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Got 90 seconds? New video explains electric utility financing for residential energy efficiency

Contact:
Rory McIlmoil, Appalachian Voices, Energy Savings Program Manager, 828-262-1500, rory@appvoices.org
Cat McCue, Appalachian Voices, Director of Communications, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

A video short released today aims to broadly publicize a rarely used model of financing for utilities to pay the upfront costs of residential energy efficiency improvements so customers can immediately benefit from healthier, more comfortable homes and save on their energy bills. (More details in this blog post.)

The video opens with the line: “What if your home could be fixed up so that you’re cool in the middle of summer, warm in winter, and you have more money every year for things you need?” It goes on to explain that a utility offering Pay As You Save (PAYS®) on-bill financing covers the cost for home energy efficiency improvements, like weatherizing or upgrading heating/cooling systems, and the customer repays the utility over time without incurring any debt.

“If adopted widely, this program would transform America’s energy landscape and benefit millions of low- to moderate-income families,” says Rory McIlmoil, Energy Savings Program Manager for Appalachian Voices, a regional nonprofit organization.

The video was produced by Appalachian Voices and Resource Media to introduce more consumers and electric utilities to the program, which is largely underutilized but slowly catching on, with rural electric cooperatives leading the way. Thirteen co-ops, mostly in the Southeast, now offer a PAYS®-type program, lowering energy use for participating members by up to 30 percent and cutting energy bills by hundreds of dollars a year for most homes. No investor-owned utility is currently offering PAYS®.

“It’s such a simple concept, but the details get a little wonky, so we wanted to create a fun, informative video to get more people interested and hopefully they’ll urge their electric utility to start this kind of program,” says Cat McCue, Director of Communications with Appalachian Voices.

PAYS® financing is tied to the property, not the resident, and relies on electric bill payment history instead of credit scores to determine if an applicant is eligible. So it’s accessible to virtually everyone, including renters and people who don’t have the credit usually needed for a traditional bank loan. It’s these innovations that allow the program to serve low- to middle income households particularly well, McIlmoil says.

And efficiency is the cleanest source of energy, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and helping protect clean water, clean air, forests and farms, as well as helping to mitigate the impacts of a warming climate.

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Got 90 seconds? Learn how your electric utility can save you money and energy

PAYS3 copy

“What if your home could be fixed up so that you’re cool in the middle of summer, warm in winter, and you have more money every year for things you need?”

So begins a new 90-second video explaining a simple way to pay for home energy efficiency improvements. Simple in concept, that is, but a bit more complex in the details.

The video was produced by Appalachian Voices and Resource Media to introduce more consumers and electric utilities to “on-bill financing” — a decidedly wonky concept, but one that, if adopted widely, would transform America’s energy landscape and benefit millions of low- to moderate-income families.

As the video explains, a utility using the program would pay the upfront cost for home energy efficiency improvements, like weatherizing or upgrading heating/cooling systems, and the customer repays the cost over time. But here’s where on-bill financing, particularly the Pay As You Save® (PAYS) model, gets interesting.

Five main benefits

  • Families immediately benefit from having a more comfortable, healthy and valuable home. A recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders shows that buyers want energy efficient homes.
  • Families save money. In a PAYS® program, the money saved from the energy not consumed each month is more than the utility’s added charge to re-pay the cost of home improvements. It’s a net savings for the customer.
  • All the energy audits, contracting work, equipment supplies, sales and other services needed for home energy efficiency improvements create local, long-term jobs. And most of the wealth generated from this type of economic activity stays in the community.
  • On-bill financing lowers costs for everyone in the community. As more residents in a service area use less energy, the utility won’t need to provide as much, especially during peak times when energy costs are highest, and can spread those savings across all its customers.
  • Energy efficiency is the cleanest source of energy. Using less energy reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, helping protect clean water, clean air, forests and farms, and will help lessen the impacts of climate change.

But wait, there’s more. PAYS® is an inclusive program because it’s accessible to virtually everyone. It’s debt-free — the financing is tied to the property, not the resident, so renters can participate. And it doesn’t rely on traditional credit scores, so anyone who has a good history of paying their energy bill on time can participate. It’s these innovations that allow the program to serve low- to middle income households particularly well.

