Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Sizing up APCo’s plan, through customers’ eyes

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company's resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy's role going forward.

Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company’s resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy’s role going forward.

Dozens of energy customers gathered in Roanoke on Tuesday evening for one reason: the electricity system in this country is undergoing some exciting changes, yet utilities’ choices can still hold Virginia back from rapid progress toward a diverse energy mix.

Residents are showing they want to learn more and get involved in these critical decisions.

Utilities in Virginia must submit plans, called Integrated Resource Plans, discussing their intended approaches to meeting customer demand. State regulators require these plans at intervals, providing a window for customers to engage with their electricity provider. The State Corporation Commission is currently considering Appalachian Power Company’s latest plan, which is set to be heard in an official proceeding before a regulatory panel on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

This newest plan is notable in many ways. The company acknowledges that market changes have made renewable energy economically advantageous. Meanwhile, federal standards on carbon pollution are in a final form, another factor that can drive change. But here are a few points that illustrate how APCo’s plan stands to impede Virginia from harnessing its full renewable energy potential at the scale that would most benefit for customers and the economy.

The Effect of the Clean Power Plan

The CEO of APCo parent company American Electric Power, Nick Akins, recently stated that “The Clean Power Plan is no doubt a catalyst for the investments … to support not only the movement of the customers but also reducing the environmental footprint.”

Though rather non-specific, this comment is encouraging and reflects a recognition of the beneficial nature of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s actions.

The flexibility, even leniency, that characterizes the Clean Power Power offers protection against legal challenges but is also a potential shortcoming when it comes to achieving long-term pollution reductions while states go about complying with the standard. Sophisticated computer modeling can help utilities determine cost-effective ways of meeting targets. At this point, APCo has only modeled the consequences of a carbon tax. The review process for its current resource plan is an opportunity for regulators to ask the company to show different possible approaches for reducing carbon emissions enough to meet new standards. If they do, it could present ways to meet the standards that will economically benefit customers, like greater reliance on bill-shrinking energy efficiency programs to meet demand.

Capping the Amount of Solar APCo Develops

The headlines over the summer when APCo released its resource plan were striking: “Appalachian turns toward sun and wind for future energy.” It sounded like a major shift was taking place. And there was a perceptible change in tone in the plan itself: “In the recent past, development of [renewable] resources has been driven primarily as the result of renewable portfolio requirements. That is not universally true now as advancements in both solar [photovoltaic] and wind turbine manufacturing have reduced both installed and ongoing costs.”

But how big a shift is APCo really proposing, how fast would it happen? After several weeks of analysis, we can say this much: the shift could be bigger, but APCo is imposing some strict, arbitrary limits on the solar projects and energy efficiency programs it’s pursuing.

Coal is decreasing in APCo’s resource mix, as one plant goes out of service and other is converted to natural gas, which seems as though it would make room for increased use of a popular, proven technologies like solar. But APCo’s preferred plan includes 835 megawatts of new natural gas-fired power, which detracts from renewable energy investments. A new gas-fired power plant would lock us into decades of dependence on a fossil fuel with potentially more volatile price swings and an environmentally degrading life-cycle that includes fracking and transmission by pipeline.

Why does APCo propose to stop at 510 MW of solar between now and 2029, when the fuel source is free and the resource is cost-effective? It appears these limits are without reason or rhyme, so regulators will likely ask APCo to explain where its numbers come from and demonstrate why is preferred plan is the best deal for customers.

An Energy Efficiency Economy under APCo’s Plan?

Energy efficiency programs seek to capture energy that otherwise gets wasted, capitalizing on home auditing technology and expertise, modern appliance and HVAC design, and other strategies to make sure customers enjoy the same amount of comfort and convenience while using less energy. Utilities including Duke Energy and Georgia Power are reducing demand through from efficiency programs, in the neighborhood of 1 percent energy saved every year,, avoiding the need for some costlier new peak or baseline generation additions — like natural gas fired plants. The question is: does APCo approach energy efficiency in a way that values these benefits as lasting and quantifiable?

