Posts Tagged ‘Electric Utilities’

In praise of the High Country Energy Contest’s community and business partners

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 - posted by jmcgirt

Community Partners

Lisa Ward of Watauga County Project on Aging
Graham Doege of WeCAN (Crisis Assistance Network)

Business Partners

John Kidda of reNew Home, inc.
Kent Hively of High Country Energy Solutions, Inc.
Kent Walker of Blue Ridge Energy Works
Sam Zimmerman and Sarah Grady of Sunny Day Homes, Inc.
Will Haddaway of HomEfficient

The Energy Savings for Appalachia team would like to thank our community and business partners for making the High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest possible.

Without their dedication and service, we would not have been able to offer three households the extensive energy efficiency home improvements that we have in the past month.

Business partnerships have played a pivotal role throughout the contest process. As energy efficiency contractors, these individuals and their businesses were a natural fit for the home retrofits we hoped to offer contest winners. Their services range from spray foam insulation to energy audits to HVAC system repair. Of course, such services can come with a mighty price tag.

While energy efficiency is a worthwhile investment, such services are not affordable for so many homeowners and requiring financing to become a reality. Such financing from Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. — the electric cooperative that serves North Carolina’s High Country — is not available. So we launched our Energy Savings for the High Country campaign as a step toward making energy efficiency more accessible to residents of the High Country.

Each of the business partners donated $250 toward the contest and provided their services to three households at no charge. Nearly $5,000 of materials were purchased as a result of their donations and the donations of other contest sponsors. With the combination of donated time and materials, we facilitated walk-through home energy assessments of 11 runner-up households as well as energy audits and retrofits for our three contest winners.

John Kidda of reNew Home, inc., and the other businesses were active in the walk-through assessments, determining which households should win the contest and receive retrofits. Thanks to Kent Hively and Sam Zimmerman, grand prize winner Zach Dixon of Boone received $3,200 worth of full house insulation and air sealing. Vance Woodie of West Jefferson, a runner-up, received $800 worth of duct replacement and duct sealing work by Will Hadaway. Sean Dunlap of Sugar Grove, a second runner up, had $800 worth of spray foam insulation and moisture barrier work in his attic crawl space, provided by Kent Hively.

Will Hadaway, owner of HomEfficient, seals Vance Woodie's basement ducts with mastic.

Will Hadaway, owner of HomEfficient, seals Vance Woodie’s basement ducts with mastic.

“If is wasn’t for John Kidda and Kent Hively’s work, living in an old 1930s farmhouse wouldn’t be worth it,” says Dunlap. Hively also provided CFL bulbs for all three homeowners.

The community partnerships with Project on Aging and WeCAN (Crisis Assistance Network) enabled our team to effectively reach a wider audience than we originally anticipated. How? Both of the women involved, Lisa Ward and Graham Doege, were impassioned to help their regular clientele with home energy improvements by distributing our contest application and providing support throughout the application process.

Ward is a caseworker with the Watauga County Project on Aging who works with home-bound senior citizens. She eagerly took a petition which asks Blue Ridge Electric to offer its members affordable energy efficiency programs and our contest application to her in-home visits across the county. We received two applications referred by Ward.

Graham Doege coordinates the WeCAN program, which financially assists residents when they struggle to pay utility or housing costs. Very aware the conditions of poverty in Watauga County — the third poorest county in the state — Doege attempts to educate her clientele on ways to save energy, and therefore money spent on energy, to prevent future payment crises.

Throughout our contest, Graham provided her clients with the contest application as well as Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Checklist as an energy savings resource. Doege commented, “I see six clients a day, five days a week. $400 of fuel assistance is all I can offer a household in a year. ” Before offering any crisis assistance funds, Doege tells them, “If you are using your clothes drier, stop and use a clothesline. Then we’ll talk.” Thanks to her efforts, we received two applications referred by Doege.

Besides receiving referrals, partnerships with Project on Aging and WeCAN have informed us of the many constraints residents in rural Watauga County face. We are working to ensure that residents, whether renters or owners, have equal access to the many ways to save money on their utility bills through home energy efficiency. As a result, High Country residents will have the savings necessary for more pressing household needs and an atmosphere in which they can thrive.

Other organizations that posted our contest application materials include: High Country DSS offices and Boards of Education; Watauga Co. Veterans Affairs; Alleghany Cares; Boone Area Missions; Caldwell Co Ag Extension; and Happy Valley Medical Center.

Sign our petition asking Blue Ridge Electric to support energy efficiency. Learn more about the Energy Savings for Appalachia program.

Apologies for the Dan River spill, guilt for coal ash crimes

Thursday, February 26th, 2015 - posted by brian
Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Duke Energy likes to use a tagline that goes something like “For more than 100 years we’ve been providing customers with reliable, affordable electricity at the flip of a switch.”

It’s boilerplate, but it works. So I doubt the company will amend that punchy bit of self-praise to include “and we were recently found criminally negligent for polluting North Carolina rivers with coal ash.”