Rural electric co-ops leading the way

As nonprofit, member-owned entities, electric co-ops are especially positioned to provide on-bill financing programs. There are currently 13 electric co-ops — 12 in the Southeast and one in Kansas — investing millions of dollars a year through a PAYS-type program, and that could grow to 19 in the near future. (By comparison, not a single investor-owned utility is offering PAYS®, although there’s no reason they couldn’t). The co-op programs are lowering energy use for participating members by as much as 30 percent, and lowering energy bills by hundreds of dollars a year for most homes.

This is just the beginning. Investment potential for residential energy efficiency in the U.S. reaches into the billions, much of that in rural areas served by co-ops. Here’s one example: a recent needs assessment by Appalachian Voices found that 4,400 households are living in poverty and could immediately benefit from PAYS in the French Broad Electric Membership Corp. service area in Western North Carolina. With about 840 electric co-ops across the U.S., millions of low- and moderate-income residents stand to benefit from a PAYS® program, generating tens of billions of dollars in investment for rural areas.

Our hope is that the video released today helps kick-start more conversations about how PAYS® on-bill financing works, and how utilities can provide this service for their customers.

Share the video — help spread the word.

If you would like to learn more about inclusive on-bill financing for energy efficiency improvements, or how to advocate for such a program in your community and with your electric utility, please email Rory McIlmoil at rory@appvoices.org or call (828) 262-1500.

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Governor McAuliffe announces cap on carbon pollution in Virginia

Gov. McAuliffe signs Executive Directive 11 with clean energy advocates. Photo by Mary Rafferty.
Gov. McAuliffe signs Executive Directive 11 with clean energy advocates. Photo by Mary Rafferty.

Gov. McAuliffe signs Executive Directive 11 with clean energy industry leaders and advocates. Photo by Mary Rafferty.

In the face of a federal administration bent on rolling back key environmental protections and ignoring climate science, Governor McAuliffe took bold action Tuesday to limit greenhouse gas pollution in Virginia.

With Executive Directive 11, he directed the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a regulation limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. This was the culmination of a year-long process of study and stakeholder input following the governor’s June 2016 Executive Order 57.

“The threat of climate change is real, and we have a shared responsibility to confront it,” Gov. McAuliffe said in a statement. “Once approved, this regulation will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the Commonwealth’s power plants and give rise to the next generation of energy jobs.”

This is a potential game-changer. As I’ve written before, Virginia’s electric utilities are in dire need of an incentive to reduce their carbon footprint. While the costs of new utility-scale wind and solar facilities are competitive with or cheaper than natural gas-fired power plants, utilities like Dominion have continued to rely heavily on gas in their long-term resource planning.

Under the Virginia Code and the new directive, the DEQ will design a regulation that places a cap on carbon emissions from the power sector, which in turn will give emission-free resources like energy efficiency, wind and solar an even greater cost advantage than they already enjoy over fossil fuel resources. When our utilities start making big investments in efficiency and renewables, Virginians can finally realize the promise of a clean energy economy: more skilled jobs; healthier air, land and water; and a safer climate.

A key piece to watch is how the DEQ will make the regulation “trading-ready.” The governor’s directive says the regulation must be compatible with multi-state carbon-trading programs. Cap and trade programs set a limit on carbon emissions and then allocate carbon emissions permits to power plants. If a power plant cannot meet the limit outright, it must buy more permits. Because low- and zero-carbon power facilities don’t need all of their permits, they can sell excess permits to those that need them for compliance. This creates a financial incentive for power companies to find cleaner ways to produce energy. Over time, the cap on carbon emissions is lowered, increasing the economic advantage of clean energy and energy efficiency.

The permits generate revenue that states distribute in different ways. Typically, it is the province of state legislatures to decide how revenue is raised and distributed.* So while the DEQ has clear authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, designing a regulation that anticipates multi-state trading while avoiding any choices on revenue distribution is the challenge.