APCo’s plan only expects a 1 percent improvement in energy efficiency over the next 15 years. As with the company’s solar modeling, it’s our sense that APCo is artificially limiting efficiency as a resource in its plans. The company also cites customer “acceptance and saturation” as a factor that stands to determine program cost and potentially the total impact on energy use. We know from listening to customers that people are eager to better control their energy use, and efficiency programs are a popular, basic service. When several new programs become available Jan. 1, 2016, we look forward to seeing them promoted and Appalachian Voices will do its part to get the word out about how residents can shrink their bills.

APCo does provide much-needed weatherization programs for its low-income customers that are managed by providers in the service area, which can provide work in good, often career-length jobs. But program offerings that are not income-qualified remain limited, and in order to reach Virginia’s voluntary goal of 10 percent energy efficiency by 2020, a non-binding target endorsed by General Assembly and Governor McAuliffe, APCo must design and get approval for much more robust programs.

Meanwhile, more and more APCo customers are opting to go solar each year, investing in their energy future and using less energy from the grid. Yet, that trend is also not encouraged in APCo’s plan — rather, the company tacitly subscribes to the existing system of fees, system size limitations, permit waiting periods, and other restrictions.

Plans Are Not “Set in Stone” — Stay Committed to Change

Clean energy investments proposed in APCo’s plan such as solar farms and wind installations aren’t exactly set in stone; they are contingent on approval by the State Corporation Commission, which may depend on whether current federal tax incentives are extended, reduced, or allowed to expire. According to APCo’s plan,decisions about whether or not to proceed will be made later, based on whether there are “suitable opportunities.”

It is critical that APCo customers remain engaged to support energy freedom and diversifying Virginia’s energy mix with renewables during the review of APCo’s energy plan and beyond. So take a moment to send a comment now.

Want to help spread the word? How about taking a picture of yourself holding a handwritten message or captioned with text about APCo’s plan? Try something like:

  • APCo: Don’t CAP Solar in your plan — Re-evaluate clean energy
  • Stop whittling our energy freedom away — Let people go solar
  • ​I urge APCo to expand efficiency programs for affordable bills

Tag us on social media or email your photo to, and thanks for supporting clean energy!

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New faces, fresh perspectives

Friday, November 20th, 2015 - posted by jamie

Please join us in welcoming two new members to the Appalachian Voices team!


Leigh Kirchner, Development Coordinator

Leigh grew up in beautiful Rockbridge County in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where her roots go back many generations to a Monacan Indian on one side and German settlers on the other. A first-generation college student, she earned a B.A. in English at Virginia Commonwealth University and an M.A. in Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University.

While in graduate school, Leigh developed an interest in protecting the Appalachian region from exploitation. She worked at Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia prior to joining Appalachian Voices.

Leigh will be playing a critical role in managing integrated development projects, enhancing team synergy and products, and bolstering our membership program.


Maya Viknius, Controller

Maya was born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine, and spent her summers in a rural country village where the residents were mostly self-sustainable. She moved to the United States at the age of 21, living in the Midwest and on the West Coast before settling in the mountains of North Carolina in 2011.

Maya earned a minor in economics from Kiev’s University of Economics, a B.S., in business administration/accounting from Southern Oregon University, and completed the CPA examination in 2013. She feels strongly about environmental sustainability and social justice, and feels fortunate to intimately know and draw from two very different cultures. She currently lives with her husband Brian and two sons, Nicholas and Souren, near the beautiful Watauga River in Sugar Grove, N.C.

Maya will serve as our controller overseeing the financial operations of the organization.

Welcome, Leigh and Maya!

Focus on Appalachia’s future

Friday, November 20th, 2015 - posted by tom

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

Flag Rock Trail in Southwest Virginia. Photo by Alistair Burke

View of Wise County from Flag Rock Trail in Southwest Virginia. Photo by Alistair Burke

The winds of change are blowing in Central Appalachia, carrying voices of people determined to see their communities thrive in a future where the coal industry no longer dominates. Just since July, 24 local governments have passed resolutions supporting major federal investment to invigorate the region’s economy in new ways.

