Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

Action needed: Va. General Assembly considers pipeline policy fixes

Thursday, February 4th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Virginians expressed their opposition to proposed natural gas pipelines in front of the Capitol Building in January.

Virginians expressed their opposition to proposed natural gas pipelines in front of the Capitol Building in January.

Late last month, we learned that the U.S. Forest Service rejected the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route. This development significantly checks the lickety-split pace of the project.

If that renews your desire to take action, there are opportunities channel that feeling into these important legislative fights in the General Assembly.

Lobby days in Richmond displayed pipeline opposition — now, committees coming up

As the chorus of Virginians voicing opposition to fracked gas pipelines in our region grows and becomes more diverse, we took our movement to the General Assembly for a major day of action to educate legislators about our agenda to safeguard land and water. On Tuesday, Jan. 19, participants from across Virginia came to Richmond and held dozens of meetings with state delegates and senators. Addressing attendees the morning of the event, State Senator John Edwards made it clear that he stands with Virginians who are concerned about the risks of the dirty pipeline proposals.

Citizen lobbyists covered issues including the landowners’ right to deny pipeline companies permission to enter their land to conduct invasive surveys (SB 614 and HB 1118) and the importance of requiring rigorous site-specific sediment and erosion control plans to protect streams and ensuring unrestricted public access to such plans (SB 726). Now these bills have been scheduled for upcoming committee meetings, so here are directions on informing your legislators:

SB 726 in Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 4

SB 726 would fix a serious problem with how Virginia limits erosion and sediment pollution from utility company construction projects, including pipelines. The status quo system would allow the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline to avoid proper regulation through a loophole. Area legislators in the relevant committee include senators Emmett Hanger and Mark Obenshain.

Tell your senator the current system is wrong — and here are some reasons why: it allows utility companies to avoid proper government agency oversight; it exempts utility companies from requirements that apply to all other construction projects; it excludes the public and local governments from involvement; and it greatly increases the threat of damage to the environment and property due to the extensive and complicated nature of these projects.

Virginia State Senator John Edwards speaks with citizens about pipeline legislation.

Virginia State Senator John Edwards speaks with citizens about pipeline legislation.

Urge your legislator to restore proper government oversight of these developments and revoke the free pass that companies now have to pollute Virginia waterways. Use the blue tab at the top of the General Assembly’s website to look up who represents you and find contact information for his or her office.

If you can make it, we encourage you to attend the committee at the General Assembly in Senate Room B on Thursday afternoon starting at or around 2 p.m. to impress the importance of these decisions upon our legislators in person.

Help Win Repeal of the “Survey Without Permission” Statute — Bills Up Soon in Commerce Committee

On Feb. 8 and 9, respectively, committees will take up SB 614 and HB 1118 related to companies’ ability to survey without landowner permission. You can contact your legislation in support of these measures by going to the General Assembly’s website and clicking the blue bar up top to find out who represents you and how to email or call their offices.

As background, HB 1118 and SB 614 are House and Senate versions of a bill to repeal VA 56-49.01, which allows Dominion to force surveys on unwilling property owners. That means that under Virginia law there is really no legal way for property owners to unequivocally demonstrate opposition to a gas pipelines, no matter the size, going through their property.

Be sure to contact your legislators before committees deal with these bills so that your comments will be most effective: the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee will discuss SB 614 Monday, Feb. 8, starting at approximately 2 p.m. The House Subcommittee on Energy will discuss HB 1118 on Tuesday, Feb. 9, starting at approximately 4 p.m. Again, feel free to attend, and contact hannah [at] appvoices [dot] org if you have questions about how to participate in these committees’ decisions.

What else does recent news tell us about these risky pipelines?

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) letter to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (that is, Dominion Resources) states that alternative routes cannot cut through “highly sensitive resources … of such irreplaceable character that minimization and compensation measures may not be adequate or appropriate and should be avoided.” The pipeline company has not, in the USFS’s view, demonstrated “why the project cannot reasonably be accommodated off National Forest Service (NFS) lands.”

If Dominion tries to stick with the original route, it will have to say why it thinks the pipeline has to be built on USFS lands. The company could propose a new route, impacting a different set of landowners and their properties, or it may have to go back to the drawing board with a new application. -We hope Dominion will turn in an entirely different direction, as this project, like the other pipelines proposed in Virginia, is unneeded, hazardous and misguided.

