Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

Energy efficiency at the forefront of cooperative principles in Tennessee

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014 - posted by rory
Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA's Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA’s Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Rural electric cooperatives, which serve millions of families across Appalachia, operate on seven principles, the most important of which (at least to us) is principle number seven: “Concern for Community.”

The seventh principle commits electric co-ops to “the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members.” As we described in a blog series on the need for and benefits on “on-bill” financing programs supporting home energy improvements in Appalachia, the sustainable development of the Appalachian region relies on the ability of residents to invest in their communities. But first and foremost, they must be able to afford their electric bills. The clear first step to achieving this vision is expanding energy efficiency, and this is something that Tennessee’s electric cooperatives have taken to heart.

On September 5, thanks to a generous grant from the National Governor’s Association (NGA), the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association (TECA), in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), sponsored a statewide energy efficiency “retreat.” The goal of the day-long policy retreat was to hash through the details of what will hopefully become a statewide program to finance home energy efficiency improvements, especially for low-income residents. Such programs have proven to reduce home energy costs substantially, and are primarily intended to help families that can’t afford to pay for the upfront cost of needed improvements. Below is a testimonial from one family that participated in South Carolina’s pilot on-bill financing program known as “Help My House.”

The retreat featured a number of experts in energy efficiency finance and program design as well as co-op and government administration, including numerous representatives from federal organizations and government agencies, Tennessee state government agencies and various experts and clean energy advocates such as Appalachian Voices and a handful of our partner organizations.

Most importantly, the retreat was attended by six of Tennessee’s rural electric cooperatives. Included among them was Appalachian Electric, which has proven to be a statewide leader in expanding energy efficiency opportunities not only for their own members, but for all of Tennessee’s rural co-op members. Unfortunately, of the six co-ops that participated in the retreat only two co-ops were from the Appalachian region, although we were told by TECA that a handful of others couldn’t attend but were interested in participating in the process. We hope that more co-ops with service territories in East Tennessee will sign on to the process, because as the energy cost maps we generated earlier this year show, members of Appalachian co-ops are most in need of support for reducing their electric bills.

The efforts of Appalachian Voices’ staff, through concerted outreach to Tennessee’s Appalachian electric co-ops and local stakeholders, played a key part in making the energy efficiency retreat happen, and as a result we were invited to participate as an expert stakeholder. We are extremely encouraged by the outstanding leadership that NGA, TECA, TDEC and Appalachian Electric are showing, and we admire their dedication to helping the families who need it most.

The prospect of a statewide on-bill financing program in Tennessee is exciting, and we remain committed to doing everything we can to seeing it through. Further, we appreciate everything you do to support our work. If you live in western North Carolina, get in touch, because we have a lot going on in your neighborhood too!

The Power of Energy Efficiency — Building a Stronger Economy for Appalachia (Part 5)

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 - posted by rory

{ Editor’s Note } This is the final installment in a five-part series illustrating the need for greater investments in residential energy efficiency as an economic driver in rural Appalachia. In this post, we describe the efforts of Appalachian Voices and our allies in helping Appalachia realize its energy efficiency potential, and highlight some of the successes that have already been achieved.

Energy efficiency might not be the cool kid in the room to most people. That would be solar energy, smug ole solar). Energy efficiency is the smart kid sitting in the back of the room, the one that quietly goes about its work, that gets more done with less effort. It even helps solar succeed, because without energy efficiency, a whole lotta solar energy gets wasted, rendering it less economical compared to the fossil fuel bullies in the room.

But the fact that energy efficiency helps solar with its homework isn’t why it is exciting and important. Energy efficiency provides so many benefits beyond just serving as the cheapest way to meeting our energy demands (approximately 80 percent cheaper than solar). Energy efficiency helps alleviate poverty, creates and sustains local jobs, and promotes local economic development. It makes homes more comfortable and healthy, and reduces the environmental impact associated with our energy use. It also may be the most vital solution to Appalachia’s energy and economic future, as we’ve described in this blog series.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Yeah, solar does almost all of these things (and don’t get me wrong, solar energy is still awesome), but energy efficiency costs a lot less to achieve the same benefits, meaning it can have a much greater impact per dollar. In Appalachia, as in other regions of the U.S. where public and private investment in clean energy is relatively scarce, this is an important consideration, and it’s one of the main reasons why Appalachian Voices initiated our Energy Savings for Appalachia program last year.

Through this campaign, we are actively promoting cost-effective solutions that will help Appalachia realize its energy efficiency potential while maximizing the economic and environmental benefits along the way. And the potential is mind-blowing. A 2009 study on Appalachia’s energy efficiency potential found that an investment of $7 billion in residential efficiency improvements would save Appalachian families nearly $14 billion in energy costs by 2030, reducing the average home’s energy use by more than 15 percent and (based on the employment impact multiplier used in this study) creating more than 100,000 jobs in the process. This illustrates how, for a region made up of largely impoverished communities and families, energy efficiency could provide a significant economic boost and help reverse a long-standing struggle to develop and strengthen local economies in the region.