Most of the resolutions support a White House proposal called “POWER+,” a multi-billion dollar plan to foster economic opportunities in coal-impacted communities.The plan’s fate in Congress, however, will largely depend on citizen engagement, and Appalachian Voices is helping to ensure that local voices for change are heard loud and clear in Washington, D.C.

Early this year, we opened our new office in Norton, Va., at the heart of the coal-bearing region, determined to advance sustainable economic solutions through citizen engagement and outreach to all levels of government officials. We co-hosted several community forums in Southwest Virginia this fall, and people from all walks of life came to share their visions for a new economy. Their leadership will be essential as their communities advocate for economic diversification.

Progress on this front is one way we’ve continued our quest for a sustainable future that honors our region’s unsurpassed natural heritage. As 2015 draws to a close, we’re celebrating highlights of the past year’s work.

  • We helped thousands of citizens weigh in on the Obama administration’s proposed Stream Protection Rule and are in close communication with agency officials to push for a strong final rule.
  • We partnered with Google and SkyTruth to launch the interactive “Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal” tool, which uses satellite imagery to show that mining continues to encroach on communities.
  • In North Carolina, we deepened our partnership with people living near coal ash ponds and proposed fracking sites and helped citizens form a statewide coalition to compel Duke Energy and the state to clean up coal ash.
  • Our work and citizen voices have elevated clean energy as a priority for the McAuliffe administration in Virginia to create jobs and reduce carbon pollution.
  • Our Energy Savings for Appalachia program has moved electric cooperatives in North Carolina and Tennessee to commit to up-front financing for energy efficiency improvements on customers’ homes.

We are grateful for the members and activists who help us make change and our supporters who make this work possible.

Here’s to our ongoing partnership!

Crowdsourcing Southwest Virginia’s New Economy

Friday, November 20th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Adam Wells, economic diversification campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, at the community forums in  Wise County, October 15, 2015. Click for more pictures

Adam Wells, economic diversification campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, at the community forums in Wise County, October 15, 2015. Click for more pictures

This October, more than 130 citizens from across Southwest Virginia’s coalfield counties came together to discuss the region’s economic future. Appalachian Voices, in partnership with Virginia Organizing, hosted eight community forums to gather ideas and input from ordinary citizens about how to move the local economy forward. We called them “Southwest Virginia’s New Economy Forums.”

It was crowdsourcing old-school style — inviting ideas from community members whom you meet face-to-face. And I got to meet all kinds of people: small business owners, coal miners, local government officials, concerned citizens, environmentalists, clergy, students and young parents…people like Brianna Stallard, a recent graduate of UVA Wise who works at a local business that cleans polluted water from coal mines, and Bobby Bloomer, who recently opened a bike rental shop in Big Stone Gap and is tapping into the growing excitement around outdoor recreation and ecotourism in the area.

It was inspiring to see the level of enthusiasm and optimism that people brought with them, and the high hopes they hold for our region’s future.

In a few weeks, Appalachian Voices will publish an outline of all the ideas we heard, and early next year we’ll launch an online, wiki-type crowdsourcing project. The goal is to both broaden the reach of the effort and get more specific details about how to act on those ideas. Ultimately, we’ll synthesize the information into a “Citizens’ Roadmap for a New Economy” to help local governments, planning districts, and others garner federal and state funds for job training, infrastructure development, and other forward-looking economic development activities. The aim is to get more resources to Virginia’s coal counties for economic development.

The eight community forums were formatted as highly participatory events, with small group discussions on specific questions about new opportunities for the region’s economy. At the end of each forum, the small groups shared their ideas with the entire crowd and everyone had a chance to vote on their favorite ideas.

Common themes that surfaced included supporting advanced manufacturing and ecotourism, developing better relationships among local colleges and the surrounding communities, ensuring the area’s youth have a voice in helping shape the region’s future, and further developing the emerging industries of commercial drone and water-cleaning technologies. Forum participants also discussed the need to capitalize on existing broadband infrastructure and extend it to unserved areas.

As an organizer, I was heartened to see so many new faces each night at the forums. The solid turnout and the diversity of the attendees speaks to how urgent the work of economic diversification in Central Appalachia is right now. During the forums, and in the weeks since, people have been pulling me aside and thanking me for the work we’re doing to help our communities move on from the days of the coal mono-economy. It feels great to join with our friends and partners in this broad community effort to move our economy forward.

