Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Many roads lead to clean energy

Monday, March 2nd, 2015 - posted by cat
Photo by BigStock

Photo by BigStock

At first glance, two recent news stories appear unrelated, but a closer look reveals they point in the same direction — the convergence of the tremendous economic opportunities of building a strong clean-energy sector in the U.S., and the needs of low-income, largely disenfranchised populations.

On February 20, when temperatures across the East and South sank well below freezing, customers served by two of the nation’s largest electric utilities — Duke Energy Carolinas and Dominion Virginia Power — set all-time highs for energy use. So did customers of a much smaller utility, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. in western North Carolina. Other utilities may have set records as well.

It also happened to be the same day that the NAACP passed a resolution entitled, “Promoting Equitable Access to Clean Energy Alternatives” calling for programs and policies that ensure affordable access to clean energy options for all, and job training and opportunities for lower-income African-Americans.

Connect the dots: increasing energy efficiency and other clean energy choices like rooftop solar can reduce overall demand on the grid, save money for families and companies, and create economic opportunity for communities that need it most.

High consumption = high cost

The utilities, in announcing the record-high energy use, neglected to note that their customers just might be getting record-high electric bills next month to pay for all those kilowatt hours. High bills can be especially burdensome on low-income families, which sometimes spend as much as 20 or 30 percent of household income on electricity.

Rather than building ever more fossil fuel generators to cover spikes in energy use (which arguably we’ll be seeing more of in winter and summer as climate change continues to wreak havoc on weather patterns), utilities ought to be investing a lot more in helping their customers weatherize and insulate their houses and apartments. Those who would benefit most are lower-income families, rural and urban, who can least afford the upfront costs to make energy-efficiency improvements, yet whose homes are in worse shape than most.

Moreover, studies show that implementing energy efficiency and other clean sources of energy, like solar and wind, creates jobs and business opportunities, and strengthens local economies.

Cleaner energy = more equitable energy

The flip side here, as the NAACP’s resolution notes, is that the cost of not transitioning to clean energy is disproportionately borne by communities of color and low-income communities in terms of the health impacts of mining, burning fossil fuels, dumping the toxic waste, and the impacts of climate change.

“The NAACP has a vested interest in improving the quality of lives of those most adversely impacted by high rates of energy consumption, while promoting safer, affordable, and equitable energy alternatives and supplier options. Our adopted policy is reflective of our historical civil rights legacy,” says Kathy Egland, chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors Environmental and Climate Justice Subcommittee.

Hitting record-high energy use is nothing to crow about. Although Duke and Dominion said that emergency conservation measures by their customers helped them get through the February 20 spike, they aren’t fully connecting the dots: deploying robust energy efficiency and clean energy programs will provide a more secure, affordable, and equitable energy system for its customers long into the future.

Appalachian Voices and FloydFest 2015

Friday, February 27th, 2015 - posted by Jamie Goodman

Teaming up to spread some serious love for the mountains

floydfest1

It’s official — Appalachian Voices is partnering with one of the premiere music and arts festivals in the country to spread some serious love for mountains!

This year, our organization was chosen by FloydFest 2015: Fire on the Mountain as the featured nonprofit. FloydFest is a 5-day music and arts festival held each year just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Floyd, Va. This year’s festival features more than 100 musical acts of all genres playing on eight different stages, with a lineup that boasts of top acts such as Brandi Carlile, Emmylou Harris, Drive-By Truckers, Grace Potter, Leftover Salmon and Keller Williams, as well as up-and-comers including Annabelle’s Curse, American Aquarium, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks and Pitchblak Brass Band.

Festivalgoers have a chance to donate to Appalachian Voices when purchasing their tickets, and the festival organizers will match with a donation from their proceeds. We’re also planning all kinds of fun collaborations with FloydFest organizers to promote stewardship of the Appalachian mountains, including an “I Love Mountains” temporary tattoo parlor and a raffle to win a West Virginia rafting trip.

We’ll also be holding a contest to give away four tickets this spring, so stay tuned!

A partnership is born: Jamie Goodman and Jeff Deal from Appalachian Voices enjoy the scene with Sam and Trish Calhoun, staff with FloydFest, at the 2014 festival.