This is why Appalachian Voices and many of our allies have dedicated ourselves to promoting strong investment in cost-effective energy efficiency programs in Appalachia. We are working with rural electric cooperatives to develop home energy efficiency finance programs like those we’ve described in this series. We are inspired and joined in this work by our regional partners and allies, which include the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) (Kentucky), the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (North Carolina and Tennessee), Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowement (Tennessee), Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA) (regional), Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (Kentucky) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) (North Carolina). Recognizing the need and potential for improving energy efficiency in rural areas, each of these organizations are focused in part on working with the rural electric cooperatives that provide electricity to those communities.

As a result of the efforts of many of these organizations, there have been some key successes, and there is now a growing movement in Appalachia toward the development of financing programs for residential and commercial energy efficiency. Leading the way was MACED, which spearheaded the development of the successful and still-growing How$mart Kentucky program. In North Carolina, EDF helped with the development and launch of a pilot on-bill finance program through Roanoke Electric Cooperative. And just recently, SEEA launched the Southeast Energy Efficiency Finance Network, which aims to facilitate the expansion of public and private investment in energy efficiency throughout the Southeast.

Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil and Tennessee Campaign Coordinator Ann League meet with representatives from Appalachian Electric Cooperative, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, the USDA and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to discuss the creation of a statewide on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil and Tennessee Campaign Coordinator Ann League meet with representatives from Appalachian Electric Cooperative, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, the USDA and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to discuss the creation of a statewide on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

For our part, Appalachian Voices has achieved a high level of success in the 15 months since we launched our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign. As a result of our efforts, the statewide Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, in partnership with five member cooperatives, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the National Governor’s Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Appalachian Voices, is in the process of designing a small-scale on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. This is a significant step toward realizing Tennessee’s energy efficiency potential, and we are proud to be partnered with each of these caring and forward-thinking groups that are leading the way.

I could write forever about energy efficiency, Appalachia and the many great things that our partners and allies are doing to advance energy efficiency in the region. But once you get into the realm of naming a series a “pentalogy” (I had to look that up), it’s time to bring it to a close.

So I’ll end this series with one last pitch to you. YOU are the most important piece of this energy efficiency work. While a good number of electric cooperatives and other utilities are doing a lot to help their members and customers lower their energy bills, many are not. So much more could be done, and it likely won’t be unless you get involved. One way to start is by learning more about energy efficiency and programs that your utility could provide by visiting our Energy Savings Action Center. While you’re there, send your utility a letter requesting stronger home energy efficiency programs. But most importantly, get out in your community, talk to your neighbors about how energy efficiency could benefit them, and let your voice be heard! Without you, Appalachia will never achieve it’s energy efficiency potential.

Thanks for reading!

Community Impacts of Controversial Coalfields Expressway Project 
in Va. to Receive Thorough Review

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 - posted by cat

Contact: 

Jane Branham, Southern Appalachia Mountain Stewards, samsva@gmail.com, (276) 565-6167 

Deborah Murray, Southern Environmental Law Center, dmurray@selcva.org, (434) 977-4090 

Marley Green, Sierra Club, marley.green@sierraclub.org, (276) 639-6169 

Adam Beitman, Sierra Club, adam.beitman@sierraclub.org, (202) 675-2385 

Kate Rooth, Appalachian Voices, kate@appvoices.org, (434) 293-6373

Appalachia, VA — The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has announced that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will be required to conduct a full environmental review for a controversial 26-mile section of the Coalfields Expressway that would run through Wise, Dickenson, and Buchanan counties in southwest Virginia. Community groups in southwest Virginia and conservation organizations applaud the decision.

VDOT fundamentally changed the route and the nature of this section of the Coalfields Expressway when it partnered with coal companies to allow mountaintop removal mining as part of the project and failed to prepare a comprehensive analysis of its impacts on the community. The environmental study that FHWA is requiring must evaluate the public health and environmental harms of the proposal and examine a full suite of alternatives.

More than 85,000 citizens sent comments to VDOT and FHWA expressing their concerns about the harm that mountaintop removal mining associated with this project would have on drinking water, community health, and quality of life. Local citizens are also worried that the altered route would eliminate the economic benefits promised to the community because it would bypass local businesses, and the associated impacts from mining would detract from a growing tourism industry.

Three federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also urged FHWA and VDOT to prepare a comprehensive analysis that considers alternatives and evaluates the social, economic and environmental impacts of the mountaintop removal mining which is integral to the project.