Clearly, much work lies ahead in regulation design and implementation. But make no mistake: Governor McAuliffe’s directive is strong and timely. We challenged the governor to lead on climate as the federal government fails to act, and he has done exactly that with a directive to cap carbon emissions. Now let that work begin.

*During the 2017 session, the General Assembly considered SB1471 (Locke), the Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act. This bill would have joined Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state cap and trade program comprised of nine East coast states from Maryland to Maine. The bill failed to advance from committee by a single vote.

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20 years of action, innovation and collaboration

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This year, Appalachian Voices is celebrating two decades of bringing people together to stand up for the mountains, for clean rivers and drinking water, for farms, forests and wildlife, and for healthy communities across the Appalachian region.

It’s been an amazing journey so far, marked by significant victories, and more than a few roadblocks and potholes. We’ve grown stronger and wiser, stayed nimble and tackled pressing issues as they’ve emerged, yet we stayed true to our vision of ensuring a vibrant and just economy in Appalachia that sustains our region’s natural treasures.

Read more about our work and hear stories from our longest-standing supporters.

20 for 20! Become a member for our special anniversary rate of $20.

Our roots run deep in Appalachia — our connection to the land and people sustains us in everything we do. Whether in the halls of Congress, in the courtroom or on the riverbank, we take a stand on behalf of our members and people throughout the region.

Over the years – and working shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of partner groups — we halted the proliferation of wood chip mills that threated southern forests, cut toxic air pollution from North Carolina coal-fired power plants, scored a historic legal settlement against one of Kentucky’s largest coal companies, pressured Duke Energy and North Carolina to finally address the state’s coal ash crisis, and stopped what would have been the largest coal-fired power plant in Virginia.

Copyright: Kent Mason

Copyright: Kent Mason

Our signature campaign has been to expose the atrocities of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia to the rest of the country, and the world, and we remain wholly committed to the goal of ending mountaintop removal once and for all.

Appalachian Voices has also been in the forefront of moving the region toward adopting clean energy as both an environmental and a social justice imperative. We launched our innovative Energy Savings for Appalachia program in 2013 to motivate rural electric cooperatives to provide upfront, debt-free financing for residents – many of whom are low-income – to do energy efficiency home improvements.

swva solar fair 2017 - lydia with banner

And our New Economy for Appalachia program, launched in 2015, promotes a more diverse, sustainable economy. In particular, Appalachian Voices is advocating for federal investment to repurpose old coal mines for new, sustainable economic activity, and helping lead a burgeoning effort to establish Southwest Virginia as a hub for the solar industry.

Copyright: Kent Mason

Copyright: Kent Mason

Through it all, the soul of our mission has been our connections to citizens who live in the communities on the frontlines of Appalachia’s energy landscape and our core strength has been the partnerships with dozens of local, state, regional and national organizations.

After 20 years of action, innovation and collaboration, Appalachian Voices is on solid ground as we look ahead to continuing this amazing journey over the next 20 years — and beyond.

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You are my sunshine … in Southwest Virginia

John and Lucy Graves of Bristol, Va. were among the 150 people attending the 2017 Solar Fair in Southwest Virginia
John and Lucy Graves of Bristol, Va. were among the 150 people attending the 2017 Solar Fair in Southwest Virginia

John and Lucy Graves of Bristol, Va. were among the 150 people attending the 2017 Solar Fair in Southwest Virginia

The Empty Bottle String Band’s rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” filled the football stadium at the University of Virginia-Wise in Norton, Va., last week as residents congregated to celebrate solar development and economic transition in Southwest Virginia.

Appalachian Voices was proud to co-host the 2017 Solar Fair along with our partners in the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia. The event showed enthusiastic community support and engagement for an industry that holds economic promise for local communities. Our goal was to introduce more people to the many benefits of going solar — from creating jobs and community wealth to saving energy and protecting our environment.

Exhibitors from groups such as eNRG, Energizing Renewable Growth and Mountain Alliance for Community Economic Development came to share information about solar. Clinch River Valley Initiative did a “trash to treasure” craft activity. The Wise County Cooperative Extension was there to help folks make do-it-yourself solar ovens from recycled pizza boxes. And regional solar businesses Aries Clean Energy, Ecological Energy Systems, and Sigora Solar were out demonstrating their equipment and answering customer questions.

