Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

Boone community comes together to tackle energy waste

Thursday, October 20th, 2016 - posted by Katie Kienbaum
Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil addresses attendees of the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil addresses attendees of the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting.

Last week, the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting brought together stakeholders from across Boone, N.C., to discuss the problem of energy waste in the town and explore possible solutions.

Attendees included Boone Mayor Rennie Brantz, Karla Rusch from Appalachian State University, Phil Trew from the High Country Council of Governments, Jeremy Barnes from Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Tommy Brown from F.A.R.M. Cafe and Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina Energy Savings team.

One of the biggest challenges identified by the stakeholders was the quality of Boone’s existing housing stock. Properties that were built quickly to house Boone’s growing population and Appalachian State University’s students often prioritized expedience and profit over energy efficiency. The design of some properties even encourages energy waste.

Several stakeholders shared stories of students and ASU staff having to open their apartment or office windows during winter to control the room temperature because there was only one thermostat for the entire building. Boone resident Barbara Talman also pointed out that many homes in the area were originally built for summer use only and were therefore not properly insulated. Now, those homes are being lived in all year round, , and the residents are stuck with high energy bills in the winter.

Weatherizing and retrofitting these inefficient buildings is a challenge. The high upfront costs of upgrades are a barrier to improving home energy efficiency, not only in Boone but across the nation. Boone also has a high proportion of renters. Owner-occupied housing accounts for just 20.2 percent of housing units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Landlords for rental properties are less likely than homeowners to invest in energy efficiency because they don’t pay the electricity bills, or otherwise lack incentive to invest thousands of dollars to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. The programs that do exist to help finance home energy upgrades are often not available to renters. This includes Blue Ridge Electric’s new Energy SAVER Loan Program and the housing rehabilitation programs administered by the High Country Council of Governments.

Even if financing is available for retrofits, finding qualified workers to complete the upgrades can be a headache. Tommy Brown, the volunteer coordinator at F.A.R.M. Cafe and a participant in the Energy SAVER Loan Program, pointed out the lack of local contractors, especially in the heating and cooling sector. Brown received the loan in June, but he is still waiting for work on his home to begin because no contractors are available.

Meeting participants came up with several ways to expand the number of qualified contractors, including improving communication of workforce needs and increasing funding for workforce training. In addition, developing affordable housing in the town of Boone would ensure that the newly trained workforce stays in the region and can help make the town more energy efficient.

The issue of energy efficiency is just one piece of a larger affordable housing puzzle here in Boone. According to Mayor Rennie Brantz, only two town employees live within town limits because the high demand for housing makes finding an affordable place to live nearly impossible. For the same reason, many of the employees at ASU commute to work from outside of Boone. The creation of affordable, non-student housing in town would cut down on energy waste from long commutes and contribute to the development of a sustainable economy.

Another solution proposed at the stakeholder meeting would be for the town government to actively promote energy efficiency. Officials could create something similar to the town’s successful water conservation program that would target energy waste in Boone. Housing ordinances could also be used to mandate certain efficiency measures.

Several participants noted ASU’s longstanding commitment to sustainability and pointed out that there’s an opportunity for the university to collaborate with the Town of Boone to develop efficiency solutions. The students at ASU are also a useful resource. Many students care about environmental issues and could be leveraged to demand energy efficiency upgrades from rental companies. The student rental market is very competitive due to an excess in supply of at least 2,000, so the rental companies would likely respond to student pressure. ASU could even develop a system to rank student rental properties based on how efficient they are to encourage companies to invest in energy upgrades.

Overall, while some key local stakeholders were unable to attend the meeting, Appalachian Voices and the stakeholders who attended agreed that it was a good first step toward identifying comprehensive solutions that could help tackle the problem of energy waste for the Town of Boone. To continue the conversation, Appalachian Voices will be organizing a second meeting in early December to further discuss these solutions.

Do you know someone that should be at these meetings, or are you interested in attending yourself? Contact Rory McIlmoil at 828-262-1500 or to let us know.

Speaking up for energy savings

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editor’s note: This post by Michael Goldberg originally appeared on the website of We Own It, a national network to help electric cooperative members rediscover their role as owners of a democratically-controlled enterprise. The piece focused on the efforts of Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for the High Country campaign.

How members of Blue Ridge Electric got their co-op’s attention, and action, on energy efficiency.

Mary Ruble speaks at an Appalachian Voices event to present more than 1,000 signatures from Blue Ridge Electric members supporting access to "on-bill" financing.

Mary Ruble speaks at an Appalachian Voices event to present more than 1,000 signatures from Blue Ridge Electric members supporting access to “on-bill” financing.

“Oh, I don’t think we can do that.”

Mary Ruble says that was the initial response from her electric co-op — Blue Ridge Electric in western North Carolina — to the idea of an “on-bill financing” program to help more members afford home improvements that reduce electricity use and lower bills.