Even so, a year after the Dan River spill, Duke seems to understand that coal ash pollution has its own chapter in the company’s corporate story. Now, Duke will pay for its crimes.

The bombshell news came in two pieces around the same time last Friday; the U.S. Department of Justice announced the charges and Duke announced it struck a deal with prosecutors. A few days before the big reveal, Duke told shareholders in an earnings report that it set aside $100 million to resolve the federal investigation that began after the Dan River spill.

The company faces nine misdemeanor charges for violating the federal Clean Water Act at multiple coal ash sites across the state. On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Western, Middle and Eastern Districts of North Carolina each filed charges in their respective federal courts, related to violations that occurred at coal ash ponds owned by Duke in their respective districts.

According to DOJ, Duke was criminally negligent in discharging coal ash and coal ash wastewater from storage ponds its Dan River, Asheville, Lee, and Riverbend plants into North Carolina rivers. Violations related to equipment upkeep were found at the Cape Fear Steam Station, where Duke was cited by the state for illegally pumping 61 million gallons of toxic water from a coal ash pit into the Cape Fear River last year.

The DOJ’s press release makes clear that the filing of charges is not a finding of guilt, and most prominent news outlets left any indication that Duke is guilty of its coal ash crimes out of their coverage. We decided to use the word “guilty” in our press release largely because a proposed plea agreement including millions in fines had been reached.

Read one of the three criminal "bills of information" detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Read one of the three criminal “bills of information” detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Also, in a consent to transfer the plea and sentencing proceedings to the Eastern District court, an attorney for Duke wrote: “… the Defendants wish to plead guilty to the offenses charged.”

Of course, Duke steered clear from the words “guilty” or “plea” in its own announcement. But, as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Frank Holleman told the Charlotte Observer, “When anyone pays $100 million to resolve a grand jury investigation, that indicates something serious happened.”

There’s still a lot of specifics we don’t know about the agreement between prosecutors and Duke. Prosecutors say they won’t comment until after court proceedings where the agreement must be approved by a federal judge.

It’s important to note, though, that this is a plea bargain to resolve a criminal investigation, not a settlement to avoid a civil trial. The proposed agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation. The fines cannot be passed on to customers, meaning Duke’s shareholders will take the hit.

Importantly, the agreement would also put Duke on probation for five years, during which a court-appointed monitor would ensure compliance with provisions related to training, audits and reporting. According to Duke, the full agreement will be made public if it is accepted by the court.

“We are sorry for the Dan River spill, and remain grateful to our friends and neighbors for your support,” Duke CEO Lynn Good said in a statement. “We are committed to moving forward in a safe and responsible way.”

For a year Duke has been saying sorry to its customers and communities along the Dan River — basically demanding that it be held to a higher standard. So even though the company is no longer in crisis mode, it’s still watching its back as it tries to repair its reputation and move beyond the spill.

The problem of coal ash pollution in North Carolina is far from resolved. According to Duke’s own assessment, 200 seeps at its power plants leak nearly 3 million gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers every year. Just yesterday, Duke was cited for contaminating groundwater at its Asheville Plant.

In addition to investigating Duke Energy, federal prosecutors subpoenaed current and former employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which used to regulate coal ash ponds. But none of the charges against Duke allege any improper, or illegal, dealings between the company and state regulators.

Without clarification from the U.S. Attorney’s office, it’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of DENR is ongoing.

“While prosecutors aren’t legally obliged to explain charges they don’t file, in this case the public needs more substantial disclosures,” the Fayetteville Observer wrote in an editorial. “The Justice Department needs to let us know whether a cloud of suspicion remains over DENR.”

Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates. 

Virginia lawmakers act on energy bills

Monday, February 23rd, 2015 - posted by hannah
There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

As the Virginia General Assembly enters the final days of its 2015 session, we can look back on five intense weeks.

Among the many issues our lawmakers labored over, a few were explosive enough to consistently make headlines. Energy policy was one of those issues thanks largely to electric utilities’ efforts to capitalize on worries about upcoming federal rules on carbon pollution.

Here’s a recap of the drama, along with a few important policies that received less fanfare.

>> First, a measure that shocked newspaper editorial boards, dismayed consumer groups, and stunned many of us who have challenged the utilities’ business-as-usual plans, but passed the legislature easily: under SB 1349, Virginia would see a five-year period when state regulators do not review rates set by Dominion Power and Appalachian Power, likely preventing any refunds of utility over-earnings to customers. The base portion of rates will be fixed, but other charges related to fuel costs can still rise during the period.

Political dynamics and election sensitivities made this legislation especially charged, and ultimately some of our top legislative champions for advancing clean energy stepped in and saw to it that the measure includes a designation for up to 500 megawatts of solar energy to be in the public interest, thereby authorizing state regulators to approve large scale solar farms — of which there are exactly zero in Virginia right now. The champs also added provisions for utilities to pay for low-income home weatherization programs.

