Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Coal Ash Rule reaches White House for final review

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 - posted by brian
After four years of hand wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

After years of hand-wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

On Monday night, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a long-awaited rule to regulate the disposal and storage of coal ash to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review.

“We are pleased to see the draft rule move into the final phase of review needed for its release in December,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator.

“Having experienced the consequences of poor enforcement and weak or non-existent state regulations, North Carolina serves as a clear example of why states must have federal baseline standards for coal ash,” Adams says. “We must place our hope in the strength of the EPA rules and the resolve of the federal government to protect citizens from this toxic waste.”

Observers say the administration should have enough time to finalize the rule by the EPA’s court-ordered deadline of Dec. 19, which the agency apparently “fully expects” to meet.

Until then, however, we won’t know much about how far the rule will go to protect communities across the United States from coal ash pollution.

Infographic: The Truth About Coal Ash

At least for the next several weeks, the substance of the rule is still subject to change and there are a few different ways it could go. Environmental groups have for years pressured the EPA to regulate coal ash as the dangerous substance that it is. This option would put the rule under the hazardous waste program of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act’s Subtitle C. Utilities and other industries hope the rule will regulate coal ash under Subtitle D of RCRA, which emphasizes state oversight and enforcement through citizen lawsuits.

In both scenarios, the EPA says it won’t regulate the use of coal ash in concrete and other construction material, or as fill material — the latter will fall under the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s upcoming Mine Fill Rule. Beyond that, the description of the rule on OMB’s website offers little insight, which may be just how the White House wants it.

As Earthjustice’s Lisa Evans points out, the OMB review process is “a black box — opaque, inscrutable and exceedingly dangerous. Rules never come out the way they go in — the offices of OMB are littered with crumpled pages of strong rules gone soft after revision by the White House.”

Evans uses an example from 2009, when former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent the White House a plan to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste following the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Timeline: Five years after the TVA coal ash disaster, what do we have to show for it?

The EPA received more than 400,000 comments on the rule, and thousands attended public hearings to support stronger protections. But heavy lobbying by the coal and utility industries ultimately weakened the administration’s resolve.

Since then, the EPA hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about the status of the rule. In fact, had it not been for a lawsuit brought against the EPA by Earthjustice on behalf of Appalachian Voices and other environmental and public health groups last year, the timeline for a final rule might still be murky.

While unavoidable, Evans says the OMB review “introduces uncertainty at the end of a rulemaking process that must, by law, be based on science and transparency and governed by the requirements of the enabling statute.”

The evidence that coal ash poses significant risks to human health is abundant, and the need to do more could hardly be more urgent. The White House should listen to the thousands of citizens demanding strong protections against coal ash pollution.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to clean up coal ash.

Appalachian Power’s solar customers rise and shine for clean energy

Friday, October 24th, 2014 - posted by hannah
Customers of Appalachian Power gather in Lynchburg to learn about their utility's resistance to expanding energy efficiency and investing in solar.

Customers of Appalachian Power gather in Lynchburg to learn about their utility’s resistance to expanding energy efficiency and investing in solar.

Appalachian Power Company must bring large-scale clean energy to our area; that’s the message this week from hundreds of APCo’s Virginia customers.

The company goes before state utility regulators next Tuesday with its long-term plan to meet electricity demand, which includes only the most modest investments in renewable energy sources despite a new rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intended to spur clean energy development and cut carbon emissions.

No one is more vocal about the need for APCo to invest in solar than those who already have: customers with their own solar arrays. Residents concerned by the utility’s recent proposal to levy a new fee on customers with solar are just part of a larger group of APCo customers demanding their utility stop limiting its proposals for energy efficiency programs and take advantage of the same opportunities to expand residential solar that utilities such as Georgia Power have taken advantage of lately.

At a program co-led by Appalachian Voices in Lynchburg on Thursday, APCo customers examined the utility’s proposed efficiency and clean energy investments and saw just how minimal they are. The risks of dirty energy are clear to Lynchburg residents who saw a train carrying crude oil derail and explode in the heart of the downtown district this past summer, polluting the James River and threatening historic properties.

