Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding in western North Carolina.
Throughout 2015, we engaged with communities surrounding our Boone, N.C., office about the widespread benefits of energy efficiency. Now our local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric, is offering the Energy SAVER Loan Program, an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency upgrades. After achieving success in the North Carolina High Country, we are expanding our efforts to additional electric cooperative service territories.
To the east of the Blue Ridge Electric territory is the Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation (EMC). Surry-Yadkin EMC provides utility service to over 27,000 people in the beautiful Yadkin Valley and surrounding areas. This region, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is known for its agricultural heritage, vineyards and music festivals.
Surry-Yadkin EMC currently offers programs that demonstrate its commitment to energy savings for its members, including rebates on the purchase of energy-efficient heat pumps for home and water heating. While these programs are healthy incentives for those in the market for an upgrade, most families cannot afford the upfront costs of standard efficiency retrofits which average $6,500, according to local weatherization programs.
In Surry, Yadkin and Wilkes counties, which make up more than 80 percent of Surry-Yadkin EMC’s service territory, the median household income is approximately $7,000 less than the North Carolina average and $13,000 less than the national average. To put that in perspective, residents of the area who live in manufactured housing have stated that their energy bills are 25 percent of their monthly income in the winter. More than half of all the housing units in the area are at least thirty years old and likely have common needs for efficiency upgrades.
Members of Surry-Yadkin EMC are in an ideal situation for achieving high energy savings because the area experiences cold winters and hot summers. With proper insulation and air sealing, both heating and air conditioning can be maintained efficiently. If Surry-Yadkin EMC introduces an on-bill financing program, members could save on average over $100 each year on their energy costs while enjoying increased comfort and home health.
Our Energy Savings for Appalachia team has met with community organizations to learn about the need for local residents to lower their energy bills and we’ve met with energy efficient businesses that recognize the benefit that energy savings can provide in job growth and increased local capital. In addition to developing these partnerships, we have presented to local groups about home energy improvements and options their utilities provide with the goal of increasing understanding about energy efficiency and successful programs across the Southeast.
We are hopeful that we can work alongside Surry-Yadkin EMC to provide an accessible program for its members and to cultivate a broad awareness of the need to expand energy efficiency programs throughout the region.
Do you know what energy efficiency options your utility offers? Visit the Energy Savings Action Center to find out! And if you are a Surry-Yadkin EMC member, take action here or contact email@example.com to learn about volunteer opportunities.
Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.]]>
Special to the Front Porch: Our guest today is Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, and lead author of a new report on the overbuilding of natural gas pipelines in the mid-Atlantic. Kunkel has undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics, was a senior research associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and has testified before regulatory bodies.
We’ve published a report today that concludes that two natural gas pipelines proposed for construction from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina are indicative of a rush toward industry overbuilding.
The study, “Risks Associated With Natural Gas Pipeline Expansion Across Appalachia,” examines the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would traverse West Virginia into eastern Virginia, and the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would cross Virginia and branch deeply into North Carolina. The pipelines combined would run for more than 800 miles and together would cost roughly $9 billion.
There’s a widespread assumption that such pipelines would only be proposed if they were necessary. This assumption is not supported by the facts.
We found that the dynamics of the pipeline business tend toward overbuilding, toward building excess pipeline capacity. Major pipeline companies are competing with each other to build out the best, most well-connected pipeline networks. And utility companies are entering the pipeline space because much of the risk of overbuilding can be pushed off onto captive ratepayers. And natural gas production companies are entering the pipeline business because their core business — drilling -— is underperforming and they are looking for ways to boost revenue and investment value. These kinds of financial considerations on the part of individual companies do not add up to socially rational, prudent long-term planning.
The pipeline business is able to attract more capital than is needed—because of the high rates of return that pipeline companies typically earn. Pipeline rates are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC allows higher rates of return for pipeline companies than it does for electric transmission companies or than state utility commissions typically allow for state-regulated utilities. For example, by policy FERC allows a 14 percent rate of return, while regulated utilities at state public service commissions typically are only allowed in the 10 percent range.
The tendency towards overbuilding is widely understood in the industry -— executives and analysts talk openly about it -— and FERC’s regulatory process currently misses this dynamic. There is no regional planning process for natural gas pipeline infrastructure in the way that there is for electric transmission lines, for example. FERC looks at pipelines on a project-by-project basis. The agency considers a line necessary if the project developer is able to enter into contracts for the majority of the capacity of the project. What we’ve found in the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipeline cases is that the project developers and the shippers who are entering into contracts with the pipeline are subsidiaries of the same company. So the fact that a pipeline developer is signing a contract with an affiliate is strong evidence that there is financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is an independently established basis for the pipeline need. The private assumptions of individual pipeline developers are not adequately checked against broader standards of the public interest.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a good example of this. If it is approved it appears that two separate pipelines will serve the same power plant -– an example of too much pipeline capacity. The Atlantic Coast project is a joint venture with Duke, Dominion, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources having ownership interests and are the developers. The main shippers on the project are subsidiaries of Duke and Dominion — those two companies have contracted for 68 percent of the capacity on the pipeline. Consumers will bear the risk of higher rates if project assumptions do not materialize. The cost of building the pipeline, including the profit for the developers, will be passed through to the shippers of the pipeline who will be able to recover it from their ratepayers through rates established by state public service commissions.
Put another way, the regulatory structure gives Duke and Dominion an incentive to prioritize building their own pipeline rather than using that of another company. If the demand for the capacity along the Atlantic Coast pipeline does not materialize, ratepayers will still be on the hook to pay for that capacity.