A year later now, Blue Ridge has launched just such a program, called the Energy SAVER loan program. As an on-bill financing program, it aims to better serve co-op members who don’t have the up-front money for weatherization and other efficiency upgrades for their homes, especially those who may not be able to get a traditional bank loan. Members who qualify for the program get a loan for upgrades such as better insulation, air and duct sealing, and improved HVAC systems – with no upfront costs – and then repay over time through a charge on their utility bill. The goal is that the electricity savings generated through the improvements will be greater than the annual repayment, so that there’s a net savings for members.

So how was Blue Ridge convinced?

“Blue Ridge kept telling us they needed to hear from the members,” explains Ruble, a retired librarian and Blue Ridge Electric co-op member in Boone, North Carolina. “So we got over 1,000 signatures from co-op members on a petition. We got publicity. We went to board meetings. We made sure they heard from members.”

A lot of effort, but rewarding

Ruble is careful to explain that convincing the executives at her co-op took a lot of work. Members of other electric co-ops may find that the challenges she describes sound familiar: “In the old days our electric co-op used to have big meetings with festivities and music, and food and door prizes,” Ruble says. “Now voting is by proxy. The board meetings are in the middle of the week in the middle of the day, so they’re hard for people to attend. You get three minutes to speak. It can feel intimidating. It can feel like they don’t really want people there.”

Another challenge is that many people don’t think much about electricity. Ruble says that showing the cost of wasted electricity gets people’s attention. “You have to pull people in based on their interests,” Ruble says. “We had a graphic of a house with very few words, just showing the loss of energy – dollars flowing out the window. That gets people’s attention. I went to that first workshop myself to see how I could save.”

In addition to workshops, staff and volunteers with Appalachian Voices talked with co-op members and gathered over 1,000 signatures from members in support of an energy efficiency loan program with on-bill financing. Appalachian Voices also organized a “Home Energy Makeover Contest,” which awarded free home energy upgrades to several residents, as well as public events to raise awareness.

The Blue Ridge program is similar to a no-debt investment program called Upgrade to $ave offered by another NC cooperative, Roanoke Electric Cooperative, which provides on-bill financing through an opt-in tariff rather than a loan. While both of these approaches are opening the doors of opportunity for members, the tariffed terms allow renters to also benefit from a utility’s cost effective investments in energy upgrades. For more information on no-debt energy efficiency, see “How Electric Co-ops Can Save Money for their Members.”

Ruble says that at first she wasn’t sure how she could best help on the effort, but realized that as a retiree she had time to spare to help with tabling at grocery stores and local fairs, and had local connections and contacts she could call on. “It’s inspiring to be involved,” she reflects. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, like extending the program to renters, which is really needed but Blue Ridge hasn’t done so far. But it’s a start. We made progress, and we can make more going forward. An electric co-op is still member-owned,” Ruble adds. “You just have to be tenacious, and stay nice.”

The Path of Most Resistance

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

Renewable energy is here to stay. But utility pushback and state policy battles could determine who has access to cleaner power.

By Brian Sewell

Last December, Congress supercharged America’s already-booming solar industry when it extended federal tax credits for commercial and residential projects. The boost is expected to nearly double the total amount of solar installed — and the number of solar jobs — in the United States by 2021.

Citizens are calling on their power companies to increase access to renewable energy in creative ways.  Appalachian Power Company customers attend a grassroots meeting to oppose extra charges and size limits on solar in Virginia. Photo by Hannah Wiegard.

Citizens are calling on their power companies to increase access to renewable energy in creative ways. Appalachian Power Company customers attend a grassroots meeting to oppose extra charges and size limits on solar in Virginia. Photo by Hannah Wiegard

With federal incentives locked-in for the next five years, battles for the future of clean energy are heating up in dozens of states. Across the country, electric utilities are fighting to maintain monopoly control in the face of increasing power generation from distributed resources like rooftop solar or small wind projects that produce electricity near the point of consumption.

In many states, though, clean energy has built a constituency. Where the solar industry is well-established, it supports thousands of jobs and has the backing of a committed customer base that is calling for access to renewable power — for all.

Distributed Disputes

Pick any state on the map and there’s likely a battle related to residential solar already underway. Take West Virginia, where lawmakers approved changes last year to net metering, a policy that allows utility customers with their own solar installations to offset the cost of power they draw from the grid with power they produce.

In March 2015, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a bill directing the state Public Service Commission to investigate utilities’ most common argument against net metering: that, as more homeowners go solar and save money, eventually customers without solar will be forced to pay more.

  A solar project designed to test North Carolina’s ban on third-party electricity sales catches some rays on the roof of a Greensboro church. Photo courtesy of NC WARN.

A solar project designed to test North Carolina’s ban on third-party electricity sales catches some rays on the roof of a Greensboro church. Photo courtesy of NC WARN

But groups including The Alliance for Solar Choice and WV SUN claimed the bill’s vague language could lead to fees and even punitive charges on West Virginians that already have solar. Two weeks after vetoing the original bill, Gov. Tomblin signed a revised version into law that also instructs the commission to consider the potential upsides of net metering.