Publishing the summary of the forums in a few weeks and launching the online crowdsourcing project will keep the momentum going and stimulate more ideas from more people. The final report, or “Citizens’ Roadmap,” won’t just sit on a shelf. We’ll use it as an engagement tool to advocate for the forward thinking ideas that came out of the forums, and use the grassroots power that we’ve built over the process to make sure that the new economy we’re building in Southwest Virginia is one that’s truly good for people and the environment.

North Carolina lawmakers put fracking first

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 - posted by amy
Stokes County, N.C., resident Tracey Edwards speaks in favor of a moratorium on fracking during a meeting of the Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

Stokes County, N.C., resident Tracey Edwards speaks in favor of a moratorium on fracking during a meeting of the Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

The town of Walnut Cove, N.C., and Rockingham County recently joined the small but growing list of localities where commissions of elected officials have passed anti-fracking moratoriums.

On Nov. 10, a little more than a month after the passage of a county-wide moratorium, residents of Stokes County once again raised their concerns with fracking, this time seeking a moratorium from the board of commissioners of Walnut Cove — the first municipality to take up the issue.

Tracey Edwards, a lifelong resident of Stokes County, spoke to the commissioners and other community members when she said, “We have people here out of a four-letter word: love. It’s love of where they live, They love their county, they love their neighbors and they want to live in peace and have a clean environment. That is all anybody really wants.”

Residents across the state are looking to their local government officials to oppose fracking since pleas to decision makers in Raleigh have largely fallen on deaf ears. Thousands of citizens have called or emailed their representatives during the past two years asking to ban fracking in the state. During the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission’s comment period on rules proposed to regulate fracking in North Carolina, a record 200,000 comments were submitted, in vast majority against the rules and against the practice of fracking itself.

“The people at the local level want a voice in what affects our way of life,” Linda Hicks of the group No Fracking Stokes County said “The Mining and Energy Committee has formulated regulations that protects the oil and gas industry and not us”

Last year, the state legislature prohibited local bans on fracking. And in the final hours of this year’s session, in an attempt to usurp all power over oil and gas decisions in the state, lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting any local control and regulation of the fracking industry.

More than 70 mayors, commissioners, and other local elected officials across the state sent a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory on Nov. 5 describing why oversight of such a potentially harmful industry is critical at the local level:

“The notion that our communities have the right to bar or limit activities which threaten public health or the quality of life of their residents has a long tradition in North Carolina’s law. This principle is the basis of common health ordinances and local land use rules, including zoning, which often involve trade-offs with property rights and other interests. Yet the oil and gas industry has the audacity to insist that this basic principle of local control should not apply to its operations.”

The restriction of local authority came under fire during both recent moratorium hearings, and residents concern with handing over control to Raleigh extends beyond fracking. A poll released yesterday by the N.C. League of Municipalities found that more than 75 percent of respondents preferred their local governments have control over billboard regulations.

“We need to send a message to the legislators in Raleigh that they can’t mandate to us how we run our county … I commend you and applaud you for taking this stance,” Rev. Hairston of Stokes County told Walnut Cove commissioners.

Edwards shared that sentiment in her remarks. “We do not want the state to define what we can do,” she said. “You guys are our local elected officials, we need you to take care of us, that’s why we elect you.”

While the three-year moratorium passed in Walnut Cove, and more localities are considering similar measures, officials in Raleigh remain hell-bent on bringing fracking to the state — even if that means ignoring the rights of citizens that could suffer the consequences.

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I heard it through the pipeline

Friday, November 6th, 2015 - posted by brian
Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects' primary backers. Photo by Will Solis,

Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects’ primary backers. Photo by Will Solis,

From Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s perspective, it’s probably best to just keep a lid on what state officials say publicly about the controversial natural gas pipelines proposed to cut through the state.

Based on reports this week, that’s exactly what he wants to do.

According to the Roanoke Times, a new policy compelling officials to brief McAuliffe’s office before commenting on the pipelines resulted from a meeting in Richmond that included representatives from 13 state agencies involved in overseeing permitting and construction.