Gov. McAuliffe signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

>> Last Wednesday, legislation passed both houses capping Virginia’s coal production and employment tax credits at $7.5 million annually. Appalachian Voices and other advocates have called for comprehensive study of whether such credits have their intended effects, including sustaining coal-related jobs in Southwest Virginia. A study by Downstream Strategies a few years ago suggests they do not. SB 741, which originally extended the tax credits by five years, is expected to come out of conference committee this week extending the credits for only two years while analysis is done by a reform-oriented panel.

>> On to one enormous highlight of the session: several bills containing extreme language against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan — aimed at reducing carbon pollution from power plants — never made it out of committee. One was an effort to empower the General Assembly to sue the EPA. Another bill that is still alive directs the state Department of Environmental Quality to consider concerns and take the input of legislators, and requires the General Assembly to express its approval of DEQ’s compliance plan in the form of a resolution.

>> Lastly, a bill based on a central concept of Gov. McAuliffe’s Energy Plan creates a Solar Energy Development Authority for Virginia. In spite of some legislators’ concerns about growing government, the promise of boosting job growth in the solar industry propelled this measure through both houses. A net energy metering expansion bill also still stands a good chance of passing.

With some great concepts like the Virginia Coastal Protection Act unable to find sufficient support in committee to pass this year, the work to pave the way for next year’s legislative efforts lies before us. Citizen contact with delegates and senators can continue year-round, and there are many ways to stay engage.

In addition to calling or writing your elected officials, enrolling in an energy-efficiency program offered by your power company or going solar sends a clear signal to our legislators about Virginia residents’ preferences and expectations on important energy policy issues.

Criminal charges filed against Duke Energy

Friday, February 20th, 2015 - posted by brian
Duke Energy entered a plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve a federal criminal investigation into its handling of coal ash in North Carolina.

Duke Energy entered a proposed plea agreement with prosecutors to resolve federal criminal charges related to its handling of coal ash in North Carolina.

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against Duke Energy for violating the federal Clean Water Act at coal ash sites across North Carolina. The company announced today it has reached a proposed plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve the charges.

According to a Duke Energy press release, the plea agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation.

The charges include multiple misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with last year’s coal ash spill in the Dan River as well as unauthorized discharges at other Duke coal plants in North Carolina. The agreement is subject to review and approval by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Related stories

Coal Ash Management: Long-awaited, still debatedAppalachian Voice reporter Kimber Ray sums up the state of coal ash management at the federal and state levels.

The agreement does not affect state lawsuits against Duke Energy, in which Appalachian Voices and our partners have intervened. It’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is ongoing.

The federal grand jury investigation began last year after 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from a retired Duke Energy coal plant into the Dan River.

A statement from Amy Adams, North Carolina Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, and former supervisor with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources:

It’s good to see that federal enforcers have taken this issue seriously by diligently pursuing criminal charges and levying a substantial fine against Duke, and it’s good to see Duke acknowledge its culpability. However, we have yet to see that culpability turn into real action. There are still leaking coal ash ponds at 10 of Duke’s sites, leaving 10 communities in limbo and a lot of ash that must be permanently and safely disposed.

Important questions remain, like exactly how the money will be spent and whether any individuals will be named. But most troubling is the unanswered question of whether DENR was aware of negligence and failed to act, or was unable to recognize the magnitude of the situation in the first place.

Learn more about our work to clean up coal ash pollution. Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates. 

“Clean coal” is on the fritz

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by brian

By Brian Sewell

Cost overruns and construction delays are dampening enthusiasm for carbon capture and storage technologies

A rendering of FutureGen 2.0. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled its funding from the project, which was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of carbon capture and storage technology on a commercial-scale. Credit Department of Energy.

A rendering of FutureGen 2.0. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled its funding from the project, which was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of carbon capture and storage technology on a commercial-scale. Credit Department of Energy.

As one of the most high-profile and hyped-up projects of its kind, the FutureGen “clean coal” plant in Illinois was supposed make history. Its backers saw in it the key to unlocking an inherently dirty energy source’s promise in a world coming to grips with climate change.

So the announcement earlier this month that the U.S. Department of Energy is backing out of its $1.1 billion funding commitment to the FutureGen project, citing a desire to “protect taxpayer interests,” sent a shockwave through the coal sector and investors, energy analysts and environmentalists all took note.

But the news that “clean coal” technology has taken yet another hit should not come as a surprise. Even with $6 billion in commitments under the Obama administration, carbon capture projects just don’t have the track record needed to pique private investors’ interest.

Every form of carbon capture technology comes with technical and technological drawbacks that translate to enormous costs. A commercial-scale “clean coal” plant using even the most advanced technologies may increase the cost of electricity by up to 80 percent, according to DOE. These challenges make commercial-scale carbon capture projects outcasts when it comes to competitive energy markets, where traditional fossil fuel plants and, increasingly, large-scale and distributed renewable projects represent the most cost-effective power sources.