Communities in our region have been on the receiving end of the fracking boom. A major build-out of this kind of infrastructure will only worsen the impacts of fracking in those communities while locking us into decades of dependence on dirty energy. At the same time it defers our collective chance to harness the cleanest, most-sustainable energy sources — which happen to be a great deal for customers too.

Our work seems to be provoking a reaction. Dominion recently went into high-gear in its public relations. Spokesman Jim Norvelle said last week that gas-fired power plants are widely viewed as essential to meeting the goals of the Clean Power plan. To anyone who understands the economic opportunity presented by the EPA’s carbon pollution standards, or for those who have been reading recent reports describing the benefits of prioritizing renewable solar power, wind power and energy efficiency in Virginia, that probably sounds ludicrous. Whatever the polluters say or do next, and whenever there’s a chance to take action, we’ll be keeping you in the loop.

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Do bankrupt coal company executives really deserve bonuses?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 - posted by brian

Debt-ridden companies are slashing worker benefits, struggling to clean up pollution — and handing out bonuses.

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Early Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr.

Before we explore that question, I’ll admit, the immoral logic of corporate compensation used to justify gigantic executive bonuses has always mystified me. I’m not highly educated on the matter, nor am I impartial.

Sure, I’d be willing to entertain an answer in the affirmative. But in the case of Alpha Natural Resources, which is swimming in debt and trying to navigate its way out of bankruptcy, it really seems resources could be better spent elsewhere. Paying taxes, for example. Communities in Appalachia could put millions of dollars owed by Alpha to good use.

But, no, they want their bonuses. So let’s hear them out.

Back in December, lawyers for Alpha asked the U.S. bankruptcy court to approve an “Incentive Plan for Certain Key Insider Employees,” a fancy way of saying $12 million for 15 top executives. Their argument is pretty simple — bankruptcy stinks and high-level employees may decide to cut their losses. The obvious solution: make it seem like they’re not losing — at all costs.

According to Alpha’s court filing, bonuses will go to executives “who are vital to the [the company’s] successful restructuring and the maximization of value for the benefit of all parties in interest.” OK, I can sort of see how this becomes logical for a company in bankruptcy.

Alpha has been struggling for years, though, and these bonuses actually exceed the payouts executives received in years past, even as the company barreled toward bankruptcy. The last time Alpha recorded a profit was in 2011. In the past five years, the company’s stock fell from $65 a share to around 35 cents.

Over the same period, it laid off 4,000 employees and shut down dozens of mines, mostly affecting communities in Central Appalachia where the company operates. Just yesterday, Alpha announced plans to close 10 mining complexes and lay off 886 coal miners and other personnel in southern West Virginia.

But in 2015, the year that Alpha declared bankruptcy with billions of dollars in debt, the maximum bonus pool for top staff was $8.4 million, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. If only Alpha’s balance sheet looked like its executives’ bank accounts.

It’s becoming difficult to give Alpha the benefit of the doubt. We don’t even know the names and positions of these supposedly high-performers keeping the company on course. And it looks like we never will.

Alpha’s lawyers argued that disclosing the executives’ identities, salaries and bonuses “may facilitate the hiring” of those executives away from Alpha “by competing businesses and, therefore, increase the likelihood that the Debtors will lose the valuable services of the [executives].”

Now it’s too hard to fake. Witnessing the irresponsibility and one-sidedness of the major coal bankruptcies in Appalachia and their aftershocks goes to show who has a voice and whose voices the system values.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee's scathing objection to Alpha's bonus plan.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee’s scathing objection to Alpha’s bonus plan.

Last year, Patriot Coal — while in its second bankruptcy — hatched a plan to pay a portion of its legal fees with millions of dollars earmarked for workers’ health care. There is growing concern nationwide that bankrupt coal companies, a group that now includes Arch Coal, won’t be able to afford to clean up their mines. And right now, Alpha is trying to revoke medical and life insurance benefits from retired miners and their spouses to save around $3 million a year.