The large, diverse area of Virginia served by Appalachian Power also is home to several thriving solar companies, and many successful community Solarize initiatives have encouraged more homeowners to go solar. So, increasingly, area residents see purchasing solar as a way get reliable, affordable and pollution-free energy. In other words, it’s money well spent.

Thirty-two solar homeowners sent a collective comment to the State Corporation Commission this week calling for Appalachian Power to build clean energy at the same scale they have built fossil fuel power plants. Those homeowners and other citizens who are following the EPA’s proposed carbon rule believe that their utility is acting unreasonably by not addressing the new limits in its long-term planning.

Following the hottest September on record worldwide and an historic demonstration in New York City, the need for Virginia utilities to shift to energy efficiency and carbon-free sources is now clear, and APCo customers are telling their utility it can make a start, while lowering bills and creating jobs at the same time.

Upgrade to Save? Sounds like a good idea to us!

Friday, October 24th, 2014 - posted by rory

Roanoke Electric Cooperative receives first federal loan for energy efficiency financing

realogo

“Now we can open access to low cost capital for all cost-effective energy efficiency improvements sought by members with sound bill payment history, regardless of income, credit score, or status as renters or home owners.”

With that simple statement, Curtis Wynn, CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative (REC) in eastern North Carolina, perfectly summarized the benefit and accessibility that well-structured on-bill energy efficiency financing programs can offer. Wynn’s statement was part of yesterday’s announcement that REC had been approved for one of the first loans provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program.

The $6 million loan from USDA will fund REC’s new Upgrade to $ave on-bill finance program, which was modeled on the Pay-As-You-Save (PAYS) program developed in 1999 by the Energy Efficiency Institute of Vermont. We have written before about other on-bill finance programs that have also used the PAYS model, most notably the How$martKY program developed by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. This is also the model that Appalachian Voices is promoting to rural electric cooperatives in the region through our Energy Savings for Appalachia program.

The most important part of Curtis Wynn’s statement is the reference to the fact that the Upgrade to $ave program is available to all of REC’s members who have a demonstrated history of paying their electric bills. It doesn’t matter if the member owns or rents their home, what their credit score is, or what income bracket they fall under. This is a key aspect of on-bill finance programs because it means that financial support is available for the people who need it the most, but cannot pay for the upgrades themselves and may not be qualified to receive a loan from a traditional bank or credit union. And given that REC serves an area with an average poverty rate of more than 28 percent, there is undoubtedly a substantial number of residents that need such support.

One of the greatest things about on-bill finance programs modeled after the PAYS program is that they offer “debt-free financing” for households to pay for improving the efficiency of their home, which results in significant reductions in their energy bills. If the homeowner or renter moves away, they don’t have to pay off any remaining debt, and it doesn’t follow them around. Instead, the “debt” remains with the electric meter, and the next owner or tenant continues the payments through the monthly fee.

Average annual costs and estimated savings for participants in Roanoke Electric Cooperative's new Upgrade to $ave program.

Average annual costs and estimated savings for participants in Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s new Upgrade to $ave program.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these programs, however, is that the monthly payments made by the member/customer end up being less than the savings achieved as a result of the upgrades! In other words, even though the resident is paying a new fee on their monthly utility bill, their energy costs still go DOWN! That’s the brilliance of REC’s simple title for their program: Upgrade to $ave. And for REC’s part, the way they’ve structured the program allows the cooperative to fully recover their own costs for offering the energy efficiency service, meaning that other customers don’t have to share any of the costs associated with the program. This is a true and elegant example of an “everybody wins” situation.

Based on information provided in REC’s press statement, the cooperative will be able to provide approximately 800 energy efficiency “loans” using the $6 million being guaranteed by USDA. That represents around 6 percent of the cooperative’s total membership, which is pretty outstanding, and this is likely just the first USDA loan that REC will apply for. Further, the savings potential of the Upgrade to $ave program is substantial. With an average savings of 25 percent per home, as much as 4 million kilowatt-hours or more will be saved each year as a result of the program. For an individual households that could amount to around $650 saved each year (of which 75-90 percent would be used to pay the monthly fee).