Convinced that coal will remain one of the nation’s foremost energy sources for decades to come, DOE will put billions more into advancing “clean coal” technology, attempting to overcome its economic pitfalls and keep burning the dirtiest fuel around.

FutureGen’s Downfall

FutureGen 2.0 planned to transport CO2 waste approximately 30 miles  through pipelines before being injected in deep saline formations.

FutureGen 2.0 planned to transport CO2 waste approximately 30 miles through pipelines before being injected in deep saline formations. Click to enlarge.

The idea for FutureGen arose in 2003 under the Bush administration. The plan was for the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, a coalition of mining and energy companies including Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody Energy, to oversee retrofits to an existing coal plant and, in the process, prove the feasibility of burning coal, then capturing and storing the carbon emitted underground.

But the project soon began suffering from the delays, cost overruns and other challenges that will be its legacy. FutureGen was canceled, for the first time, in 2008 before construction could begin.

In 2010, the Obama administration used stimulus money to give FutureGen new life as FutureGen 2.0, a smaller proposed plant that would use a different technology to capture its emissions, but still show how carbon capture could make a more climate-friendly coal plant. For a time, everything seemed to be going in FutureGen’s favor. But then familiar cracks started to appear.

The Illinois Commerce Commission approved a controversial plan in 2012 to require utilities, and therefore their customers, to buy all the electricity generated by the FutureGen plant for 20 years — likely at dramatically over-market rates. The decision may have reassured some private investors, but challenges to the decision by the utilities themselves were headed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Sierra Club challenged the air pollution permit granted to FutureGen by the Illinois Pollution Control Board, saying the State of Illinois should hold FutureGen to its promise to build a “near-zero emissions” plant. FutureGen needed to convert a World War II-era boiler at the plant to one compatible with the oxy-combustion technology it planned use to capture its emissions. The Sierra Club argued that allowing FutureGen to convert the boiler would violate the federal Clean Air Act unless it obtained the appropriate permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

All of this is to say that the DOE isn’t entirely, or even mostly, responsible for FutureGen’s failure. Unresolved legal battles, environmental and economic concerns all combined to hurt the chances of attracting enough private investment to bring the $1.65 billion project online. It became clear that the project could not be completed by September 2015, the deadline for federal funds to be spent under the 2009 stimulus, so DOE pulled the plug.

According to DOE, approximately $116.5 million of the total award had been invested in the plant since 2010.

The Sierra Club, which has called FutureGen a boondoggle from the very beginning, said the news reflects a national trend toward embracing clean energy.

“This project has gone through a decade of false starts and with today’s announcement, $1 billion in federal funding and hundreds of thousands of dollars in Illinois ratepayer financing can be freed up for investment in clean energy,” Holly Bender, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.

Coal industry groups directed their frustrations toward the Obama administration and mostly overlooked the host of other challenges facing FutureGen.

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said in a statement that DOE’s decision to end funding for FutureGen “cannot be reconciled with the [Obama] administration’s proposal to require CCS as the only acceptable technology for any new coal-fueled power plant in the U.S.”

Proceed with Caution

A "first-of-its-kind" technologically speaking and the most expensive coal plant of all time, Mississippi Power's Kemper Plant has put ratepayers at risk in search of unproven and far-off returns. Photo from Wikipedia.

A “first-of-its-kind” technologically speaking and the most expensive coal plant of all time, Mississippi Power’s Kemper Plant has put ratepayers at risk in pursuit of unproven and far-off returns. Photo from Wikipedia.

Carbon capture is a must if future U.S. coal plants — if there is such a thing — hope to meet regulations on greenhouse gases being developed under the Clean Air Act.

Analysts say the only way to create a market for carbon capture technology, at least one that would attract significant private capital, is by capping power plant pollution. But groups like the National Mining Association lambast the president and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency for pursuing policies that will limit carbon pollution from power plants and steer investments toward alternative forms of energy, including “clean coal.”

Even with a strong climate policy, some experts doubt commercial-scale “clean coal” projects will be around in time to make a meaningful contribution to reducing carbon pollution. Sean Casten, the president and CEO of Recycled Energy Development, recently drew the comparison between the likelihood of the technology’s success and the existence of unicorns.

“I suppose it’s possible that there will suddenly be a huge pot of capital willing to invest billions of dollars in an unproven technology with long construction times and regulatory-dependent cash flows,” Casten told SNL Energy. “But unicorns are more likely.”

Another notable casualty is Tenaska’s $3.5-billion Taylorsville, Ill., plant, which the Nebraska-based energy developer canceled in 2013. The company cited market conditions that led it to focus on developing natural gas and renewable energy facilities instead. But the fact that Illinois lawmakers would not agree to a 30-year contract to buy electricity from the plant, and pass those high costs on to ratepayers, had something to do with it.