“We’re excited to be teaming up with Appalachian Voices” Erika Johnson, CFO of Across-the-Way Productions and co-founder of FloydFest, says. “The theme for this year’s FloydFest, “Fire on the Mountain,” is amongst other things, an homage to mountains as they should be — mountains alive with trees, animals, and the fire of music loving festival-goers … not the smoking rubble of mountaintop removal.”

FloydFest is more than just a music festival, and incorporates hands-on learning with a bent for family-friendly activities. Guided outdoor adventures, including hikes, mountain biking, a disc golf course and a geocache adventure. Workshops and panels cover everything from bee-keeping and primitive tool making to hula hooping and conservation discussions. And the Workshop Porch offers music lovers a chance to get up close and personal with some legends of mountain music culture.

If you’ve never been to FloydFest, you are in for a treat. Floydfest was voted “Best Outdoor Music Festival” by Blue Ridge Magazine, and the organizers go above and beyond to create a festive and joyous atmosphere. Lights festoon the trees, a “high roller” camping section accommodates folks who like a more all-inclusive experience, and the vendors are comprised of a juried selection of more than 70 jewelers, potters, clothiers, (mad) hatters, shoemakers, painters, photographers, candle makers and more. The food court includes delicious local and vegetarian fare, and the variety of music and other activities ensures you will have to work to be bored.

So come join us for this unique and merry festival nestled deep in the Blue Ridge, and help us spread some love for the mountains.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit our special FloydFest page.

Apologies for the Dan River spill, guilt for coal ash crimes

Thursday, February 26th, 2015 - posted by brian
Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Duke Energy likes to use a tagline that goes something like “For more than 100 years we’ve been providing customers with reliable, affordable electricity at the flip of a switch.”

It’s boilerplate, but it works. So I doubt the company will amend that punchy bit of self-praise to include “and we were recently found criminally negligent for polluting North Carolina rivers with coal ash.”

Even so, a year after the Dan River spill, Duke seems to understand that coal ash pollution has its own chapter in the company’s corporate story. Now, Duke will pay for its crimes.

The bombshell news came in two pieces around the same time last Friday; the U.S. Department of Justice announced the charges and Duke announced it struck a deal with prosecutors. A few days before the big reveal, Duke told shareholders in an earnings report that it set aside $100 million to resolve the federal investigation that began after the Dan River spill.

The company faces nine misdemeanor charges for violating the federal Clean Water Act at multiple coal ash sites across the state. On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Western, Middle and Eastern Districts of North Carolina each filed charges in their respective federal courts, related to violations that occurred at coal ash ponds owned by Duke in their respective districts.

According to DOJ, Duke was criminally negligent in discharging coal ash and coal ash wastewater from storage ponds its Dan River, Asheville, Lee, and Riverbend plants into North Carolina rivers. Violations related to equipment upkeep were found at the Cape Fear Steam Station, where Duke was cited by the state for illegally pumping 61 million gallons of toxic water from a coal ash pit into the Cape Fear River last year.

The DOJ’s press release makes clear that the filing of charges is not a finding of guilt, and most prominent news outlets left any indication that Duke is guilty of its coal ash crimes out of their coverage. We decided to use the word “guilty” in our press release largely because a proposed plea agreement including millions in fines had been reached.

Read one of the three criminal "bills of information" detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Read one of the three criminal “bills of information” detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Also, in a consent to transfer the plea and sentencing proceedings to the Eastern District court, an attorney for Duke wrote: “… the Defendants wish to plead guilty to the offenses charged.”

Of course, Duke steered clear from the words “guilty” or “plea” in its own announcement. But, as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Frank Holleman told the Charlotte Observer, “When anyone pays $100 million to resolve a grand jury investigation, that indicates something serious happened.”

There’s still a lot of specifics we don’t know about the agreement between prosecutors and Duke. Prosecutors say they won’t comment until after court proceedings where the agreement must be approved by a federal judge.

It’s important to note, though, that this is a plea bargain to resolve a criminal investigation, not a settlement to avoid a civil trial. The proposed agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation. The fines cannot be passed on to customers, meaning Duke’s shareholders will take the hit.

