Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Voices’

Sizing up APCo’s plan, through customers’ eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Effect of the Clean Power Plan

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

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

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

Capping the Amount of Solar APCo Develops

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

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

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

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

An Energy Efficiency Economy under APCo’s Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn about Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program.

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Citizen stories counter coal industry deception

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 - posted by willie
Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va.

Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va., where clean water advocates argued for stronger protections and coal industry representatives relied on deception to rally against the rule.

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a draft of its Stream Protection Rule, a long-awaited regulation aimed at reducing the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Along with coalfield community members and allied organizations, Appalachian Voices is asking the agency to close loopholes in the rule that state agencies might exploit, allowing coal companies to continue polluting our streams. We are also pushing for clear language in the final rule that states citizens may enforce water quality standards under the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the Office of Surface Mining to strengthen the draft Stream Protection Rule.

As part of its rule-making process, OSM held six public hearings across the nation in order to gather comments from stakeholders and impacted residents. Only two hearings were held in the central Appalachian coalfields; one in Big Stone Gap, Va., and another in Charleston, W.Va.

The hearing in Big Stone Gap provides a glimpse into how the whole series of hearings played out. About 250 people were present at the hearing, which took place on the evening of Sept. 15. At 6 p.m., U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s 9th district, the first speaker of the evening, approached the podium. Griffith did not address any details of the Stream Protection Rule in his comments, and he provided no tangible evidence of whether or not it would achieve its intended effect. Instead, Griffith seized the opportunity to spout “war on coal” rhetoric and to accuse the rule’s supporters of caring more about mayflies than human beings.

Concluding his comments after five minutes, Rep. Griffith was on his way out of the building when Wise County resident Jane Branham confronted him and asked him to stay and listen to what his constituents had to say. Griffith declined this invitation and left promptly at 6:11 p.m.

Had Rep. Griffith stayed, he would have heard Mary Darcy from Wise who said:

Despite rules and laws, tons of waste are dumped into these waterways regularly. How does this happen? Do the states not enforce clean water regulations? Do our elected representatives turn their backs on the needs of the people with something as critical as water?

Darcy was not the only speaker to call out state agencies for repeatedly failing to enforce regulations. Diana Withen, a local high school biology teacher, implored the OSM to include clear language allowing for citizen monitoring and enforcement, stating, “We know that government budgets are tight and that regulatory agencies are going to continue to face budget cuts in the future. So allowing concerned citizens to help monitor the water quality in our streams makes sense.”

A reconstructed "stream" below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

A reconstructed “stream” below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

Countering the many citizens who spoke up for clean water were the numerous coal industry representatives that railed against the rule. But instead of addressing the rule’s content, they expended a great deal of time and energy accusing the Office of Surface Mining and President Obama of deliberately attacking coal mining for political gain.

Scott Barton, a mine superintendent at Murray Energy’s Harrison County Mine in northern West Virginia, argued that the Obama administration “hides behind the myth of global warming to justify it’s job destroying agenda. Everyone in the coal industry knows this is a lie.”

Other pro-industry, anti-regulatory speakers described the rule as a “weapon of mass destruction,” the “nuclear option” and “the last nail in the crucifixion of the coal industry.” Sadly, preference on the part of the industry and politicians for rhetoric over substance was not unique to the Big Stone Gap hearing. Much more of the same could be heard at each of the five other hearings in Charleston, Denver, Lexington Ky., Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule has been extended in response to industry requests and will now remain open until Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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Predictable politics giving way to popular support for POWER+

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo of Wise County, Va., by Flickr user biotour 13 licensed under Creative Commons.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan are less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate economic hardship. Photo of Wise County, Va., by biotour 13.

UPDATE: As of November 3, a total of 23 Appalachian government entities have passed resolutions to support POWER+.

* * * * *

The recent growth in local support for a plan to boost Appalachia’s economy has been a bright spot in the region during some of the coal industry’s darkest days.

In Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan, a federal budget initiative proposed by the White House to build more diverse economies in the communities hardest hit by the regional coal industry’s decline.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors of Wise County, Va., unanimously approved a resolution supporting the plan, citing the “dramatic economic transition” and job losses the county has experienced. According to the resolution, the county “desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances” facing the region.

On the same night, the City Council of Benham, in Harlan County, Ky., passed a supporting resolution. Before Benham came the City of Whitesburg, Ky., and Virginia’s Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission.

The Campbell County Commission became the first locality in Tennessee to support POWER+, unanimously passing a resolution yesterday. Also on Monday, members of the Letcher County Fiscal Court voted unanimously in favor of the plan.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

It was only a few weeks ago that Norton, Va., became the first locality in the nation to pass a resolution in favor of the plan. More endorsements are expected in the days and weeks ahead.

Appalachian Voices and our allies have been promoting the POWER+ Plan, too. We’re heartened, but not surprised, to hear local perspectives that don’t reflect the tone legislators from Appalachian states often take in D.C.

After listening to residents speak at the Wise County Board of Supervisors meeting about how the plan could benefit their families and share their hopes for Southwest Virginia’s economy, board member Ron Shortt told the audience, “We’re behind you 100 percent on this. We realize how important it is to Southwest Virginia and Wise County.”

The implication could be that, so far, Congress doesn’t realize how important it is for the region.

Since it holds the federal purse strings, Congress must approve funding for elements of the POWER+ Plan. But after months of opportunity to consider the proposal, and some shirking by Appalachian politicians, lawmakers in the House and Senate weakened key provisions of the plan or left them out of the budget altogether.

We recently covered Congress’s muted response in The Appalachian Voice and pointed to how lawmakers are sticking to their political sides:

… rather than receiving the POWER+ Plan with enthusiasm, many Appalachian lawmakers’ comments echoed past criticisms of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and claims of a war on coal.

“The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that,” a spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Earlier this year, Capito introduced legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon pollution.

When asked about the plan, a spokesperson for first-term Rep. Alex Mooney responded to the Gazette-Mail with a simple “No, Representative Mooney does not support the [POWER+] Plan.”

Mooney has introduced a bill to prevent the U.S. Department of the Interior from finalizing the Stream Protection Rule to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. He has called stopping the rule his “top priority.”

Rather than investing in workforce training and reemployment programs or reforming the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund to focus more on economic development, as the POWER+ Plan would, congressional opponents of the president remain primarily concerned with undermining protections for Appalachian streams and fighting limits on carbon emissions — policy goals, sure, but nothing close to an economic development plan for the region.

The counties that stand to benefit most from the plan are some of the poorest in the United States and continue to face layoffs, the impacts of ongoing mining, and pollution from decades-old and poorly reclaimed mine sites.

Lawmakers representing those counties in Congress, including Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are positioned to rally other influential legislators around the plan, but they aren’t.

Some lawmakers have made statements expressing tacit support. But the resolutions make clear that these localities expect their representatives to do more; some call on members of Congress by name to support funding for economic development in the region.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan, and attempts to fit it into a “war on coal” framework, are understandably less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate the economic hardships they face.

Many of the communities now urging members of Congress to back the plan have been underrepresented over the years in their demands for a more diverse economy. They deserved to be heard then like they deserve to be heard now.

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Community Rallies Around Need for Energy Efficiency in the High Country

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by jamie

Over 1,000 residents support greater energy efficiency investments to grow economy, lower energy costs

Rory McIlmoil, Energy Policy Director,
Sarah Kellogg, North Carolina Field Organizer,
(828) 262-1500

Boone, N.C. — More than thirty local residents, service organizations and local government officials gathered for an event Wednesday evening at the Jones House in Boone to raise awareness about the need for greater investments in energy efficiency in the High Country. Speakers included: Zach Dixon, Brooke Walker, Violet Scholar and Mary Ruble — local residents who need or have benefitted from home energy improvements; Sam Zimmerman of Sunny Day Homes, a local business that offers energy efficiency contracting services; and, Melissa Soto of WAMY Community Action Agency, which provides free weatherization and heating improvements for qualified low-income residents.