Blake Southerland of Ecological Energy Systems in Bristol (l) and Lorenzo Rodriguez of Big Stone Gap talk about opportunities in the solar industry.

Blake Southerland of Ecological Energy Systems in Bristol (l) and Lorenzo Rodriguez of Big Stone Gap talk about opportunities in the solar industry.

Attendees munched on local asparagus cooked in the solar stove and fresh popcorn powered by “SPARC-E,” a mobile solar trailer built and designed by Mountain Empire Community College students. The trailer contains enough batteries to store solar power from the 5,000 watts of solar panels affixed to the outside of the trailer. SPARC-E also powered the sound stage and the inflatable.

At the end of the fair, Appalachian Voices awarded $500 each to two local high school teams who developed Solar in Your School project proposals. The Eastside High School Ecology Club from Coeburn, Va., submitted a plan to build a solar phone charger and received approval for installation from their school board. Ridgeview High School’s robotics team from Clintwood, Va., plans to create a solar powered robot to help educate their peers and community about solar energy.

Also that day, the Solar Workgroup launched Solarize Wize, a program to help make solar installations easier and more affordable for homeowners, businesses, and farmers in Wise County. (Registration for free solar home assessments is open now, or you can call me at 276-679-1691.)

Lydia Graves, with Appalachian Voices, at the 2017 Solar Fair in Southwest Virginia.

Lydia Graves, with Appalachian Voices, at the 2017 Solar Fair in Southwest Virginia.

The Solar Fair and the 2017 Southwest Virginia Economic Forum at UVa-Wise the following day served as an opportunity to showcase the progress made on more sizable projects in Southwest Virginia. The Solar Workgroup formed as a result of last year’s UVa-Wise economic forum, made up of nonprofit and community action agencies, colleges, state agencies, planning district commissions and other interested citizens and businesses.
The workgroup was recently awarded a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to provide technical assistance for development of a handbook for actionable steps toward solar economic development in far Southwest Virgina.

Many thanks to all who attended, our speakers, and special thanks to UVa-Wise, our many volunteers, Coeburn’s Boy Scout Troop 301 for their help setting up and all who made the Solar Fair a big success.

See you next year!

Solar Fair 2017 Wise VA

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Environmental regulations didn’t cause coal’s decline — and rollbacks won’t save it.

Now that he's in office, President Trump's promises to coal are colliding with the reality of the market forces shaping the industry's future. Photo via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.
Now that he's in office, President Trump's promises to coal are colliding with the reality of the market forces shaping the industry's future. Photo via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

Now that he’s in office, President Trump’s promises to coal are colliding with the reality of the market forces shaping the industry’s future. Photo via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

While campaigning for the presidency, Donald Trump pledged to be a friend to the coal industry. Once elected, he began to make good on that promise.

On March 28, he signed an executive order instructing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to unravel the Clean Power Plan, which limits the amount of carbon dioxide emissions allowed from coal-fired power plants. This rule was a cornerstone of President Obama’s climate policies and has been blamed by some for ushering in the death of coal, despite the fact that it has been held up in court and will likely never be implemented.

When signing the order, Trump surrounded himself with coal miners and industry executives.

“Today I’m taking bold action to follow through on that promise,” Trump said at the signing. “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal.”

But despite these bold declarations, government regulations have played little role in the decline of the coal industry. So, deregulation is unlikely to revive it.

A new report released by Columbia University on April 25 evaluated the causes for the rapid decline in the coal market over the past few years. The authors found that 49 percent of the decline resulted from competition from cheaper natural gas. Twenty-six percent resulted from decreased energy demand because of increased energy efficiency, and a further 18 percent of the decline can be credited to the expanding market for renewable energy.

In other words, the report concludes that 93 percent of the reason the U.S. coal market is in such a steep decline has nothing to do with government regulations that target coal, such as the Clean Power Plan.

And academics aren’t the only ones taking note of these trends.

CEOs of large electric utilities across the country have gone on record saying that they have no intention of returning to coal, despite Trump’s win.