Importantly, the agreement would also put Duke on probation for five years, during which a court-appointed monitor would ensure compliance with provisions related to training, audits and reporting. According to Duke, the full agreement will be made public if it is accepted by the court.

“We are sorry for the Dan River spill, and remain grateful to our friends and neighbors for your support,” Duke CEO Lynn Good said in a statement. “We are committed to moving forward in a safe and responsible way.”

For a year Duke has been saying sorry to its customers and communities along the Dan River — basically demanding that it be held to a higher standard. So even though the company is no longer in crisis mode, it’s still watching its back as it tries to repair its reputation and move beyond the spill.

The problem of coal ash pollution in North Carolina is far from resolved. According to Duke’s own assessment, 200 seeps at its power plants leak nearly 1 billion gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers every year. Just yesterday, Duke was cited for contaminating groundwater at its Asheville Plant.

In addition to investigating Duke Energy, federal prosecutors subpoenaed current and former employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which used to regulate coal ash ponds. But none of the charges against Duke allege any improper, or illegal, dealings between the company and state regulators.

Without clarification from the U.S. Attorney’s office, it’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of DENR is ongoing.

“While prosecutors aren’t legally obliged to explain charges they don’t file, in this case the public needs more substantial disclosures,” the Fayetteville Observer wrote in an editorial. “The Justice Department needs to let us know whether a cloud of suspicion remains over DENR.”

Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates. 

Moving Appalachia forward

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015 - posted by tom

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

Farmer's markets provide economic diversity to small communities throughout Appalachia.

Farmer’s markets provide economic diversity to small communities throughout Appalachia.

Earlier this month, President Obama showed that Appalachian citizens are finally being heard. The White House announced a proposal for more than $1 billion in federal funding to help build economic resilience for parts of the region long-dominated by the declining coal industry. While congressional approval would be needed to make this a reality, the announcement shines a spotlight on what should be a real national priority.

For years, people throughout the region have been calling for renewed investment in Appalachia, which powered America’s industrial ascendancy for more than a century while suffering from widespread pollution and poverty.

But citizens are not simply waiting for help. Rather, they have been taking bold steps toward creating a positive future for their families.

In Virginia, one example is the Clinch River Valley Initiative, a multi-partner effort to link downtown revitalization in Southwest Virginia communities with outdoor recreation along the Clinch River.

Another example, in Kentucky, is “Appalachia’s Bright Future,” a project hosted by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth that connects people and ideas to nourish and promote economic diversity efforts occurring in the region.

And in West Virginia, Sustainable Williamson is a living lab of “community-driven processes to breathe life back into central Appalachia.”

These are just a few of many efforts underway region wide, and Appalachian Voices is collaborating with citizens and other organizations to pursue opportunities to diversify the economy while honoring the natural and cultural heritage.

President Obama identified a suite of ideas in his budget proposal — funding for job training, improved infrastructure, restoration of forests, waters, and abandoned mines, and other tools to diversify the region’s economy and support communities. His proposal signals that the White House believes the country must stand behind Appalachian communities as we move toward a 21st-century economy that is no longer dominated by coal.

Let’s work together to hold him to it.

For the mountains,
Tom

Déjà vu in Kentucky clean water cases

Monday, February 23rd, 2015 - posted by eric

frasure_creek

Appalachian Voices and our partners have filed a motion to intervene in a case between the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and Frasure Creek Mining to ensure clean water laws are being enforced in Kentucky.

Late last year we filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue against Frasure Creek after we uncovered thousands of false water monitoring reports the company turned into the state.

The Kentucky cabinet was unaware of these false submissions and responded by filing an administrative complaint against Frasure Creek covering all of the false data we found, a common tactic for state agencies to prevent citizen involvement in this type of case. Now, we are filing a motion to become parties to the cabinet’s enforcement action.

To anyone following our lawsuits against Frasure Creek, these recent developments will sound familiar. This isn’t the first time we’ve caught the company turning in false water monitoring reports. Frasure Creek was one of three Kentucky coal companies we filed legal actions against in 2010 and 2011 for submitting falsified pollution reports that were concealing water quality violations.