Several state commissions are way ahead of West Virginia’s and have already concluded that the benefits of net metering are both vast and shared. In 2014, the Mississippi Public Services Commission found that net metering promotes energy security and takes pressure off the state’s power plants during periods of high energy demand.

A similar study conducted for the Maine Public Utilities Commission in 2015 valued electricity generated by distributed solar at 33 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 13 cents per kilowatt hour, the average retail price of electricity in the state. The higher value accounts for benefits to customers with or without solar such as reductions in air and climate pollution.

Overall, a recent analysis by North Carolina State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center found that changes to net metering policies or the valuation of distributed solar were considered or enacted in 46 states last year alone. Many of those stemmed from utility-led efforts to thwart solar that are unlikely to let up.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of industry groups and state lawmakers that drafts model legislation, has resolved to change state net metering policies. In its 2016 corporate goals, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of investor-owned electric utilities that funds ALEC and helped draft the resolution, calls on power companies to continue pushing back against distributed generation.

Some utilities that have lobbied to impede distributed solar are also pushing to keep uneconomical power plants online. In March, FirstEnergy and American Electric Power, which have pushed for changes to net metering in West Virginia and other states, won approval from Ohio regulators to raise rates to keep seven aging coal plants and one nuclear plant operating until 2024, despite being uncompetitive in interstate electricity markets. Research by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis indicates the plan could cost ratepayers more than $4 billion.

Tug-of-War Tests Laws

More than any other state in the Southeast, North Carolina has emerged as a national solar leader, especially when it comes to utility-scale solar farms. Between 2007 and 2015, nearly $6 billion was invested in clean energy development in the state. Last year, North Carolina added 1,134 megawatts of solar capacity, second only to California.

State tax credits for solar projects and a standard requiring utilities to meet a portion of electricity demand with renewables have made the state a model of solar success. But some North Carolina policymakers want to take a different path. Lawmakers let the state’s solar tax credit expire at the end of 2015.

Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States. But due to a patchwork of regulations, the total amount of solar capacity installed varies widely by state and sector. Illustration courtesy of the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States. But due to a patchwork of regulations, the total amount of solar capacity installed varies widely by state and sector. Illustration courtesy of the Smart Electric Power Alliance

After an attempt in the state legislature last year to weaken the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, solar advocates are doubling down to communicate the benefits clean energy provides to residents.

“We learned that there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the solar industry and the clean energy industry as a whole,” says Maggie Clark, Interim Director of Government Affairs of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. “It is falsely assumed that the [renewable energy standard] is a cost to ratepayers.”

Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States. But due to a patchwork of regulations, the total amount of solar capacity installed varies widely by state and sector. Illustration courtesy of the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States. But due to a patchwork of regulations, the total amount of solar capacity installed varies widely by state and sector. Illustration courtesy of the Smart Electric Power Alliance

According to the North Carolina-based research institute RTI International, energy costs are lower today than they would have been if the state continued to rely entirely on conventional power sources. Researchers estimate investments in renewables and energy efficiency to comply with the renewable standard will generate $651 million in savings for ratepayers between 2008 and 2029.

Even Jim Rogers, who was CEO of Duke Energy in 2007 when the company helped craft the standard, called out the policymakers pushing to weaken it.

“They are not focused on the future,” Rogers said last year during a speech at the Charlotte Business Journal’s Energy Inc. Summit. “They are focused on the past.”

Companies including New Belgium Brewing and Mars, Inc., sent a letter to lawmakers opposing the effort because the renewable standard gave “companies like ours the business case to build and operate in North Carolina.” Apple, Google and Facebook, which have data centers in the state, warned legislators in another letter that freezing the standard would “risk undermining the state’s almost decade-long commitment to renewable power and energy efficiency.”

The renewable standard survived due to a groundswell of public attention and support from a broad range of stakeholders. But now a different fight is pitting companies and communities that want easier access to affordable solar against Duke Energy.

In April, the North Carolina Utilities Commission shot down an experimental solar project set up on a Greensboro church to test the legality of third-party electricity sales. North Carolina is one of only four states in the country with a ban on third-party sales, which allow energy producers other than utilities to compete in the clean energy marketplace. Duke Energy operates in three of those states.

NC WARN, the Durham-based advocacy group behind the test project, appealed the commission’s ruling in May and disputed the idea that North Carolina is a leader on solar when it lacks policies to promote commercial and residential installations.

Standby for Solar

Unlike North Carolina, the solar market in Virginia has sat idle for years. The commonwealth has about the same potential for solar as its southern neighbor, but lacks a mandatory renewable portfolio standard and never enacted state tax credits to bolster clean energy investments.

An April report by the Center for Biological Diversity gave Virginia — among other southeastern states including Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee — an “F” on policies to help residents access solar. That’s harsh but not far off, according to Ivy Main, an environmental lawyer who writes about Virginia energy policy on her blog Power for the People VA.