“This decision is good news for the people of southwestern Virginia,” said Jane Branham, vice president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “We are pleased that FHWA and VDOT will take a hard look at the irresponsible and destructive mining practices that have already hurt our communities and that would be part of this ill-conceived strip mine/highway proposal.”

“We look forward to seeing a thorough review of the environmental consequences of this project, including an analysis of a range of highway alternatives that do not depend on mountaintop removal coal mining,” said Deborah Murray, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The decision-makers must keep in mind the original purpose and need of the project –serving the local communities.”

“VDOT now has the opportunity to take a fresh, honest look at this project,” said Marley Green, a Wise County resident and Sierra Club organizer in Virginia. “We have the chance to figure out the best ways to improve transportation access and diversify our struggling mountain economy.”

“The decision made by Federal Highways is a critical one. Mountaintop removal coal mining has had a devastating impact on communities in southwest Virginia, and now the state will be required to examine this road fully before spending our tax dollars on a deal that only helps coal companies rather than the community,” said Kate Rooth, campaign director with Appalachian Voices. “Now, local business owners, landowners, and citizens whose clean drinking water would be impacted can help VDOT design a project to truly benefit Central Appalachia.”

>> Click here for more background

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About Southern Appalachia Mountain Stewards: Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) is an organization of concerned community members and their allies who are working to stop the destruction of our communities by surface coal mining, to improve the quality of life in our area, and to help rebuild sustainable communities. www.SAMSva.org

About the Southern Environmental Law Center: The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC’s team of about 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use. www.SouthernEnvironment.org

About Sierra Club: The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 2.4 million members and supporters nationwide. In addition to creating opportunities for people of all ages, levels and locations to have meaningful outdoor experiences, the Sierra Club works to safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and litigation. www.SierraClub.org

About Appalachian Voices: Appalachian Voices is an award-winning, environmental non-profit committed to protecting the natural resources of central and southern Appalachia, focusing on reducing coal’s impact on the region and advancing our vision for a cleaner energy future. Founded in 1997, we are headquartered in Boone, N.C. with offices in Charlottesville, Va.; Knoxville, Tn. and Washington, D.C. www.AppVoices.org

The Power of Energy Efficiency — Building a Stronger Economy for Appalachia (Part 4)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 - posted by rory

{ Editor’s Note } This is the fourth installment in a five-part series illustrating the need for greater investments in residential energy efficiency as an economic driver in rural Appalachia.

Part 4: Closing Arguments — Why Rural Electric Cooperatives Should Provide Financial Support for Home Energy Efficiency Improvements

I love my electric utility. In fact, as I write, I am wearing a hat they gave me.

Mountain Electric is a small electric co-op serving just over 30,000 members in the rural mountains of East Tennessee. They have a small staff, but are always willing to help out if I have a question or problem. They also seem to sincerely care about the people they serve, and work hard to address member concerns. One way they do this is by helping to reduce members’ electricity bills through energy efficiency incentives and limited financing programs.

I also love Mountain Electric because they are part of a team of co-ops exploring the development of a small-scale on-bill financing program for home energy efficiency in Tennessee. Even more, I admire the co-op model and their potential for doing good in the communities they serve, and I have developed a good relationship with my co-op, as all members should. That’s why I wear the hat.

The Rural Electric Cooperative: History and Mission

I didn’t always know much about electric co-ops, and most people who aren’t a member of one — and even many who are — don’t know much about them either.

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, as late as the mid-1930s approximately 90 percent of all rural homes in America were without electricity. This was due to the fact that the large power companies did not think it was cost-effective to run thousands of miles of transmission lines to areas with low population density.

With the signing of an Executive Order by President Franklin Roosevelt establishing the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, and the subsequent passage of the Rural Electrification Act the following year, a lending program was put in place that supported the creation of rural electric co-ops, and everything began to change. By 1953, more than 90 percent of farms across the nation had electricity, and today, more than 900 co-ops provide electricity to more than 42 million people.

[Notes: For those interested, NRECA has put together a neat map showing the growth in the number of co-ops over time. Also, REA is now the Rural Utilities Service, or RUS, and is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.]

[Notes: For those interested, NRECA has put together a neat map showing the growth in the number of co-ops over time. Also, REA is now the Rural Utilities Service, or RUS, and is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.]

What distinguishes co-ops from investor-owned utilities is that they are non-profit entities owned by the utility’s electricity customers. Every “member” owns a share of the co-op, and, at least in theory, has a direct voice in decisions made by the co-op. In addition, unlike large profit-driven utilities, co-ops operate according to the Seven Cooperative Principles, which include a voluntary and open membership, democratic governance by members, economic participation, autonomy and independence, cooperation among cooperatives and concern for community.