With the Taylorsville plant and FutureGen off the table, the U.S. is left with one utility-scale carbon capture project currently under construction. But Mississippi Power’s Kemper Plant, which received a $270 million grant from DOE, is like the projects before it: more of a cautionary tale than a positive sign for coal’s future.

Cost increases have been like clockwork at Kemper. Initially estimated to cost $2.2 billion, the price to build the plant has ballooned to $6.17 billion since 2009, making it the most expensive coal plant in U.S. history. Southern Company, the parent company of Mississippi Power, announced a $45 million increase this month.

$6 billion and counting: Cost increases at the Kemper Plant have been like clockwork since 2009.

$6 billion and counting: Cost increases at the Kemper Plant have been like clockwork since 2009. Graphic by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

To help pay the bill, the Mississippi Public Utilities Commission approved an 18 percent rate hike on Mississippi Power in March 2013, and the company says it’s likely to seek another increase of at least 4 percent to help pay off $1 billion in bonds that the state legislature is allowing it to issue.

“This is the largest rate increase in the state of Mississippi’s history, and this is the largest transfer of wealth from the people to a corporation in the state of Mississippi’s history,” Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley told Mississippi Watchdog in 2013.

Presley was the only dissenting vote when the commission approved the rate increase. But now the state’s highest court is on his side. Last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the rate increase after finding the utilities commission hadn’t ruled on the “prudency” of the Kemper Plant’s growing cost. The court directed Mississippi Power to refund ratepayers about $271 million attributed to the rate increase.

The Kemper plant is slated to open in mid-2016, more than two years behind schedule.

The quest to create a cleaner future for coal increasingly rests on the question of how much we’re willing pay for it.

Meet Zach Dixon, grand prize winner of the home energy makeover contest

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 - posted by eliza

Stepping inside Zach Dixon’s foyer is akin to stepping back in time 40 years. A chartreuse green glow washes over you and a large mirror reflects hints of art deco. The shag carpet confirms this house’s birth in the early 1970s, and also whispers of its outdated structure.

Since Dixon’s childhood, much of which he spent in the groovy house his grandfather built, three heating systems have broken down, leaving space heaters as his only choice. He remembers the days of the oil boiler and baseboard heaters—the luxury of having a thermostat. “It was awesome when taking a shower,” Dixon says. “Now when I want to do that I have to put the heater in there and let it warm up.” After his grandmother passed away, “it dried up,” says Dixon. “We couldn’t afford the oil.”

He moved back into the house in Boone, N.C. to take care of his grandmother when she was sick, while facing a serious physical ailment himself. Dixon has a degenerative bone disorder. He has had both of his hips replaced and he can no longer work in the field he was trained in, carpentry. After losing his job last April, he has been unable to find work due to his physical limitations. “I’m hanging on by a thread,” says Dixon. “I don’t know how I came this far.”

But even before Dixon lost his job, he was having trouble paying the bills. Last winter, in the dead cold of the polar vortex, he received help from Blue Ridge Electric’s Operation RoundUp program and Watauga County Crisis Assistance Network. Still, his electricity was shut off and he went to stay at a neighbor’s house. This winter, his electricity has already been shut off three times. He is on a pay-as-you-go program with Blue Ridge Electric. “I’ll be in the positives, then the next day I’ll be in the negatives,” says Dixon. He once experienced his electricity being shut off for being 43 cents in the red. That time, he was lucky; it was summer.

For three years, Dixon has been on a waiting list for a W.A.M.Y. retrofit, a local program funded by the federal government for low-income families, but the demand for energy efficiency upgrades exceeds the four-county program’s capacity. Running his space heaters cost him about $15 a day during the winter, compared to his standard usage of $3 during the summer. “I could have $200 on my bill, if I wasn’t losing all the heat,” says Dixon.

Dixon’s house lacks sufficient insulation. The two bedrooms are situated over the garage, which is not insulated. There is no crawl space, so essentially there is no insulation surrounding the bottom part of his house. The attic is insulated to about half the level required by building codes. There are air leaks throughout his house, including around doors and recessed lighting, but the major air leak is a hole cut out from his hallway floor into the garage.

There is a wood stove in the garage, which supplemented heat in the past and was hooked up to the oil boiler system. Dixon cut the hole in the floor to allow the wood heat into his main floor. Tricks like this demonstrate the craftiness homeowners resort to when homes lack central heating systems. After a chimney fire scare last year, though, he no longer uses the stove. The hole is now covered by a thin rug.

As grand prize winner of the High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest, Dixon has received insulation in his attic and garage, two quick steps that will greatly improve the house’s energy efficiency and his quality of life. All of the air leaks around Dixon’s home will be sealed with a caulk gun. And compact fluorescent light bulbs will replace incandescent bulbs — the frosting on this energy makeover cake.