“We’ve reached an economic tipping point where some residents and businesses find it worth doing,” says Main. ”But we also have standby charges that apply to larger residential systems.”

Another emerging trend is actions by utilities to impose fees on customers with solar that still need the grid as backup. Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power Company have both instituted “standby charges” in Virginia that will cost customers with solar systems larger than 10 kilowatts hundreds of dollars each year.

Since currently only a handful of the utilities’ customers have systems that size, Main argues the extra fees are intended to discourage the residential solar market rather than protect ratepayers. And, like utility arguments against net metering, the charges ignore the benefits of distributed resources.

“[Distributed generation] is being done with private investment, but it is a tremendous public service,” Main says.

As Duke Energy and Dominion restrict access to solar, they’re making the case to utility regulators — and ratepayers — that building the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline to transport natural gas is a must to maintain reliability and meet growing electricity demand. The two utilities will own a majority stake in the project, but if anticipated demand for natural gas does not materialize, their customers will still be on the hook to pay for the pipeline.

“We’re seeing a clash of visions,” says Main. “It’s going to take a lot of public pressure to expand access to clean energy and make sure we’re not locked into fossil fuels for the next 30 years.”

Concerns Linger as Coal Companies Emerge from Bankruptcy

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Brian Sewell

Following months of tumultuous court proceedings, major coal companies are seeking approval for plans to exit bankruptcy — despite the objections of key stakeholders including regulators, lenders and union miners.

On May 5, Arch Coal revealed a plan to emerge from bankruptcy that sheds little light on how the company will pay to clean up its mines or meet its obligations to employees or the group of lenders that hold most of its debt. The company’s plan does, however, ensure senior lenders will be paid. If approved, the plan would leave junior lenders and current shareholders with scraps.

But regulators and environmental groups say Arch’s plan is most problematic for how it fails to address hundreds of millions in cleanup costs at the company’s mines in Central Appalachia and western states.

Several states have allowed Arch and other companies to self-bond, a practice that allows the company to insure the cost of restoring the land after mining based on their financial history, rather than requiring collateral or a more secure form of bonding. Environmental groups including the Powder River Basin Resource Council argue the option to self-bond should be off the table for companies that have gone through bankruptcy.

Although Arch pledged to honor its commitment to pay employee benefits, the company reserved the right to change pension and healthcare contracts. Another struggling coal giant, Alpha Natural Resources, was recently allowed to break its contract with United Mine Workers of America, a move that could affect more than 3,000 employees and retirees. According to the Associated Press, the company also plans to eliminate benefits to non-union miners.

Both Arch and Alpha are pressing ahead; Arch’s creditors will vote on its restructuring plan in June, and a vote on Alpha’s plan will come in July.

Energy Burden Affects Low-Income and Minority Families and other news briefs

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

Energy Burden Affects Low-Income and Minority Families

Low-income, African-American, Latino and renter households spend a higher percentage of their household income on energy bills than the average household in the same cities, according to a study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the Energy Efficiency for All coalition.

This high energy burden can be tied to less efficient housing and is most prominent in the Southeast and Midwest regions of the United States. The study suggests energy efficiency tactics that could help to remediate this discrepancy such as improving low-income utility programs and opting into the early credit options provided by the Clean Power Plan’s Clean Energy Incentive Program. — Hannah Petersen

Feds Seek Public Comment on Coal Leases

The U.S. Department of Interior is reviewing the federal coal leasing program to re-assess the health, environmental and financial impacts of mining and burning coal found on federally owned land.

Six public hearings will be heard across the country through June. On May 26, the southeastern hearing was held in Knoxville, Tenn. Concerned citizens, as well as environmental groups such as Appalachian Voices, attended this meeting.

“It’s time for a planned transition that will keep federal coal in the ground,” Bonnie Swinford from the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club said in a press release.
Written comments can be submitted to DOI until July 28. For more information, visit — Elizabeth E. Payne

Ky. Utilities Seek Rate Increase for Coal Ash Cleanup

Kentucky Utilities Company and Louisville Gas and Electric are seeking permission from the Kentucky Public Services Commission to make customers supplement the cost for coal ash cleanup with increased rates. According to an article by the Public News Service, average monthly rates for KU consumers could increase $2.16 and $2.26 for LG&E consumers.

The revenue would go toward closing and capping the companies’ existing coal ash ponds, building new process water systems and controlling air emissions for the plants.

However conservationists believe the costs of coal pollution that have been ignored for several decades should be factored into the costs of production, not consumption. Information about rate increases can be found at — Hannah Petersen

2016 Predicted to Show a Drop in US Coal Use

This year is predicted to see the largest decline in coal production since 1949, with the amount of coal produced in the Appalachian region forecasted to decline by 15 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The EIA reports that consumption is also declining and, on average, stockpiles measured in February 2016 were 26 percent higher than those measured in 2015.