Why Co-ops Should Provide Home Energy Efficiency Loans

The seventh principle, that of concern for community, is described by NRECA as “working for the sustainable development of communities through policies accepted by [the] members.” This principle speaks directly to the mission of Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program, which is to work with electric co-ops in Appalachia to alleviate poverty and generate new jobs through the creation of comprehensive home energy efficiency loan programs known as “on-bill finance.” With on-bill finance, the electric utility provides a “loan” to a customer to make a variety of home energy efficiency improvements such as weatherization, insulation and new energy efficient heating and cooling systems. After the improvements have been made, the customer repays the loan through an extra charge on their electric bill. The intent of these finance programs is for the annual savings to exceed the loan payments, thereby resulting in a net reduction in their electric bills.

On-bill financing supports the concept of sustainable development by reducing energy costs for community residents (thereby alleviating poverty), and supporting the development of a local energy services industry, potentially creating hundreds of long-lasting jobs (e.g. energy auditors, home appliance contractors, retailers, etc) while helping to diversify and strengthen local economies. In addition, the widespread adoption of such programs would result in cleaner air and water and therefore healthier communities.

Many co-ops across the Southeast already provide some sort of financial support or incentives, such as rebates and credits on electric bills, for their members to invest in energy efficiency (does yours?). However, most of the cost of the improvements still have to be paid upfront by the member. Currently only five co-ops in Appalachia–all located in Kentucky–provide financing for their members to make multiple efficiency improvements all at once.

 

Barriers to Implementation, and Resources Available to Co-ops

One thing to recognize is that many co-ops face significant barriers to developing and implementing energy efficiency programs of any kind, much less full on-bill finance programs. First of all, like my co-op, a lot of co-ops have limited staff, and it takes a significant amount of staff time to put these programs together and have them be effective.

Secondly, it takes money, something which most co-ops also do not have because their cost of generating or obtaining electricity and distributing it to their members is on the rise. Further, co-ops have to pay for constructing and maintaining the distribution system (transmission lines, transformers, etc). In addition, most co-ops are still paying off debts associated with loans received to cover past expenses.

Finally, in a lot of areas, the lack of an energy services industry (energy auditors, retrofitters, retailers) means that contractors would have to be identified and certified before an on-bill finance program can be implemented. Each of these factors may pose a significant challenge for a co-op interested in developing a financing program. However, there are a growing number of resources available that can help.

For starters, the USDA now has two (and potentially three) funding programs that co-ops can access in order to fund an on-bill finance program. The two existing programs are the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, and the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program. While the requirements and details associated with these two programs are much different, they both provide a significant amount of funding that co-ops can use to fund the program. Another similar initiative known as the Rural Energy Savings Program may become available by as early as 2015, and would provide zero interest loans to co-ops specifically for the purpose of developing an on-bill financing program.

In addition, there are many different models that exist all across the country that co-ops can reference in designing their own program (we wrote about two of them in our last post), and the USDA and others are in the process of developing toolkits and model program designs to help co-ops put a workable and effective program together. Growing interest is also leading many government and nonprofit entities to offer funding and other support for these programs. One such leader is the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, which offers a variety of financial assistance for energy efficiency programs. Appalachian Voices has also been supporting and partnering with co-ops in our region who are taking steps toward developing an on-bill finance program.

What YOU can do to promote more energy efficiency support through your electric co-op

While there is wealth of resources available to help co-ops navigate the process of designing, developing and implementing an on-bill financing program, the availability of these resources will itself not move a co-op to develop a program. If you are a co-op member, that responsibility lies with you.

Find out whether your co-op offers an on-bill finance program by visiting our Energy Savings Action Center, and if they don’t, then send a letter requesting that they develop one. Also, get out in your community and talk with your neighbors about how stronger energy efficiency investments can help strengthen your local economy and provide financial relief and greater comfort for those who need it.

Finally, get to know the people that manage your co-op. Call them up, stop in their office, invite them to a barbeque. You will find that they are good folks that care about you and your neighbors, and are willing to explore ways that they can do more to help all of their members. That is concern for community, and it’s the foundation of creating healthy, sustainable economies in Appalachia and elsewhere.

Virginians applaud new federal carbon pollution protections

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 - posted by cat

Business, health, farming, and national security leaders praise Environmental Protection Agency for protecting state

virginia-voicesRepresentatives of Virginia business, national security, health and agricultural sectors joined environmental advocates this week in praising the newly announced carbon pollution limits for existing power plants as necessary public health and security safeguards, and a beneficial economic driver.

The new EPA guidelines give states the flexibility to implement strategies that can increase energy efficiency and improve resiliency while reducing this harmful air pollutant. The local leaders called on Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to lead a robust and inclusive process for developing a bold state plan to implement the new standards in Virginia.

David Belote, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, Virginia Beach:
“Anyone looking for a job in Virginia today wants to be in a growth industry. Reducing carbon pollution and growing our clean energy sector unlocks the doors to the new opportunities that Virginia’s businesses and workers have been looking for. Promoting clean energy and climate security isn’t a ‘war’ on anybody – it’s unleashing innovators and entrepreneurs to profit while improving the planet and the lives of its people.”