“Our statutory duty is to produce electricity at the lowest feasible rate,” Bill Johnson, the CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, told the Associated Press in mid-April. “And when we decided to close the coal plants, that was the math we were doing. We weren’t trying to comply with the Clean Power Plan or anything else. What’s the cheapest way to serve the customer? It turned out to be retiring those coal plants.”

Similarly, Duke Energy continues to move steadily away from coal. “We have to look through the changes of administration, the changes in politics and set our vision on where we want our company to be and what strategy we are pursuing,” said the company’s CEO Lynn Good, according to the Charlotte Business Journal. “Our strategy will continue to be to drive carbon out of our business.”

And, to give one more regional example, Appalachian Power Company’s new president, Chris Beam, said that his company didn’t have plans to expand its coal use either, despite local pressure.

“The governor [of West Virginia, and coal company owner, Jim Justice] asked me, ‘I’d like you to burn more coal,’” Beam said, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Well, we don’t have any more coal plants. We’re not going to build any more coal plants. That’s not going to happen.”

Beam said his utility was focused on attracting large companies — and new customers — to the region, companies that insist on access to 100 percent renewable power.

“At the end of the day, West Virginia may not require us to be clean, but our customers are,” he said. “So if we want to bring in those jobs, and those are good jobs, those are good-paying jobs that support our universities because they hire our engineers, they have requirements now, and we have to be mindful of what our customers want.”

This trend is widespread. In early April, after Trump signed his executive order, Reuters surveyed 32 utilities operating in states that sued to block the Clean Power Plan. Only one said that the new administration’s action would extend its reliance on coal. Twenty said it would have no affect on their future plans.

Given how little sway federal policy has over the future of the U.S. coal industry, Trump’s promises to bring back mining jobs sound callous.

When signing his executive order, Trump told the miners gathered around him, “C’mon, fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says? You’re going back to work.”

But Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., told CNBC that such rhetoric was “one of the most cruel deceptions.”

Even coal executive Robert Murray is doubtful that mining jobs will return, and he’s told President Trump as much.

“I suggested that he temper his expectations. Those are my exact words,” Murray told The Guardian about his conversation with the president about coal jobs. “He can’t bring them back.”

Some coal companies are pining their hopes on overseas demand — a risky bet that has backfired before. ©iStockphoto/bsauter

Some coal companies are pining their hopes on overseas demand — a risky bet that has backfired before. ©iStockphoto/bsauter

Most of the job loss in the mining sector isn’t due to government regulations, according to Murray, but are the result of technological advances that have reduced the need for a large labor force and, more recently, from competition from natural gas.

Yet Trump continues to promise to revive the coal industry, even while bolstering its main competitor — natural gas — in his “America First” energy policy.

In fact, according to statistics from the U.S. Labor Department, coal jobs have already dropped 8 percent since Trump took office.

On May 2, a Bloomberg article announced the triumphant return of coal, based largely on a resurgence in prices for the metallurgical coal used in steel production.

Yet any increased demand for U.S. metallurgical coal is unlikely to be long-lived, since China — the world’s leading importer — will likely return to doing business with Australia — the world’s leading exporter — once that country’s coal infrastructure is repaired following a cyclone crippled export capacity in late March.

And for anyone following the trajectory of the coal market, this hype around metallurgical coal should ring alarm bells. Last time the industry bet big on met coal, most of the nation’s largest coal companies went bankrupt as a result. And this isn’t ancient history, it happened in 2015.

During those bankruptcy proceedings, many of the biggest names in coal — Peabody, Alpha, Patriot and Walter Energy — tried to dissolve the pension and health benefits they owed their miners. In late April, the federal government stepped in to take responsibility for retired miners’ health benefits, but their pensions remain largely unfunded.

The situation mining communities face won’t improve if decision makers don’t first accept the reality at hand. As the authors of the Columbia University report wrote: “Responsible policymakers should be honest about what’s going on in the U.S. coal sector — including the causes of coal’s decline and unlikeliness of its resurgence — rather than offer false hope that the glory days can be revived,” wrote the authors of the Columbia University report.