In all of those cases the cabinet stepped in with slap-on-the-wrist settlements, compelling us to intervene in cases where we had brought the violations to light. The only difference in this case is that Frasure Creek and the cabinet have yet to reach a settlement, so we haven’t seen how lax the enforcement will be this time around.

Both of the cabinet’s previous settlements with Frasure Creek were thrown out by Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd last December. In a scathing opinion, Shepherd stated that when “one company so systematically subverts the requirements of law, it not only jeopardizes environmental protection on the affected permits, it creates a regulatory climate in which the Cabinet sends the message that cheating pays.”

Judge Shepherd’s rulings are being appealed by the cabinet (think about that, the state agency, not Frasure Creek, is asking for an appeal). But we are hoping that this time around the cabinet will take us seriously, and won’t reach a weak settlement or resort to legal run-arounds to prevent citizen involvement. After all aren’t our state agencies supposed to be accountable to the people, not to the corporations they are supposed to regulate?

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The citizens’ groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Read past posts about our clean water lawsuits in Kentucky. Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates.

Virginia lawmakers act on energy bills

Monday, February 23rd, 2015 - posted by hannah
There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

As the Virginia General Assembly enters the final days of its 2015 session, we can look back on five intense weeks.

Among the many issues our lawmakers labored over, a few were explosive enough to consistently make headlines. Energy policy was one of those issues thanks largely to electric utilities’ efforts to capitalize on worries about upcoming federal rules on carbon pollution.

Here’s a recap of the drama, along with a few important policies that received less fanfare.

>> First, a measure that shocked newspaper editorial boards, dismayed consumer groups, and stunned many of us who have challenged the utilities’ business-as-usual plans, but passed the legislature easily: under SB 1349, Virginia would see a five-year period when state regulators do not review rates set by Dominion Power and Appalachian Power, likely preventing any refunds of utility over-earnings to customers. The base portion of rates will be fixed, but other charges related to fuel costs can still rise during the period.

Political dynamics and election sensitivities made this legislation especially charged, and ultimately some of our top legislative champions for advancing clean energy stepped in and saw to it that the measure includes a designation for up to 500 megawatts of solar energy to be in the public interest, thereby authorizing state regulators to approve large scale solar farms — of which there are exactly zero in Virginia right now. The champs also added provisions for utilities to pay for low-income home weatherization programs.

Gov. McAuliffe signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

>> Last Wednesday, legislation passed both houses capping Virginia’s coal production and employment tax credits at $7.5 million annually. Appalachian Voices and other advocates have called for comprehensive study of whether such credits have their intended effects, including sustaining coal-related jobs in Southwest Virginia. A study by Downstream Strategies a few years ago suggests they do not. SB 741, which originally extended the tax credits by five years, is expected to come out of conference committee this week extending the credits for only two years while analysis is done by a reform-oriented panel.

>> On to one enormous highlight of the session: several bills containing extreme language against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan — aimed at reducing carbon pollution from power plants — never made it out of committee. One was an effort to empower the General Assembly to sue the EPA. Another bill that is still alive directs the state Department of Environmental Quality to consider concerns and take the input of legislators, and requires the General Assembly to express its approval of DEQ’s compliance plan in the form of a resolution.

>> Lastly, a bill based on a central concept of Gov. McAuliffe’s Energy Plan creates a Solar Energy Development Authority for Virginia. In spite of some legislators’ concerns about growing government, the promise of boosting job growth in the solar industry propelled this measure through both houses. A net energy metering expansion bill also still stands a good chance of passing.

With some great concepts like the Virginia Coastal Protection Act unable to find sufficient support in committee to pass this year, the work to pave the way for next year’s legislative efforts lies before us. Citizen contact with delegates and senators can continue year-round, and there are many ways to stay engage.

In addition to calling or writing your elected officials, enrolling in an energy-efficiency program offered by your power company or going solar sends a clear signal to our legislators about Virginia residents’ preferences and expectations on important energy policy issues.