“There’s no effort to muzzle anyone,” assured Brian Coy, a spokesperson for McAuliffe.

McAuliffe backs both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline and spoke strongly in favor of each months before either had been officially filed with federal regulators.

READ MORE: Pipe Dreams: The push to expand natural gas infrastructure

I get it. Having more than a dozen agencies handling projects as contentious, and politically precarious, as the pipelines would be difficult enough. Knowing that the press and the public are prodding officials at those agencies for information only complicates things further for the administration.

But that doesn’t make suppressing speech any less problematic. And regardless of how representatives from Richmond describe the tactic, that’s what it is. Rather than speak out of turn or hold their breath while waiting for the official OK, we can assume agency officials will just speak less often and be more guarded when they do.

“This is a gag order, pure and simple,” said Ernie Reed of Friends of Nelson County, in a press release yesterday.

Among opponents of the pipelines, the administration’s actions have only deepened skepticism of McAuliffe and his relationship with Dominion, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s primary backer.

“There’s only two possible reasons the Governor would want state agencies to ‘coordinate’ their comments — one is to control those comments and the other is to vent them through his contacts with Dominion,” said Friends of Nelson President Joanna Salidis.

Friends of Nelson and many other groups across Virginia have been dismayed at McAuliffe’s repeated emphasis on the pipelines’ potential benefits, especially when paired with his apparent ignorance of the threats they pose to landowners, natural resources and the climate.

TAKE ACTION: Urge Complete Environmental Review of Pipeline Proposals

Last week, Friends of Nelson invited the governor to visit Nelson County to speak to residents about his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and, presumably, to hear their concerns. As of today, McAuliffe has not responded to that invitation.

The Roanoke Times reminded readers of how McAuliffe campaigned on a platform of government transparency. Friends of Nelson added that the governor promised to prioritize clean energy. His abiding support of what’s good for the pipelines is putting both of those positions at risk.

In another half-hearted attempt to defend the decision, McAuliffe spokesperson Brian Coy told the Roanoke Times, “Things work better when the left hand is aware of what the right hand is doing, preferably before it winds up in the paper.”

I’m glad that wound up in the paper.

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Pro-solar group gets on Duke Energy’s bad side

Monday, November 2nd, 2015 - posted by brian
Duke Energy wants to smack down NC WARN for setting up a small experimental solar project on the rooftop of Greensboro’s Faith Community Church to test a state law prohibiting third-party electricity sales in North Carolina. Photo by NC WARN

Duke Energy wants to smack down NC WARN for setting up a small experimental solar project on the rooftop of Greensboro’s Faith Community Church and testing a state law prohibiting third-party electricity sales in North Carolina. Photo by NC WARN

Duke Energy wants to smack down a small nonprofit for testing a law prohibiting third-party electricity sales in North Carolina.

As the Greensboro News & Record and other outlets reported today, the nation’s largest utility is asking state regulators to fine Durham-based NC WARN “up to $1,000″ per day for setting up a small experimental solar project on the rooftop of Greensboro’s Faith Community Church.

In a statement this morning, NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren said Duke’s tactics are meant to punish and silence one of its most persistent critics. Warren says the fine, which could total more than $120,000, is “vindictive and counterproductive.”

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is expected to decide whether the project is legal, and whether NC WARN should be fined, later this month.

Today’s news is just the latest development in a local fight with statewide implications that has been brewing since early summer. NC WARN first announced back in June that it had entered a partnership with Faith Community Church to install solar panels and sell the clean power to the congregation while also purposefully putting itself “on a collision course” with Duke.

The same day, the group filed a petition with the N.C. Utilities Commission asking it to rule that the partnership is lawful, even though third-party sales in North Carolina are not. That’s where the legal lines blur.

Duke’s immovable position is that NC WARN showed “blatant disregard for the law” by setting up the third-party agreement and that it is essentially acting as an unregulated utility. NC WARN argues that by paying the upfront costs of the solar panels and selling electricity to the church for a reduced rate that it is offering a public service and expressly not acting as a utility.