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D.C. sends a ray of hope to Southwest Virginia

Citizens meet to discuss options and opportunities for the Norton Riverwalk proposal in Southwest Virginia.
Citizens meet to discuss options and opportunities for the Norton Riverwalk proposal in Southwest Virginia.

Citizens meet to discuss options and opportunities for the Norton Riverwalk proposal in Southwest Virginia.

Through the dark clouds of the Trump administration’s agenda for rolling back or killing off programs critical to the health of Appalachian communities and the environment, a bright spot has emerged.

The omnibus spending bill passed by Congress earlier this month – and signed by the president last Friday – includes $10 million for economic development projects to help communities in Southwest Virginia in need of new opportunities. Although the White House has threatened to eliminate the program that will provide these funds, the president needed to sign the bill to avoid a government shutdown. The bill will keep the government running through September 30, and Virginia will receive the entirety of the $10 million.

It’s the first time Virginia will get funding through a congressional pilot program initiated last year for cleaning up abandoned mine lands and redeveloping them for new economic activity. Under the 2016 program (modeled after the RECLAIM Act which was recently re-introduced), Congress appropriated $30 million each for Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The new spending package provides an additional $25 million to those states, as well as $10 million each for Virginia, Ohio and Alabama. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-9th), who represents far Southwest Virginia, has been an advocate of federal investment in the region. In addition, seven local government entities in Virginia’s coal counties have passed unanimous resolutions supporting such investment for mine reclamation combined with economic development, starting with Norton, the first community in the country to do so.

As our New Economy Program Manager, Adam Wells, told the press:

“We are thrilled to see this funding come to Virginia for innovative mine reclamation that will have positive local impacts. Virginia’s inclusion is a direct result of the clear message from the resolutions of support passed by local governments in far Southwest Virginia. Going forward, it will be critical to make sure those same communities have a meaningful role in determining how this money will be spent.”

Last year, Appalachian Voices partnered with Gerald Collins, a professional engineer with 30 years in the coal industry, and others to inventory abandoned mine lands in Virginia and identify 14 sites with significant economic development potential as solar facilities, recreation areas, sustainable agriculture and other types of projects. The group found that for roughly $16 million in total reclamation costs these sites could yield up to $53 million in economic return.

Gerald Collins:

“This is great news for the coal counties of Southwest Virginia. The potential projects in our study would be great candidates to receive these funds. In many instances, these projects leverage the efforts that localities have already undertaken with the hopes of finding more funding in the future. It appears that the time is now, and we stand ready to assist the Commonwealth of Virginia in launching projects which will give our local economies a real shot in the arm.”

Some examples from the report, “Healing Our Land, Growing Our Future,” include:

  • The Norton Riverwalk: The City of Norton needs funding to complete its project to convert an abandoned coal tipple into a community park at the center of a greenway along the Guest River in Wise County;
  • Lonesome Pine Airport Solar Farm: Local leaders are moving forward to turn three adjacent old strip mines into a solar installation to supply clean, renewable energy to nearby companies, including a large data center;
  • Community of Dante Development Projects: Russell County leaders are working to create the Clinch River Ecological Campus at an old coal storage building nearby to educate students and the public about the rich biodiversity found in the region; and
  • Devil’s Fork Recreation Area: The U.S. Forest Service and local leaders are working to find a parking solution to one of the area’s most popular eco-tourism destinations. A nearby underground mine entrance poses a safety risk and needs to be properly closed.
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Report finds thousands in western N.C. and eastern Tenn. need energy efficiency financing

Marshall, N.C. on the French Broad River. Photo by Jamie Goodman
A view of Marshall, N.C., headquarters of the French Broad Electric Membership Corp., across the historic French Broad River.

A view of Marshall, N.C., headquarters of the French Broad Electric Membership Corp., across the historic French Broad River.

CONTACT:
Rory McIlmoil, Appalachian Voices Energy Savings Program Manager, rory@appvoices.org, (828) 262-1500

Boone, N.C. — A program that pays for the upfront cost of home energy improvements could lower monthly bills for thousands of families in western North Carolina while creating jobs, strengthening local economies, and protecting natural resources and public health, according to Appalachian Voices, a regional nonprofit organization based in Boone.