Criminal charges filed against Duke Energy

Friday, February 20th, 2015 - posted by brian
Duke Energy entered a plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve a federal criminal investigation into its handling of coal ash in North Carolina.

Duke Energy entered a proposed plea agreement with prosecutors to resolve federal criminal charges related to its handling of coal ash in North Carolina.

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against Duke Energy for violating the federal Clean Water Act at coal ash sites across North Carolina. The company announced today it has reached a proposed plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve the charges.

According to a Duke Energy press release, the plea agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation.

The charges include multiple misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with last year’s coal ash spill in the Dan River as well as unauthorized discharges at other Duke coal plants in North Carolina. The agreement is subject to review and approval by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Related stories

Coal Ash Management: Long-awaited, still debatedAppalachian Voice reporter Kimber Ray sums up the state of coal ash management at the federal and state levels.

The agreement does not affect state lawsuits against Duke Energy, in which Appalachian Voices and our partners have intervened. It’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is ongoing.

The federal grand jury investigation began last year after 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from a retired Duke Energy coal plant into the Dan River.

A statement from Amy Adams, North Carolina Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, and former supervisor with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources:

It’s good to see that federal enforcers have taken this issue seriously by diligently pursuing criminal charges and levying a substantial fine against Duke, and it’s good to see Duke acknowledge its culpability. However, we have yet to see that culpability turn into real action. There are still leaking coal ash ponds at 10 of Duke’s sites, leaving 10 communities in limbo and a lot of ash that must be permanently and safely disposed.

Important questions remain, like exactly how the money will be spent and whether any individuals will be named. But most troubling is the unanswered question of whether DENR was aware of negligence and failed to act, or was unable to recognize the magnitude of the situation in the first place.

Learn more about our work to clean up coal ash pollution. Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates. 

“Clean coal” is on the fritz

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by brian

By Brian Sewell

Cost overruns and construction delays are dampening enthusiasm for carbon capture and storage technologies

A rendering of FutureGen 2.0. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled its funding from the project, which was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of carbon capture and storage technology on a commercial-scale. Credit Department of Energy.

A rendering of FutureGen 2.0. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled its funding from the project, which was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of carbon capture and storage technology on a commercial-scale. Credit Department of Energy.

As one of the most high-profile and hyped-up projects of its kind, the FutureGen “clean coal” plant in Illinois was supposed make history. Its backers saw in it the key to unlocking an inherently dirty energy source’s promise in a world coming to grips with climate change.

So the announcement earlier this month that the U.S. Department of Energy is backing out of its $1.1 billion funding commitment to the FutureGen project, citing a desire to “protect taxpayer interests,” sent a shockwave through the coal sector and investors, energy analysts and environmentalists all took note.

But the news that “clean coal” technology has taken yet another hit should not come as a surprise. Even with $6 billion in commitments under the Obama administration, carbon capture projects just don’t have the track record needed to pique private investors’ interest.

Every form of carbon capture technology comes with technical and technological drawbacks that translate to enormous costs. A commercial-scale “clean coal” plant using even the most advanced technologies may increase the cost of electricity by up to 80 percent, according to DOE. These challenges make commercial-scale carbon capture projects outcasts when it comes to competitive energy markets, where traditional fossil fuel plants and, increasingly, large-scale and distributed renewable projects represent the most cost-effective power sources.

Convinced that coal will remain one of the nation’s foremost energy sources for decades to come, DOE will put billions more into advancing “clean coal” technology, attempting to overcome its economic pitfalls and keep burning the dirtiest fuel around.

FutureGen’s Downfall

FutureGen 2.0 planned to transport CO2 waste approximately 30 miles  through pipelines before being injected in deep saline formations.

FutureGen 2.0 planned to transport CO2 waste approximately 30 miles through pipelines before being injected in deep saline formations. Click to enlarge.

The idea for FutureGen arose in 2003 under the Bush administration. The plan was for the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, a coalition of mining and energy companies including Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody Energy, to oversee retrofits to an existing coal plant and, in the process, prove the feasibility of burning coal, then capturing and storing the carbon emitted underground.

But the project soon began suffering from the delays, cost overruns and other challenges that will be its legacy. FutureGen was canceled, for the first time, in 2008 before construction could begin.