It appears that the need for the Atlantic Coast pipeline has been overstated. In its application to FERC, Atlantic Coast asserts that one use of the gas from the pipeline will be for Dominion’s new Brunswick and Greensville natural gas plants. But in its applications to the State Corporation Commission to build those power plants, Dominion asserted that the plants will be fueled from the Transco line. In the case of the Brunswick plant, a spur from the Transco line to the plant has already been built. Without better coordination and planning it appears that two pipelines are being built to supply one power plant. The Atlantic Coast pipeline is a relatively low risk venture for Duke and Dominion, the main project developers. Most of the risk for the project is borne by those utility customers in Virginia and North Carolina.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline has a different risk profile. The Mountain Valley pipeline is a supplier-driven pipeline. The majority-owner of the project is an affiliate of EQT, one of the largest Appalachian shale gas drillers, and the entity that has contracted to ship the largest volume of gas on the pipeline is EQT. We found that the biggest risks of this project stem from the financial weakness of EQT. EQT is not doing badly relative to other Appalachian shale drillers, but the entire sector is in turmoil because of sustained low natural gas prices, which are widely expected to remain low into 2017. EQT’s credit ratings are one notch above junk, and its stock has fallen 26 percent since January 2014. Bankruptcies are widely expected in the natural gas drilling sector this year, and banks are expected to cut back on lending. EQT has diversified into the pipeline business presumably because of the traditionally stable and higher returns to be found in this sector.
Communities along the pipeline route also bear risks that stem from EQT’s financial weakness. EQT does not appear to be a stable, long-term partner for these communities. EQT’s weakened financial position suggests it will adopt only a limited commitment to communities or perhaps be forced to sell its ownership interests to a new company that is not part of current deliberations
To sum up, our study finds that natural gas pipeline infrastructure out of the Marcellus and Utica regions will become overbuilt within the next several years, an outcome recognized by many in the industry itself.
The economic and financial factors that incentivize companies to invest in the development of new natural gas pipelines will not produce a socially rational outcome. Without a coordinated approach to natural gas pipeline planning, as exists for many other types of infrastructure, the FERC cannot make an honest determination of the need for these pipelines. Ratepayers and communities will shoulder much of the costs and risks of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, investments of nearly $9 billion that are poised for approval without adequate scrutiny.]]>
Appalachian Voices is working throughout the French Broad community to promote ways for those who need energy efficiency home upgrades to have easier access to financing home energy improvements. One critical way to make this happen is for French Broad EMC to expand their mini-split heat pump on-bill finance program to include other energy efficiency upgrades, such as insulation and air-sealing of basements and attics.
If you attend the French Broad EMC annual meeting, you may have an opportunity to talk with staff or board members. Here are some talking points about on-bill financing to use in those conversations:
Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding in western North Carolina.
Throughout 2015, we engaged with communities surrounding our Boone, N.C., office about the widespread benefits of energy efficiency through our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign. Now our local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric, is offering the Energy SAVER Loan Program, an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency upgrades.
After achieving success in the North Carolina High Country, we are expanding our efforts to the service territories of the French Broad Electric Membership Corporation and Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation.
It is our goal to see all of the electric membership cooperatives (EMC) in Appalachia join other utilities in offering on-bill energy efficiency financing programs. On the coast, Roanoke EMC started up a distinguished program called Upgrade to $ave in 2015, but there are also more established, successful programs in eastern Kentucky and South Carolina. For Appalachian Voices, western North Carolina is our focus for building a movement around affordable energy efficiency for all.
Covering much of the French Broad River watershed, French Broad EMC provides electric service to more than 33,000 people across northern Buncombe, Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties in North Carolina and part of Unicoi County in Tennessee. The region is rural and mountainous, bordered by the Appalachian Trail and famous for whitewater rafting and its high peaks.
We see great potential for an on-bill energy efficiency financing program here. French Broad EMC has been offering low-interest on-bill financing for mini-split electric heat pumps, a highly energy-efficient heating system, for the past two years. The success of this program has led to its continuance, which we see as a stable foundation for a larger, more encompassing energy efficiency financing program.
Over the past few years we have developed strong connections with the kind, hardworking people who serve those in need in the area. We’ve also learned of the high demand for assistance with energy bills in the cold winter months among the area’s residents. In the three counties that make up most of French Broad EMC’s service territory, the median household income is approximately $10,000 less than the North Carolina average and $15,000 less than the national average. Additionally, half of all the housing units in this area are more than 30 years old.
There are thousands of homes and residents in need of energy efficiency improvements, and few programs available to most residents who cannot afford the upfront cost of those improvements. In other words, there exists a gap where many would be supported by an energy efficiency financing program provided by French Broad EMC.
To further Appalachian Voices’ advocacy and education around energy use, I am working on the ground in French Broad EMC’s service territory, generating public dialogue around energy efficiency by talking to the community about how to save money and energy. By helping those who struggle to pay their energy bills and keep their house warm, we hope to raise awareness about the need for a debt-free, on-bill energy efficiency financing program.
Do you know what energy efficiency options your utility offers? Visit the Energy Savings Action Center to find out! And if you are a French Broad EMC member, take action here or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about volunteer opportunities.
Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.]]>
Members of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BRE) have a new way to pay for improving the energy efficiency of their homes thanks to BRE’s new Energy SAVER Loan Program. BRE provides electricity to more than 74,000 residents of all or parts of seven counties in western North Carolina.