On-bill finance programs like Upgrade to $ave are a commonsense approach to achieving significant reductions in the amount of energy and natural resources we use; alleviating the impacts of poverty and high energy costs; and, promoting the development of local jobs in communities that need them. The term “commonsense” doesn’t even capture just how much of a no-brainer developing these programs should be for all electric utilities, especially rural electric cooperatives because they serve some of the most disadvantaged and impoverished communities across the United States.

As REC’s press statement notes, “As an electric cooperative, Roanoke EMC is committed to cooperative principles: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, and concern for community.”

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association describes “concern for community” as “working for the sustainable development of [the cooperatives’] communities through policies accepted by their members.” On-bill finance programs can go a long way toward contributing to the sustainable development of communities served by electric cooperatives such as REC.

It is notable that, partially as a result of our own efforts, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, in partnership with many of its member cooperatives and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, is currently in the process of designing its own on-bill finance program and is expected to submit a loan application to USDA in the near future. Appalachian Voices is also promoting on-bill energy efficiency finance programs to electric cooperatives in western North Carolina, and we hope that REC’s example moves some of them toward developing their own program.

Appalachian Voices wholeheartedly applauds Roanoke Electric Cooperative for taking this important step, showing in practice what “concern for community” really means, and for being the first cooperative in the U.S. to receive an EECLP loan for the funding of an on-bill finance program!

The Chief Lives On

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 - posted by tom

lennyOur extended Appalachian Voices family, and friends all across the country, were deeply saddened by the unexpected passing of our colleague Lenny Kohm at age 74 late last month. Lenny’s great passion, quick wit and forceful eloquence — combined with a disarming genuineness and keen sense of humor — made him unforgettable. Armed with his belief in the power of ordinary people to change the world, he inspired thousands across the country to take time in their lives as mothers, fathers, doctors, electricians, or teachers to stand up for our common natural heritage, from the Arctic to Appalachia. He was — and is — a legend among activists.

Lenny left such an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of so many that it’s impossible to think about his passing without being heartened by his ongoing presence. It was Lenny who believed our movement could make the atrocious practice of mountaintop removal a national issue, and it was Lenny who knew how to do it. Most importantly, his example and instruction taught others how to do it as well. “I’m in the people empowerment business,” he would say.

I think what may have been most inspiring about Lenny in this age of cynicism and well-funded special interests was his abiding belief in democracy and the political power we have as citizens. With his decades of experience, Lenny knew that going toe to toe with giant corporations isn’t easy, but his wisdom on how to do it effectively instilled the confidence and hope that encouraged so many to engage. Lenny knew how to combine great passion with sound planning and organization to make things happen. The progress we’ve made is a testament to the kind of smart, strategic action, driven by our love of people and nature, that Lenny espoused.

Many of us, some from as far away as Alaska, will gather this Saturday near Boone, N.C., for a memorial service. It’s not too late to RSVP here, and if you’d like to honor Lenny with a gift, any funds remaining after the cost of the memorial is covered will be donated to causes he cared about and fought for. A Facebook page has also been set up, where everyone is encouraged to post memories and tributes to the Chief, and all will be posted to a memorial website, where we hope folks will continue to be inspired by Lenny’s passion and mission for years to come.

During his time in the Arctic, the native Gwich’in people were so grateful for Lenny’s work with their tribe that they made him an honorary chief. And the name stuck. Ultimately, we will continue to honor Lenny’s spirit and wisdom by embracing our power to change big things through the kind of passion, thoughtfulness, humility and dedication he exemplified.

Here’s to the Chief and his powerful legacy!

A Washington Post editorial on mountaintop removal’s dirty consequences

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 - posted by thom
The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

Today, the editorial board of The Washington Post published a strongly worded condemnation of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The piece begins with what we all know:

“For decades, coal companies have been removing mountain peaks to haul away coal lying just underneath. More recently, scientists and regulators have been developing a clearer understanding of the environmental consequences. They aren’t pretty.”