“The most important thing I never realized, until I met [the Energy Savings team at Appalachian Voices], is how bad I lose heat,” Dixon says. “I knew heat rises but I didn’t know it was that bad.” Dixon plans to attend school so that he can get a “desk job” like the doctor ordered. He hopes to be an architect and design his own house one day — in a very energy efficient way.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program and the High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest.

Danger still looms over the Dan River

Monday, February 9th, 2015 - posted by amy

{ Editor’s Note } This post by Amy Adams also appeared as an op-ed in the Winston-Salem Journal on Sunday, Feb. 1, marking the first anniversary of the Dan River coal ash spill.

amy-rally-speach

It’s been exactly one year since the infamous broken pipe at Duke Energy’s Dan River steam station spewed 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the scenic Dan River, just a few miles upstream of the drinking water intake of some 160,000 people. Since then, much attention has been given to the river and to the problems of leaking, unlined coal ash pits across North Carolina.

What hasn’t received attention is a threat much more menacing to the Dan River. Sitting only 35 miles upstream from the shuttered Dan River plant is Duke’s Belews Creek steam station in Walnut Cove, and one of the largest coal ash impoundments in North Carolina and the entire Southeast. Compare the 342-acre active goliath at Belews to the 39-acre impoundment at the Dan River plant, and it’s easy to understand the implications.

At Belews, a 14-story high earthen dam holds back 4.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash. That’s more than 20 times the holding capacity of the Dan River site. The dam at Belews is rated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “high hazard,” meaning loss of life and property are probable if it failed. The EPA also ranks the dam as being in only fair condition. If it were to break, the Dan River would again be flooded with toxic coal ash, only this time on a scale on par with the Kingston, Tenn., disaster in 2008.

Aside from the threat of a catastrophic spill, the Belews Creek plant has a history of pollution that harms waterways and wildlife, including documented groundwater contamination. In addition, the plant dumps its wastewater directly into the Dan River under state-issued permits. It is currently part of ongoing litigation for violations of the Clean Water Act, its wastewater permit and North Carolina law.

Downstream from the massive Belews Creek plant is the town of Madison, which gets its drinking water from the Dan River, as does Eden and the Virginia localities of Danville, South Boston and Halifax County. Eden, whose water intake was spared any impacts from last year’s spill, withdraws close to 12 million gallons a day from the Dan River to serve residential customers and three major industries: Miller Brewing, Hanesbrands and Karastan Rug Mills.

Living next to this industrial mega-site are residents of Walnut Cove and Pine Hall, communities whose concerns include not just the wet ash impoundment and dangerous dam, but several other on-site landfills containing dried coal ash. While the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has spent the last weeks rearranging the who’s who of its upper management, these communities, like others across the state, are waiting to find out if the agency will ever clean up the sites.

According to the state’s new coal ash law, passed earlier this year under mounting pressure from citizens, DENR must set the “priority level” of each site by the end of 2015. So far, four sites have been identified as high priority — but not Belews Creek. If it’s ultimately deemed to be a “low priority” site, the ash could be left in the existing unlined pit in the ground and simply covered with plastic. This is not an acceptable solution for the residents around the plant who depend exclusively on wells for their drinking water.

Covering the ash does nothing to stop the toxic metals from entering the groundwater beneath the unlined pit. It’s equivalent to trying to stay dry under an umbrella while sitting in a puddle.

The communities living under the shadow of Belews deserve to be more than a low priority. In fact, no community in North Carolina should be considered a low priority. On the anniversary of the Dan River spill, we should make the removal of coal ash from all unlined coal ash sites and therefore, the assurance of clean, safe water to our communities, our top priority.

Today, I prayed we #kickcoalash

Monday, February 2nd, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note }This post originally appeared on Caroline Rutledge Armijo’s blog. We are happy to share it her with her permission.

Local residents and activists gather at Belews Lake, home to Duke Energy's Belews Creek Steam Station, to demand an end to coal ash pollution in North Carolina.

Local residents and activists gather at Belews Lake, home to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, to demand an end to coal ash pollution in North Carolina. See more photos from the rally on Flickr.

On Sunday, Residents for Coal Ash Clean Up met at the Belews Lake boat dock overlooking the smokestacks at Duke Energy’s Belews Steam Station in Stokes County, N.C. Today marks the one year anniversary of the coal ash spill into the Dan River in Eden. And while it was the third largest coal ash spill in our country’s history, it is only a drop in the bucket of what would happen if there was a spill at Belews Creek into the same Dan River.

Duke Energy is currently in mediation over which coal ash locations they will clean up. Belews Creek is the site of the largest coal ash pond in the state of North Carolina and it is currently on the low priority list. We want to be a high priority.

Sarah from Appalachian Voices asked me to speak at today’s event. Of course. I am glad to do anything. Yet, I procrastinated on writing my speech until this morning. That’s really bad news considering it was a morning event and we live an hour away with two kids in tow. But I am glad I did, because during the night I realized that I needed to pray. The reality is the media will only cover what they want. After my speech in Raleigh, they summed it up to basically “Caroline Armijo is upset that her friends and family are sick.” But I saw today as an opportunity to have a large crowd gathered by the lake where we could pray. If I had gotten out of bed at 4 am, I am certain that God told me what to say word for word. But I didn’t. So I did the best that I could this morning at 8 am.