In 2010, the Obama administration used stimulus money to give FutureGen new life as FutureGen 2.0, a smaller proposed plant that would use a different technology to capture its emissions, but still show how carbon capture could make a more climate-friendly coal plant. For a time, everything seemed to be going in FutureGen’s favor. But then familiar cracks started to appear.

The Illinois Commerce Commission approved a controversial plan in 2012 to require utilities, and therefore their customers, to buy all the electricity generated by the FutureGen plant for 20 years — likely at dramatically over-market rates. The decision may have reassured some private investors, but challenges to the decision by the utilities themselves were headed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Sierra Club challenged the air pollution permit granted to FutureGen by the Illinois Pollution Control Board, saying the State of Illinois should hold FutureGen to its promise to build a “near-zero emissions” plant. FutureGen needed to convert a World War II-era boiler at the plant to one compatible with the oxy-combustion technology it planned use to capture its emissions. The Sierra Club argued that allowing FutureGen to convert the boiler would violate the federal Clean Air Act unless it obtained the appropriate permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

All of this is to say that the DOE isn’t entirely, or even mostly, responsible for FutureGen’s failure. Unresolved legal battles, environmental and economic concerns all combined to hurt the chances of attracting enough private investment to bring the $1.65 billion project online. It became clear that the project could not be completed by September 2015, the deadline for federal funds to be spent under the 2009 stimulus, so DOE pulled the plug.

According to DOE, approximately $116.5 million of the total award had been invested in the plant since 2010.

The Sierra Club, which has called FutureGen a boondoggle from the very beginning, said the news reflects a national trend toward embracing clean energy.

“This project has gone through a decade of false starts and with today’s announcement, $1 billion in federal funding and hundreds of thousands of dollars in Illinois ratepayer financing can be freed up for investment in clean energy,” Holly Bender, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.

Coal industry groups directed their frustrations toward the Obama administration and mostly overlooked the host of other challenges facing FutureGen.

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said in a statement that DOE’s decision to end funding for FutureGen “cannot be reconciled with the [Obama] administration’s proposal to require CCS as the only acceptable technology for any new coal-fueled power plant in the U.S.”

Proceed with Caution

A "first-of-its-kind" technologically speaking and the most expensive coal plant of all time, Mississippi Power's Kemper Plant has put ratepayers at risk in search of unproven and far-off returns. Photo from Wikipedia.

A “first-of-its-kind” technologically speaking and the most expensive coal plant of all time, Mississippi Power’s Kemper Plant has put ratepayers at risk in pursuit of unproven and far-off returns. Photo from Wikipedia.

Carbon capture is a must if future U.S. coal plants — if there is such a thing — hope to meet regulations on greenhouse gases being developed under the Clean Air Act.

Analysts say the only way to create a market for carbon capture technology, at least one that would attract significant private capital, is by capping power plant pollution. But groups like the National Mining Association lambast the president and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency for pursuing policies that will limit carbon pollution from power plants and steer investments toward alternative forms of energy, including “clean coal.”

Even with a strong climate policy, some experts doubt commercial-scale “clean coal” projects will be around in time to make a meaningful contribution to reducing carbon pollution. Sean Casten, the president and CEO of Recycled Energy Development, recently drew the comparison between the likelihood of the technology’s success and the existence of unicorns.

“I suppose it’s possible that there will suddenly be a huge pot of capital willing to invest billions of dollars in an unproven technology with long construction times and regulatory-dependent cash flows,” Casten told SNL Energy. “But unicorns are more likely.”

Another notable casualty is Tenaska’s $3.5-billion Taylorsville, Ill., plant, which the Nebraska-based energy developer canceled in 2013. The company cited market conditions that led it to focus on developing natural gas and renewable energy facilities instead. But the fact that Illinois lawmakers would not agree to a 30-year contract to buy electricity from the plant, and pass those high costs on to ratepayers, had something to do with it.

With the Taylorsville plant and FutureGen off the table, the U.S. is left with one utility-scale carbon capture project currently under construction. But Mississippi Power’s Kemper Plant, which received a $270 million grant from DOE, is like the projects before it: more of a cautionary tale than a positive sign for coal’s future.

