Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

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.

Ginseng’s growing role in the new Appalachian economy

Monday, July 20th, 2015 - posted by Adam
The cultivation of ginseng, a medicinal plant native to Appalachia,

The cultivation of ginseng, a medicinal plant native to Appalachia, could provide a boost for local economies.

Most people who live in or come to visit the mountains know that just being here, surrounded by lush green hills and clear, fast-flowing rivers, can have a healing effect on the soul.

But not as many people know that many of the plants that make the mountains’ forest floor so lush and green have real medicinal properties and, when used properly, can help treat ailments ranging from sore throats to cancer.

Growing and marketing those wild medicinal plants and herbs was the subject of a recent workshop offered by the group Appalachian Communities Encouraging Economic Diversification (AppalCEED) in Norton, Va. Based in the heart of Virginia’s coal country, AppalCEED works to promote sustainable ways to diversify the local economy. The workshop focused on helping local landowners, farmers and gardeners gain the information they need to break into this innovative and sustainable market.

Turnout to the workshop was a testament to the possibilities and enthusiasm for new ideas to boost local economies. The room was overflowing with interested people who came from as far away as Williamson, W.Va. — an hour-and-a-half drive.

Part of the draw was the expert panel that AppalCEED assembled for the workshop, which included three experts on the cultivation of wild and medicinal plants and herbs. Scott Persons, Jeanine Davis and David Grimsley are each highly regarded as “gurus” in their niche field of study, and each gave detailed presentations on their respective areas of expertise. Persons and Davis have co-authored a book together that is held as The authoritative text on growing and marketing the plants.

Another big draw is the fact that wild ginseng, perhaps the best known of Appalachian wild medicinal plants, fetches anywhere from $700 to $1,200 per dried pound. While it’s possible to cultivate ginseng on a commercial scale in large fields, the resulting crop is deemed to be of lower quality than its wild-grown counterparts.

Persons has spent his career developing a technique known as “wild simulated” cultivation, where ginseng plants are deliberately planted in small patches in woodlands. This allows for resources and energy to be concentrated, streamlining the process. He’s also developed techniques that can produce a product identical to that of ginseng that would pop up naturally in the wild.

While Scott’s presentation was exclusively on ginseng, Davis and Grimsley focused their talks on other plants, such as goldenseal, black cohosh and even some medicinal plants native to China. All three presenters stress how cultivating these plants in our woodlots and gardens can help to preserve threatened wild stock from being over harvested.

They also discussed strategies for cultivators to supplement their income through strategic marketing. Grimsley in particular is working to develop co-op-like arrangements among consortiums of growers in Floyd County, Va., to reduce production costs and increase collective selling power.

At the end of the day, we’re still talking about farming, even if it’s on a small scale. And while farming these plants won’t make anyone a millionaire overnight, the extra income can certainly help. Anything helps these days.

The coal bust has created some harsh economic realities here in Central Appalachia. The implications of our reliance on one major industry for a century are finally becoming unmistakably clear. No one industry or sector can or should replace coal as it fades into history. We could do well to take a lesson from Appalachia’s forests: there’s strength and healing in diversity.

Virginians’ electric bills could shrink under Clean Power Plan

Monday, July 20th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Appalachian Voices' members deliver a petition supporting a strong Clean Power Plan to the office of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Appalachian Voices’ members deliver a petition supporting a strong Clean Power Plan to the office of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. A new report from Public Citizen underscores the economic benefits of investing in energy efficiency to comply with the plan.

A new report from Public Citizen’s Climate Program details how the EPA’s soon-to-be finalized standards on carbon pollution could lower Virginians’ power bills.

The strategy for achieving this benefit is simple: invest in cost-effective energy efficiency programs first.

You may be wondering why yet another document is necessary to make the obvious case for improving energy efficiency. After all, Virginia already has a state goal of reducing retail electricity 10 percent by 2020.

But Public Citizen’s report is so important now — just a few weeks ahead of the final Clean Power Plan’s release — because the EPA’s detractors continue to argue that the plan will be very costly for Virginians.

Ever since the EPA announced the proposal last summer, misconceptions and red herring arguments have circulated, some stranger and more exaggerated than others. At a committee meeting in Richmond, for example, an opponent of the plan made the mind-boggling claim that more premature deaths will potentially result from the standards than would be prevented.

Beyond baseless arguments about negative health impacts, opponents of the Clean Power Plan weave a tangled web when they attack the standards on the basis of rising energy costs.

As the report points out, rates are not what consumer advocates should be most concerned with in this case. Customers’ utility costs are determined by the price they pay per megawatt hour and their usage. According to the report, Virginians can expect to see electricity bills go down on average about $147 annually.