Appalachian Voices has promoted an on-bill energy efficiency finance program through BRE for nearly two years, and has worked with the electric co-op, local organizations, residents and businesses towards developing such a program to help consumers pay the upfront costs of making energy-efficiency improvements to their home.
“Energy efficiency is the most readily available and easiest way to save energy and money. Plus, it makes our homes more comfortable and healthy, helps protect the environment and strengthens local economies. Unfortunately, many families can’t afford the upfront costs,” says Rory McIlmoil, energy policy director for Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit organization based in Boone. “We congratulate Blue Ridge Electric staff for the work they have put in to bring this program to fruition and we look forward to continue working with them to expand the program beyond the pilot phase.”
Energy efficiency improvements can reduce wasted energy and lower electric bills, and make homes healthier and more comfortable. As residents improve the efficiency of their homes, they’re also improving the community by helping to protect the environment and providing jobs to local businesses and contractors who perform the upgrades.
The new Energy SAVER Loan Program allows qualified BRE members to borrow up to $7,500 to make energy efficiency improvements such as insulation, air sealing and heating and cooling system upgrades. Borrowers will pay back the loan through a new monthly charge on their electric bill. BRE also announced the availability of rebates that can lower the cost of energy improvements and high efficiency appliances for all members.
The Energy SAVER Loan Program lays the groundwork for improving energy efficiency across the High Country region. “We know that thousands of Blue Ridge Electric members could potentially benefit from this program,” says Amber Moodie-Dyer, energy savings outreach coordinator with Appalachian Voices. “So this is a significant achievement and we commend Blue Ridge for continuing to show their commitment to their members and a dedication to supporting local economic development.”
Learn more about the Energy SAVER Loan Program.
View or download the print PDF
By Elizabeth E. Payne
Fracked from the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations beneath Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, a surplus of natural gas is now poised to surge into Virginia and North Carolina, bringing with it promises of a cheaper, “greener” future supported by a new and improved energy infrastructure.
But many citizens and economic experts are raising questions about just how “green” a fossil fuel can really be and how steep a toll — both financially and environmentally — its infrastructure will take.
As of 2008, the United States was criss-crossed by more than 305,000 miles of natural gas pipelines, and since then this figure has risen steadily. In central and southern Appalachia, a web of pipelines invades the landscape, linking the drilling wells from shale country to state and regional pipelines, storage facilities, power plants and coastal ports for export.
Prominent among these is the Transcontinental Pipeline, operated by Williams Companies. The Transco line extends more than 10,000 miles and stretches from south Texas to New York City.
But plans, sponsored by energy companies such as Dominion Resources and Duke Energy, are underway to stretch even more pipelines across the region. These pipelines would connect the Marcellus gas to new transport facilities and power plants in a web as intricate as that connecting the subsidiaries of the companies themselves.
Several proposed projects will extend and upgrade existing routes. Columbia Pipeline Group’s $850 million WB XPress Project will add two new compressor stations, replace 26 miles of existing pipeline and add 2.9 miles of new line in Virginia and West Virginia. In March 2014, Williams announced a $2.1 billion plan to expand the capacity of the Transco line and change the direction of the flow to carry Marcellus gas to customers in the Southeast and eventually to the Gulf Coast for export.
But in the last two years, two major new pipeline plans have been submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for approval. FERC, the federal agency that regulates the transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil, is responsible for evaluating and approving new pipeline proposals.
The first is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5.1 billion project by Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, which would construct a 564-mile pipeline stretching from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina. In January, the U.S. Forest Service rejected a portion of the route proposed to run through the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests out of concern for endangered species that reside there. A rerouted path was announced in February and continues through the regulatory process.
The second is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a $3.5 billion joint venture headed by EQT Midstream Partners, which plans to lay 301 miles of pipeline from West Virginia into Virginia.
Additionally, Williams is considering an Appalachian Connector Project, which would also construct a new pipeline from West Virginia into Virginia. No proposed route or cost for this project has been announced.
In 2015, the Obama administration announced the Clean Power Plan to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by the nation’s coal-fired power plants.
Ironically, this act that was designed in part to reduce the effects of climate change, is being used as justification for the switch to natural gas. The plan limits carbon dioxide emissions — the largest source of domestic heat-trapping greenhouse gases and a significant byproduct of burning coal for electricity — but it does not govern methane, the second largest source of greenhouse gases and a significant byproduct of natural gas extraction and combustion.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the negative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.
According to Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, a report the organization released earlier this year found “that greenhouse gas pollution from the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines would be almost twice the total climate-changing emissions from existing power plants and other stationary sources in Virginia.”
And according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the potential environmental hazards linked to natural gas are significant and include air, water and noise pollution; methane leaks and explosions; and human-induced earthquakes.
Concerned by this looming threat, residents in counties along the proposed routes have organized in opposition to the new construction project in groups such as Friends of Augusta, Preserve Monroe and Yogaville Environmental Solutions. Other groups, such as the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, form coalitions between organizations. Still others, such as Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Appalachian Voices, the publisher of The Appalachian Voice, and the Southern Environmental Law Center advocate and litigate on their behalf.
Through this network, concerned citizens of the region are educating themselves and their neighbors about the risks of the pipelines and are working together to oppose them.
Roberta “Bert” Bondurant lives in Roanoke County, Va., along the proposed route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. She is a member of Preserve Roanoke and serves on the county’s Pipeline Advisory Committee.