The agency states this decline in consumption and production is due to a mild winter and competition from the natural gas market. — Hannah Petersen

Obama Administration Nears Standards on Methane

Editor’s Note: Methane traps 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide, not 25 percent as appeared in our print edition. We regret this error.

On May 12, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a step toward cutting methane emissions by 40 percent over the next ten years. Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps at least 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

A significant source of methane is natural gas. The new action requires the oil and natural gas industry to provide information needed before the EPA issues the final rules. The standards are expected to limit methane leaks from existing infrastructure and prevent leaks in new constructions, such as wells and pipelines.

With an eye on limiting climate change, the Obama administration is seeking to address a potent source of greenhouse gas with these measures. — Elizabeth E. Payne

Announcing the Energy Savings for Appalachia webinar series

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016 - posted by Amber Moodie-Dyer

Three-part series highlights on-bill financing as a unique opportunity for our region

If you happened to miss our first energy efficiency on-bill financing webinar on May 11, don’t despair. You can watch a recording of the webinar, which is the first in a series describing the benefits of on-bill financing entitled “Leveraging Energy Savings: On-bill Financing as an Economic Opportunity in the Southeast.”

At this point you may be wondering, what is on-bill financing and why might I want to watch a webinar about it? Do you care about saving money on your electric bills, minimizing energy waste, helping the environment and your local economy? Energy efficiency on-bill financing can address all of these concerns. With on-bill financing, people can make energy efficiency improvements to their home without having to foot the bill upfront. Instead, residents pay for the improvements over time through a monthly charge on their electric bill. With a well-designed program, many residents will have lower bills even while paying back the project cost because of the energy savings they’re achieving.

Curious? Watch the webinar below to learn more!

You can watch the one-hour webinar, or simply review the slides here. In the video above you’ll hear Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil discuss the effects of energy waste in the Southeast and Appalachian region, how energy efficiency programs can benefit communities by saving people money and creating jobs, the best practice Pay-As-You-Save® model of on-bill financing for weatherization improvements, sources of capital for on-bill financing programs, case studies of successful on-bill finance programs and ways you can engage in our campaign.

Keep a look out for an announcement about the second webinar in the series next month that will delve into what we’re learning about on-bill financing from a number of electric cooperatives throughout the country who offer this program (including some in our own region and state). Visit the Energy Savings for Appalachia homepage to learn more about campaign, and while you’re there, be sure to go to our Energy Savings Action Center to submit a letter to your utility provider a letter asking them to offer on-bill financing.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Drinking water problems still plague eastern Kentucky

Friday, May 6th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Basic needs must be met to ensure successful economic transition

A creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow in April. The state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. Photo via Facebook

A creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow in April. The state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. Photo via Facebook.

When Rockhouse Creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow last month, Tomahawk resident Gina Patrick said she had one major concern: that the pollution might ruin her water well.

Patrick has relied on well water her whole life and didn’t want to pay to be hooked up to the municipal water system. That’s because the Martin County Water District is one of the worst water infrastructure systems in the state in terms of water quality and water loss.

Patrick lives on Rockhouse Creek. She said that as she watched the bright yellow plume move down the creek, she took a sample of the water and put it in a paint bucket under her porch. Two curious newborn puppies on her property found the paint bucket and drank its contents. They became violently ill and died later that day.

At the end of April, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet released a report detailing the state’s investigation into the spill, but there was no mention of Patrick’s dead dogs. Although many local residents thought the pollution might have been related to fracking — an oily sheen was noticed on the surface of the water — the state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. According to Lanny Brannock, a spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, regulators do not know if someone intentionally put paint in the creek or if it was an accident.

But many Martin County residents still have questions, and that’s not uncommon in a county that has seen its fair share of coal slurry spills and municipal water problems. The Mountain Citizen, located in the county seat of Inez, has doggedly reported water quality and environmental issues for decades. In fact, the newspaper’s diligence, combined with the hard work of local organizers, prompted the Kentucky Public Service Commission to investigate the county’s water system, which has a water loss rate of more than 60 percent and often delivers smelly, foul water.

In the aftermath of Flint, Mich., this video from Martin County caught the attention of consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who posted it to her Facebook page.

When I spoke with Inez resident Josie Delong back in February, she was very clear about the long-term burdens that come with having bad water:

The biggest [burden] is definitely health issues. But also the fact that most of us are on a fixed income here. Everybody’s losing their jobs in the mines, losing their jobs here or there, and can’t afford these high water bills, and we can’t even use the water. We’re paying these bills and yet still having to go to the store and get water, and we don’t know what it’s doing to us. And that’s the big fear. We have no idea.

In 2015, the Martin County Water District accrued multiple non-compliance violations for known carcinogens such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. In the offices of the Mountain Citizen, editor Gary Ball points to the back of his latest water bill, which includes a notice for anyone with an immunodeficiency disorder: do not drink the water. “In other words, if you’re as healthy as a horse, drink away,” Ball says. “But sooner or later it’s going to get to you.”