Here’s my speech and prayer, including the part I forgot:

Good morning! My name is Caroline Rutledge Armijo. I am a native of Stokes County and I currently reside in Greensboro. Thank you to everyone for coming out to Belews Creek today. We are here because we want Belews Creek to be included on the High Priority List for Duke’s clean up.

A year after the spill in Eden, we want to warn North Carolina and the country that we are standing at the site of the largest coal ash pond in Duke’s system – a horrifying 342-acres in some areas over twelve stories deep. This is the largest coal-ash risk to North Carolina’s water, land and air.

In 2009 Belews Creek was classified High Risk for failure. That means Duke has known for over five years that the earthen structures are highly likely to fail and people will die. But Duke just wants to plant some grass on top.

Without the threat of catastrophic failure, the unlined coal ash pond is still a problem. Water from the pond is released into the Dan River EVERY SINGLE DAY. This is Madison’s drinking water, which Duke actively “corrects” by adding chemicals to the river.

If you watched the At What Cost video, you will recognize several of our faces. But one is missing. Our leader Annie Brown died in September after suffering from a massive heart attack. She was the very person who asked “At what cost?” Others among us have faced serious health problems, including cancer, strokes and respiratory disorders. Annie had a list of all the people in this community who were suffering from poor health. And for all of these people, I feel led to end this with a prayer.

Dear Great and Mighty God,

Here we stand on what feels like sacred space. So many people have lost their lives too soon or faced serious health consequences because of the pollution from this site.

We are all incredibly grateful for the opportunities provided by the power generated here. But now we ask that you heal this broken place. We are faced with the complicated task of just how to do that.

We pray for the strength and courage to demand that Belews Creek become a high priority site.

We pray for the spirits who have passed before us that they may have peace.

And we pray for those who live daily with the illnesses they face that they will be blessed with the very best for their needs.

We pray for guidance, miracles and wholeness.

Amen.

Update from the Virginia General Assembly

Monday, February 2nd, 2015 - posted by hannah

Attacks on the EPA escalate, and rate freezes don’t consider customers.

A slew of bad bills to stymie the EPA and safeguard corporate polluters have been brought up in the first weeks of Virginia's brief legislative session.

A slew of bad bills to stymie the EPA and safeguard corporate polluters have been brought up in the first weeks of Virginia’s brief legislative session.

Virginia’s legislative session may be brief, but many bills with major implications for our future energy mix have already been acted on. Two weeks into this year’s session, here is a look at where our top issues stand.

Rate freeze controversy heats up

It’s been in the news around the state: Dominion Power has enlisted the help of utility-friendly legislators, in particular Senator Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, in an effort to pause regulators’ scrutiny of the utility’s revenue for eight years.

The legislative patron says his bill is necessary to keep customers from seeing rising energy costs due to the mythical high price of compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon pollution standard. Attorney General Mark Herring, who is tasked with looking out for ratepayers, notes that the measure would actually prevent rebates of overcharges to customers.

Anyone familiar with the system in which Virginia’s investor-owned electric providers operate will be struck by the way this would remove State Corporation Commission oversight and, with it, Dominion’s accountability to customers. In another troubling wrinkle, if cost-effective clean energy resources such as energy efficiency are deployed over this time resulting in saved energy and Dominion over-earns on its rate of return then customers are deprived of the those savings. Despite opposition from many sides, the bill has passed out of subcommittee.

Attacks on Virginia potential to achieve large-scale carbon-free power

For reasons ranging from pure political grandstanding to reactions to a perceived federal overreach in state affairs, many legislators are taking part in the rush to apply tactics pioneered by the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity to stymie the implementation of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in Virginia. One strategy is to interrupt what would be a smooth process of the Department of Environmental Quality preparing and sending Virginia’s implementation plan to the EPA. Legislation of this type gives the General Assembly a middle-man role able to approve the plan, which effectively obstructs the process and robs the executive branch of its control.

Other ways of slowing or stopping the EPA’s efforts to limit carbon pollution and drive investment in clean energy are plentiful: from Senator Wagner’s proposition prohibiting action in response to the standards until 18 criticisms of the standards are rectified, studying whether the plan on the whole benefits Virginia at all before taking action, or giving the General Assembly power to do what the Attorney General has not done: sue the EPA on behalf of Virginia.

Common-sense steps to make solar accessible and affordable for more Virginians

The main piece of legislation we’ve watched that would put an end to indiscriminate carbon pollution and lead to investments in clean energy and climate adaptation is the Virginia Coastal Protection Act. The bill did not manage to get the support it needed this year to make it out of committee.