One of her many concerns is the effect the pipeline’s construction — with its blasting and clear-cutting across steep mountain slopes and wetlands — would have on the county’s drinking water through erosion and disruption of streams and rivers. “MVP proposes to do a clear-cut, a cross cut, which is the simplest and crudest form of construction across Roanoke River, down on the southwest side of Poor Mountain about a mile and a tenth upstream of Roanoke County’s reservoir,” Bondurant says. “Roanoke County pumps water from the Roanoke River into its reservoir, and so what you’re talking about is that this is upwards of 50 percent of Roanoke County’s drinking water.”
Charlene “Chad” Oba is co-chair of Friends of Buckingham, a citizen group opposing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. One of Oba’s main concerns is the impact a proposed compressor station would have on her health and quality of life and that of her neighbors.
Compressor stations are positioned at intervals along a pipeline to pressurize the natural gas and provide energy to transmit the gas. According to the Roanoke Times, Dominion Transmission Inc. — senior partner in Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC — purchased 65 acres of land in August 2015 for $2.5 million. The parcel is near the intersection of the Transco line and proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and would allow a connection between the two.
Oba is concerned about the air and noise pollution from the compressor. She describes the neighborhood where the compressor would go as largely older and African-American. “They’re a lot of elderly people, a lot of people who already have bad health,” she says. “So, there are a lot of vulnerable people that are greatly at risk.”
Some area residents are in court for refusing to give Dominion permission to survey their land. Appalachian Mountain Advocates is representing some of these landowners, and is currently appealing the company’s right to survey private land without eminent domain before the Supreme Court of Virginia.
“The taking of private property for corporate profit is wrong,” Oba says. “It puts our health at risk. It puts our property value at risk.”
Vicki Wheaton lives in Nelson County along the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and wants to stop the pipeline’s construction. Wheaton is an active member of Friends of Nelson County. She is encouraging the county to adopt higher floodplain standards regarding critical infrastructure and hazardous materials because they meet the federal requirements.
If adopted and enforced, these higher standards could be used by the county to block the construction of new infrastructure, such as the pipelines. “These higher standards would protect Nelson County residents,” she wrote in an email.
In February, a team from Key-Log Economics LLC presented the findings of a study commissioned by five citizen groups representing four counties along the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, including Friends of Nelson County and Friends of Buckingham, Virginia.
Spencer Philips, an ecological economist and principal at Key-Log, co-authored the study “Economic Costs of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” which is designed to serve as an model for the type of analysis FERC should undertake before signing off on either of the pipelines. In the study, Phillips and his team found that residents would carry a tremendous cost burden, including loss of property value, estimated at between $72.7 and $141.2 million, and annual costs, such as the resulting lost property tax revenue and ecotourism, estimated at between $96.0 and $109.1 million per year.
Thomas Hadwin, a resident of Waynesboro, Va., is a member of Friends of the Central Shenandoah who spent many years working in the electric and gas utility business in Michigan and New York state. He is skeptical of the need for more pipelines and sees far more promise in energy efficiency efforts. “By far the cheapest way of getting more electricity is to not use it at all,” he says.
For Hadwin, the development of the Marcellus Shale began with profit-seekers and easy credit following the collapse of the housing market in 2007 and 2008. “All these drillers are in there chasing this high price for natural gas with cheap money,” he says.
But then the price for natural gas fell dramatically, in part due to oversupply, and the economics changed.
For the second quarter of 2015, the Houston Chronicle reports that “U.S. shale drillers now spend the vast majority of their operation cash flow paying off the debt they took out to expand their drilling.” According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, that figure is 83 percent.
“More gas is being produced because these guys [the drillers] couldn’t afford not to produce it,” Hadwin says. “They’ve got all this cheap debt, but they have to pay the interest on it, they have to keep servicing the debt.” This adds to the surplus and continues to deflate the cost of the gas.
The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis is preparing a study of the “finances of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines in the context of the larger buildout of pipeline infrastructure from the Marcellus and Utica region,” Cathy Kunkel, energy analyst for the institute, wrote in an email.
The study, co-authored by Kunkel and Director of Finance Tom Sanzillo, will investigate whether too many pipelines are being built, how they are being paid for and whether FERC’s review process is effective at preventing pipeline overbuilding.
The study is expected in late April and was commissioned in part by Appalachian Voices.
In a report released in February, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that pipeline capacity added since 2007 to accommodate increased shale production is “likely to reduce the need for future pipeline infrastructure” and that “higher utilization of existing interstate natural gas pipeline infrastructure will reduce the need for new pipelines.”
In other words, the department doesn’t forecast a need for significant pipeline expansions of the sort being proposed. And a study out of University of Texas at Austin predicts that the four main accumulations of gas beneath the Marcellus Shale could peak as early as 2020 and then begin to decline.
Yet in September 2014, Dominion announced a $3.8 billion plan to convert the Cove Point LNG Terminal in Maryland, which was originally built in the 1970s as an import facility, to an export facility. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it is the only approved natural gas export facility on the East Coast. And it “is connected to Dominion Transmission’s interstate pipeline, as well as to other interstate pipelines that have access to the growing natural gas supplies in the region,” according to the company’s description.
Power plants are also being adapted, based on the expectation of cheap natural gas. Duke Energy’s Western Carolinas Modernization plan, for example, that will cost nearly $1 billion and will require “two 280-megawatt natural gas-fired combined-cycle power plants [that] will be located at the current Asheville coal plant site.”
Natural Gas Infrastructure Webinar
May 3, 2-3 p.m: Appalachian Voices will host a panel discussion about the environmental,
financial and personal costs of the proposed pipeline projects. Free.