As evidence, the editorial highlights two recent studies that we’ve also covered here. First, the U.S. Geological Survey’s findings that pollution from mountaintop removal is devastating fish populations in Appalachian streams. We summed up that research on this blog in July:

Over the summer, a U.S. Geological Survey study compared streams near mountaintop removal operations to streams farther away. In what should be “a global hotspot for fish biodiversity,” according to Nathaniel Hitt, one of the authors, the researchers found decimated fish populations, with untold consequences for downstream river systems. The scientists noted changes in stream chemistry: Salts from the disturbed earth appear to have dissolved in the water, which may well have disrupted the food chain.

The second study the editorial points to is new research out of West Virginia University that found dust pollution from mountaintop removal promotes lung cancer. We wrote last week:

The Charleston Gazette reported on a new study finding that dust from mountaintop removal mining appears to contribute to greater risk of lung cancer. West Virginia University researchers took dust samples from several towns near mountaintop removal sites and tested them on lung cells, which changed for the worse. The findings fit into a larger, hazardous picture: People living near these sites experience higher rates of cancer and birth defects.

We’re glad one of the largest newspapers in the country is paying attention, even when many policymakers are not. The editorial does, however, give a bit too much credit to the Obama administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their actions to reduce the environmental and human toll of mountaintop removal. Actions have been taken, certainly, but mountaintop removal is still happening in Appalachia.

With the mounting scientific evidence that mining pollution is decimating fish populations, causing air and water pollution, wiping out trees and mountains, and promoting a host of human health problems, there is no excuse for the Obama administration to allow mountaintop removal to continue.

Take a moment to let the president know that Appalachian communities are still being put at risk.

Using our online Voice

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 - posted by Jamie Goodman

thevoice_online

Six years ago, when I took on the incredible task of heading up The Appalachian Voice publication, I was promptly amazed by the volume of positive support and feedback from our readers. Story ideas, kudos to writers and offers to help deliver the publication steadily came in the mail or through email, all helping us to continually hone the publication and ensure we were staying on top of covering the most pressing environmental issues in our region.

Now I am delighted to report that the same great access to our content that you find in the print edition is now available on our website, through our newly revamped online presence.

While we have always posted our story content online, a small nonprofit budget and an even smaller staff for years kept us from being able to develop a fully interactive and surfable web presence for the newspaper. But this past year we embarked on a journey to update The Voice Online, a process that included a survey seeking more of that wonderful feedback from our readers. And you responded!

Thanks to your ideas and suggestions, our small web team — most notably AV’s IT technician, Toby MacDermott, and our outstanding summer intern and graphic designer, Jared Peeler — has designed a more enjoyable, and most importantly, a more substantial web presence for The Voice.

Now, as any proud parent would want to do, I’d like to brag about our new features for a moment. The new Voice Online now has:

  • a visually appealing new look;
  • each issue packaged for easier online reading “cover-to-cover” (see the latest issue);
  • a special landing page for our Hiking the Highlands column, so readers are able to scan back through the archives more easily to find hikes you want to try;
  • ditto for our other regular sections, including Naturalist’s Notebook and This Green House — all located in our new sidebar to provide you with hours of material to read about favorite critters or gather ideas for improvements to your own home;
  • a new online Subscription tool for instant email notifications when each latest issue is published online;
  • a more fully automated back-end system to aid our staff in uploading new content;
  • and real-time updates from our Front Porch Blog, so you can click through to the very latest information on the topics you care most about.

Of course, a great work is never complete, and we still have much work to do to enhance the interactivity and surfability of our content. Plans for the future include updating our past issue landing pages to the new design, providing online-only expanded content and special features to complement the print edition, adding an interactive map to our Hiking the Highlands page, and much more.

None of this would be possible without feedback from our readers, and we once again welcome your comments and thoughts on the new design to help us improve access to the news you find important. Please email me at editor@appvoices.org and let me know what you think!