It’s up to the commission to decide whether North Carolina’s law against third-party sales applies when the profit motive is not part of the equation. But even if commissioners do rule in Duke’s favor, it’s hard to see how the massive utility can win the PR battle. The company is certainly not helping its reputation as a monopoly willing to quash any clean energy efforts except its own.

The merits of increasing access to solar speak for themselves. Allowing third-party sales is one of the most successful methods for making renewable electricity more affordable. It increases consumer choice and competition among suppliers, and it has been a boon to the the nation’s clean energy economy.

Third-party sales of electricity are also completely legal in all but four states, including North Carolina, and solar financing arrangements are available to most electricity consumers in the country.

In fact, the N.C. General Assembly had a chance during the legislative session to pass a Republican-sponsored, bipartisan bill to legalize third-party sales that was supported by the solar industry and major employers including Wal-Mart, Lowes and Target. It did not.

In the case of NC WARN versus Duke Energy, the cliche comparisons to David and Goliath would be apt if they weren’t so inadequate. The array on Faith Community’s roof is around five kilowatts. It produces barely enough power to run the church’s central air conditioning for one hour each day, according to NC WARN. Can a company that made nearly $3 billion last year justify imposing a $120,000 fine for what probably amounts to a few hundred dollars of lost sales?

Also, NC WARN has repeatedly called the partnership a “test case” and promises to donate the solar system to the church if the commission decides the partnership isn’t legal — another reason Duke’s request for the fine seems spiteful.

It’s what the group is trying to accomplish that has Duke executives gritting their teeth and telling their lawyers to attack.

Speaking of the benefits of solar, Rev. Nelson Johnson, a co-pastor of the church, told the Greensboro News & Record, “It just makes sense. It makes environmental sense. It makes financial sense. It makes common sense.”

So I suppose it follows that, for all but a few, North Carolina’s law barring third-party sales does not.

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Gov. McCrory signs “Polluter Protection Act”

Monday, October 26th, 2015 - posted by amy
"H765 may well be the worst environmental bill of McCrory's three years as Governor, and yet he has made it law with his signature."

“H765 may well be the worst environmental bill of McCrory’s three years as Governor, and yet he has made it law with his signature.”

Late last Friday afternoon, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law H765, the “Regulatory Reform Act of 2015.”

This massive reform bill is better known as “The Polluter Protection Act” with its plethora of anti-environmental provisions, regulatory rollbacks and giveaways to industry.

According to Environmental Defense Fund Senior Analyst David Kelly:

This legislation is a hodgepodge of short-sighted provisions that allow a more polluted environment, plain and simple. It encourages irresponsible business practices. It insulates polluters from their responsibility to fully clean up contamination they cause. It removes protections for nearly 50,000 miles of streams that supply our drinking water, provide important fish habitat, and help keep our waterways clean and healthy. H765 eliminates sensible safeguards for our air, water, wildlife, and puts the health of our children and families on the hook when polluters should be.

Over the past weeks, thousands of North Carolinians have called or emailed the governor’s office to urge him to veto this bill.So, just how bad is it? Well, for starters, H765:

  • grants immunity to companies from civil penalties and fines that violate environmental laws if they self-report.
  • shields polluter information of its own violations by preventing use of the information in a civil case and in actions to compel cleanup of environmental contamination. More seriously, it would hide evidence from injured neighbors seeking a remedy in court.
  • weakens controls on stormwater pollution along our coasts, putting at risk the water quality that sustains our fisheries and tourism industries.
  • allows removal of air quality monitors in the state not specifically required by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, significantly reducing the number of these important environmental monitoring stations.
  • privatizes wastewater inspection and permitting — previously the duty of local health departments — removing key oversight by environmental health officials.
  • places risk of fees on environmental attorneys: Attorneys representing environmental, civic, and community organizations would be subject to fees if they lose a case against the state, making it harder for community groups to find legal representation to challenge weak state environmental permits and other regulations.

It also eliminates protections for more than half of all of North Carolina streams, threatening downstream drinking water supplies. See the full bill here.