Citizen and environmental groups have fought successfully to reduce the scale of this project. But if it goes forward, it may be redundant from day one. In February, officials from Columbia Energy told the Citizen-Times that they could sell Duke Energy electricity from their existing natural gas power station in Gaston, S.C. They can supply enough to make the Asheville plants unnecessary.
A study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in March 2015 describes a place for natural gas in the nation’s energy future but warns against an over-reliance on gas. “As the nation moves away from coal, setting course toward a diverse supply of low-carbon power sources — made up primarily of renewable energy and energy efficiency with a balanced role for natural gas — is far preferable to a wholesale switch to natural gas,” the study reported.
Expanded energy efficiency and renewable energy policies would be in the best interest of consumers. But according to one of their applications to FERC, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline partners anticipate a sizable profit from this construction project — in financial jargon, they foresee a 15 percent pretax return on their investment. “So, they’re getting a huge rate of return in today’s marketplace,” Hadwin says.
And with profits like that, it would be hard for these investors to walk away.
CORRECTION: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that Charlene “Chad” Oba had refused pipeline surveyors from Dominion access to her land. Oba’s land is not in the path of the pipelines, however other landowners have refused entry to surveyors and are facing a legal challenge from Dominion. Appalachian Mountain Advocates is appealing the case before the Supreme Court of Virginia. The article has been corrected accordingly.]]>
When Joy Loving decided to add solar power to her Rockingham County, Va., home in the spring of 2012, she did it the hard way. She taught herself what she could, then found an installer through a Google search. A full six months later, she turned on her system. Since then, she’s been working to make the process a lot easier — and cheaper — for others.
“My decision wasn’t driven by economics,” Loving says. “I’m 70 years old, and without state tax incentives or any kind of discount, my payback period for this system will be very long. I might live long enough to reap the economic benefits. I might not. But my primary motivation was about reducing my carbon footprint.”
When she first began looking into solar, Loving thought there might be some sort of program through her electric utility, or state policies that would help. Instead, she found obstacles. Unlike some other states, Virginia mostly forbids power purchase agreements, a solar financing model in which companies own the solar arrays they install on homes and charge homeowners for the power they use.
The state also limits the size of systems residents can build on their homes and caps the power generated by all Virginia residential arrays combined to no more than one percent of all power generated in the state. It also allows utilities to charge minimum monthly fees to solar users — even if the resident generates more power for the grid than they use.
Loving says all the obstacles to solar put in place by the state and politically powerful utilities irritated her. “It got my back up,” she says. “The freedom to choose my energy source was very important to me. I believe that I need to be a good steward of God’s creation, and this is one thing I can do positively to be a good steward.”
Even after her own system was installed, Loving kept reading and learning. “There was just nothing like the thrill of not having an electric bill,” she says. “I kind of got obsessive about it, checking the system and the power meter and watching what the system could do. After six or seven months, I thought ‘this is something that other people should know about.’”
She reached out to local/regional environmental group Climate Action of the Valley in Harrisonburg, Va. Leaders there ended up connecting with Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods, also known as VA SUN, which is a branch of the Community Power Network in Washington, D.C.
VA SUN helps solar co-op groups — usually collections of neighbors — by providing the experience and expertise it takes to get organized, research installers, issue a request for proposals, evaluate and negotiate with installers, and then see the process all the way through the installation and hookups.
Ben Delman, communications manager for Community Power Network, says the various state SUN groups in Appalachia — DC SUN, VA SUN, WV SUN and MD SUN — have helped around 1,000 people go solar across the region, with about a third of those in Virginia. According to Delman, when individuals organize into co-ops, they gain expertise and save money by negotiating bulk purchases.
In addition to helping co-ops, Community Power Network has also supported groups that use the “Solarize” model, in which the installer is pre-selected rather than picked based on competitive bids.
After discussions with VA SUN, the Harrisonburg-based Climate Action of the Valley decided to sponsor a co-op in Harrisonburg and Rockbridge County. They asked Loving to lead it.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t know about co-ops when I installed [my system],” she says. “All the co-ops exploding around the state are like seeds — making people more aware and more informed about solar.”
According to Delman, the co-op experience generally works like this: “We start work with one or two local organizations — some sort of community group that can guide the process and begin recruiting co-op members.” The group holds a number of informational meetings during the recruitment phase. “We take them through understanding solar energy, the different ways to finance and help them understand the co-op process,” he says.
“In some ways, it’s the same as doing any home construction project,” Delman continues, “But how great would it be if you’re adding a deck or renovating a bathroom to be able to go through that with a group of people all doing the same thing?”
A critical mass of people interested in installing solar is necessary to move forward to the next step of actually reaching out to contractors. “Once a group gets to about 25 or 30 members, we work with them to issue a [request for proposal] to installers,” Delman says. Co-op members make the final decision. “We help group members review the bids, but it’s up to the selection committee to choose.”
Carl Droms, a member of Climate Action of the Valley, was a member of the Harrisonburg co-op’s selection committee. At that stage, there were 70 or 80 interested households, and about a dozen co-op members on the selection committee. “We all had different ideas about what was important and how to weigh the factors,” he says. “The price per watt — which included everything: panels, wiring, inverters, the electrical work, installation — was important, but there were other factors. Could the installer handle this number of installations and get things done in a reasonable time? Would they use local labor? What kind of guarantee did they offer? How much work had they done in the past?”
“In the end, we were pretty well agreed,” Droms says. “Everybody felt we made the right decision.”
The discount for a co-op member over an individual trying to buy their own solar power system is generally around 20 percent, Delman says. “It’s a good deal for the installers, as well,” he says. “To have a base of interested customers who are educated about solar is really good.”