Before anyone decides how to spend that extra $147, note that that figure is likely conservative, and monthly savings for customers may be greater for a couple of reasons. First, that number was arrived at using the EPA’s estimates of what it costs to run programs that save energy, and the EPA indicates that those estimates are 60 to 100 percent higher than they should be given more recent studies that show energy efficiency can be done for much less.

Second, it doesn’t consider the cost of energy efficiency gains coming down as economies of scale are reached, treating efficiency instead as a tree from which fruit gets harder to collect once the low-hanging ones are already picked. So it is quite possible that customers will save much more through participating in efficiency programs, eliminating the need or desire by utilities to construct new natural gas and nuclear facilities.

An introductory summary as well as the full Public Citizen report are online. This Media Matters piece from last year breaks down the myths and the facts about the Clean Power Plan, which will be finalized next month.

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Eliminating poverty housing with efficient and alternative energy use

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015 - posted by eliza
A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity lays a timber frame on their first house, which was built with energy efficiency and alternative energy to lessen the burden of utility bills on people living in poverty.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity lays a timber frame on their first house, which was built with energy efficiency and alternative energy to lessen the burden of utility bills on people living in poverty. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

When North Carolina’s Ashe County Habitat for Humanity formed five years ago, seven people, some who live off the grid, came together to study how to best build a home.

They made a commitment not only to affordability, but also to energy savings, and the board voted to build all Ashe County Habitat houses to maximize efficiency and place an emphasis on alternative energy.

“The benefits of energy efficiency fell into the basic requirements of the Habitat ministry,” says Gerry Tygielski, construction chairman for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity, which is founded on a “focus to eliminate poverty housing.”

To get a Habitat house, one must have an inherent need, be fiscally responsible, take part in the building process and take courses on house maintenance. The motive of Ashe County Habitat is to not only lower the cost of the mortgage, but also the cost of living in the house. Almost one in seven families in Ashe County live below the poverty line, according to the most recent census data.

“This past winter, we heard of some people having heating bills of $500 a month,” Tygielski says. “When you’re renting for another $500, that can bankrupt some people.”

The first Ashe Habitat house is a net-zero building, meaning that the energy produced by alternative energy on the house is equal to the energy used in the house. The average cost of heating and powering the house is $50 each month, says Tygielski. The second Ashe County Habitat house is currently underway and will be near, but not quite, zero net energy, due to budget constraints, but Tygielski says that they will be close since the price of solar has gone down.

The house is built with insulated concrete form, a novel construction material that uses what we commonly know as styrofoam, and has a higher insulation and fire rating than conventionally built homes with timber, insulation and drywall. It eliminates air leaks, which, on average, amounts to the air that escapes through an open window, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Insulated concrete foam is not widely used, but it is becoming more popular for constructing basements.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity set foam blocks into place. Concrete will be poured over the blocks to create an airtight wall.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity set foam blocks into place. Concrete will be poured over the blocks to create an airtight wall. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

High-quality storm windows also reduce air leakage, a metal roof reduces the amount of energy absorbed in the attic and solar panels provide a renewable energy source. But arguably the most efficient aspect of the house is the heating system, a geothermal heat pump. A six-foot trench, a pond or a well accesses the water table at Earth’s year-round internal temperature of 55 degrees. A compressor extracts heat from the water to heat air and pump it into the house. A conventional heat pump extracts heat from the air outdoors down to five degrees.

In northwestern North Carolina’s High Country, harsh winters are commonplace and days with temperatures below five degrees are increasing.

Conventional electric heat pumps are three times more efficient than a gas or oil furnace, Tygielski says. A geothermal heat pump is three times more efficient than an electric pump, reducing a $300-400 heating bill to $100.

“There is a premium you pay for having that opportunity, but it pays for itself so quickly that it’s a good investment,” he says. Their initial estimate says that the extra costs of making the first Ashe County Habitat house will be paid back in 10 years through lower utility bills, mainly due to greatly reduced heating costs.

This concept has a similar ring to on-bill financing, a utility-led program that provides loans for energy efficiency upgrades. The repayments, made on a homeowner’s utility bill, are structured so that they are equal to or less than the amount of energy savings resulting from the upgrades.

John Parker, an electrician who founded Parker Electric, donated his time to install solar panels on both Ashe County Habitat for Humanity's houses.