Cost increases have been like clockwork at Kemper. Initially estimated to cost $2.2 billion, the price to build the plant has ballooned to $6.17 billion since 2009, making it the most expensive coal plant in U.S. history. Southern Company, the parent company of Mississippi Power, announced a $45 million increase this month.

$6 billion and counting: Cost increases at the Kemper Plant have been like clockwork since 2009.

$6 billion and counting: Cost increases at the Kemper Plant have been like clockwork since 2009. Graphic by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

To help pay the bill, the Mississippi Public Utilities Commission approved an 18 percent rate hike on Mississippi Power in March 2013, and the company says it’s likely to seek another increase of at least 4 percent to help pay off $1 billion in bonds that the state legislature is allowing it to issue.

“This is the largest rate increase in the state of Mississippi’s history, and this is the largest transfer of wealth from the people to a corporation in the state of Mississippi’s history,” Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley told Mississippi Watchdog in 2013.

Presley was the only dissenting vote when the commission approved the rate increase. But now the state’s highest court is on his side. Last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the rate increase after finding the utilities commission hadn’t ruled on the “prudency” of the Kemper Plant’s growing cost. The court directed Mississippi Power to refund ratepayers about $271 million attributed to the rate increase.

The Kemper plant is slated to open in mid-2016, more than two years behind schedule.

The quest to create a cleaner future for coal increasingly rests on the question of how much we’re willing pay for it.

Meet Zach Dixon, grand prize winner of the home energy makeover contest

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 - posted by Eliza Laubach

Stepping inside Zach Dixon’s foyer is akin to stepping back in time 40 years. A chartreuse green glow washes over you and a large mirror reflects hints of art deco. The shag carpet confirms this house’s birth in the early 1970s, and also whispers of its outdated structure.

Since Dixon’s childhood, much of which he spent in the groovy house his grandfather built, three heating systems have broken down, leaving space heaters as his only choice. He remembers the days of the oil boiler and baseboard heaters—the luxury of having a thermostat. “It was awesome when taking a shower,” Dixon says. “Now when I want to do that I have to put the heater in there and let it warm up.” After his grandmother passed away, “it dried up,” says Dixon. “We couldn’t afford the oil.”

He moved back into the house in Boone, N.C. to take care of his grandmother when she was sick, while facing a serious physical ailment himself. Dixon has a degenerative bone disorder. He has had both of his hips replaced and he can no longer work in the field he was trained in, carpentry. After losing his job last April, he has been unable to find work due to his physical limitations. “I’m hanging on by a thread,” says Dixon. “I don’t know how I came this far.”

But even before Dixon lost his job, he was having trouble paying the bills. Last winter, in the dead cold of the polar vortex, he received help from Blue Ridge Electric’s Operation RoundUp program and Watauga County Crisis Assistance Network. Still, his electricity was shut off and he went to stay at a neighbor’s house. This winter, his electricity has already been shut off three times. He is on a pay-as-you-go program with Blue Ridge Electric. “I’ll be in the positives, then the next day I’ll be in the negatives,” says Dixon. He once experienced his electricity being shut off for being 43 cents in the red. That time, he was lucky; it was summer.

For three years, Dixon has been on a waiting list for a W.A.M.Y. retrofit, a local program funded by the federal government for low-income families, but the demand for energy efficiency upgrades exceeds the four-county program’s capacity. Running his space heaters cost him about $15 a day during the winter, compared to his standard usage of $3 during the summer. “I could have $200 on my bill, if I wasn’t losing all the heat,” says Dixon.

Dixon’s house lacks sufficient insulation. The two bedrooms are situated over the garage, which is not insulated. There is no crawl space, so essentially there is no insulation surrounding the bottom part of his house. The attic is insulated to about half the level required by building codes. There are air leaks throughout his house, including around doors and recessed lighting, but the major air leak is a hole cut out from his hallway floor into the garage.