Once an installer is selected, individuals in the co-op get a site inspection and, eventually, a contract for a system tailored to their individual needs at the agreed-to price. Co-op members aren’t obligated to buy unless they sign that contract.
Droms is very happy with the system he and his partner installed on their home. “Our total bill for the last year has been about $130 — and that includes a $9.50 a month fee just to stay connected to the grid,” he says. “We were really pleased with the co-op. If we had to negotiate everything ourselves, it would have been a lot more complicated.”
There’s not much of a downside to working through a co-op, says Cory Chase, a Tucker County, W. Va., resident who helped organize a co-op in his area. “WV SUN offers a lot of technical assistance that really helps. It might be a little more bureaucratic and slower than going on your own, but we’ll be able to help each other out, buy material in bulk and get a competitive bid,” he says.
According to WV SUN Program Director Karan Ireland, her organization has helped co-ops launch in the towns of Morgantown and Wheeling, and in Kanawha, Tucker and Monroe counties. “A co-op is like Solar 101,” she says. “It can be cumbersome if you’re trying to figure out everything by yourself. With the co-op, you work with friends and neighbors to learn about how to go solar.”
Like Loving, Ireland believes co-ops help create solar ambassadors. “As people understand the benefits of solar, they become invested in the policy as well,” she says. “Because they’re already working together, that creates a network of solar advocates.”
And solar advocates are needed, especially in states like Virginia and West Virginia where fossil fuel interests hold so much sway, says Mark Hanson, president of the Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Association, a do-it-yourself club in Roanoke, Va., that helps members with solar installations and other renewable energy projects.
“Our legislators don’t push the power companies to do the right thing,” Hanson says. “Power companies just see solar as a way for people not to pay for electricity. When it comes to legislators, the power companies pretty much get their way.”
Joy Loving says the co-op model is serving its purpose. “It has increased awareness of solar and gotten more press coverage,” she says. “People have heard about it. People see the panels going up and they talk. Co-ops will bring more people into the solar fold.”]]>
By Molly Moore
A rare bipartisan proposal aims to tackle two pressing issues related to the flailing coal industry — the need for new economic opportunities in central Appalachia and repairing environmental damage from decades of mining.
In March, nine grassroots advocates from Appalachia traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional representatives and staff from the White House and federal agencies. The week’s events were coordinated by The Alliance For Appalachia, a coalition of 15 environmental and community organizations including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.
The top priority was to inform regional legislators about the RECLAIM Act — a bill that intends to breathe new life into struggling central Appalachian economies while remediating land and water polluted by decades-old abandoned mines.
The map shows counties that have abandoned mine lands on the federal inventory. Dark red counties have the most reclamation costs; the lightest shade of red has the least. Source: Daily Yonder from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System. Map courtesy Daily Yonder
The map shows counties that have abandoned mine lands on the federal inventory. Dark red counties have the most reclamation costs; the lightest shade of red has the least. Source: Daily Yonder from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System. Map courtesy Daily Yonder
In February of this year, Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from eastern Kentucky, introduced the RECLAIM Act with the support of congressmen from both parties — Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA). The RECLAIM Act would accelerate payments from the existing federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, dispersing $1 billion over five years to projects that would reclaim former mining sites while boosting local economic development.
Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.[/caption]Jack Kennedy, clerk of Circuit Court for Wise County and Norton, Va., and a former member of the Virginia General Assembly, says that the RECLAIM Act could lead to solar utility projects on abandoned mines and other endeavors.
“The RECLAIM Act passage would provide Appalachian community jobs immediately working to ameliorate brownfield real estate into a productive state for commercial or agricultural or other productive purposes over a period of time,” he wrote in an email.
The bill’s support from legislators like Rogers and Griffith — staunch opponents of environmental regulation, which they allege is responsible for Appalachia’s poor coal market — signals a willingness to cooperate with the administration to provide economic and community development in areas that have depended on the coal industry.
Under the RECLAIM Act, $1 billion from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund would be directed to qualifying states and tribes over a five-year period starting in 2017. The AML fund was established in 1977 to restore land and water contaminated by coal mines that were abandoned before the federal surface mining law took effect that year. The AML program is funded by a per-ton fee on coal production, and the money is distributed based on a state or tribe’s current coal production rather than the amount of damaged land and water.
Presently, the AML fund holds $2.5 billion that is not dedicated toward specific projects, though the interest helps support a pension fund for roughly 100,000 retired union miners. This $2.5 billion was intended as a reserve fund for states to use after 2021, when the AML program is set to expire — the RECLAIM Act would expedite the disbursal of $1 billion from that pot.
According to a July 2015 report by the AML Policy Priorities Group, directing $200 million annually to abandoned mine lands projects for five years would bring national economic benefits of 3,117 jobs and contribute close to $500 million to the United States economy. The researchers, affiliated with Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and The Alliance for Appalachia, estimated that central Appalachia would see about 35 percent of those benefits. They called for allocating the $1 billion in a way that differs from the RECLAIM Act by also considering economic distress. Such a formula would further boost the benefits for the area.
Even enacting RECLAIM with the current formula could be a powerful catalyst. “By expanding the scope of the AML program to consider economic benefits, Rogers and his colleagues have introduced a forward-thinking solution to one of the biggest challenges facing our region today,” Kennedy wrote in a March op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The fact that the bill continues to gain bipartisan support is noteworthy and speaks to the urgent need for creative approaches to the economic woes of our coal regions.”
The premise of the RECLAIM bill is based on one of the components of the president’s POWER-Plus Plan. The plan was first introduced as part of the president’s 2016 budget proposal and was reintroduced for the 2017 budget.