The U.S. Trustee, a watchdog division of the U.S. Department of Justice, summarized the vast disconnect between what is right and what Alpha wants in its objection to the bonuses:

Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time incurring more than $1.3 Billion in losses for 2015. Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time seeking to cut off the health and life insurance benefits to some 1,200 rank-and-file retirees because it claims it desperately needs to save $3 Million a year. Alpha seeks this relief after demonstrating to this Court that it is so hopelessly insolvent that its shareholders have no chance of seeing any return on their investments into the companies.

Makes sense so far. Go on …

According to Alpha, these executives need these bonuses as an incentive to do the very jobs they were hired to do, that they are already highly compensated for with generous salaries, and which their fiduciary duties already compel them to do. Such bonuses cannot be justified under the facts and circumstances of this case.

Another common argument is based purely on the merits of the bonuses. How can it be possible that the same handsomely compensated executives who took home bonuses while steering Alpha into bankruptcy get sizable bonuses to help Alpha exit bankruptcy? Well, as lawyers for the United Mine Workers of America argue in their objection, the bonus plan was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it.”

Until recently, I never thought of “bankruptcy” and “bonanza” as being synonymous. Maybe rather than being mystified I’m just mad, and I can’t claim anything close to the level of outrage or broken trust thousands of Appalachian families can. But, like U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennekens said last week as he OKed Alpha’s bonus plan, “Cash is king.”

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Our hope for the year ahead

Friday, January 22nd, 2016 - posted by tom

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

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Appalachian Voices is beginning 2016 stronger than ever and positioned to advance a positive future for the region we all love. Standing with citizens from across Appalachia and from all walks of life, we are hard at work and have high hopes for the year ahead.

Since we launched our economic diversification program and opened an office in Southwest Virginia early last year, the conversation about how to hasten a just economic transition in Appalachia has only grown. A forward-thinking plan to expand funding for economic development initiatives is on the table. But for those initiatives to succeed, both political parties must make supporting investments to strengthen Appalachia’s economy a priority.

Beyond advocating for federal investment in workforce training, infrastructure and land restoration, Appalachian Voices is enlisting experts to develop plans for clean energy and other economic development opportunities in the coal-bearing region, including utilization of abandoned mine sites. By adding technical and policy resources where they are they needed most, we’ll further efforts to build the pillars of a healthier, more resilient regional economy.

Of course, the foundation for that renewed economy must be a healthy environment. And without science-based environmental protections that are fully enforced, we fear the movement to diversify the region’s economy will fall short. This year, the last of Obama’s presidency, is our best chance to see a long-awaited rule finalized to protect Appalachian streams from mining waste.

As we push for an effective Stream Protection Rule, we will remain focused on holding polluters accountable. Pursuing the same strategies that led to our landmark victory over Frasure Creek Mining in Kentucky late last year, we’ll sue coal companies that violate clean water laws, and we’ll put grassroots pressure on regulators to step up enforcement of existing protections.

Our goals demand that we stay deeply involved in action at the state level, where we are combatting the continued threats of fossil fuels. In Virginia, the movement to move beyond dirty energy is opposing proposed multi-billion dollar investments in huge pipelines that would lock the Southeast into an increased dependence on natural gas and exacerbate the impacts of fracking. In North Carolina, residents are coming together to fight the threat of fracking and address the ongoing crisis of coal ash pollution.

Appalachian Voices is committed to these important battles. We’re also increasingly focused on securing investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy by promoting policies and technologies that can reduce harmful pollution and create thousands of jobs. As a result of our efforts, rural electric cooperatives in both North Carolina and Tennessee on are the verge of developing cost-saving energy efficiency programs for their members.

We’re sure to encounter obstacles. Successful renewable energy policies in North Carolina will again face attacks by policymakers. Our electric utilities will tout natural gas and attempt to undermine consumer access to cleaner energy options. The familiar partisan battles over coal and climate change will intensify as election season nears. And states, some more reluctantly than others, will take steps toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan. But we know the landmark climate rule will help states expand clean energy and cut pollution — if only they embrace its potential.

The year is just getting started. But the stage is set for 2016 to be a historic year for clean energy, climate action and efforts to diversify economies that have long depended on the coal industry. With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Please consider joining to donating to support Appalachian Voices today.