The organization released a report today that focuses on the French Broad Electric Membership Corp. service area, which serves all or part of four counties in western North Carolina and two counties in East Tennessee. It examines the housing characteristics, poverty levels, and the portion of household income spent on energy bills, as well as the multiple benefits that would result from making the area’s homes more energy efficient.

As many as 11,000 households that are members of the French Broad cooperative need energy efficiency improvements such as insulation and new heating systems. If the co-op implemented a modest “on-bill” finance program available to residents of all income levels, regardless of whether they own their home, participants could save $1,000 or more over 10 years, and more than $500 a year after that. Given that one-fifth of all area households live in poverty and spend more than 20 percent of their income on energy costs, such savings could prove critical for thousands of families.

“Energy bills exceed $2,400 a year for many French Broad members,” said Rory McIlmoil, Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Program Manager and author of the report. “That’s just not affordable, but existing services aren’t meeting the needs of these families. So electric co-ops and other utilities could play a huge role in alleviating the financial burden caused by home energy bills.”

Additionally, the organization estimates that the program would save French Broad an average of more than $100,000 a year on demand costs — savings that benefit all co-op members by helping keep rates low. It could also result in millions of dollars in local investment each year and create more than 60 jobs.

“Energy waste poses a huge problem for thousands of French Broad members, but it also presents a significant economic opportunity,” said McIlmoil. Numerous other electric co-ops in North Carolina and elsewhere have implemented such programs with great success, he said. “Communities need this, and we know it works. French Broad Electric could take steps toward developing such a program tomorrow.”

Within the past two months, the Yancey and Mitchell county commissions in North Carolina have passed resolutions supporting on-bill financing, and Appalachian Voices has collected more than 20 letters of support from local organizations and businesses and more than 100 signatures from French Broad co-op members.

Appalachian Voices recommends that supporters of on-bill financing or residents who want to participate in such a program get in touch with their electric utility and ask them to consider developing an on-bill finance program.

“This is a problem affecting communities all across the two states, meaning there are likely hundreds of thousands of homes that could benefit from a financing program that is accessible to families of all income levels. And the benefits to local economies would be tremendous,” said McIlmoil.

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Congress includes $10 million for Southwest Virginia coal communities in spending plan

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Contact:
Adam Wells, New Economy Program Manager, 276-679-1691, adam@appvoices.org
Thom Kay, Senior Legislative Representative, 864-580-1843, thom.kay@appvoices.org
Gerald Collins Coal Mining Engineering Services LLC, 276-220-0150, gerald1951@comcast.net

Norton, Va. — A proposed federal spending bill that took shape in Congress over the weekend includes $10 million in funding for economic development projects to help communities in Southwest Virginia hit hard by the decline of the coal industry.

It’s the first time Virginia has received funding through a congressional pilot program initiated last year aimed at cleaning up abandoned mine lands and redeveloping them for new economic activity. The program is modeled after the RECLAIM Act which was recently re-introduced in Congress.

Last year, Congress appropriated $30 million each for Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania for the pilot program. Under the omnibus spending bill unveiled today, those states would each get an additional $25 million, and Virginia, Ohio and Alabama would each receive $10 million.

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-9th), who represents far Southwest Virginia, has been an advocate of federal investment in the region. In addition, seven local government entities in Virginia’s coal counties have passed unanimous resolutions supporting such investment for mine reclamation combined with economic development, starting with Norton, the first community in the country to do so.

“We are thrilled to see this funding come to Virginia for innovative mine reclamation that will have positive local impacts,” said Adam Wells, New Economy Program Manager in Appalachian Voices’ Norton office. “Virginia’s inclusion is a direct result of the clear message from the resolutions of support passed by local governments in far Southwest Virginia. Going forward, it will be critical to make sure those same communities have a meaningful role in determining how this money will be spent.”

Last year, Appalachian Voices partnered with Gerald Collins, a professional engineer with 30 years in the coal industry, and others to inventory abandoned mine lands in Virginia and identify 14 sites with significant economic development potential as solar facilities, recreation areas, sustainable agriculture and other types of projects. The group found that for roughly $16 million in total reclamation costs these sites could yield up to $53 million in economic return.