Dr. Anthony Smith, CEO of Secure Futures, Staunton:
“The proposed new carbon pollution standards represent a big step toward moving Virginia’s economy to cleaner fuel sources. “Retiring old and inefficient coal-fired power plants with solar and wind power will give more Virginians access to 21st century energy jobs, and the ability to enjoy healthier air and water.”

Dr. Christine Llewellyn, physician and radiologist, Williamsburg:
“We know that climate change is already occurring, but we also know that we still have time to prevent the most severe impacts if we act now to reduce carbon emissions. Policies such as the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards are an essential first step towards protecting the future for our children and grandchildren. These policies will not only reduce dangerous carbon pollution, but will also have other major health benefits.”

Tenley Weaver, owner and operator of Good Food – Good People, Floyd:
“When weather extremes get more uncertain, your regional food security is even more at risk. Climate disruption heaps costs on the shoulders of our farmers and threatens to put some of them out of business. The EPA’s initiative to limit carbon pollution is an essential step toward addressing the global warming crisis and its impacts, especially on organically grown local food crops.”

The Power of Energy Efficiency — Building a Stronger Economy for Appalachia (Part 2)

Sunday, May 11th, 2014 - posted by rory

{ Editor’s Note }This is the second installment in a five-part series illustrating the need for greater investments in residential energy efficiency as an economic driver in rural Appalachia. A proven strategy is the creation of residential energy efficiency loan programs by rural electric cooperatives in the region. In this post, we explore the need for greater economic diversity in Appalachia.

Part 2: The Need for More Economic Diversity in Appalachia

Driving through rural Appalachia, you’ll notice that many towns are small and look a lot like each other, at least in terms of the types of businesses and other buildings that you see. This is what I see as I drive through Johnson County, Tenn.

My hometown of Trade is the stuff of legend. This is where Tom Dula — the infamous main character of many versions of the folk song “Tom Dooley”– was caught after killing Laura Foster in neighboring Wilkes County, N.C., in 1866. It is also the easternmost town in Tennessee.

A typical Appalachian town like Trade is made up of a couple of small churches, a post office, local hardware and grocery stores, a school or two and hopefully a library, a pharmacy, a couple of locally-owned restaurants, maybe a handful of chain restaurants, a dollar store and a gas station or two. Many of these are pillars of any community. None, however, are sources of significant employment.

There are those towns that have benefitted from large industrial or manufacturing plants, or extractive industries that employ hundreds to thousands of residents, and there are indeed towns and cities in the region with bustling and diverse economies. However, economic specialization — the concentration of employment in a small number of industries — has caused cycles of economic distress for many communities over the decades.

Sadly, many of the traditional industries have faded or declined substantially, leaving behind weakened local economies. As a result, for most of Appalachia, poverty, high unemployment and the lack of economic diversity are persistent problems that have yet to be addressed in any comprehensive, effective manner.

There is a strong need in the region for economic planners and local governments to make economic diversification the central goal in laying out their short- and long-term development strategies. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), of the 420 counties that make up Appalachia, 201 are “Distressed” or “At Risk,” meaning that they rank among the worst 25 percent of the nation’s counties in terms of economic status. Another 206 are designated as “Transitional,” meaning that they rank somewhere between the worst 25 percent and the best 25 percent of the nation’s counties. Only 13 counties are designated as being economically competitive with other counties in the U.S.

A Picture of Economic Diversity: According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, of the 420 counties that make up Appalachia, 201 are “Distressed” or “At Risk,” meaning that they rank among the worst 25 percent of the nation’s counties in terms of economic status.

A Picture of Economic Diversity: According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, of the 420 counties that make up Appalachia, 201 are “Distressed” or “At Risk,” meaning that they rank among the worst 25 percent of the nation’s counties in terms of economic status.

The poor economic status of most Appalachian counties correlates with higher-than-average poverty rates (the Appalachian portion of 10 of the 13 states in the region have a poverty rate higher than the national average), higher-than-average unemployment (8 of 13 states), and lower median incomes (all states) compared to the national average.

To realize how diversification can help strengthen and sustain Appalachian economies, it is important to understand what economic diversity means. According to a report commissioned by the ARC, “a diverse local or regional economy is viewed as one which has a varied mix of industries and the absence of dominance of any one industry in terms of employment or income.”

The authors of the ARC report cite two of the major benefits of economic diversity as reducing exposure to economic downturns and creating new avenues for economic growth. They caution, however, that “diversity does not guarantee faster growth, higher incomes, or more widely shared prosperity.” While these outcomes would be ideal, for many Appalachian communities simply achieving the goal of economic diversity would be an important step toward strengthening their local economy, and reducing poverty and unemployment.