Appalachian Voices, a regional environmental non-profit organization promoting electric utility “on-bill energy efficiency finance” programs, organized the event with the support of local residents. On-bill financing offers residents a way to pay for energy efficiency upgrades to their homes through their electric bills using the savings gained as a result of the energy improvements. During the event, Appalachian Voices presented a folder containing more than 1,000 signatures by High Country residents and letters from more than 20 local businesses and service agencies supporting an increase in energy efficiency investments through on-bill finance programs. According to Appalachian Voices, such programs provide the best option for addressing high energy costs related to poorly weatherized homes and old, inefficient appliances, and for alleviating the impact that energy costs have on low- to moderate-income residents.

The event closed with a call for local electric utilities, government agencies, service organizations, businesses and residents to identify and invest in solutions such as on-bill financing for lowering energy costs, alleviating poverty and creating new jobs in the High Country.

“Energy waste isn’t just an environmental problem, it’s also an economic problem,” said Rory McIlmoil, energy policy director for Appalachian Voices. “Here in the High Country we see a high incidence of poverty, lower-than-average family income, a housing stock that is mostly decades old and in need of efficiency improvements, and energy costs that for some folks accounts for nearly half of their income in the winter months. Together those issues are having a negative economic impact on the area, and this is a problem that we need to work together to address.”

To illustrate the need for home energy improvements and the benefits such improvements can have on local residents, Appalachian Voices hosted the High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest, which ended last February with three residents receiving free efficiency upgrades. Zach Dixon, a resident of Boone and the grand prize winner of the contest, described the benefits he’s received, saying, “Before winning the contest and getting my attic and floors insulated, I had so much heat escaping right through the attic, and I was paying as much as $200 a month on my electricity bills. Just having that insulation has made a major difference.”

An analysis of the three winning homes was conducted by ResiSpeak — a Cary, N.C.-based utility data collection and analysis service. Daniel Kauffman, general manager of ResiSpeak, summarized the results by saying, “Based on the few months of data since the retrofits, the homes appear to be consuming between ten and thirty percent less electricity than they were before. We will have a clearer picture of the energy savings due to the retrofits after this coming winter, and if current trends continue we should see significant savings.”

In addition to the services WAMY provides, much is already being done in the region to assist families who struggle with their energy bills in the winter or are in need of home energy improvements. For instance, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.’s donation-based Operation RoundUp program provides bill payment assistance for residents who are unable to pay their energy bills in the winter. Community service organizations such as WeCAN help distribute these funds, while other organizations provide free firewood for winter heating needs. Many High Country residents have taken steps to lower their own energy costs. Despite all of these efforts, the fundamental lack of financial support remains largely unaddressed, leaving thousands of residents without the means for improving their home’s energy efficiency.

Speaking at the event, WAMY’s Executive Director Melissa Soto said “WAMY can weatherize homes for individuals that fall below 200% of [the U.S. poverty line]; however, there is always a long waiting list and never enough funding. There is also a huge gap between those that qualify for our services and those that can afford to make the improvements themselves. That’s why an on-bill financing program is so exciting — it gives those in the middle income brackets an opportunity to improve their quality of life.”

To which Mary Ruble of Boone, who is also a Blue Ridge Electric member, added, “I’m one of those that falls in the gap. I’ve been able to pay for some improvements myself, but not for everything that needs to be done. To me, on-bill financing is a win for all of us, and I’m really thankful that Blue Ridge is exploring ways they can help.”