John Parker, an electrician who founded Parker Electric, donated his time to install solar panels on both Ashe County Habitat for Humanity’s houses. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

Tygielski recognizes that there is a lack of public understanding about the basics of energy efficiency and that something can be done about high heating bills. Not to mention “people are busy working themselves to death to pay the bills,” he says. “They’re not in the position to be investing in home improvements.” He says an on-bill financing program gives people a chance to do something they probably would never be able to do otherwise.

In the last two years at least six people in Ashe County have been referred to Tygielski that cannot afford their utility bills. His response is to direct them to a Habitat for Humanity house application. Within a year, he may also be able to direct people to apply for an on-bill finance program offered by Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp, an electric co-op that serves the High Country.

The electric cooperative is currently looking into on-bill finance program designs. If you are a member, please sign our letter of support to Blue Ridge Electric!

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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 NCOnBill@seealliance.org.

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.

Supreme Court delivers blow to EPA’s mercury rule

Monday, June 29th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo: ©hicagoenergy, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo: Creative Commons/Flickr

In a major decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Environmental Protection Agency did not properly consider costs when it created a rule to limit mercury emissions from power plants.

Finalized in 2012, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard is one of the Obama administration’s most significant efforts to combat harmful air pollution and protect public health. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can bypass the body’s placental and blood-brain barriers, threatening cognitive development and the nervous system.

The rule, which also targets pollutants such as arsenic, chromium and hydrochloric acid gas is expected to prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks each year.

While difficult to quantify, the rule’s health benefits would well exceed the estimated $9.6 billion cost in annual compliance costs. In fact, a formal analysis found the quantifiable benefits of the rule could reach $80 billion each year — as much as $9 for every dollar spent.

Still, industry groups and several states argue the EPA did not adequately consider costs when determining whether regulating mercury under the Clean Air Act is “appropriate and necessary.”

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the EPA, leading the challengers to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. Today’s 5-4 ruling remands the case back to the D.C. Circuit Court, which could order the EPA to reconsider the costs of compliance or to craft a new plan to regulate mercury altogether.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Campaign Director Kate Rooth:

Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a disappointing setback; for far too long the costs of unregulated pollution to human health and the environment have not been adequately weighed in determining our energy future. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standard is a critical component of the Obama administration’s effort to curb pollution from power plants. This rule has already resulted in many of the oldest and dirtiest coal plants being retired or updated, and it is critical that these safeguards remain in place in order to protect communities and future generations from mercury and other toxic air pollution.

The Supreme Court decision still provides a clear path forward for the EPA to limit dangerous mercury and other toxic pollutants in our air. We are confident that the agency will be able to respond to the court’s ruling by demonstrating that the health costs of continued power plant pollution greatly outweigh the costs of the rule itself.

Appalachian legislators give POWER+ the cold shoulder

Friday, June 26th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

TAKE ACTION: Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

Virginia’s coal-bearing counties would directly benefit from the adoption of the POWER+ plan, a proposal in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget that would direct more than a billion dollars to Central Appalachia.

But the U.S. House budget cuts Virginia entirely out of the forward-thinking Abandoned Mined Lands funding reforms that were spelled out in the POWER+ Plan. That component of the plan would send $30 million directly to the Virginia coalfields for economic development and put laid-off miners back to work cleaning up the messes left by coal companies.

Last week, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee passed a budget bill the leaves out any mention of POWER+.

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

For more background, we recommend this piece by Naveena Sadasivam for InsideClimate News, which details the curious quiet around POWER+ and how the plan has been pulled into the partisan bickering that’s embroiled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and the 2016 budget process as a whole.

Under the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, sites that pose a threat to safety are prioritized over sites that offer a potential economic benefit if cleaned up. While this program has reduced potential hazards in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia and the U.S., it has done little to positively impact local economies.

The POWER+ Plan, however, calls for funds to be used for projects that not only improve the environment and reduce hazards, but also create an economic benefit for local economies.

There’s still time for both House and Senate to include the meaningful funding proposals outlined in POWER+. But in order for that to happen we need to make sure that Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, hear the clear message from you to make sure Appalachia gets this much needed funding!

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

Appalachian Regional Commission receives citizen input

Thursday, June 18th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Michael Shrader

The geographic area covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The geographic area covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

On June 4, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) held one of its five 2016-2020 Strategic Plan Listening Sessions in Morehead, Ky., to gather ideas from Appalachian citizens that will inform the commission’s plan for improving economic opportunities in communities across the region.

The Morehead Conference Center was full of forward-thinking minds from Kentucky and surrounding states who explained opportunities and barriers they see in their own communities. Many common themes emerged related to tourism, and adventure tourism in particular. Some attendants cited the need to cultivate and support family farms to create a local and sustainable Appalachian food system. Others spotlighted the opportunity for renewable energy generation in their communities.