The question is: how does a small town of merely hundreds or a few thousand residents diversify their local economy? Focusing on a single industry is not enough. What is required is a comprehensive plan and locally-based initiatives that support and promote a wide variety of industries or businesses. As the ARC report asserts, there are several lessons to be incorporated into any strategy for diversifying a local economy.

First, a good diversification strategy is a matter of implementing many successful specialization strategies simultaneously. This means focusing on the strengths and assets that exist within a local community and support the development of each of those at the same time.

Second, a local economic diversification strategy should seek to fully assess and understand the “risk” associated with the existing economic base of the local community. This means assessing the demand for the goods and services that can be produced from the local economy. Anticipating possible boosts and disruptions to the economic base is important.

Third, new economic opportunities — whether through business expansion, entrepreneurship, attraction strategies, or other economic development initiatives — should be nurtured through appropriate public sector actions (policies, incentives, marketing, etc).

Finally, a successful strategy for economic diversity is based on a solid
foundation of analysis and research that helps to maximize the resources and assets available to the local community. It is also run by development professionals that leverage networks and expertise, and that have a process in place for thoughtfully and effectively implementing the economic development strategy.

Each of these are good recommendations for implementing a local economic diversification strategy. But first, the strategy must be developed, and each of us has a role in promoting any such strategy. So, what will you do to play a role in diversifying your local economy?

For my part, I will begin by speaking with my local electric cooperative and trying to work with them to invest more in residential energy efficiency for my neighbors and the community at large. But this is only one of many initiatives that could support new jobs and economic development where I live. What does your local community need? I would bet that energy efficiency is one opportunity for creating new jobs and supporting economic diversity.

Part 3 of this series describes how energy efficiency can serve as a key strategy in developing, strengthening and diversifying local Appalachian economies, and how rural electric cooperatives can play a key role in achieving that goal. We hope you’ll continue reading as we progress through this series.

Climate Change has “firmly moved into the present”

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014 - posted by brian

image001

All right, everybody stay calm. We’ve learned (all over again) that not only is climate change real, it has “firmly moved into the present” and its impacts “are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.”

That’s according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, a report five years in the making released today that details the observed and projected impacts of climate change in the United States.

“Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” the report’s overview reads. “Scientists and engineers from around the world have meticulously collected this evidence, using satellites and networks of weather balloons, thermometers, buoys and other observing systems. Evidence of climate change is also visible in the observed and measured changes in location and behavior of species and functioning of ecosystems.”

What’s that? You’re not living in the den of denial that still refutes the overwhelming consensus that we as a nation have to get serious about climate change? Well read on anyway, the report may be dense but it has some startling regional and state-level analyses too, you know, for when the reality of climate change just seems too big to grapple with.

Take the Southeast, a part of the country that includes many Appalachian states and thousands of miles of coastlines. According to the assessment, significant sea-level rise, extreme heat and water shortages all threaten the Southeast, a region that more than 80 million people call home.

The authors also note that the Southeast is not only a “major energy producer” of coal, crude oil, and natural gas, it is also the highest energy user of any of the National Climate Assessment regions.

Plenty of other discomforts, and downright disasters, will likely result across the country from continued inaction. Among them are reduced crop and livestock productivity in the Midwest, deluges and freezing temperatures in the Northeast, wildfires in the west, and an increase in disease-causing air pollution inland and along the coasts.

Overall, according to the assessment, U.S. temperatures have warmed between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees since 1895, with most of the increase since 1970, and the period from 2001-2012 was the warmest on record globally.

From the report: “Bars show the difference between each decade’s average temperature and the overall average for 1901-2000.” Click to enlarge. (U.S. Global Change Research Program)

From the report: “Bars show the difference between each decade’s average temperature and the overall average for 1901-2000.” Click to enlarge. (U.S. Global Change Research Program)

The report also lays out the costs of climate disruption across sectors of the U.S. economy. The report places a particular importance on rural communities, like so many in Central and Southern Appalachia, because of their reliance on natural systems, and the fact that they provide the resources — food, energy, water, places to recreate, our national character and culture — that the rest of the America depends on.

In fact, the breakdown of the widespread and interconnected impacts of climate change is partially why the assessment should be a game changer: it provides local and state governments starting points and supporting evidence for swift action and adaptation.

“We’re pleased that the Obama administration and the scientific community as a whole takes the threat of climate change seriously, a fact made even more evident by today’s comprehensive assessment,” Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons said. “But to rise to the challenge at hand, state and federal legislators in Appalachia and the Southeast must join the administration in finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and rethink the ways we power our economy.”

You can browse the entire report here, but that’s the gist of it: climate change is happening predominantly due to burning fossil fuels, it’s making the hottest days hotter and the most destructive storms even more destructive, and it’s basically living up to its reputation as the greatest moral, environmental and economic challenge of our time, or any time.