Ball and the Mountain Citizen have also extensively documented the unequal way in which water is distributed in the county, and how many customers are often not informed of boil water advisories or shut-offs in the system. According to Gary and Lisa Smith Stayton, owner and publisher of the Mountain Citizen, the excessive water loss rate often impacts the poorer or more remote areas of the county first. As water is diverted to more populated and wealthy areas in the county, some customers are forced to go without.

Sometimes there’s no water at all. As Ms. McCoy explains in this Facebook post, not having water creates all kinds of social and financial hardships on her day-to-day schedule.

Officials in the county have adamantly denied the extent of the problems, and often portray concerned citizens as alarmists and idealists. The Martin County Judge Executive, Kelly Callaham, has publicly stated that the 60 percent water loss rate in the system is due to people stealing water from fire hydrants and industrial coal mine sites. (I reached out to Mr. Callaham and the Martin County Water District; neither returned my requests for a comment).

“Our officials downplay every single issue, and go to great extents to discredit those who speak up,” says Lisa Smith Stayton. She described a recent fiscal court hearing that turned into an attempt to publicly discredit a Mountain Citizen report about disinfection byproducts in the water. Lisa was incredulous. “One magistrate even said ‘you’re more likely to get cancer from eating a hot dog.’”

In late March, due to pressure from citizens like Delong, Ball and Stayton, state Senator Ray Jones convened a meeting at his office in Frankfort to discuss issues with the water system. Watching footage of the meeting is frustrating; a great deal of time is wasted on discussing surreal and overstated accusations of “water theft.” At several points in the conversation, some variation of this statement is heard: “Martin County is not the only county where these problems occur.”

This is a familiar tactic deployed by the powerful: make the victims appear as if their demands are inherently selfish because, after all, it’s happening to everyone. If you can portray the powerless as hyperbolic and alarmist, you eventually start to convince them that their demands are crazy. This is known as “gaslighting,” and it’s a depressingly effective way to evade accountability.

But residents like Delong aren’t deterred. As she told me:

The more people who talk about it and share their concerns, the better. Because, I’ll be honest, I sat back for a long time and said, “Well why should I say anything about it? I’m just one person. That’s not gonna change anything.” And then the very second I did mention it on social media, and posted a picture, I saw a huge response. And that gave me confidence. Maybe we can change this.

Motivated by health problems that she believes to be caused by the water, as well as mounting medical bills, Delong started a public Facebook forum. She began polling her friends to see if they suffered from similar afflictions and medical costs. The results are astounding in their detail and specificity; many respondents reported skin irritations, stomach issues and autoimmune disorders.

It’s obvious from reading the comments on Delong’s poll, as well as the many comments on the Martin County Water Warriors’ Facebook page, that the public health costs of living in coalfield counties are increasingly burdensome. My own experience bears that out; I live in Letcher County, Ky., about an hour and a half south of Martin County. I spend upwards of $50 each month on bottled water, and most of my friends and neighbors do the same. With coal severance funds declining, we’re also forced to pay more for basic services like trash and recycle collections. The Letcher County Recreation Center, built with coal severance funds, is constantly at risk of closing.

In fact, Gina Patrick’s anxiety about having to switch from well water to potentially-dangerous municipal water is not uncommon. Whether it comes from a well or a municipal system, the drinking water of many eastern Kentuckians is at risk of being polluted. When a dangerous acid mine drainage spill occurred five miles upstream of the Letcher County water intake in March, we were reminded of the many times our water system was poisoned by diesel fuel from local oil magnate Don Childers. It doesn’t help knowing that the state actively works to sweep those violations under the rug, or that it neglects to include important factors like dead dogs in its investigation of a bright yellow creeks.

Delong articulates the full scope of this problem and the struggle to stay:

It just feels like we’re going downhill so fast. I’ve had a lot of friends move out of the county. And it’s sad. I grew up here. And everyone’s just leaving. And it’s becoming a ghost town. And I don’t want to leave. I mean, I could, I’m sure. But who’s going to want to buy a home in this county? How could you sell your home? When someone away from here looks up Martin County, they automatically see repeats of all these troubles and problems and people moving away and no jobs and no opportunities. It’s gonna be impossible to sell your home right now. And I don’t want to leave. I want to do what I can — I’m just one person but I want to do what I can to try and make things better for us, instead of just watching it go downhill.

Officials say that they want people to stay. Some even say that they want economic transition. But what are they doing to help us save money where it matters — on very basic needs like food, water and healthcare? The solutions to these needs amount to the most basic and essential forms of economic development: safe drinking water, functioning local services, affordable healthcare and access to adequately funded social programs. They are simple solutions to very real problems that would save people money and help them stay in the region that they love.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Peabody Energy joins coal bankruptcy club

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 - posted by brian
While the company no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of Peabody Energy’s fall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

While the company no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of Peabody Energy’s downfall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

This week, the world’s largest private-sector coal company filed for bankruptcy and pretty much no one was surprised.