After the passage of H765, Molly Diggins, state director for the North Carolina Sierra Club, issued the following statement:

H765 may well be the worst environmental bill of McCrory’s three years as Governor, and yet he has made it law with his signature. The Governor missed an opportunity to stand up for clean air, clean water and healthy communities. He also missed the opportunity to stand up for transparency and public process.”

Email Gov. McCrory at or call the governor’s office at (919) 814-2050 and let him know how disappointed you are in his passage of such an environmentally harmful law.

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Understanding the Stream Protection Rule

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 - posted by Erin

SPR Meme 1

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a long-awaited draft Stream Protection Rule. While it’s far from perfect, the proposed rule is a long-overdue update to protections for both surface and groundwater from mountaintop removal coal mining. It also provides much-needed clarification regarding a host of other issues, including reclamation standards and bonding requirements.

Not surprisingly, the industry is fighting the Stream Protection Rule tooth and nail. Instead of focusing on the substance of the rule though, opponents’ rely on tired “war on coal” talking points. The industry also argues these regulations are unnecessary and will undermine an otherwise viable industry — even though several large coal companies have declared bankruptcy. Let’s examine those claims.

First, this new rule was developed to update the rule currently in use — the 1983 Stream Buffer Zone rule — based on new science and realities on the ground. The past 32 years have provided ample time for additional research to prove what many Central Appalachian residents already know: that burying streams with mining waste permanently damages waterways and that mountaintop removal is linked to a host of other environmental and health problems. The Stream Protection Rule aims to address a number of current problems.

The Stream Protection Rule aims to improve methods for monitoring for and preventing damage to surface and groundwater. It’s important to note that the rule still allows for mining activities, including waste disposal, in streams. The new rule is actually weaker than the 1983 rule in this regard. The ‘83 rule prohibited mining disturbances within 100 feet of streams and prohibited damage to streams by mountaintop removal mining. In practice, however, states routinely grant variances to the ‘83 Stream Buffer Zone rule, allowing valley fill construction and other mining impacts to streams on a regular basis. This is often done by allowing companies to remediate other areas of streams that have already been degraded as a substitution for the stream miles they will bury or otherwise damage.

While it does not include a stream buffer zone requirement, the Stream Protection Rule does provide a number of added benefits for aquatic resources. New requirements include enhanced baseline monitoring data for both surface and groundwater. The availability of such data will make it easier to identify damage caused by mining. Under existing regulations, coal companies too often escape liability for damage to waterways because there is no baseline data to prove pollutants were not present before mining began. The draft rule also includes a definition of “material damage to the hydrologic balance”, which was never previously defined. Clarifying language like this is an important part of making sure that rules are enforceable on the ground.

An important question to ask is whether this type of regulation is necessary. In this case, the additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed. Research over the past decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. A recent study examined coal companies’ success in restoring or recreating streams as a form of “trade” for other streams damaged or buried during mining. The study found that 97 percent of these projects failed optimal habitat scores for aquatic life. This is strong indication that rebuilding a stream’s form will not necessarily restore its function. Additionally, the study found that a majority of these restoration projects were completed in perennial streams, while mining damage was mostly occurring in intermittent and ephemeral streams. This is important because intermittent and ephemeral streams often provide unique habitat and food resources critical to the survival of many species.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

The science clearly indicates the need for more protection of streams and other environmental resources, but would the cost of these protections be justifiable? Do the benefits to streams — and people, and tourism, and recreation, and … — outweigh the impact that the rule may have on the industry? The industry would like you to believe that this new rule will be so costly that it will create an unwarranted burden on an otherwise beneficial Central Appalachian industry. The OSMRE attempted to answer this debate through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which includes cost-benefit analyses. In most scenarios, the OSMRE expects minimal job loss due to the new rule, in part due to jobs created through the need to comply with the rule.

What the EIS doesn’t adequately do is take into consideration the larger context of surface mining in Appalachia and the impacts it has on local communities. First, the coal industry already has a net negative impact on the economies of the states where it occurs. Several different studies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky indicate this. In 2006, the coal industry cost the state of Kentucky $115 million. In 2009, the coal industry was estimated to cost the state of West Virginia $97.5 million and the state of Virginia $21.9 million.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

The EIS also does not consider surface mining’s global impact. The burning of coal in power plants releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Surface mining in Central Appalachia also exacerbates climate change through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, forests in the region will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by the year 2035. This is due both to deforestation during the mining process and grassland reclamation. The Stream Protection Rule improves reclamation requirements so that more mined lands are returned to native forests, instead of the now-prevalent grasslands.