And as always, thanks so much for supporting the mission and team behind The Appalachian Voice. You are the reason we are here.

Jamie Goodman, Editor

North Carolinians speak out against fracking: Are elected officials listening?

Monday, October 20th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

More than two dozen environmental and social justice groups came together recently to hand deliver 59,500 petition signatures to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, calling on him and other elected officials to reinstate the ban on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for natural gas in the state.

Groups of the Frack Free N.C. Alliance, which include environmental organizations, environmental justice groups and grassroots organizations, have been working diligently all across the state to educate citizens about the potential impacts of fracking and encourage them to get involved. The nearly 60,000 petition signatures are a testament to the strong opposition to fracking throughout North Carolina.

Despite a forecast of rain, the organizations and supporters gathered at the governor’s office last Tuesday to rally and hold a press conference before hand delivering the petitions to McCrory’s staff (the governor, unsurprisingly, was unavailable to receive the petitions). Supporters held anti-fracking signs, images of North Carolina’s unique landscape, and art created by citizens portraying the dangers of fracking and the value of clean water.

The speakers came from all across the state, and included Kathy Rigsbee from Yadkin-Davie Against Fracking, an every-day citizen and mother turned activist, Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for N.C., the founding organization of the Frack Free Alliance, and Luke Crawford from EnvironmentaLEE, a grassroots organization in Lee County, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the state.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices' North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

I was honored to speak on behalf of the numerous grassroots organizations from western North Carolina that contributed significantly to the petition and the anti-fracking movement sweeping across the state. Those organizations include the Coalition Against Fracking in western N.C., Frack Free Madison County, and community groups from Swain and Jackson counties.

As the sun came out, we began carrying boxes of the signed petitions into the governor’s office. As the petitions were passed from person to person and on into the building, elementary students on a field trip joined us in chanting “Frack Free N.C.!”

Governor McCrory has yet to acknowledge the concerns of the 59,500 signees on the petition, though it is clear that opposition to fracking across North Carolina has grown as more citizens learn about the risks associated with the practice.

In August and September, 1,800 North Carolinians attended Mining and Energy Commission hearings on the proposed rules to regulate fracking. The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed fracking. The MEC reports that they received between 100,000-200,000 additional written comments addressing the rules and that the majority suggested the rules be strengthened. According to Commissioner Jim Womack, about half the comments were statements opposing fracking. Womack told reporters that those “didn’t really count.” Clearly, thousands of North Carolinians oppose fracking, the question is, are our elected officials listening to us?

The organizations and citizen groups of Frack Free N.C. promise to continue fighting to protect North Carolina’s air, water, communities, property values and way of life from the dangers of fracking.

Mountaintop Removal Promotes Lung Cancer

Friday, October 17th, 2014 - posted by thom

A map from The Human Cost of Coal showing the above-average number of lung cancer deaths per 100,000 people in Central Appalachian Counties.

The body of research linking mountaintop removal mining to lung cancer just got a whole lot stronger.

Using dust samples collected in communities near mountaintop removal mines, a new study conducted by Dr. Sudjit Luanpitpong and other West Virginia University researchers found a direct link between air pollution and tumor growth.

From Ken Ward, Jr. of The Charleston Gazette:

The study results “provide new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of mountaintop removal dust emissions and “support further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control” for that dust, according to the paper, published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Six years ago, researchers found a close correlation between living in proximity of mountaintop removal coal mining sites and lung cancer mortality rates, even after adjusting for factors like smoking, poverty, race, etc. That 2008 study is just one of more than 20 studies linking mountaintop removal to health issues in neighboring communities.

While people in Appalachia have been aware of this strong correlation, this new study linking dust from mountaintop removal sites directly to the growth of lung cancer cells is the first of its kind.

“To me, this is one of the most important papers that we’ve done,” said [Dr. Michael Hendryx], a co-author of the new paper. “There hasn’t been a direct link between environmental data and human data until this study.”