“New solutions are required that provide comprehensive energy improvements while greatly increasing the level of investment in residential energy efficiency in our communities,” concluded McIlmoil. “We’re already seeing steps being taken to achieve this with the recent announcement by Blue Ridge Electric that they are considering developing an on-bill financing program for their members. We greatly appreciate this and are extremely encouraged by their leadership in tackling the issue.”

Appalachian Voices and local residents expressed hope that the event would spark a conversation throughout the High Country about how to develop more effective programs for addressing the problem of high energy costs. More information about on-bill financing and the Energy Savings for the High Country campaign can be found at

Virginia city first to support POWER+

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015 - posted by Adam

Welcome to Norton6

The city of Norton, in southwest Virginia, just took an important, forward-looking leadership position in the effort to diversify the region’s economy and create a healthier, more sustainable future.

Tuesday evening, the city council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution supporting the POWER+ Plan, the federal budget proposal to steer billions of dollars for economic development and diversification to Appalachia’s coal-impacted communities, including those in Virginia. It’s the first such local resolution of support in the nation for the plan, proposed earlier this year by the White House.

The city’s resolution also urges U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Congressman Morgan Griffith (9th District, Va.) to support “any plan that targets redevelopment funding opportunities for our region.”

Please contact your Senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachia.

Appalachian Voices championed this resolution with Norton’s leaders, and commend them for leading the way on this vital issue. We and our partners have been working throughout Central Appalachia to promote this vital opportunity, which would fund job retraining and infrastructure investments, as well as direct new funding to clean up abandoned mines.

The POWER+ Plan creates new funding and bolsters existing federal programs designed to diversify the economy in areas that have relied heavily on coal and have seen job losses as a result of the contracting coal economy in recent years.

Here’s the text of the resolution:

WHEREAS: The POWER+ Plan is a component within the 2016 federal budget proposed by President Obama; and

WHEREAS: The POWER+ Plan, if approved by Congress, would authorize billions of dollars in federal programs targeted to improve the economy of the Appalachian Coalfields, including the economies of Southwest Virginia and the City of Norton; and

WHEREAS: The Plan specifically includes increased funding for the Abandoned Mined Land Fund, Appalachian Regional Commission, and the United Mine Workers of America Health and Pension Plan; and

WHEREAS: The City of Norton desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances facing our region and the increased federal funding targeting our region that would help to leverage local efforts;

NOW, THEREFORE, LET IT BE RESOLVED THAT the City of Norton supports any initiative, such as the proposed increased funding noted above as included in POWER+ Plan, and that the City encourages Senators Kaine and Warner and Congressman Griffith to support any plan that targets redevelopment funding opportunities for our region.

Ask your senators to support the POWER+ Plan.

How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015 - posted by Erin
Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that surface coal production nationwide decreased about 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, while production from surface mines that include mountaintop removal mining in three central Appalachian states had decreased 62 percent.

At first, this seems like a huge win in the fight against mountaintop removal mining, a practice that is devastating to community health and the environment, and yields few jobs compared to traditional mining practices. While it is a step in the right direction, declining production is not a sufficient measure of the ongoing human and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal.

Closer examination of the data calls into question the adequacy of the legal definition of “mountaintop removal” and, more importantly, demonstrates that much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

First, let’s look at the numbers reported by the EIA. The post, published on the agency’s Today In Energy blog, opens by saying, “Coal production from mines with mountaintop removal (MTR) permits has declined since 2008, more than the downward trend in total U.S. coal production.” While this is true, comparing the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in nationwide surface production (62 and 21 percent, respectively) gives the false impression that mountaintop removal, in particular, is on its way out. However, when you compare the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in surface mine production only for Central Appalachia, the picture looks much different: surface mine production in Central Appalachia has declined by 55 percent from 2008 to 2014.

With this new information, it becomes apparent that mountaintop removal production has not declined much more than surface mining on the whole in Central Appalachia. Given the similarity, we can attribute the decline in mountaintop removal largely to the same market forces that are leading to a decline in all coal mining in Central Appalachia.