POWER-Plus received a warm welcome from local governments and community groups in the region, many of which were already working to diversify the historically coal-dependent economy. Twenty-eight local governments and organizations passed resolutions supporting the economic revitalization package, including 12 entities in Rogers’ home district.
Among those were the Benham Town Council and the Benham Power Board, a municipally owned utility. In early 2016, Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner in Harlan County, Ky., and member of the Benham Power Board, wrote to Rogers and asked the congressman to help secure the funding needed to implement the POWER-Plus Plan. Citing the local declarations of support, he wrote, “As the resolutions say, we believe our transition should be one that ‘celebrates culture; invests in communities; generates good, stable and meaningful jobs; is just and equitable; and protects and restores the land, air and water.’”
Lawmakers incorporated some of the president’s plan in their one-year federal budget for 2016 including a proposal by Rogers to direct $90 million in AML funding to projects with economic potential in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, the three states with the highest remaining costs for cleaning up abandoned mines.
As of early April, the RECLAIM Act — which would go a step further with its $1 billion allocation — had an equal number of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. As the bill picks up more backers, a number of regional stakeholders are paying attention to how the bill is structured, and how the federal funds would be distributed.
“The Alliance [for Appalachia] is working to ensure that a strong public engagement process is included in RECLAIM,” Economic Transition Coordinator Lyndsay Tarus wrote in an email. “If the intent of the legislation is to boost economic transition, then communities most in need of the funding need their voices heard.”
During their March trip to Washington, D.C., the Alliance representatives also spoke with federal agency staff about the need for reliable oversight of clean water regulations, including a strong Stream Protection Rule to protect waterways from mining damage.
“The Alliance understands that meaningful and sustainable economic transition is just not possible when the basic necessity of clean water isn’t available,” Tarus states.
The expedited release of abandoned mine lands dollars is one piece of a broader effort to assist central Appalachia and other communities around the country experiencing economic hardships due to coal’s decline.
In addition to the abandoned mine lands proposal, President Obama’s POWER-Plus Plan would strengthen the healthcare and pension plans for approximately 100,000 retired coal miners and their families. The Miners Protection Act, a bill to enact the pension change, is currently in the Senate. The POWER-Plus Plan also calls for two new tax credits for power plants that use carbon-capture technology.
Another core component of the plan is the proposed Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, which would grant $75 million in economic development funding to the region. These funds would provide more support for former coal workers through programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. An additional $5 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program would also clean up contaminated lands that have economic potential in formerly coal-dependent communities.
This POWER funding would help these agencies provide workforce training and bolster economic developments such as broadband access to attract new business.
In fall 2015, the Obama administration announced what it called a “down payment” on the plan — nearly $15 million in grants to kick-start some of these initiatives. So far, the grants have been allocated to strengthen Kentucky’s local food supply chain, bring agriculture to reclaimed mines in West Virginia, provide job training in fields such as technology and local food, develop community-specific economic diversification plans, create a substance abuse treatment center, and help new and existing industries capitalize on an expanding broadband network. Read more at right.
Kennedy waxes enthusiastically about the prospect for economic revitalization embodied in the RECLAIM Act and the POWER-Plus Plan. “Restoring Appalachian opportunity is essential,” he states. “We need to be among the first providing multiple 20 to 80 megawatts of small commercial-scale solar utility farms to learn and culturally accept the energy transition underway in our nation and around the globe.”
“Change is hard, but it is the only constant even for us in the more isolated mountains,” he continues. “We must adapt, improvise and overcome multiple challenges.”
As legislators, agency administrators and regional advocates work to pass these various federal economic proposals, one of the challenges for local supporters will be to make sure citizen input and priorities are reflected in the implementation of these programs.
“The key thing is citizen involvement,” says Mary Love, a Kentucky resident and member of The Alliance For Appalachia’s federal strategy team who met with legislators about the RECLAIM Act. “They have to show that they have citizen involvement in deciding what projects to fund. You can bet that we’ll be all over that.”
➤ In southeast Kentucky, the POWER Initiative provided funding for the nonprofit media institution Appalshop to work with Southeast Community & Technical College and ten local employers to develop a one-year certificate program in technology. The three-track program would offer classes geared towards web coding, graphic and web design, and network infrastructure and security services. According to Ada Smith, Appalshop’s institutional development director, a formal certificate in technology would provide “a marked signifier to others that this person is interested, available and ready to work.” Smith hopes that courses will begin in fall 2017, and is optimistic that the program could be replicated at other community colleges.
➤ The Southern Appalachian Labor School in Robson, W.Va., received a planning grant to evaluate how both abandoned and reclaimed surface mines in the area might be used to provide economic benefits. “Right now we’re going to try to scope post-mining sites in the county, see what’s available, do a solar site analysis and see if it’s feasible to put in a solar farm,” says Director John David. The team will be looking at issues such as grid connectivity and cost, in addition to considering other projects like orchards and a senior living complex.
➤ The organization Friends of Southwest Virginia received a POWER Initiative grant to advance ongoing tourism, recreation and entrepreneurship projects. Among the endeavors is a new ecological education center near the Guest River that will serve as both an educational and entrepreneurial hub. Another project will improve riverfront access from the New River to five downtown centers in Giles County. In Wise County, local tourism partners plan to create a visitors center in Norton to provide information about the region’s assets.
By Michael M. Barrick
As the result of a new law that takes effect on July 1, Virginia farmers will soon be able to grow hemp for industrial purposes — albeit with restrictions.