Citing an “unprecedented industry downturn,” St. Louis-based Peabody Energy joined the ranks of Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal, Walter Energy and dozens of other U.S. coal companies forced to seek bankruptcy protections since 2012.

But Peabody’s production, the depth of its debt and the scale of its liabilities set the bankrupt coal behemoth apart.

The company operates the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming, the largest coal mine in the country. Last year, that mine alone accounted for 109 million tons of the nearly 900 million tons of coal produced in the U.S.

In order to eventually clean up its mines, Peabody is on the hook for more than $2 billion, but more than half of that amount is secured with “self-bonds,” basically a coal industry IOU conveniently co-signed by the taxpayer. It’s estimated that the company has amassed around $6 billion in debt.

While Peabody no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of its downfall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal. Like those companies, Peabody bet big on overseas demand and took on billions in debt in 2011 when it acquired the Australian producer Macarthur Coal. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one.)

Rather than surging as predicted, demand for steelmaking metallurgical coal plunged. According to a February study by the economic analysis firm Rhodium Group, 93 percent of the decline in the industry’s revenue between 2011 and 2014 was due to a drop in the consumption and cost of metallurgical coal. That hit, combined with competition from natural gas and clean energy at home, eventually became too much to bear.

Central Appalachia also has a lot of first-hand experience with what happens next, especially after Alpha’s and Arch’s bankruptcy proceedings. In recent months, those companies have worked to dodge environmental cleanup liabilities and their obligations to workers past and present. Yet, somewhere, both Alpha and Arch found millions of dollars in bonuses to reward executives. For what? Not jumping ship, essentially.

Based on its past actions, I’m not sure we should expect any different from Peabody. After all, the coal company thought to be “too big to fail” may have gotten there partly by creating companies to fail. Look at what happened to Patriot Coal, a twice-bankrupt company created in 2007 from unionized, Peabody-owned mines in West Virginia and Kentucky and saddled with pension and health care obligations to more than 8,000 retired miners.

In fact, Appalachian citizens may be the least surprised that Peabody has joined the coal industry’s bankruptcy club.

“Here in Kentucky, we’ve known the coal industry has been leaving for 30 years,” said Carl Shoupe, a retired third generation coal miner and member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. So Shoupe and others across the region are staying focused on the future.

“Mr. Peabody’s coal train might have hauled away our coal — and the profits along with it — but we Kentuckians are still right here, fighting every day for a bright future and demanding our elected leaders do their job to help us transition to a new economy while keeping our promises to the coal miners who powered this country.”

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Sleeping giants: TVA and Georgia Power stuck in second gear on energy efficiency

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editors’ Note: This piece, by Taylor Allred, is the third entry in a blog series entitled Energy Savings in the Southeast and featured on the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s footprints blog. The series will cover the performance of Southeastern utilities’ energy efficiency programs, and highlight how the region can achieve more money-saving and carbon-reducing energy savings. Future posts in this series can be found here.

While even the region’s top achievers have room for improvement, some of the largest utilities in the Southeast are seriously falling behind on energy efficiency. In particular, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Georgia Power are two enormously capable utilities that appear to be stuck in second gear.

Huge Potential, Anemic Growth



The nation’s largest public power provider, TVA provides generation and transmission to 154 electric cooperatives and municipal utilities serving more than 9 million people across seven states. In addition, TVA provides power to 59 directly served industrial customers.

TVA started ramping up its energy savings in 2011, following a relatively favorable outcome for energy efficiency in its 2011 integrated resource plan (IRP). Apart from the IRP, the federal utility also signed a 2011 EPA Consent Decree settlement over coal-plant emissions violations that, among other things, called for TVA to spend at least $240 million on energy efficiency. Following up on the IRP, the TVA Board challenged its staff to achieve savings equivalent to the output of a new nuclear plant, and TVA did just that with its EnergyRight Solutions programs, reporting 1,126 MW in avoided capacity additions from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2014.

Not surprisingly, the cost of TVA’s energy savings – about $0.02 per kWh – was far lower than the $0.10 to $0.14 per kWh cost of new nuclear energy reported by Lazard. However, the ultra-low cost energy savings also indicate that they could be doing a lot more. TVA’s net savings rate of 0.25% ranks in the bottom half of major Southeastern utilities.

Georgia Power

Georgia Power is the largest subsidiary of Southern Company, one of the largest power providers in the country. As the only investor-owned electric utility in Georgia, the company serves more than 2.4 million customers, including the Atlanta metro area.

While it has achieved higher savings than TVA, Georgia Power has been on a slow growth trajectory over the past few years, and just under half of its 0.43% 2014 savings came from prescriptive commercial incentives, such as fluorescent lighting retrofits. Commercial lighting is a fairly easy way for utilities to achieve a base level of energy savings at an extremely low cost, but it is critical to also invest fully in the many other opportunities for cost-effective savings.