The EIA report also relies on the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act’s (SMCRA) narrow definition of what constitutes mountaintop removal mining — essentially, a surface mine “running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill” that is exempt from returning the land to “approximate original contour” because the new land use is intended to be of equal or better economic or public value. The problem with this definition of mountaintop removal is that many Central Appalachian surface mines that cross ridgelines and employ many of the same problematic practices — large-scale blasting, mining through streams, and valley filling — are not, under SMCRA’s narrow definition, considered mountaintop removal mines.

The reality on the ground is that the rugged terrain of Central Appalachia makes it difficult to conduct any large-scale surface mine without mining across a ridgeline. Take for example the recently permitted Jim Justice-owned surface mine in McDowell County, W.Va. The Big Creek Surface Mine certainly cross multiple ridgelines and will construct a valley fill within half a mile of a Head Start preschool, yet this mine is not considered a mountaintop removal mine by either the federal government or the state of West Virginia. Furthermore, the valley fill does not require a 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, as it is not being constructed in public waters of the United States.

These facts mean there is little the local community, largely unsupportive of the mine, can do to stop it. Additionally, reclamation of the site requires that the company return the land to its “approximate original contour.” That phrase has never been clearly defined, however, so the land will be returned to a much lower elevation, lacking the fully functioning forest and ecosystems present before mining.

Another issue is that measuring mountaintop removal only by production and permit designation does not lead to a full accounting of the destruction done to the land as a whole.

Back in April, Appalachian Voices undertook a mapping analysis to look at how surface mines are impacting local communities. We had noticed that, even though mining is declining in the region, we are still regularly contacted by impacted residents. So we set out to determine if surface mining was moving closer to communities, and through our Communities at Risk project, we confirmed that mines are in fact encroaching even more on local residents.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on

To complete this analysis, we identified surface mines across the region using satellite imagery and other data to differentiate between mining and non-mining areas. We excluded areas less than 25,000 square meters. This left us with a map layer of large surface mines, including mountaintop removal mines (whether designated as such by any government agencies, or not), across the region.

This data set is useful not only for our Communities at Risk tool, but also for other analysis on the trends in surface mining in Central Appalachia over time. Using this map, we determined the current amount of land disturbance due to mining — basically any area that is barren due to active mining, recently idled or abandoned mines, or mines not yet reclaimed — has declined from 148,000 acres in 2008 to 89,000 acres in 2014.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly compare yearly production numbers to the number of acres disturbed to yield that production. Land within a surface mine is constantly being shifted, blown up, backfilled, and regraded. Basically, not all barren areas are actively producing coal at any given time. Many areas stay barren for years, while other areas of the mine are producing coal (despite legal requirements for contemporaneous reclamation).

The comparison we can make is that the amount of currently barren land is not falling as fast as production numbers. The extent of surface mined area (whether active, idled, or just unreclaimed) has declined about 40 percent, while production from Central Appalachian surface mines has declined 55 percent.

Essentially, we have more unreclaimed land in 2014, per ton of coal produced in 2014, than in previous years. This is likely due to a number of factors:

  • As thinner, deeper seams are mined, more land must be disturbed per ton of production;
  • Recently, mines have been idled, or even bond-forfeited due to market pressures; and
  • Reclamation is a slow and expensive process.

Mathew Louis-Rosenburg, a West Virginia resident, sums up the problem of only considering the EIA numbers without on-the-ground context:

“On the ground, we measure [mountaintop removal] in acres lost, in water contaminated, communities harmed. The steep decline in surface mine productivity means that a lot more land is being disturbed to get that smaller tonnage and idled mines still contaminate water at a similar rate to active ones. The battle here is far from over and stories like this just lead more and more resources and support to leave the region because people from elsewhere think that we have won already.”