Hendryx said, “The larger implication is that we have evidence of environmental conditions in mining communities that promote human lung cancer. Previous studies … have been criticized for being only correlational studies of illness in mining communities, and with this study we have solid evidence that mining dust collected from residential communities causes cancerous human lung cell changes.”

The coal industry and its allies in Congress have always been eager to dismiss claims that air and water pollution caused by mountaintop removal mining have any link to the high rates of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects, or the decrease in life expectancy that counties with heavy mining have experienced over the past two decades.

Will this study get them to finally change their tune? It’s almost certain it won’t. It will be up to those of us who care about the health of Appalachian communities to raise our voices and simply drown them out.

Click here to learn more about how mountaintop removal impacts health in Appalachia, or visit The Human Cost of Coal on iLoveMountains.org.

Corporate windfall lets N.C. utilities charge customers under outdated tax rate

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by brian
A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is tasked with regulating public utilities operating in the state and the rates they charge for services that millions of North Carolinians use every day.

So it’s no surprise that a decision by a majority (4-3) of the seven-member commission to allow Duke Energy and other utilities to charge customers using an outdated, and inflated, corporate tax rate is rankling their dissenting colleagues, government watchdogs and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.

As The Charlotte Observer reports, the commission (somehow) decided that even though the legislature cut North Carolina’s corporate income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5 percent last year, utilities can continue charging customers at 6.9 percent and pocket the difference.

In their dissent, three Democratic commissioners called the decision a corporate windfall that “allows the utilities to charge ratepayers in perpetuity to collect for taxes that the utilities no longer pay.” Yeah, it’s messed up.

The rate individual utilities, including electric, gas and water companies, are able to charge their customers could change the next time they seek rate adjustments. But even then, the dissenting commissioners warned, ratepayers will never be refunded the over-collected funds; the utilities have simply been afforded an unearned gain at the expense of North Carolina ratepayers.”

This is all pretty scary for several reasons. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fundamental disagreement between commissioners on the issue of “single-issue ratemaking,” or when and how adjustments in tax structures should influence the amount utility customers see on their bills.

Although Republican commissioners said they sympathized with the points made by the dissenting commissioners, they claimed that the “doctrine against single-issue ratemaking in full force in this state, designed to prevent changes to utility rates outside general rate cases, should be adhered to except in limited, closely circumscribed situations.”

“The insubstantial and immaterial changes at issue in this docket do not fit within the exception,” Republican commissioners wrote. “The limitations should be preserved to prevent single-issue ratemaking in the future when tax rates increase in insubstantial and immaterial ways.” No word on who decides what constitutes substantial and material changes, or why this shouldn’t be considered a limited, closely circumscribed situation.

But maybe they’re right. After all, Duke spokeswoman Lisa Parrish told The Charlotte Observer that, if Duke decides to stop sharing the tax savings with its ratepayers, its customers would only see a 17 cent increase on their monthly bill. Progress customers would pay 9 cents more each month.

Overall, the charges could help Duke Energy, Duke-Progress, Dominion North Carolina and PSNC Energy bring in around $21 million more a year.

That’s not so bad, right? Just ignore that you’re paying extra for a corporate tax rate that no longer exists. Parrish of Duke Energy also said that a little bump in North Carolinians’ electric bills wouldn’t really hurt them because it would go toward operating expenses or it could be spent on programs with broad community benefits. Hopefully they remember that when a real discussion about how to address the state’s coal ash problem comes up.

Another thing: You also may remember that HB 998, the bill that lowered corporate taxes in North Carolina, did much more than cut taxes for big corporations. It also more than doubled sales taxes on electricity from 3 percent to 7 percent. The commission approved a rate increase related to that change back in May, and over the summer, monthly bills of Duke customers increased by around 50 cents. Last I heard, the company isn’t sharing that burden with its customers.

Meanwhile, for three consecutive quarters, Duke has received a larger rate of return and rate of equity, the profit a company generates with shareholders’ money, than authorized by state regulators, in this case, the utilities commission. The Charlotte Business Journal reported that it is the first time since 2003 that the utility has significantly exceeded the returns set by the commission.