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The 2016 General Assembly session begins in Virginia

Thursday, January 21st, 2016 - posted by hannah
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Clean energy is a major area for potential policy changes during this year’s General Assembly session. Here is a roundup of energy bills to watch.

Clean energy is a major area for potential policy changes during this year’s General Assembly session.

Governor Terry McAuliffe touched on the subject in his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, pledging to “stimulate economic growth by expanding our use of renewable energy” and touting recent commitments that amount to a 100-fold increase in solar generated in the state.

Still, some of the most exciting measures that legislators are considering face significant challenges. Here is a roundup of energy bills to watch.

Solar Power Solutions

Legislators who are allied with our clean energy agenda admit there are barriers to making meaningful change during this session. In a radio interview last week, Senator Creigh Deeds invoked lyrics from a familiar Talking Heads song to describe the partisan divide: “Same as it ever was.” This sentiment pointedly captures utility companies’ opposition to basic provisions governing customer freedom to select clean energy options and others aimed at reducing wasted energy in Virginia.

Last month, we discussed the vital need to legally clarify that it is legal in Virginia for an electricity customer to enter into an agreement to purchase power from a company than can install a renewable energy generating system on their property. Power Purchase Agreements can encourage arrangements that involve no upfront cost for the customer, present attractive cost-saving opportunities for schools and churches, and avoid more costly forms of generation while relieving grid congestion, among other benefits to the whole customer base. SB 139, SB 140, SB 148, HB 618 and a bill currently being finalized by Delegate Randy Minchew entitled the Renewable Energy Provisions Bill will all be considered as ways to promote solar affordably in Virginia.

Energy Efficiency Policy Reform

Year after year, one roadblock that has kept Virginia from improving energy efficiency is the fact that state regulators evaluate proposed energy efficiency programs using a flawed process. This method practically guarantees that the most thorough demand management measures, such as home and business assessments, will be denied. This results in fewer cost-saving options for customers and perpetuates a system that makes rewards utilities for pursuing more expensive ways to meet demand.

A bill sponsored by Delegate Lee Ware, HB 352, could reform these tests to give robust energy efficiency programs a better chance of being approved by the State Corporation Commission. HB 1053 and SB 395 are companion bills that are intended to address another dimension of this problem: in theory, electric utilities that operate energy efficiency programs are allowed to request recovery of the revenue that they have lost from the energy saved, that is, the energy the utility would have sold to customers. But regulators tend to be apprehensive about approving programs that could result in such future costs to ratepayers, and they can turn down programs based on that consideration. Other states have dealt with this by rewarding utilities a lesser dollar figure for the energy they save by running such programs — this a reform that the McAuliffe administration supports and one that should get traction this year.

Who’s Grandstanding Against the Clean Power Plan this Year?

Three bills introduced this year would impede Virginia’s compliance with federal carbon pollution standards and interfere with our path toward a clean energy future. HB 2, SB 21 and SB 482 all would require the General Assembly’s approval of the compliance plan prepared by the state Department of Environmental Quality. This approach is being advocated by the likes of the industry-friendly American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which recently lost American Electric Power as a member, apparently because of this very issue.

Governor McAuliffe expressed his intention to veto such legislation should both houses approve it, which is good news for the state’s economic and clean energy outlook. Even a consulting firm that Virginia’s utilities often look to has shown that the Clean Power Plan will reduce customer bills and grow clean energy, a sector that created $3.9 billion in revenue in Virginia in 2014.

Ensuring a Strong, Beneficial Clean Power Plan with the Virginia Coastal Protection Act

HB 351-SB 571 is the bipartisan Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act, which would authorize our state to join a carbon trading program with other states, providing more than $250 million in the first year through the auction of emission allowances. These funds would be divided to combat the effects of worsening sea-level rise, support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, and assist with economic development in Southwest Virginia.

Take a moment to fill your legislators in on the energy issues that matter to you most. Visit the General Assembly’s website and pull down the blue tab from the top of the page to look up who represents you, find email addresses for your state delegate and senator, search bills introduced this session and familiarize yourself with the civic process that determines Virginia’s energy policy. Then buckle up for a fast two-month-long General Assembly session!

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What to expect for Virginia’s energy policy in 2016

Friday, December 18th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Ahead of the 2016 General Assembly session, Virginians gathered in Richmond to call for greater commitments by their leaders to address climate change and advance renewable energy.