It is beyond time for the Obama administration to take action to end destructive surface mining across Central Appalachia. We are hopeful that a strong Stream Protection Rule will go a long way toward protecting the streams and the people of the region. The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) could also go a long way in protecting communities from health impacts confirmed by mounting scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of success on either of these actions decreases every time misleading evidence suggests this problem has gone away. You can help prevent this by telling the Obama administration to end mountaintop removal and by keeping this conversation going among a national audience. We owe that to the people of Central Appalachia.

Turning down the heat: A collaborative effort to reduce energy bills

Friday, July 10th, 2015 - posted by rory

This piece was co-authored by Jen Weiss, a senior finance analyst at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing easily within reach for all income levels.

The North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing easily within reach for all income levels.

There’s no doubt about it. June was HOT.

While extreme temperatures can make outdoor activities unbearable, they can also send electric utility bills skyrocketing across most of North Carolina and place high demands on the state’s electric utility infrastructure.

As heating and cooling equipment are pushed to the max, the demands are made even more significant due to inefficiently insulated and poorly weatherized houses that lose cool air as quickly as it is generated. But the cost to weatherize a home can make energy efficiency improvements unaffordable — particularly for homeowners who are already burdened with basic housing costs that can outweigh their limited income.

With the aim of providing these homeowners with a solution that will reduce their energy bills and improve home comfort, a collaborative working group was recently been formed by leading energy advisors in the Southeast. Working with multiple stakeholders across the state, the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing within reach for all income levels.

The Challenge: High Energy Costs

High energy costs can be particularly challenging for lower income Americans. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average North Carolinian spends $3,714 annually on energy costs. With a median household income of $46,334, this equates to 8 percent of the average residents’ annual income. This is nearly three times the national average of 2.7 percent in 2012. In rural communities where median household income tends to be much lower, averaging $22,000, energy expenditures as a percentage of household income can be as much as 17 percent or higher.

This situation is only going to get worse as it is predicted that energy costs will continue to rise in coming years. Energy efficiency improvements for North Carolinians can alleviate the impact of current and future energy costs. Unfortunately, many homeowners cannot afford the upfront cost to weatherize their properties or purchase energy-efficient appliances that will reduce their energy bills. North Carolina residents of all income levels need access to streamlined and simple energy efficiency finance programs that can help make energy more affordable.

A Solution: Utility On-Bill Programs for Energy Efficiency Financing

Fortunately, proven models exist that expand access to financing for energy efficiency improvements for everyone, including people who may not qualify for loans under traditional underwriting criteria. Known as “on-bill” programs, these financing models provide a mechanism whereby the upfront cost of energy saving improvements and equipment is funded by the electric utility or a third-party financier, and ratepayers are able to pay down the cost through a monthly payment on their electric bill.

Depending on the structure of these programs and the initial source of capital used to finance the program, on-bill programs offer a number advantages to participants, particularly low-income consumers. Advantages include performance-based repayment schedules that align the monthly payback with projected savings achieved, creating a net savings for the consumer. In other words, even with the new charge added to their electric bill, the customer will still pay less on an annual basis than they would have without the improvements. Additionally, on-bill programs can be structured so that they are available to renters and businesses.

Partners in Efficiency: North Carolina’s Rural Electric Member Cooperatives

Together, North Carolina’s 26 electric member cooperatives (co-ops) serve roughly 937,000 members, provide electric service to rural areas in 93 of the state’s 100 counties, and account for 23.7 percent of total electric sales in the state. Many of the state’s electric co-ops and municipal utilities serve communities characterized by ratepayers with lower than average median household incomes and limited access to low-cost financing.

A 2014 study of census data found that these utilities serve the highest concentrations of low-income communities across the Southeast, making co-ops and municipal utilities key stakeholders and powerful allies in addressing this issue. Dedicated to improving the lives and communities of those they serve, many co-ops have developed or are exploring energy efficiency finance programs. It is the goal of the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group to support all of North Carolina’s electric co-ops who are interested in developing an on-bill program for their own members.

