. The challenge is simple: replace 160 incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs with energy-efficient LED light bulbs by the Daylight Savings time change on November 6. LEDs use 75% less energy than incandescent lights, saving as much as $15 per year per bulb.

As part of the challenge, groups of students will visit participating community members’ homes to perform light bulb audits and calculate how much money will be saved by switching to LEDs. The students will then replace all light bulbs in the homes at no cost to the residents. This project will not only reduce energy use and cost, but increase energy efficiency awareness across the county as well.

To locate community members who would benefit from the energy savings, we are partnering with Watauga County Project on Aging, which provides services to senior citizens of Watauga County, including in-home care, meal delivery, and transportation. Seniors living on fixed incomes can have difficulty financing home energy upgrades.

If all of the 160 LED light bulbs replace inefficient incandescent bulbs, the Daylight Savings Challenge will save Watauga County residents a collective total of up to $2,500 per year on energy bills. The amount of energy saved would be equivalent to about 10 tons of coal per year and would prevent 25 tons of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change — from being released into the atmosphere every year.

To participate in the ASU project, or if you know someone who would be a good participant, contact me by email or phone at 828-262-1500.

Will YOU accept the Daylight Savings Challenge? Switch to LEDs before November 6 to save money and help the environment.

Duke Energy’s empire grows with natural gas

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 - posted by brian
 The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., and Duke Energy is at the forefront of a historic fuel switching trend.

It’s both a sign of the times and a warning of things to come. Duke Energy’s purchase of Piedmont Natural Gas was finalized this week after North Carolina utility regulators signed off on the deal.

Duke executives say the $4.9 billion acquisition will bolster the company’s position in the natural gas sector by tripling its existing base of 525,000 gas customers and expanding its footprint into Tennessee. Their cheerful announcement also casts natural gas in a familiar light — as the clean, climate-friendly fuel of the future.

“This combination provides clear benefits to our customers and the environment as we continue to expand our use of low-cost and clean natural gas and invest in pipelines,” Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a statement.

These days, terms like “clean” and “low-cost” come standard with efforts to tout the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas relative to other energy sources. By now, they should also set off alarm bells.

One of the nation’s largest electric providers, Duke has brought four natural gas-fired power plants online in North Carolina since 2011 to replace shuttered coal-fired capacity. Earlier this year, the company received expedited approval of plans to convert a fifth, its Asheville plant, from coal to gas.

A similar story is playing out in other states where Duke operates. Florida, which ranks third in solar potential but 14th in installed capacity, relies on gas to meet two-thirds of its electricity demand. Duke subsidiary Progress Energy operates several gas-fired facilities in the Sunshine State, including the 1,912-megawatt Hines Energy Complex.

Other large investor-owned utilities aren’t far behind. Florida Power & Light, also among the nation’s largest electric utilities, and Duke are partners in the controversial $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Pipeline, which will stretch nearly 500 miles from Alabama to central Florida.

Duke based its decision to purchase the Charlotte-based Piedmont on sustained market trends that forecast a continued expansion of natural gas’ role in the nation’s energy mix. The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011. Click to enlarge.

And the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Duke’s most recent long-term resource plan proposes constructing three plants that would add nearly 2,500 megawatts of gas-fired generation in the Carolinas. The plan also calls for multiplying installed solar capacity threefold by 2031, but says solar’s “limited ability to meet peak demand conditions” makes more gas generation essential to ensure reliability.

“A thoughtful transition is what we are seeking, not a headlong rush to dependency on any one fuel,” Duke’s director of integrated resource planning, Glen Snider, told the Charlotte Business Journal.

Fair enough. Duke often claims credit for diversifying its portfolio ahead of the curve, although North Carolina’s renewable energy standard and tax credits for renewables have played a considerable role. But today, the company’s large stake in the $5 billion proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline threatens to counteract that thoughtful transition. If the 550-mile pipeline is built, Duke’s gas-burning power plants would be among its primary users.

Continuing to invest in massive pipelines designed to last decades could result in stranded assets, costly liabilities created when capital-intensive projects like pipelines or power plants are forced to retire before the end of their economic usefulness. This is especially true if the United States plans to do its part to meet international climate goals.

“We’ve been building gas power plants like crazy for the last 10 years,” Lorne Stockman, the author of a report on gas infrastructure for the group Oil Change International told Utility Dive. “I don’t see anyone really sitting down and saying how many more can we build if we are really going to make this transition.”

Replacing existing gas capacity with renewables may be unlikely in the near-term. But that doesn’t make the long-term planning decisions being made today any less problematic, because they foreshadow an energy future that experts are urging us to avoid.

What do electric co-ops have to do with economic justice?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Josie Lee Varela

WeOwnIt is a pro-member, pro-democracy organization that aims to build the foundation for a fair and just economic system.

WeOwnIt is a pro-member, pro-democracy organization that aims to build the foundation for a fair and just economic system.

As a graduate student living in Boone, N.C., working two jobs while keeping up with school work is not out of the norm for me. And I know I am not alone. Working one or more jobs is not out of the norm for most people I know.

Why is it that so many of our friends and family members work multiple jobs to provide for themselves and their families? Could it be due to an economic system that has failed to generate equitable benefits for all citizens? Possibly. Drew DeSilver, a senior writer for the Pew Research Center, published an informative article of the data behind wage and income inequality in the United States. The numbers are eye opening to say the least.

