Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

White House budget leaves Appalachia in the dust

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017 - posted by thom
The White House's budget won't become law, but it should alarm people across the country — and perhaps especially people in Appalachia.

The White House’s budget won’t become law, but it should alarm people across the country — and perhaps especially people in Appalachia.

The White House released its budget blueprint last week, and the proposal is nothing short of a disaster for Appalachia and rural communities across the country. The Trump administration will release a more complete budget request in May, but we have a lot of information to go on already.

Congress, not the president, holds America’s purse strings, so the majority of the White House budget proposal will never become a reality. But the “skinny budget” still reveals a great deal about where Appalachian communities fall on the administration’s list of priorities.

First, let’s look at a few agencies and programs the White House wants to completely eliminate:

Appalachian Regional Commission – For more than 50 years, the ARC has provided funding for projects throughout the region to create economic opportunities and improve critical infrastructure. ARC funding and assistance has created an entire highway system, and introduced broadband, all while supporting local and sustainable projects like all of these. Recently, ARC has improved efforts to build leadership and community participation. Republican leaders from Kentucky, most notably Rep. Hal Rogers (KY-5), have successfully increased annual funding for the ARC in the past four years from about $60 million to over $120 million.

Economic Development Administration: The only federal agency focused entirely on economic development, the EDA promotes innovation and competitiveness in regions in need. The EDA has a crucial role in the diversification of Appalachia’s economy, as well as communities throughout the country coming together and seeking ways to overcome the downturn in the coal industry.

Weatherization Assistance Program and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program: While the programs are quite different, they work in tandem to help low-income families reduce their energy bills. Energy efficiency and weatherization can greatly improve Americans’ health and quality of life, save money, and improve the value of homes. But without assistance, many low-income families cannot afford to make the necessary home improvements to achieve these benefits. Housing in Appalachian is among the least efficient in the country, and these two programs are needed to change that fact.

Abandoned Mine Lands: In response to widespread support from Appalachian local governments for ideas outlined in the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan, Rep. Rogers and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) last year carved out money for a pilot program to repurpose Abandoned Mine Lands for economic development projects. The program sent $30 million each to Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania for projects on previously mined sites. While the pilot program was never intended to continue indefinitely, Congress plans to continue funding it for one more year, this time including funds for Virginia, Ohio and Alabama.

We haven’t even gotten to the big cuts yet. You might have noticed I been buried the lead, and that’s mostly because it’s been widely reported since rumors started to emerge about a month ago.

Environmental Protection Agency: The White House wants to slash the agency’s budget by 31 percent. The EPA is America’s best defense against air and water pollution. Appalachian Voices has long worked to hold the EPA accountable for its shortcomings, but we should not for a moment overlook the immeasurable benefits the thousands of EPA employees have had on all of our lives. Before the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and National Environmental Policy Act were passed to provide us with the protections we now enjoy, we were racing down a dangerous path of pollution. The challenges have only gotten greater in the past 40 years, but we live in a stronger, healthier, more sustainable world because of the EPA. Hampering the agency’s ability to carry out its job is unacceptable.

Climate change programs: The official position of the White House Office of Management and Budget is that climate programs are a “waste of your money.” If you believe that climate change is a hoax, then I suppose that makes sense. On the other hand, if you agree with the rest of the world and recognize that an urgent and effective response to this global crisis is long overdue, then this is more than just crazy talk — it’s catastrophic thinking.

Everything else: The White House budget also eliminates the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. These are not uniquely relevant to Appalachia, but the region is hardly unaffected by cutting these types of programs. Despite what the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney seems to think, eliminating funding for things like PBS is not a favor to coal miners or anyone else in West Virginia. Mulvaney indicated that people in Appalachia have no use for PBS, NPR, or the arts, and maybe that just tells us what he thinks of those programs. Then again, maybe it tells us more about what he thinks of people in Appalachia.

It bears repeating that Congress has control of the budget and none of these proposals have become law. We are confident that most of the programs will continue to be funded at or near current levels for the near future. But the budget is the clearest, most comprehensive picture we have of the dangerous direction in which President Trump wants to take the country. And it’s a call to arms for everyone to protect successful programs that Americans support and benefit from every day.

FERC’s pipeline review process is broken

Monday, February 20th, 2017 - posted by Peter Anderson

Former chairman adds his voice to public demands for greater scrutiny

As new research refutes industry's pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

As new research refutes industry’s pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

Sign the petition to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today!

It’s no secret: oil and gas pipelines have captured the nation’s attention, not to mention the new administration’s. Standing Rock’s resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline continues to put water protection, indigenous rights and environmental justice at the fore of any pipeline discussion. And not so long ago, the Keystone XL pipeline came to symbolize the United States’ willingness to lead (or not) on climate action. Now the Trump administration hopes to revive both.