Finally, it’s understandable that the vast majority of the commission’s activities are not scrutinized the way major decisions, such as the 5.1 percent rate increase it granted Duke Energy last year or the merger between Duke and Progress Energy that the commission approved the year before, have been. But in this case, the commission used its discretion to not include Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat expected to run for governor in 2016, or the Public Staff, which represents the interest of consumers on issues before the commission.

Now Cooper says he plans to appeal the decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and the Public Staff are weighing an appeal.

Oh, and the eventual decision of whether Duke will be allowed to saddle its ratepayers with the cost of cleaning up its leaky, polluting coal ash ponds across the state — that quagmire will land in the commission’s lap too.

This isn’t just about about the pennies added to our monthly electric bills — even though those pennies are piling up and becoming dollars — and, as the dissenting commissioners wrote, for families struggling to pay their utility bills, “every cent counts.”

It’s bigger than that. It’s about the commission adhering to the first tenet of its mission statement: to provide just and reasonable rates and charges for public utility services.

Community Members Gather for Blue Ridge Energy Efficiency Kick-off

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by Eliza Laubach
Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Did you miss the party? Last Thursday, Energy Savings for Appalachia hosted a launch party for our new campaign focusing on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.

Energy efficiency advocates and residents facing high energy costs gathered in our downtown Boone office to hear about the campaign and how they can get involved in our outreach efforts. Local business owners, students, farmers and families spilled out of the conference room as we brainstormed different ways to educate the community about our exciting High Country Home Energy Makeover contest and to gather signatures for our petition calling on Blue Ridge Electric to provide more energy efficiency programs.

What are we asking for? Blue Ridge Electric provides electricity to Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell and Watauga counties, and some of Wilkes and Avery counties, excluding the town of Boone. Last winter, thousands of people served by Blue Ridge Electric could not afford to pay their bills and their electricity service was shut off. This is of particular concern given that 23 percent of Blue Ridge Electric members live at or below the poverty line, and we want to help families find solutions to their high electric bills.

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

That is where on-bill energy efficiency financing comes in. As Sam Zimmerman, owner of Sunny Day Homes, said at the party, most people do not have the disposable income to make large-scale home energy upgrades but would greatly benefit from them. With on-bill financing, the cooperative utility provides a loan for members to pay for home energy retrofits, and the loan is repaid on the member’s electric bill. Because so much energy is saved through the efficiency upgrades, the member’s electric bill is always lower than it was, even while they pay back the loan! By providing on-bill financing, utilities can help a wider range of homeowners and even renters make improvements to their home that would lower their energy use and electric bill.

So far, Blue Ridge Electric has rejected the idea of offering an on-bill financing program, citing lack of substantial member support as one of their primary reasons. This came as a surprise to Blue Ridge Electric members at the launch party. We are working to demonstrate that there actually is significant member support by circulating a petition, presenting to community groups and going door-to-door in local neighborhoods. Additionally, the Home Energy Makeover contest will not only help a few families whose homes could use efficiency upgrades now, it will also highlight a need for an on-bill finance program.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Chatter filled the room as large sheets of paper were filled with names of local businesses, community organizations, churches and other places where we can reach community members. Volunteers came up with innovative methods of outreach, such as utilizing technology or using church signboards, and signed up to help us with our ongoing canvassing project.

It was exciting to see folks be so enthused about our campaign, to hear a homeowner’s personal story detailing how much energy efficiency programs could help, and to strive for inclusion in the process of organizing a community around an issue.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings team has followed viable pathways of outreach, but the power of people coming together to focus their hands and hearts on helping us, which in turn helps them, enhances the benefit of our outreach, as involvement sparks meaning within concerned community members.

October is National Energy Action Month and National Cooperative Month, and there is no better time than now to focus on our local electric cooperative to provide services that will help members lower their energy use. Sign our Blue Ridge Electric petition or send a letter to your utility. Send us an email at energysavings@appvoices.org for volunteer opportunities, and, if you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric and are in need of support for reducing your energy costs, apply for the contest!