The Obama administration’s POWER+ plan was mentioned several times as an opportunity that must be capitalized on. POWER+ invests in Appalachian workers and jobs through unique programs, many of which bear semblance to those discussed in Morehead. Appalachian Voices’ economic diversification campaign is currently building support for this proposal in Southwest Virginia.

Some attendees had a difficult time differentiating between opportunities and barriers to progress in their communities. Where some saw a vast, employable and idle workforce, others saw a lack of educational opportunities and substance abuse posing serious barriers to workforce development. Concrete barriers to development include a lack of local infrastructure such as highways, water systems and, especially, broadband Internet connectivity.

The massive amount of land owned by absentee corporations and extractive industries presents a unique challenge to regional development throughout most of central Appalachia and was mentioned several times throughout the session. Many residents cited less concrete barriers to progress such as a lack of hope and progressive leadership, and the enduring negative stereotypes associated with the region. Finally, there were many who stressed the need for the restoration of the landscape after mining and the resources to create jobs to do so.

Attendees outlined what they saw as ARC’s role in taking advantage of the opportunities and breaking down the barriers for development in their communities. The resounding consensus was a need to access capital and workforce development resources. In addition, attendees felt that ARC needed to work harder to make sure that groups in Appalachia could gain easier access to resources outside of ARC. Some felt that we needed to find ways to craft new language to talk about our problems and solutions. Others cited the need to address to vast health and wellness issues in the region.

Ultimately, many agreed that ARC, as a federal-state partnership, needs to broker change in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Appalachia. One attendee remarked that ARC must facilitate the conversation to look beyond Appalachia to other struggling regions across the nation to solve systemic problems and implement a new ‘true cost’ economic model.

The listening session brought a wide range of individuals and regional stakeholders together to share their unique perspectives. But some still felt that a representative range of people had not been able to participate. In fact, with the all-day session held on a Wednesday, many in attendance argued that it was impossible for the majority of working people to provide input, and stressed need for better stakeholder involvement and opportunities for public involvement.

Another challenge facing coal: Cleaning up

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015 - posted by brian
As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about post-mine reclamation liabilities to state officials.

As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about companies’ ability to pay for post-mine reclamation.

After bankruptcies, legal fees, fines, plummeting share prices and years without a profit in sight, another aspect of the financial perils U.S. coal companies face is coming into full view.

Recently, regulators worried about the ability of coal companies to pay for post-mine reclamation have begun scrutinizing a practice known as “self-bonding,” which allows a company to insure the cost of restoring the land after mining without putting up collateral, provided it meets certain financial criteria.

Reuters reported last week that Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, is under the microscope and may be violating federal bonding regulations under the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

Peabody, which reported a $787 million loss in 2014, had roughly $1.38 billion in clean-up liabilities insured by self-bonding at the end of March, according to the report. In fact, as its finances deteriorate, analysts say Peabody is warping the language of the law and pointing to the relative strength of its subsidiaries’ balance sheets to continue meeting self-bonding requirements.

Peabody is not alone. Arch Coal, which Reuters found has also failed the financial test to meet self-bonding requirements, is restructuring its multibillion-dollar debt. The company ended 2014 with $418 million in cleanup liabilities and hasn’t turned a profit since 2011.

On May 29, Alpha Natural Resources received word from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that it is no longer eligible to self-bond in the state. The company now has less than 90 days to put up $411 million in anticipated mine cleanup costs. The nation’s second-largest producer by sales, Alpha told investors earlier this year that it had $640.5 million in reclamation liabilities at its mines in Appalachia and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Watching as even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal bonding program are voicing urgent concerns to state officials.

In April, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement sent a letter to West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection urging that the state conduct a fuller analysis of future risks — not just rely on historic data — to calculate reclamation costs.

“Given the precarious financial situation” of companies operating in West Virginia, the letter states, regulators should closely examine the risk of failure for sites with markedly more expensive liabilities such as pollution treatment facilities.

From where we’re standing, it’s tough to see how the situation could improve. Taken together, the country’s four largest coal companies — Peabody, Alpha, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy — have about $2.7 billion in anticipated reclamation costs covered by self bonding. Bloomberg News reported in March that nearly three quarters of Central Appalachian coal is mined at a loss.

As the problem grows, regulators and advocates for reform face their own predicament. Stricter self-bonding standards and enforcement push cash-strapped companies closer to bankruptcy. But inaction could leave taxpayers to pick up the bill if companies with unreclaimed mines eventually crumble.

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