The Trump administration also hopes to push through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would transport fracked gas 600 miles from the Marcellus Shale in northern West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina. A list of the administration’s top 50 infrastructure priorities leaked in January includes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at number 20. The document reports the pipeline’s permitting process as “done,” despite the fact that comment periods for some federal and state permits are currently open and no permits have been issued. How’s that for alternative facts?

Pipelines not needed

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency with primary authority for permitting interstate gas pipelines, was generally viewed as pipeline-friendly even prior to the Trump era. The agency allows a 14 percent rate of return on investments in pipeline capital, and its environmental reviews typically fall short in analyzing both the need for additional pipelines and the projected climate impacts of new projects (in addition to many other deficiencies).

However, former FERC Chairman Norman Bay offered a surprising call for reform of the agency’s pipeline certificate process when he stepped away at the beginning of February (see the last six pages of this FERC order). Bay criticized the method FERC uses to determine whether or not there is a need for a pipeline. He pointed out that FERC usually looks to precedent agreements between pipeline owners and gas shippers as evidence of need. But this method is flawed.

According to Bay, “focusing on precedent agreements may not take into account a variety of other considerations, including … whether the precedent agreements are largely signed by affiliates.”

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In other words, a company applying to build a new pipeline says, “Look, we have subscribers lined up to buy gas from the pipeline, so there must be a need for it.” But a closer examination reveals that the buyer and the seller are both affiliates of the same parent corporation.

This echoes a concern highlighted in a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published in April 2016. That report found that “in situations in which a pipeline developer contracts with an affiliate company to ship gas through a new pipeline, this is strong evidence that it is doing so because of the financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is a need for the pipeline.”

This report studied the risks of building both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile gas pipeline that would also cut through the Appalachian regions of West Virginia and Virginia. It pointed out that for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, five of the six companies contracted to buy gas are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline. Energy behemoths Dominion Resources and Duke Energy have a combined 85 percent ownership stake in the pipeline, and their subsidiary companies have subscribed to 86 percent of the gas shipped. For the Mountain Valley Pipeline, all six of the buyers are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline.

Another report, published in September 2016 by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., studied conservative estimates of future gas demand in Virginia and the Carolinas. It concluded that, even under scenarios where gas use for electricity production is high, existing pipelines have more than enough capacity to provide energy to the region. That is, we can keep the lights on and businesses thriving without ever building the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

Climate impacts of gas pipelines

In addition to the needs analysis, Bay also called on FERC to reform its evaluation of climate impacts. In its draft environmental review of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, FERC refused to consider that the pipeline would spur more gas production, enabling more methane leakage along the entire supply chain. Without quantifying them, FERC compared downstream smokestack emissions to global greenhouse gas emissions and concluded that the pipeline’s emissions would merely be a drop in the bucket.

In its draft environmental review for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, FERC did attempt a rough calculation of downstream emissions but again refused to analyze upstream effects or methane leakage. FERC’s review stated that emissions from burning the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s gas would be roughly 29 million metric tons (MMt) per year.

A new briefing published by Oil Change International puts a comparable number on emissions from gas combustion for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, estimating 31 MMt annually. But when you add increased gas production and methane leakage along the supply chain, total emissions more than double, reaching nearly 68 MMt per year. The organization also published a briefing for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, estimating total life-cycle emissions at nearly 90 MMt annually.

To put that in perspective, emissions from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be the rough equivalent of adding 20 coal-fired power plants to the grid or putting 14 million more cars on the road. Emissions from the Mountain Valley Pipeline would be like adding 26 coal-fired power plants or putting 19 million more cars on the road.

While Norman Bay defended FERC’s existing climate analysis methods from a legal perspective, he also argued for change. He stated that “in the interests of good government” the agency should analyze downstream impacts and perform lifecycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions — not just from pipelines — but from the entire Marcellus and Utica gas production region.

Other environmental impacts

Besides bludgeoning our atmosphere with huge amounts of new greenhouse gas pollution, the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines would, of course, threaten thousands of groundwater sources, surface streams and wetlands. Constructing the pipelines would force the permanent removal of trees along their routes, fragmenting habitats and spoiling views from the Appalachian Trail. The projects would threaten human health and safety, especially near powerful compressor stations used to pump gas along the line. They would disproportionately impact lower-income communities, communities of color and Native American communities, threatening important historic and cultural resources.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, Bay did not follow his own advice and revise the way FERC analyzes pipeline need or climate impacts while he led the agency. But here’s how you can do your part:

Mountain Valley Pipeline:

Atlantic Coast Pipeline:

Protect natural resources for Southwest Virginia’s future

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices

Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule using a rarely invoked law called the Congressional Review Act. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends rushed to urge lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal coal mining. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Central Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies, state agencies and the federal government accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.

Ron Short

Ron Short

I was born and raised in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. My father was a coal miner, and without his efforts to send me to school, I would have been a coal miner also. For all my life, the coal economy has ruled this region and its people. Now we are facing the demise of the coal industry, and we must save the valuable natural resources that we have left if we are ever to develop cultural tourism and eco-tourism as important parts of a new economy that works for everyone.