Ahead of the 2016 General Assembly session, Virginians gathered in Richmond to call for greater commitments by their leaders to address climate change and advance renewable energy.

Around this time of year, we usually offer a Virginia legislative preview, looking ahead at the issues that will arise in the upcoming session of the General Assembly. Recent events relate to some of those possible policy changes, thickening the plot and making this session one worth watching and engaging in — especially for customers of Appalachian Power Company.

Legislation Attacks the Clean Power Plan, Again

With the McAuliffe administration in the lead, Virginia is now drafting a plan to comply with its carbon pollution reduction target as set by the federal Clean Power Plan. Many central elements of the state plan remain in question, including whether reductions will be based on the rate of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy generated, or on the total mass of emissions, as well as whether Virginia will trade emissions with other states.

On Tuesday in Richmond, an open meeting of an official group of Clean Power Plan stakeholders was held in the Department of Environmental Quality office. While public comment is not taken in these meetings, they are a key opportunity to follow the process and let decision-makers know how important their work is to you, so stay tuned for future meetings.

Even as these policy experts, advocates, and business and utility representatives invest time and energy into constructively discussing Virginia’s carbon-reduction plan, there are those who are focused on stymieing this effort. Recently proposed legislation would require General Assembly approval of our state Clean Power Plan. The bill (HB2) would hold up our progress and could result in the federal government telling Virginia how to meet its carbon-reduction targets, removing the flexibility that many parties believe makes these emissions reductions economically doable.

As the players at the table shape state plans, it is resulting in some interesting shifts in political activity.

AEP Drops ALEC

American Electric Power, the parent company of Virginia’s second-largest utility, Appalachian Power Company, announced last week that it is ending its relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. A widely known climate denial front organization, ALEC currently has half a dozen pieces of model legislation opposing the Clean Power Plan that it’s pushing in state legislatures. By way of explaining its termination of membership, an AEP spokesperson said the company is reallocating resources as it focuses on working with states around the Clean Power Plan.

AEP says it supports the federal plan and renewable energy, and has “long been involved in the reduction of greenhouse gases.” Still, reporters pointed out the company’s significant reliance on coal in its generation mix, although projections show its coal use declining in the near future.

So what is subsidiary Appalachian Power (APCo) planning to do to meet demand with clean energy in its Virginia service area?

APCo’s 2015 Long Range Resource Plan

APCo customers that read this blog will be aware that we have followed the company’s release of its latest long-term plan for meeting demand in its service area, and that media have reported on some important ways this plan is distinguished from what we have seen the utility propose in the past.

APCo proposes 510 megawatts of solar and land-based wind development in the coming years. Oddly, the predicted growth in its customers’ self-generated energy from solar arrays is low. APCo offers no assessment of the overall costs and benefits of rooftop solar, nor steps to encourage residents and businesses to go solar.

Prompted to comment, an APCo representative made the interesting point that managing demand by offering customers ways to save energy and reduce their bills is an approach that may cost less than developing energy generation. That sentiment may ring a bell for regular readers of this blog: it’s an argument that Appalachian Voices has been stressing for years. Now we’ll be holding onto that nugget of brilliance and keeping the utility on track to live up to those words.

More energy bills this session: solar purchasing, resilience and the pipeline fight

In September, the State Corporation Commission considered a case about APCo’s proposed program for customers looking to go solar. Schools, churches, nonprofits and other non-residential entities were the most affected by the program, which would provide one way for a customer contract for solar power with a system installed and owned by a third party. Such customers in Dominion Virginia Power’s territory can go solar with no upfront costs, thanks to innovative financing for this type of arrangement.

But under APCo’s program, the utility would act as middleman, paying back lower-than-usual credits to the customer and charging higher-than-normal fees. It all adds up to an uneconomic deal that’s likely to deter use of this option and diminish the ability of customers to realize their energy goals and environmental preferences, while slowing job growth in Virginia’s solar industry.

Businesses and concerned customers are now coming together behind legislation that would remove many of the hurdles that are currently hampering solar development in Virginia. Watch for updates on this bill.