Non-Residential Savings

Both TVA and Georgia Power derive about three-quarters of their energy savings from non-residential customers, but both utilities are still far from fully capturing their huge non-residential savings potential – for completely opposite reasons having to do with their industrial energy efficiency programs.

On the one hand, Georgia Power has no energy efficiency programs for large industrial customers – industrial interest groups maintain an active stance against developing programs tailored to their members’ needs. But just to the north, TVA’s industrial program is limited not by opposition from industrial interest groups, but by TVA’s budget. Industrial customer interest in the program is so high that TVA has suspended new applications for months at a time when funds have run out. Thankfully, TVA’s programs are currently all funded and operating.

The Role of Resource Planning

One of the biggest opportunities to increase energy savings is in the treatment of energy efficiency in integrated resource planning. Utilities typically just pick a modest number as an energy efficiency target, and then subtract that figure from their demand forecasts prior to modeling generation resources based on costs.

The problem with that approach is that energy efficiency is actually the least-cost resource available (and clean!), so it’s wasteful not to maximize cost-effective energy efficiency. A better approach is to model energy efficiency as an energy resource on equal footing with generation resources, but very few utilities have tried it.

TVA’s 2015 IRP

With its 2015 IRP, TVA broke new ground by becoming the first Southeastern utility to model energy efficiency as a resource, something SACE had recommended in our 2011 IRP comments. Unfortunately, TVA developed a methodology that inappropriately inflated the cost of energy efficiency and placed unreasonable limits on its ability to compete on a level playing field with other resources. However, TVA has been sharing its experience and could inspire other utilities to model energy efficiency, possibly with better methodologies.

In a year full of changes, it appears that TVA’s fiscal year 2015 net savings have declined to about 0.2% of sales, but new programs could drive growth in the near future. TVA launched a promising new residential audit and retrofit program called eScore in early 2015, and has recently been exploring options for serving lower-income customers, who are generally unable to access TVA’s energy efficiency rebates due to high upfront costs. SACE is engaging on those efforts, and we commend TVA for its interest in providing equitable offerings for lower-income customers.

Georgia Power’s 2016 IRP

Georgia Power filed its 2016 IRP in late January, and unfortunately, it represents more of the same. The company has not modeled energy efficiency as a resource, and its plan provides for only modest growth in energy savings. SACE will testify as an intervenor in the IRP proceeding and recommend ways the company could significantly increase its cost-effective energy savings. One solution we plan to recommend is a tariff-based on-bill financing program that would enable customers to make energy efficiency upgrades with no money down, and achieve immediate bill savings that are greater than the monthly payments.

SACE will continue pushing TVA and Georgia Power to increase their energy savings to catch up with regional leaders such as Entergy Arkansas. We are hopeful that a healthy spirit of competition, as well as Southeastern utilities’ growing experience with energy efficiency, will help to drive significant growth across the region over the next few years.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Responding to “Appalachia’s Distress”

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016 - posted by brian

We have to address the economic and environmental burdens created by a dependence on coal

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal moves closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

Earlier this month, a letter to the editors of The New York Times by Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons appeared on the newspaper’s website.

Tom penned the letter following a piece by the Times editorial board that described a “grossly disfigured landscape” where steep mountain ridgelines that formed over millions of years old stand “flat as mesas … inhospitable to forest restoration.”

After decades of mountaintop removal and large-scale surface mining, these grim descriptions of Central Appalachia are familiar in the media, literature and the daily experience of those that live near mines.

Not only does this devastating practice continue to reduce mountains to rubble, poisoning the air and water, Tom points out:

… mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities as the industry searches out ever-dwindling coal seams, and residents continue to suffer from a multitude of health effects related to mining pollution, not to mention dire economic conditions.

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant. Backers of mountaintop removal believe the debate ends with the reclamation of mines — a superficial “fix” that Ken Hechler, a former congressman and long-time opponent of mountaintop removal, has unsettlingly compared to putting “lipstick on a corpse.” But new research challenges the myth that reclamation can restore mountains, much less ecological health.

Donate now to help us continue to protect Appalachian streams

The Times’ welcome editorial drew attention to this study, by researchers at Duke University, that found mountaintop removal has left large swaths of Central Appalachia 40 percent flatter than they were before mining, leading to staggering changes in erosion patterns and water quality that are, essentially, permanent.

“We have data that the water quality impacts can last at least 30 years, but the geomorphology impacts might last thousands of years,” according to the study’s lead author, Matthew Ross.

The editorial also makes a brief mention of the Stream Protection Rule, which would go far to reducing the worst impacts of mountaintop removal. Tom wrote his letter in part to stress the importance of this science-based rule and to urge federal regulators to stand firm in the face of industry opposition, and finalize it before President Obama leaves office.

Not doing so could come at a high cost to Appalachia’s environmental and economic future. As Tom’s letter concludes:

… unless the [U.S. Department of the Interior] has the courage to issue a strong rule later this year that reflects the most current science, achieving a prosperous future here will be all but impossible.

Read the Times’ editorial here. Click here for Tom’s letter.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.