When I was small, one company dumped coal waste into the Pound River and I saw the deadly effects that followed: thousands of dead fish, mink, muskrats, frogs, birds and water so polluted with metals and minerals that for the first time in my life I could not swim in the river. I was 10 years old and it took the river 50 years to heal itself. My father was 90 years old before we could go fishing in the Pound River together again. Sadly, pollution from mining operations is still contaminating our waterways today.

The Stream Protection Rule — the product of nearly a decade of community engagement and scientific and economic studies — is designed to preserve this life-giving resource. Unfortunately, Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to kill the Stream Protection Rule using an obscure procedure known as a Congressional Review Act as part of the mad rush to rip the last of the coal out of the ground at any cost.

Water truly is life! We have more pristine and biologically valuable waters than most places in the world, and we need to protect them for our health, our economic future and our grandchildren. Senators Kaine and Warner, you are our only allies in Washington. Please do not let your colleagues kill the Stream Protection Rule. Killing this rule would produce a short-term political gain for their ilk, but it could create a future that we in Southwest Virginia may never be able to recover from.

Ron Short

Southwest Virginians speak out against Doe Branch Mine

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 - posted by willie
A map of the Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River. At a recent hearings Southwest Virginians shared their concerns about Doe Branch with state regulators.

A map of the Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River. At a recent hearings Southwest Virginians shared their concerns about Doe Branch with state regulators.

“God gave us the water so we can stay clean, and so we can drink it. I don’t want poison in the water.”

Those are the words of 6-year-old Levi Marney, spoken on the evening of Nov. 7, to representatives of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) at a public meeting about the proposed Doe Branch mountaintop removal mine in Haysi. The mine, proposed by Contura Energy, would raze over 1,100 acres near young Levi’s home and discharge sediment and other mining-related pollutants into the Russell Prater Creek where children like Levi and his siblings play during the warm months.

Levi was the first of 10 individuals to speak that night. As he sat down, his grandmother Gail stood up, and with a hand on Levi’s shoulder said, “I’m here to speak against this mine for five reasons and this is one of them. He is one of my five grandchildren. He’s the seventh generation of our family on our property in Dickenson County. Many members of our family are in coal mining, but we know the future of Dickenson County is in tourism, and it’s in taking care of our environment better than we have in the past.”

The particular matter under question at this public meeting — called an “informal conference” by the state — was a renewal of the operation’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The NPDES permitting process is the method by which point sources of pollution are monitored and legally allowed to release various pollutants into public waterways like the Russell Prater Creek and the Russell Fork River. The DMME approved the initial NPDES permit for the Doe Branch mine back in 2012. But, as several individuals who spoke out at the informal conference pointed out, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has maintained an objection to the project from its outset, citing the likelihood that the mine would cause further harm to the Russell Prater Creek, which is already listed by the state of Virginia as being impaired by mining-related pollution.

In addition to concerns over water quality, many individuals spoke to the urgent need to develop new economic opportunities that utilize exactly the natural assets that large-scale surface mining destroys. Underscoring her opposition to the Doe Branch project, Sister Jackie Hanrahan, a nun representing the Appalachian Faith and Ecology Center in neighboring Wise County said, “A healthy economy can only happen when we have a healthy ecosystem. We’ve focused on only extractive industries for so long, but now we’re finally at a point where we have people working together over different philosophies to build a healthy economy.”

“I can show exactly what mining has done to this area,” said Tammy Owens, an organic farmer with nearly 30 acres of reclaimed strip mine on her farm. “This is my top soil,” Owens said dropping a plastic bag of what appeared to be little more than sand and rock on the table in front of the DMME representatives. “There is no topsoil. Nothing grows on the mined areas of my farm. Here in our area is where ginseng grows the best. It’s where bloodroot, and yellow root grow best. These are highly valuable medicinal herbs. What we can get for an acre of ginseng is astronomical compared to what other row crop farmers would get but can we grow those medicinal herbs any more on our farm land?”

The Doe Branch mine has already received the other permits it needs to move forward. The EPA objection is one of the only things currently preventing the mine from moving forward. Cooperation between state and federal agencies in making permitting decisions is an intentional system that creates checks and balances in weighing factors that impact industries, communities and the environment. That’s exactly what is happening with the Doe Branch permit. But it could change quickly under a Trump presidency.

While many personnel will remain at the EPA, changes in high-level staff, budget, or regulations could alter how the agency handles permitting decisions for mountaintop removal coal mining. Market forces are another largely independent factor. There is no magic wand that can suddenly put more coal in the ground, or make the coal that remains more economically feasible to mine and burn in the face of stiff market competition from natural gas and increasingly competitive renewable energy sources. In light of this reality, it is difficult to gauge how eager Contura Energy is to begin work on an operation of this size.

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 rory@appvoices.org 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 tinyurl.com/CoalComment. — 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 psc.ky.gov. — 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.

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