A bill to join Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is again being introduced, with important differences from last year’s version. Notably, through the auction of emissions allowances, the wVirginia Coastal Protection Actwould raise approximately $250 million in the first year of Virginia’s membership, more than $20 million of which would be allocated for economic development in southwest Virginia.

Show your support for this measure and stay tuned for more ways to educate yourself and your legislators about legislative solutions and threats as the General Assembly 2016 approaches.

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Powering Up: Diversifying central Appalachia’s economy

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Cat McCue

Forum participants broke into small groups to discuss what kinds of economic growth they envision for their community. Photo by Alistair Burke

Forum participants broke into small groups to discuss what kinds of economic growth they envision for their community. Photo by Alistair Burke

Last July, in far southwest Virginia, Wise County made national news when it hosted the first federally approved commercial drone delivery in the United States. The scene was a rural medical clinic tucked deep among the Appalachian mountains, and the package delivered by the small buzzing aircraft contained much-needed supplies.

“They were calling it our Kitty Hawk moment,” says Andrianah Kilgore, a Wise County native who was involved in the project and whose excitement for the possibilities it signified for the future of her community hasn’t waned since.

“Despite some misconceptions from the rest of the world, this area could really be a leader in technology,” she says.

Kilgore, 25, was among more than 130 people who attended one of eight community forums in September called “Southwest Virginia’s New Economy Forums.” The forums, hosted by Appalachian Voices, which publishes this newspaper, and Virginia Organizing, provided a place for ordinary citizens from across southwest Virginia to share their ideas and vision for stabilizing and growing the region’s economy. The area has been pummeled in recent years by layoffs and business closings as the coal industry continues to decline.

“The coal industry, like it or dislike it, has to, or will be, slowing down. It’s an exhaustive resource at the end of the day,” says Zafar Kahn, who also attended the community forum in Wise.

More than 60 percent of central Appalachian coal-producing counties are currently classified as “economically distressed” by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Those counties saw population declines of 9 percent between 1980 and 2010, compared to a 36 percent increase nationwide, and these days, the average per-capita income is just 59 percent of the national average.

Kahn, an associate professor of economics at the University of Virginia at Wise, has an academic interest in the region’s challenges, but also a personal stake in the community where he has lived for the past nine years.

“I’m very concerned about the economic development of the local area,” he says. “You can’t be just dependent on that one industry. So you must diversify.”

A tipping point

The coalfields of Virginia, and across central Appalachia, have hit hard times before, each resulting in efforts to bring in more industry and business. The pervasive belief, however, was that the coal industry would always be there, so those efforts never truly pulled the local communities out from under dominance of coal, says Adam Wells, a fifth generation Wise County resident and the economic diversification campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

This time, though, it’s different.

“We’re in a watershed moment, a tipping point,” Wells says. “There have never been as many people working in a coordinated way on economic diversification, or even using that term, ‘diversification.’ There’s a collective understanding that coal is on its way out, for real this time.”

Over the last several months, a groundswell of support has been spreading across central Appalachia for the “POWER+ Plan,” announced in February as part of President Obama’s 2016 proposed budget. The Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization plan calls for billions in federal funding to help coal­-impacted areas nationwide, including Central Appalachia.

Local residents and members of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth stand with the Benham City Council in eastern Kentucky after a unanimous vote to pass a resolution supporting the Power-Plus Plan in August.  Photo courtesy Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center

Local residents and members of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth stand with the Benham City Council in eastern Kentucky after a unanimous vote to pass a resolution supporting the Power-Plus Plan in August. Photo courtesy Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center

As of press time in late November, 24 local government entities in the coalfields of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee have passed resolutions supporting the plan, or generally supporting federal action to aid the region. All but one have passed unanimously.

The POWER+ Plan would advance a new way of thinking about abandoned coal mines, which continue to pose a safety and health threat and pollute local waterways. In Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, it would deliver $340 million over five years to clean up sites that have potential for long-lasting economic activity, such as developing a solar installation or mountain bike park.

“In the past, federal funds were used just to clean up the worst messes, but this funding would be specifically for economic development,” Wells says.

The region would also get some portion of $153 million to support worker retraining, tourism, agriculture, energy efficiency and other economic development initiatives. The plan would also refurbish the United Mine Workers’ health and pension funds, which distribute $570 million annually to the four states.