Even though the law is new, the crop is not. Industrial hemp has been grown around the world for centuries, offering thousands of uses, none of which involve “getting high.”
In fact, according to Chase Milner, the Shenandoah Valley regional director for the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, “Industrial hemp has been grown by human civilization for at least 12,000 years for fiber, food, and now recently bio-fuels.”
He noted that a 1619 Virginia law required farmers to grow hemp, a critical component of sailcloth, textiles and rope, and three of the Founding Fathers grew hemp on their Virginia estates. Ben Franklin owned a mill that made paper from the plant, and the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper.
According to Milner, the full benefits of industrial hemp won’t be realized until federal law is changed. “Congress remains the industry’s greatest hurdle, as hemp still is defined as marijuana via the Controlled Substances Act,” he wrote.
Still, Virginia’s new law has its limitations, Milner explained. “Currently, under the federal Agricultural Act of 2014, the only lawful purpose for which industrial hemp may be grown is for research conducted by an institute of higher education or a state department of agriculture.”
Before industrial hemp gains widespread acceptance, policy makers need to understand the difference between the crop and marijuana. The most significant difference is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the chemical that gives marijuana users their “buzz.” Industrial hemp contains very low levels of THC — about 0.3 percent — while marijuana can contain up to 20 percent.
According to Mike Manypenny, a former three-term member of the West Virginia House of Delegates who championed industrial hemp while serving in the legislature, the environment would benefit from fully legalized industrial hemp. A farmer, he has been granted a provisional license to grow the crop this year for research.
“Here in West Virginia and across Appalachia, we are inundated with environmental damage caused by the extraction industries. Coal mining has left unimaginable environmental damage to our soils, water and air across our once pristine landscapes,” Manypenny wrote in an email. “We can use industrial hemp to help remediate those soils through bio-remediation, where the plant takes up the metals and toxins left behind from the mining and processing of coal or other industrial practices. This in turn can reduce the amounts of metals and toxins leaching into our streams, rivers and into our aquifers.” However, researchers acknowledge that since information regarding the effects of toxins on industrial hemp is incomplete, any such use of the plant would require that it be disposed of in a special manner, likely consistent with any disposal requirements for the toxin being absorbed by the plant.
Ryan Huish, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, agreed that the crop can be environmentally friendly. “Hemp requires little to no chemical input to grow well, thus avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers,” he stated. “It also has the potential of reducing the need to harvest trees for pulp and building materials, thus preserving more of our forests.”
Milner described how hemp also sequesters carbon in a way that enhances soil quality while reducing levels of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The crop is also a nutritious food source. “Hempseed provide a remarkable plant based protein diet for human, livestock, and wildlife consumption,” he added.
Huish observed, “the scientific name itself includes the Latin ‘sativa,’ meaning, ‘cultivated,’ emphasizing its eminence as a domestic crop.” As West Virginia adjusts to having less employment from the shrinking coal industry, Milner and Manypenny both suggest that industrial hemp could serve as an economic engine to help fill the gap. “Appalachia offers one of the most pristine environments for growing industrial hemp,” Manypenny said.
Milner stated, “The Hemp Industries Association has reviewed sales of clothing, auto parts, building materials and various other products derived by foreign-grown hemp, and estimates the total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. in 2014 to be at least $620 million.”
Yet, he remains hopeful. “For many, including me, hemp brings hope,” Milner shared. “Hope for a planet that needs healing, hope for a more sustainable agrarian future, hope for more locally sourced foods, renewable fuels and fibers. Hope for health care products that do not pollute the environment and will lessen our use and impact of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and petroleum products.”
By Michael M. Barrick
Producing and cultivating industrial hemp has been nearly impossible in the United States for roughly 80 years, when the U.S. Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 placed an extremely high tax on industrial hemp, making it unprofitable. Though that law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, Congress responded in 1970 with passage of the Controlled Substances Act. It listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance — meaning that it is considered among the most harmful of drugs. At the time, industrial hemp was not distinguished from marijuana.
That changed two years ago, when President Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014, which allows universities and state agriculture departments to cultivate industrial hemp for limited purposes. Emboldened by this evolution, several states in Appalachia have loosened their own laws and are now looking to industrial hemp as a way to promote economic diversification and environmental preservation, especially in the rich earth that nurtures the farmlands of the region.
Virginia recently enacted legislation allowing farmers to grow the plant. West Virginia law allows the cultivation of industrial hemp with up to one percent THC, issues licenses to growers and even provides legal protection against prosecution under marijuana criminal codes. Maryland law permits a person to “plant, grow, harvest, possess, process, sell and buy industrial hemp.”
In Kentucky, a five-year research and licensing program is overseen by the University of Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station. Established in early 2014, there are five projects across the state, including one project to determine whether industrial hemp could be used to remediate tainted soil.
In North Carolina, a law took effect in October 2015 that recognizes the potential importance of industrial hemp and established a commission to create and regulate an industrial hemp program. It also established licensure and reporting procedures and distinguishes hemp from marijuana. Yet the commission has not been funded by the General Assembly.
In Tennessee, however, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is reviewing applications for the 2016 growing season. The law there, passed in 2014, is similar to the one in North Carolina in that it distinguishes industrial hemp from marijuana and established oversight through the Department of Agriculture.
In summary, no state in Appalachia allows the production and cultivation of industrial hemp without some sort of governmental oversight and control, but acceptance of the crop is growing.
UPDATE: At press time, Tennessee was accepting applications for the 2016 growing season. The online article has been updated to reflect that the application period is now closed.