“This is great news for the coal counties of Southwest Virginia,” said Collins, principal of Coal Mining Engineering Services. “The potential projects in our study would be great candidates to receive these funds. In many instances, these projects leverage the efforts that localities have already undertaken with the hopes of finding more funding in the future. It appears that the time is now, and we stand ready to assist the Commonwealth of Virginia in launching projects which will give our local economies a real shot in the arm.”

Some examples from their report, “Healing Our Land, Growing Our Future,” include:

  • The Norton Riverwalk: The City of Norton needs funding to complete its project to convert an abandoned coal tipple into a community park at the center of a greenway along the Guest River in Wise County;
  • Lonesome Pine Airport Solar Farm: Local leaders are moving forward to turn three adjacent old strip mines into a solar installation to supply clean, renewable energy to nearby companies, including a large data center;
  • Community of Dante Development Projects: Russell County leaders are working to create the Clinch River Ecological Campus at an old coal storage building nearby to educate students and the public about the rich biodiversity found in the region; and
  • Devil’s Fork Recreation Area: The U.S. Forest Service and local leaders are working to find a parking solution to one of the area’s most popular eco-tourism destinations. A nearby underground mine entrance poses a safety risk and needs to be properly closed.
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Atlantic Coast Pipeline is far from a done deal

Meathouse Fork in W.Va., below the Stonewall Gathering Pipeline construction zone. Photo by Michael Barrick; courtesy Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition.
Meathouse Fork in W.Va., below the Stonewall Gathering Pipeline construction zone. Photo by Michael Barrick; courtesy Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition.

Meathouse Fork in W.Va., below the Stonewall Gathering Pipeline construction zone. Photo by Michael Barrick; courtesy Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition.

Dominion Resources wants the public to think the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a done deal. So, in a classic “fake news” move, company execs held a tele-press conference yesterday where they basically said as much.

They say they have obtained most of the land, materials and services needed. They say they have completed much of the steel-pipe for the 600-mile pipeline. They say that all permits will be approved by this fall, and they’ll break ground soon after.

They say a lot.

They don’t say even more.

For example, despite repeated requests from citizens groups, Dominion officials have not told the public how they’re going to control erosion and stormwater along the miles of proposed route in the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia, nor how they’re going to stabilize the numerous, incredibly steep slopes they would cross.

Nor have they said exactly how they are going to handle the excess rock and dirt that would result from blasting along 38 miles of high ridges in the two states.

Citizens groups yesterday released a report about this aspect of the proposed pipeline, finding that – based on the 125-foot necessary construction zone that the company has used consistently — such blasting could result in 247,000 dump trucks full of debris that cannot be put back in place. (And whether blasted rock and dirt can ever be restored to achieve the legally required “approximate original contour” of a mountain is another matter entirely. For your reference, see here.)

Instead of addressing this critical environmental issue, a company spokesman used the shop-worn tactic of attacking the messenger. In press reports, other officials said that only an 8-foot wide area would be excavated on the ridges. And, oh yeah, clearing for “temporary work areas.”

Meanwhile, earlier this month one of the project managers told the Highland County, Va., board of supervisors: “We feel a sandstone cap on top with a 150-foot width is nominal. We’ll have to excavate quite a bit of material.”

Further, Dominion submitted construction plans to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection showing a 125-foot right-of-way.

The bottom line is, Dominion, as the project lead on behalf of itself, Duke Energy and others, is trying to ram this pipeline through the process, especially now that it sees the door to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission opening ever wider under the current administration.

It seems a reasonable request that all stakeholders – the companies, state and federal regulators, and public interest groups – take sufficient time and thought to fully assess a 600-mile project, that would cost $5 billion, directly affect thousands of people, and cumulatively impact many thousand more.

Some 25,000 people sent comments to FERC this year urging more analysis, demanding answers, and challenging whether the pipeline is even needed. See here, here, and this breaking news story from Bloomberg.

This is not a done deal.

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