“Appalachia is the next great investment opportunity in America,” says Earl Gohl, the commission’s federal co-chair. For decades, “people have spent their lives underground, in the dark, making a living. There’s no doubt in my mind those skills they had to use to support their families and develop communities are the same skills that are critical and important now.”

To nurture this survival instinct, the region needs help establishing what he calls an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that includes capital funding, broadband internet and technical support for marketing and export.

The POWER+ Plan would be a strong step in that direction, and Gohl commends the local governments that support it. “From the commission’s point of view, we are very excited to work with them, and hopeful to how far we can move the needle,” he says.

The resolutions show the growing consensus among citizens and local leaders around the dire need for economic diversification in the coalfields. But for POWER+ to work, Congress must approve the funding, and so far, there hasn’t been strong public leadership from congressional representatives to usher the bill through the legislative process.

Simultaneous with proposing POWER+, President Obama announced a “down payment” on the plan of $14.5 million in existing funding for coal communities this year — no congressional approval needed. As of October, that money is on the ground in 12 coal states and tribal territories.

Awarded through four federal agencies, the funds are fueling a wide variety of projects, including retraining former coal-plant workers from Washington state and the Navajo Nation, developing a strategic business plan in southern Pennsylvania, diversifying the coal region of the San Juan Basin in the desert southwest and many others.

Central Appalachia by far received most of the funding, including:
• More than $3 million to expand broadband internet in Kentucky;
• $826,400 to extend water to an industry near Union, W.Va.;
• Almost $550,000 for a local food supply project in Elizabethtown, Ky.;
• $1.2 million for a substance abuse treatment program in Ashcamp, Ky., a coalfield community struggling with rampant drug use; and
• $350,000 to support efforts in southwest Virginia to develop outdoor recreation and tourism, and provide training for entrepreneurs.

Not waiting around

While Congress squabbles and coal companies seek to shelter their profits in bankruptcy courts, the people of Central Appalachia are not standing idly by. Over the last decade in particular, dozens of public and private initiatives and enterprises have taken root to grow the regional economy.

There are the big-vision projects. In southwest Virginia, the idea for a tourist-oriented, auto-centric “museum” showcasing the area’s musical heritage emerged in 2003. Today, the Crooked Road is a 330-mile route that includes 19 counties and more than 55 towns and cities and has been written up in the New York Times and Lonely Planet. The total economic impact as a result of the Crooked Road was estimated to be almost $23 million for 2008 (the most recent data available), with 445 full-time equivalent jobs.

Common themes that emerged from all eight forums were supporting advanced manufacturing and ecotourism, enhancing relationships between local colleges and the community, expanding broadband infrastructure, and ensuring that younger people have a voice in helping shape the region’s future. Photo by Alistair Burke

Common themes that emerged from all eight forums were supporting advanced manufacturing and ecotourism, enhancing relationships between local colleges and the community, expanding broadband infrastructure, and ensuring that younger people have a voice in helping shape the region’s future. Photo by Alistair Burke

There are the small business start-ups. In Pikeville, Ky., Bit Source trains laid-off coal miners and other industry workers in software coding and pairs them with markets well beyond the city limits. Its website proclaims: “The business concept and plan is to transition a workforce from one that exported coal from the region to one that exports CODE (#exportCode).” Started in October 2014, Bit Source received 900 applications in its first month and now employs 13 local people, most of whom were coal industry workers themselves. Its success drew U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez for a visit in early 2015.

And then there are the local public projects. In Norton, Va., Shayne Fields has been working for the city for several years to design and build a top-notch mountain biking trail system on nearby High Knob Mountain. The way he sees it, there’s a double advantage in developing outdoor recreation facilities — attracting more affluent visitors to frequent restaurants, hotels and shops, and enticing local folks outdoors.

“Like many other depressed areas, you don’t see a lot of people here who are very active. You need to try to get people off the couch, outside and engaged in anything,” Fields says. “The tech industry won’t come unless they have a happy, educated work force and they get happy by doing the outside things.”

So, what will pull the region through in the years ahead? Gohl, with the Appalachian Regional Commission, says it comes down to the endemic sense of independence and a strong attachment to community. “In Appalachia, it’s hard to find someone who’s not running a business out of the back of a truck,” he says. “They don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs, but they are.”