Benefits to North Carolina Residents

  • Expanded access to capital for ratepayers at all income levels including homeowners, renters and businesses.
  • Performance-based repayment schedules that align the monthly payback with energy savings.
  • Low- to no-cost opportunity to improve energy performance and home comfort.

Benefits to North Carolina Utilities

  • Reduced complaints from customer regarding high bills and problems paying electric bills.
  • Enhanced customer satisfaction.
  • Reduced need to build new generation facilities by reducing peak demand.
  • Helps to achieve energy efficiency and/or renewable energy goals

About the North Carolina On-Bill Finance Working Group

The North Carolina On-Bill Finance Working Group — a partnership of Appalachian Voices, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Finance Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance — has been formed to work with North Carolina co-ops and other community stakeholders to provide the education and support resources needed to establish on-bill programs and expand access to energy efficiency programs for residents across the state.

As the Working Group ramps up its efforts, we will be reaching out to electric co-ops, community partners and other stakeholders to identify the needs and challenges faced by co-ops, and to work toward solutions that facilitate the development of new on-bill programs throughout North Carolina. If you are interested in learning more about the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group or supporting our efforts, send an email to

EIA: Mountaintop removal coal production down

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 - posted by brian
A combination of market and regulatory forces has contributed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. Graphic from

A combination of market and regulatory forces has contributed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. Graphic from

The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) published a blog post this week showing that coal produced by mountaintop removal mining in Central Appalachia decreased by 62 percent between 2008 and 2014.

According to the agency, a combination of factors including abundant and cheap natural gas, growing use of renewables, flat electricity demand, and environmental regulations has contributed to the sharp decline.

It’s important to note that what the EIA defines as mountaintop removal is not the same as what folks in Appalachia call mountaintop removal.

Because the EIA doesn’t count a lot of large strip mines in the region, the total numbers here likely underestimate the number of mines threatening human health and the environment. For the same reason, production declines for mountaintop removal specifically may not be as steeps as the EIA states.

What is clear, though, is that both production and the total number of mountaintop removal mines is way down in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.

Our work is paying off, but we still have a long way to go. Mountaintop removal is still putting communities at risk. In fact, in many places, active mining operations are getting closer to communities.

Demand for Central Appalachian coal will continue to decline, making further progress inevitable. But we won’t end mountaintop removal by relying on the market alone. The Obama administration must take further action to protect Appalachia by issuing a strong Stream Protection Rule, which is due out this month.

The following is a statement from Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate Thom Kay:

It is incredibly important not to look at these numbers and conclude the problem is just going away. Production numbers don’t convey the extent of human health impacts. Mine location, blasting extent, and impacts to the environment are much more important indicators of damage done to communities.

Fewer mines is good news. But don’t expect us to celebrate. The EIA reports that last year there were over 30 mountaintop removal mines operating in Central Appalachia, producing more than 20 million tons of coal. Those numbers should be zero.

Allowing mountaintop removal mining to continue as residents demand new investments and support for economic alternatives will only burden communities searching for a better path forward.

Let the President know we need a strong rule that helps move Appalachia forward.

A time of transition: APCo’s latest Virginia generation plan

Monday, July 6th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Photo courtesy of Community Housing Partners / Solarize Blacksburg.

Customer involvement is essential as Appalachian Power navigates permitting and rate-setting for future clean energy projects in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Community Housing Partners / Solarize Blacksburg.

It’s like Christmas in July — for those of us who get excited about energy news, at least.

Last week, Virginia’s utilities released their long-term plans to meet electric demand. Here we unwrap that bright and shiny package and take a look at what mix of resources Appalachian Power Co. plans to pursue between now and 2029.

What would you expect APCo to include in its plan? It wouldn’t be a surprise to see huge investments in solar and wind; after all, clean power is growing rapidly in the commonwealth. For example, in the first three months of 2015, clean energy jobs picked up rapidly to the point that Virginia was ranked seventh in the country, counting biofuels and other clean transportation projects. Solarize initiatives and institutions are further fanning these flames, and this fire now appears to be reaching the utility level, too. With utility participation in this trend, there is a chance to realize serious health, economic and employment benefits.