Lastly, the EIS does not consider the negative health outcomes associated with mountaintop removal. The prevalence of health problems the region is well documented. Most recently, a study showed that dust from surface mines can promote the growth of lung tumors. The negative impacts to the health of communities near mines alone should be enough to justify an end to mountaintop removal.

It is true that the coal industry in Central Appalachia is facing a particularly difficult time. Unlike previous boom and bust cycles, this downturn looks to be permanent. This is exactly why additional safeguards are necessary to protect public water. Companies desperate to turn a profit in a more competitive energy market may be more inclined to bend rules or ignore regulations all together. This time marks a critical and exciting opportunity to address economic diversification throughout the region. Protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region will be integral to a successful transition.

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Follow the leader: A Tennessee electric co-op moves forward

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly
Appalachian Electric Cooperative recently marked its 75th year of service. Today the small East Tennessee utility is a leader among regional electric cooperatives. Photo from

Appalachian Electric Cooperative recently marked its 75th year of service. Today the small East Tennessee utility is a leader among regional electric cooperatives. Photo from

As one rural electric cooperative in Appalachia expands clean energy and technology, other utilities in the region can learn from its example of leadership.

Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC), like many other utilities in the region, was created to provide electricity to underserved areas of rural Appalachia that for-profit companies would not dare touch, and hence serves relatively few consumers. Today, though, AEC is making decisions that set it apart.

Seventy-five years after being established, the co-op is launching a community solar program, conducting a feasibility study for fiber optic internet and leading the way forward for rural energy efficiency programs in Tennessee. In other words, this engaged co-op is proving that East Tennessee has what it takes to be an energy leader in Appalachia.

The solar project is partially funded by one of two grants Tennessee Valley Authority recently awarded for community solar development. AEC will use almost 9,500 photovoltaic panels to produce 1.4 megawatts of electricity — enough to power an estimated 115 homes for a year. So, despite the fact that many of the co-op’s members face socioeconomic challenges, they, too, can participate in the clean energy revolution thanks to AEC’s leadership and upfront investment.

As AEC general manager Greg Williams was quoted as saying in the Jefferson Post:

“Our ‘Co-op Community Solar’ program will make it possible for our residential and commercial members to reap all the benefits of solar generation—including both cost-effectiveness and environmental sustainability—without having to hassle with the challenges involved with installing photovoltaic panels and the ongoing maintenance costs required to keep them performing at maximum capacity. It’s also a powerful feeling to be a part of something with positive environmental impacts that extend much farther than those of any single individual.”

AEC is also providing free energy audits and developing new energy efficiency programs to help its members improve the safety and comfort of their homes while reducing their electric bills. This is especially important for residents in the co-op’s service area, where the average poverty rate is 19.3 percent and the median household income is 30 percent lower than the US average.

Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil (third from right) meets with representatives from AEC and others to discuss the creation of a statewide on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil (third from right) meets with representatives from Appalachian Electric Cooperative and other stakeholders to discuss the creation of an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Appalachian Voices has been focusing on energy efficiency as a first step to ready the region for a new energy economy. The Southeast has 29 percent of the nation’s energy efficiency potential — energy we’re paying for that’s being wasted. Our Energy Savings Program seeks to encourage co-ops to provide upfront financing for customers to do weatherization and other energy efficiency improvements, so they can start reducing energy costs right away while repaying the financing on their monthly bill through those savings.

AEC recently marked its 75th year of service, with more than 1,000 members attending it’s annual meeting celebration. When is the last time you partied down with your utility? As the co-op says in its membership materials, “ … the Co-op is neighbors helping neighbors; at AEC, you’re not just a utility customer, you’re a member owner.”

The Southeast has almost half of the electric cooperatives in the nation, many of which are providing the best kind of power – people power!

Learn about Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program.

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