Andrianah Kilgore, the young woman at the Wise community forum, embodies that attachment. She was born and raised here, her parents, too, and she doesn’t see herself living anywhere else. Not if she can help it.

“I feel a very huge sense of, I guess, debt to my community,” she says. “They gave a lot to me growing up. I absolutely feel like I should be a driving force, and hopefully bring the group of peers that I have along with me, to help the community continue to be successful.”

Student leaders support the POWER+ Plan

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
Members of the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Renaissance Initiative at Whitesburg City Hall. Photo courtesy of ARI.

Members of the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Renaissance Initiative at Whitesburg City Hall. Photo courtesy of ARI.

Yesterday, a group of student leaders in eastern Kentucky took a commendable step in support of Central Appalachia’s youth and economic future.

By a unanimous vote, the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative Student Senate passed a resolution of support for the POWER+ Plan, a White House initiative to build more diverse economies in communities hardest hit by the coal industry’s decline. More than 13,000 coal jobs have been lost in Central Appalachia since 2011 alone.

The group, which is comprised of high school juniors and seniors from seventeen school districts, has a particular interest in seeing economic prospects in the region improve. Rural communities in Central Appalachia are struggling with population loss due to a lack of opportunities.

“This POWER+ Plan can remove the need for people to leave,” said Kiley Short, a Junior Senator from Letcher County Central High School. “It stimulates economic growth and business opportunities, which are imperative to the fate of my home, my culture, my people, and my future.”

In Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan — and calling on their elected leaders to do the same. More than two dozen localities in Central Appalachia’s coal-bearing region have passed resolutions similar to the one approved by the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative.

Specifically, the POWER+ Plan directs millions of dollars in additional funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Department of Labor and other federal agencies focused on economic development. It also calls for an additional $200 million per year over the next five years for the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program to restore dangerous unreclaimed mines.

According to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which administers the program, additional funds would assist communities most severely impacted by coal “in a manner that facilitates economic revitalization on reclaimed lands and restored waterways.”

But the fate of that key component of POWER+, which must be approved by Congress, remains unclear.

Regional groups including Appalachian Voices are committed to seeing the POWER+ Plan succeed. And we’ve been inspired by the level of local support in spite of the uncertainty this bipartisan plan faces in a highly partisan Congress.

The need for new investment in Central Appalachian communities is urgent. In supporting POWER+, these young leaders aren’t just voting for their future, they’re voting for their families’ and neighbors’ present.

As Stacie Fugate, a Junior Senator from Hazard Independent, said after the vote: “My brother has recently been laid off from work. This plan hits home for not only me, but the majority of people in our region.”

We congratulate the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative for its vision and thank its members for speaking up for the region’s future.

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Takin’ 5 with Tony Flaccavento

Saturday, November 28th, 2015 - posted by cat

tony

A jack of all trades … a man for all seasons … Anthony Flaccavento certainly fits the bill. And now he can add self-made YouTube personality to the list.

Anthony has been a certified organic farmer in far Southwest Virginia for some two decades. In 1995, he founded Appalachian Sustainable Development, which has become a regional and national leader in sustainable economic development. More recently he founded SCALE, Inc., a private consulting business dedicated to catalyzing and supporting ecologically healthy regional economies and food systems. He is the author of “Healthy Food Systems: A Tool Kit for building Value Chains” and more than 100 published articles.

An active community leader and one-time contender for Congress (9th District, Va., in 2012), Anthony overlays his knowledge of agriculture and food systems squarely on the issue of diversifying the coal-impacted communities of Central Appalachia. As author and renowned climate activist Bill McKibben said:

“There‘s no more hopeful movement in the United States than the drive towards local food, and with it strong regional economies. As he has been for so many years, Anthony Flaccavento is at the forefront of this movement; if SCALE can go to scale, we‘ll all be the better for it.”

Anthony doesn’t stop with farming. His understanding of the economic, social and political forces that shape human lives–and the ways to change those forces for the better–extends to myriad other arenas.

Curious? Check out his video series, Take 5 with Tony, in which he explains in short clips and plain language the in’s and out’s of economic diversification.

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 hannah@appvoices.org, and thanks for supporting clean energy!

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Crowdsourcing Southwest Virginia’s New Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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