There is a wood stove in the garage, which supplemented heat in the past and was hooked up to the oil boiler system. Dixon cut the hole in the floor to allow the wood heat into his main floor. Tricks like this demonstrate the craftiness homeowners resort to when homes lack central heating systems. After a chimney fire scare last year, though, he no longer uses the stove. The hole is now covered by a thin rug.

As grand prize winner of the High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest, Dixon has received insulation in his attic and garage, two quick steps that will greatly improve the house’s energy efficiency and his quality of life. All of the air leaks around Dixon’s home will be sealed with a caulk gun. And compact fluorescent light bulbs will replace incandescent bulbs — the frosting on this energy makeover cake.

“The most important thing I never realized, until I met [the Energy Savings team at Appalachian Voices], is how bad I lose heat,” Dixon says. “I knew heat rises but I didn’t know it was that bad.” Dixon plans to attend school so that he can get a “desk job” like the doctor ordered. He hopes to be an architect and design his own house one day — in a very energy efficient way.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program and the High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest.

Danger still looms over the Dan River

Monday, February 9th, 2015 - posted by amy

{ Editor’s Note } This post by Amy Adams also appeared as an op-ed in the Winston-Salem Journal on Sunday, Feb. 1, marking the first anniversary of the Dan River coal ash spill.

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It’s been exactly one year since the infamous broken pipe at Duke Energy’s Dan River steam station spewed 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the scenic Dan River, just a few miles upstream of the drinking water intake of some 160,000 people. Since then, much attention has been given to the river and to the problems of leaking, unlined coal ash pits across North Carolina.

What hasn’t received attention is a threat much more menacing to the Dan River. Sitting only 35 miles upstream from the shuttered Dan River plant is Duke’s Belews Creek steam station in Walnut Cove, and one of the largest coal ash impoundments in North Carolina and the entire Southeast. Compare the 342-acre active goliath at Belews to the 39-acre impoundment at the Dan River plant, and it’s easy to understand the implications.

At Belews, a 14-story high earthen dam holds back 4.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash. That’s more than 20 times the holding capacity of the Dan River site. The dam at Belews is rated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “high hazard,” meaning loss of life and property are probable if it failed. The EPA also ranks the dam as being in only fair condition. If it were to break, the Dan River would again be flooded with toxic coal ash, only this time on a scale on par with the Kingston, Tenn., disaster in 2008.

Aside from the threat of a catastrophic spill, the Belews Creek plant has a history of pollution that harms waterways and wildlife, including documented groundwater contamination. In addition, the plant dumps its wastewater directly into the Dan River under state-issued permits. It is currently part of ongoing litigation for violations of the Clean Water Act, its wastewater permit and North Carolina law.

Downstream from the massive Belews Creek plant is the town of Madison, which gets its drinking water from the Dan River, as does Eden and the Virginia localities of Danville, South Boston and Halifax County. Eden, whose water intake was spared any impacts from last year’s spill, withdraws close to 12 million gallons a day from the Dan River to serve residential customers and three major industries: Miller Brewing, Hanesbrands and Karastan Rug Mills.

Living next to this industrial mega-site are residents of Walnut Cove and Pine Hall, communities whose concerns include not just the wet ash impoundment and dangerous dam, but several other on-site landfills containing dried coal ash. While the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has spent the last weeks rearranging the who’s who of its upper management, these communities, like others across the state, are waiting to find out if the agency will ever clean up the sites.

According to the state’s new coal ash law, passed earlier this year under mounting pressure from citizens, DENR must set the “priority level” of each site by the end of 2015. So far, four sites have been identified as high priority — but not Belews Creek. If it’s ultimately deemed to be a “low priority” site, the ash could be left in the existing unlined pit in the ground and simply covered with plastic. This is not an acceptable solution for the residents around the plant who depend exclusively on wells for their drinking water.

Covering the ash does nothing to stop the toxic metals from entering the groundwater beneath the unlined pit. It’s equivalent to trying to stay dry under an umbrella while sitting in a puddle.

The communities living under the shadow of Belews deserve to be more than a low priority. In fact, no community in North Carolina should be considered a low priority. On the anniversary of the Dan River spill, we should make the removal of coal ash from all unlined coal ash sites and therefore, the assurance of clean, safe water to our communities, our top priority.