For a look at what we’re already doing to combat climate change, check out this overview of President Obama’s climate action plan.

Let’s hope this latest reminder of the harsh reality and global implications of a warming planet converts more than a few climate deniers. If a congressionally-mandated assessment produced by a team of more than 300 experts, guided by a 60-member advisory Committee and extensively reviewed by the public, federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences isn’t enough, well, we’re kind of running short on time.

The multi-billion dollar denial machine has been mysteriously, pleasantly, quiet on the climate assessment. But when the fossil-funded lackeys take to whatever “balanced” coverage cable news sees fit for this objectively important report, you have our permission to plug your ears.

The Power of Energy Efficiency — Building a Stronger Economy for Appalachia (Part 1)

Thursday, April 17th, 2014 - posted by rory

{ Editor’s Note }This is the first installment in a five-part series illustrating the need for greater investments in residential energy efficiency as an economic driver in rural Appalachia. In this post, we explore the relationship between poverty and electricity costs, and how reducing costs can help alleviate the impacts of poverty across Appalachia.

Part 1: How Energy Efficiency Can Help Alleviate Poverty

When you think of poverty, what words do you associate with it? Many of us might think of words like “low-income,” “unemployment” or “homelessness.”

Unfortunately, it is not often that we associate poverty with electricity costs, because for many across the United States, especially those living in the South and Appalachia, electricity costs play a significant role in worsening the impacts of poverty.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, total household energy costs (including electricity and other fuels) accounted for approximately 3 percent of household income for U.S. families in 2012. For low-income households, however, energy costs can account for as much as 22 percent of family income — more than one-fifth of total household earnings.

Think about that for a moment. Imagine a family of four living in rural Appalachia, or anywhere for that matter, on a mere $20,000 a year or less. That family is spending approximately $4,000 each year just to maintain a level of comfort that many of us might take for granted. That leaves $16,000 for covering other basic needs such as food, health insurance, transportation, education, or other utilities such as water, telephone service or internet connection.

Now imagine that up to 40 percent of that family’s energy costs are the result of waste due to poor insulation, the use of inefficient heating/cooling systems and appliances, or inefficient lighting. That amounts to $1,600 a year — a staggering eight percent of our imagined family’s income — lost due to energy waste. And because our imaginary family is impoverished, they cannot afford to pay the upfront cost of making the needed efficiency improvements to their home that would provide significant savings on household energy costs.

Unfortunately, our imagined family is very real. This family exists all over the South and across Appalachia. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, the average poverty rate in Appalachia from 2007 to 2011 was 13 percent higher than the average rate for the entire U.S. In some of the most rural parts of Appalachia — West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, for example — poverty rates were even worse: 22 percent and 73 percent above the national average, respectively. Across the region, high rates of poverty corresponded to significantly lower incomes, with Appalachian households earning approximately 25 percent less than the average U.S. household.

While Appalachian and southern states have some of the highest instances of poverty in the nation, these states also spend more each month on electricity bills alone (not including other fuels). Eight of the twelve states that spent the most on monthly household electricity costs are in the South or have counties situated in the Appalachian region. In other words, electricity costs are generally the highest in regions of the U.S. characterized by the highest poverty rates. [The data is somewhat skewed due to the fact that electricity is used for space heating in some states, whereas propane or oil are used in others. Regardless, the high concentration of southeastern and Appalachian states ranking at or near the top for electricity costs is notable.]

Most of these areas are served by rural electric cooperatives (“co-ops”), which were created nearly 75 years ago specifically for the purpose of providing electricity to the most rural of areas throughout the U.S. As Brian Depew of the Center for Rural Affairs pointed out, rural co-ops serve 327 out of 353, or about 93 percent, of the U.S. counties suffering the deepest and most persistent poverty.

Customers of co-ops in the Southeast pay more for electricity on average than customers of investor-owned utilities in the same states.

Customers of co-ops in the Southeast pay more for electricity on average than customers of investor-owned utilities in the same states.

Specific to Appalachia and the South, as Appalachian Voices reported back in February, more than 80 percent of all southeastern electric utilities (co-ops and other power companies) serve areas that had an average poverty rate above the national average of 16 percent in 2012. This holds true for rural co-ops, as approximately 80 percent of co-op service areas in the Southeast had a higher poverty rate than the U.S. as a whole.

In addition, electric utility bills for co-op members in the Southeast were 8 percent higher in 2012 than for customers of investor-owned utilities. Therefore, annual electric bills serve as a much greater burden on family income for residents served by rural co-ops than for those served by other electric utilities.