And there is another important consideration in Virginia. Last year, the State Corporation Commission, which regulates Virginia electric utilities, directed APCo to look at ways to meet national carbon pollution reduction goals.

Now that APCo’s latest long-term plan is out, we have a window into how the company hopes to meet future demand. We can now ask how these options promote healthier communities, lower overall energy bills and create more sustainable clean energy jobs in the company’s service area, which includes much of western Virginia. And we can see how its plan interacts with new pollution standards.

Here are five points to help illuminate the plan: its purpose, the mix of sources, how energy efficiency is treated, the role of fossil fuels, and the scale of renewables.

1. APCo calls its primary option the “hybrid” plan. According to the plan summary: “While not the least-cost plan, the Hybrid Plan, when compared to other portfolios, attempts to balance cost, the potential risk of a volatile energy market.” That last phrase can help defend the options based on the fluctuations in natural gas prices and may refer to regulations, too.

2. Wind, solar and efficiency resources currently total just 1 percent of APCo’s total capacity (in megawatts). Today, coal represents 72 percent of APCo’s generation portfolio. Natural gas represents 14 percent. By 2029, wind, solar and efficiency will come to 22 percent under this approach, coal will fall to 52 percent and natural gas will grow to 23 percent.

3. But let’s look at energy efficiency. Currently, there are no APCo efficiency programs underway in Virginia. There is, however, a set of “demand-side management” programs that the commission approved to begin later this year. And the company does fund low-income weatherization. Still, its Hybrid Plan largely ignores the opportunity to expand energy efficiency, which under the plan accounts for just 1 percent of energy needs by 2029. The state goal endorsed by Governor Terry McAuliffe is 10 percent savings by 2020. Only by developing much more robust energy efficiency programs can APCo significantly invest in reducing customer bills, help create jobs in home energy assessment and retrofitting, and avoid the need to develop costlier sources.

4. Clinch River Power Plant units 1 and 2 are still on schedule to be converted to natural gas now and then retired before 2026, and unit 3 is close to being retired. Glen Lyn is now also retired. While the Hybrid Plan describes pursuing constructing 836 megawatts of combined-cycle natural gas units, it appears the company plans to build those plants out of state, limiting the growth of carbon emissions in Virginia, but leading to an increase in the carbon footprint of APCo’s Virginia customers.

5. Clean energy investments would grow significantly under APCo’s plan. Utility-scale solar will include a 10-megawatt project in 2016, with future projects bringing the total to 510 megawatts of solar by 2029. Onshore wind will include 150 megawatts of projects in 2016, with future projects bringing the total to 1,350 megawatts of wind by 2029. APCo assumes its customers will add a total of 25 megawatts of distributed solar generation (rooftop panels) by 2029. Since APCo is factoring that distributed solar into its plans, it should assist customers with incentives to go solar and begin to fairly value those customers’ contributions to a more secure and cleaner energy system.

While APCo representatives stress that the resource plan document is merely a snapshot in time and subject to changes and evolution, it’s worth engaging with the utility about what this plan says about its priorities.

Since APCo’s choices figure into Virginia’s ultimate compliance with the Clean Power Plan, it’s critical that the utility consider how to maximize benefits for customers as it works to meet emissions targets. Over the next 15 years, APCo must plan to reduce its total annual carbon pollution, not just slow its growth. The goals for greenhouse gas reductions are within reach, and our energy choices send signals that echo louder than ever across the Southeast.

As APCo navigates permitting and rate-setting processes for its vision of future clean energy projects, customer involvement will be essential. We’ll need to be ready to challenge any and all barriers to smart renewable energy investments that diversify local energy sources, create jobs in the clean energy sector and result in healthier air in APCo’s service region.