As DeSilver’s article notes, income inequality in the United States is at its highest since 1928, according to researcher and professor Emmanual Saez at The University of California-Berkeley. Additionally, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found in a 2011 study that after accounting for taxes and transfers on national market incomes, the United States ranked second for income inequality in the 31 nations of the OECD, with Chile in first. According to DeSilver’s research, “median black household income was 59 percent of median white income in 2011” while in the 1960s, black household income was 55 percent of median white household income. In other words, the disparity has remained virtually the same for the past five decades.

Income inequality exists across income classes as well. The Appalachian region, for instance, has been characterized by pervasive economic distress for those who fall in the “lower-income” category. High energy costs and a lack of economic opportunity for folks in Appalachia are linked to income and wealth gaps seen across the country. What can be done to turn the problem of economic disparity around?

Our current economic system, though it may seem like it, is not set in stone. More cooperative economies are our chance to adapt and overcome the current failures of our system. The International Co-operative Alliance describes a cooperative as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” Electric, consumer and worker co-ops, employee-owned companies and credit unions have been examples of new building blocks for an economic system that works for a majority of the people. While many cooperatives and advocates for cooperative economies exist in communities throughout the country, one new organization is taking that effort national.

The nonprofit WeOwnIt initiative was created in 2015. The initiative is meant to create a national network for cooperative members of all sectors to have the rights, education and tools to implement organizing practices. WeOwnIt is aiming for economic reform through the support and membership of organizations and individuals in order to reach communities’ common economic, social, and cultural needs.

Through strategies that combine planning expertise, organizational networking, targeted outreach and online organizing tools, WeOwnIt is a pro-member, pro-democracy organization that aims to build a new foundation for a fair economic system. This year, WeOwnIt is concentrating its efforts towards electric co-ops. Credit unions and the food co-op sector will also be a focus. To address social, economic, and environmental disparities, the WeOwnIt initiative has begun taking the first crucial steps toward a just and sustainable world, where members’ voices are heard loud and clear.

Learn more about the WeOwnIt initiative on their website.

A growing mine is a growing problem for the Russell Fork River

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 - posted by Erin

Editor’s Note: This post, by Appalachian Voices’ Erin Savage, originally appeared on American Rivers’ blog. Earlier this year, the nonprofit named Central Appalachia’s Russell Fork among America’s Most Endangered Rivers due the threats posed by mountaintop removal coal mining to water quality and surrounding communities.

The Russell Fork snakes through Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentuky border.

The Russell Fork snakes through Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentuky border.

The Russell Fork River is threatened by a new coal mine. A bankruptcy saga with the mine’s owner had stalled development in the past year, but things appear to be getting back on track.

The history of the Doe Branch Mine in Southwest Virginia is long and complicated, and its future remains unclear.

The mine is owned by Paramont Coal Company, once a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. Until recently, Alpha was one of the largest mining companies in the country, but is now emerging from bankruptcy. The Doe Branch Mine started with plans for a 245-acre surface coal mine in 2005, but it now has the potential to grow to 1,100 acres. If the current plan moves forward, the mine would include five valley fills and 14 wastewater discharges that would drain into tributaries of the Russell Fork River — a renowned resource in the region for river recreation and the star attraction of the Breaks Interstate Park.

While there is a long history of coal mining in the Russell Fork watershed, water quality in the river has improved over the last several decades due to better regulations and the watchful eye of local residents. At a time when coal mining is declining in Appalachia, the Doe Branch mine is among the largest mines still being pursued in Southwest Virginia, and it would undoubtedly lead to significant water quality impacts.

The Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River.

The Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork.

The mine is also part of a large, controversial highway construction project known as the Coalfields Expressway. Some believe the Expressway will bring much needed economic development opportunities to the region, but others believe it unnecessarily enables additional surface mining and does not adequately consider what is best for nearby communities. Though a portion of the Doe Branch Mine has been approved by state and federal agencies, the expansion does not have final approval. Little work has been started on any portion of the mine over the last decade, beyond some tree clearing.

In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an objection to the company’s application to increase the size of the mine. Specifically, the EPA objected to the application for additional wastewater permits under the Clean Water Act. The wastewater would be discharged into several tributaries of the Russell Fork that are already impaired by mining-related pollutants, according to Virginia’s list of impaired waterways. In order to secure discharge permits, the company must show that it will not increase the overall impairment of the watershed.

Trends for coal production in Central Appalachia. The decline has continued into 2015 and 2016.

Trends for coal production in Central Appalachia. The decline has continued into 2015 and 2016.

Since hitting its peak in 2008, coal production in Central Appalachia has declined precipitously. Alpha’s dominance in the Central Appalachian coal market has not shielded it from the economic downturn. The company declared bankruptcy in August 2015, creating a lull in the Doe Branch permit application process.

On July 26, 2016, Alpha announced its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The plan to emerge from bankruptcy involves the formation of two new companies. One is a privately held, smaller Alpha, which will retain most of the Central Appalachian mines. The other is Contura Energy, formed by Alpha’s senior lenders, which purchased Alpha’s Wyoming, Pennsylvania and better-performing Central Appalachian mines. Doe Branch is included in the short list of Central Appalachian mines that Contura will own.

Before emerging from bankruptcy, Alpha stated that the Doe Branch Mine is not part of its 10 year plan. Now that Contura owns Doe Branch, the mine may be more likely to move forward. Just last month, a new Clean Water Act permit draft was issued by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. This new draft may be an attempt to address the objections raised by the EPA. Given the importance of the Russell Fork, the damage already done to its tributaries by mining, and the need for a serious economic shift in the region, the EPA should uphold its objection to this mine. Urge them to do so now.

Join Appalachian Voices and American Rivers in asking the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to deny Contura’s permit request for the Doe Branch Mine.