While rural electric co-ops are not the cause of poverty in Appalachia and the South, the decisions they make — or do not make — affect families’ ability to make their homes more energy efficient in order to reduce their energy costs. In other words, rural electric co-ops and other electric utilities, can play a significant role in alleviating poverty in Appalachia and throughout the Southeast by making stronger investments in home energy efficiency.

In part 2 of this series we explore the lack of economic diversity in Appalachia, and illustrate how investments in energy efficiency can create jobs while strengthening local economies.

Central Appalachian-focused James River Coal Company enters bankruptcy

Friday, April 11th, 2014 - posted by brian
James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia's most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties.

James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia’s most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties. Click to enlarge.

This week, James River Coal Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in federal court. Like Patriot Coal, which reemerged from bankruptcy in December, the Richmond, Va.-based company’s operations are concentrated in Central Appalachia and are located in some of the counties most economically vulnerable to coal’s downturn.

According to a 2013 report by Downstream Strategies, eastern Kentucky’s Knott, Letcher, Pike, Bell, and Harlan counties are particularly vulnerable to shifting coal demand and changes in electricity markets, and therefore, require the most immediate attention from policymakers seeking to alleviate the economic impacts of the region’s declining coal industry.

James River has historically operated in all of those counties. But in September 2013, poor demand forced the company to lay off 525 employees and idle production at its McCoy-Elkhorn complex in Pike and Floyd counties and the Bledsoe complex in Leslie and Harlan counties.

Two months later, the struggling coal operator idled four more mines and furloughed 200 workers.

James River has not posted an annual net profit since 2010 and reported net loss of approximately $16.4 million in 2013. Investors expected the bankruptcy was imminent after the company recently received a notice from Nasdaq that it was not complying with the stock market’s rules after its stock closed below $1 per share for 30 business days.

In its bankruptcy filing, the company said it has assets valued at about $1.06 billion and liabilities of about $818.7 million, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“The coal markets in the U.S. have changed dramatically during the past several years,” said James River Chairman and CEO Peter T. Socha. “Some of these changes are cyclical due to continued weakness in the real economy. Other of the changes are more permanent like changes in government environmental regulations, improved methods to produce natural gas, and switching between coal basins by domestic power utilities.”

A federal judge approved James River’s request to continue operations during its restructuring process, including paying wages and providing health care and other benefits to its 1,200 employees.

The company also appears committed to carrying out its contracts with electric utilities such as Indianapolis Power & Light, and Kentucky Utilities Co., which it supplies with coal from more productive mines in the Illinois Basin.

Either way, according to SNL Energy, James River’s chances for survival post-bankruptcy could be hindered by expiring contracts with electric utilities and the shrinking demand for Central Appalachian coal.

Spotlight on Eastern Kentucky Economy

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Molly Moore

When more than 1,700 citizens gathered in Pikeville, Ky., to discuss ideas for regional economic revitalization at the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit last December, the crowd was diverse.

In attendance were concerned citizens, grassroots organizers and many of the state’s government and business leaders.

During breakout sessions, participants discussed topics such as jobs, entrepreneurship, infrastructure, tourism and regional identity. Common themes included the need to invest coal severance taxes back into coal-impacted communities and to encourage youth to remain in the region.

Progress was quick regarding one of the most popular ideas at the summit: the expansion of broadband internet in under-served eastern Kentucky. In January, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced $100 million in federal, state and private funding to bolster the region’s internet access. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that it could take three years to install fiber optic infrastructure, the first phase of the project.

Another project touted by politicians at the summit was the expansion of the Mountain Parkway between central Kentucky and Pikeville to four lanes, a $750 million, six-year project that Gov. Beshear has called on lawmakers to approve.

Also in January, President Obama declared that eastern Kentucky would be one of five new “promise zones” where the area will be given special preference for federal grant dollars through existing programs. The initiative also aims to diversify the economy by increasing support for education, leadership and job training and establishing a revolving loan fund for small businesses.

To learn more about the SOAR Summit, read the report at governor.ky.gov/Documents/SOAR-report.pdf.

Recent Conservation Gains in Appalachia

By Meredith Warfield

With the Southeastern Cave Conservancy’s recent 75-acre land acquisition, two caves that were formerly off-limits have now been opened to the public in eastern Tennessee. The Run to the Mill Cave Preserve includes a pit nearly 170 feet deep and the largest population of endangered Indiana Bats in the state. Preliminary studies have revealed a likely presence of white-nose syndrome — an infection that has wiped out roughly 5.7 million bats in eastern North America. By managing the property, researchers hope to contain this disease and maintain local ecosystem health.

A 21-acre addition to the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia will ensure protection of the Soque River, a critical tributary to Atlanta’s primary drinking water source. The Soque River is also home to a significant population of brook trout, Georgia’s only native species of trout. With the Trust for Public Land’s purchase, the public will have use of the fishing waters as well as easier access to thousands of surrounding acres of national forest.