Still, as we fight the bad bills above, we have a chance to make progress on several clean energy bills that will make a real difference to bring more renewable energy online in Virginia. Several will be heard in the House Energy Subcommittee on Tuesday, Feb. 3, be there to support solutions like community solar, larger net metering, and more!

Our Energy Savings campaign is heating up in the High Country

Thursday, January 29th, 2015 - posted by rory

Home Energy Contest Demonstrates Strong Need for Energy Efficiency Finance Options

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When Appalachian Voices asked Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. (BRE) to help alleviate poverty and support economic development in the North Carolina High Country by developing an on-bill energy efficiency finance program, BRE said, surprisingly, that they weren’t sure that was something that enough members would sign up for.

They offered this response despite the fact that, at the time, we had presented them with seventy letters from BRE members requesting an on-bill finance option (in addition to more than 100 signatures on a petition requesting the same thing).

We decided we would go one step further in demonstrating that demand, so back in October we launched our High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest. Through the contest we solicited enough in donations and sponsorships to be able to pay for upgrading the homes of three BRE members, and we are now able to provide a voice to and tell the stories of members who need help paying for home efficiency upgrades.

The contest turned out to be a huge success, and we announced the three contest winners last Thursday. The home improvements for the three winners will be tailored to their needs based on comprehensive energy audits that were completed over the last week. The work will primarily include insulation and weatherization — two common problems that lead to high energy bills, especially during the winter months — and will be performed by one or more of the five local businesses that sponsored or supported the contest. Those businesses include Blue Ridge Energy Works, LLC, High Country Energy Solutions, Inc., HomEfficient, reNew Home, Inc. and Sunny Day Homes, Inc.

Once the improvements have been performed, in partnership with ResiSpeak, we will monitor and report on the savings generated for each of the winners, thereby demonstrating the impact that even basic efficiency improvements can have in terms of reducing energy bills and improving the quality of life for High Country residents.

Overall, nearly 70 BRE members entered the contest. Key information about household income, energy use and expenses, and basic information about the applicants’ homes was provided. Based on the submitted information, we found that the average applicant spent more than 8 percent of his or her annual income on energy bills over the last year — nearly three times the national average of 2.7 percent. More than a quarter of applicants spent 15 percent or more of their income on energy bills. Such costs are especially burdensome given the average poverty rate of 23 percent in the BRE region.

Now to present the winners! We are so honored to know these folks, and we are even happier to be able to help improve their homes and reduce their energy bills. None of the winners or the other applicants are necessarily impoverished. They are hard-working individuals like Zack Dixon that are having a hard time finding a job. They are parents like Sean Dunlap who lives with his two young children in his dream home, but a home that lacks sufficient insulation or air sealing. And they are a retired couple living on a fixed income, like Vance Woodie and his wife. None of these folks have access to sufficient funds to make the comprehensive energy efficiency improvements needed in their homes. And, beyond the contest, each of our winners could still benefit substantially from an on-bill energy efficiency finance program through BRE, as could thousands of other BRE members that still need help.

Grand Prize Winner: Zack Dixon

Zachary Dixon, left, pictured with Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil.

Zachary Dixon, left, pictured with Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil.

Zack, a resident of Boone, N.C., heats his house with space heaters, and chronically struggles to pay his electricity bills. Over the last year, Zack spent 11 percent of his income on electricity bills. His power has been cut off by BRE twice this winter when he overdrew his pre-paid account, after which BRE assisted Mr. Dixon with a bill payment from its Operation Round Up program.

While such financial assistance helps many residents keep their homes heated in the winter, it fails to resolve the underlying problems of older or poorly built, drafty houses. For Zack, running the space heaters throughout the day is costly, and doesn’t sufficiently warm his house because of poor insulation in the attic and floors.

“I just don’t want to be freezing anymore,” he said. “There’s been times when I don’t want to get out of bed and be in the cold. It’s been a real big pain, but if I could at least quit stressing about the bills, I’d be happy.” He added, “the most important thing, that I never realized, is how much heat I’ve been losing.”

Zack’s prize will cover insulation for the floors and attic, as well as air sealing throughout the house to lock in heat and reduce his electricity use.

Runner-up: Vance Woodie

Thelma and Vance Woodie with Chuck Perry, program director for North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Thelma and Vance Woodie with Chuck Perry, program director for North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Vance and his wife Thelma have worked hard to modernize their turn-of-the-century home in Sugar Grove, N.C. Once heated by a coal stoker furnace, their house is now heated by an oil furnace, but the old ducts have not been replaced and so they draw cold air from the basement, which also causes problems with air quality in their home.

“I guess that’s why the dust still comes thick in the house,” Vance said. The elderly couple shuts off part of their house in the winter to reduce heating costs, but they still spend 16 percent of their income on energy bills. Responding to winning the contest, Vance said: “We needed something, some kind of help, so we took a chance.”

Runner-up: Sean Dunlap

Sean Dunlap of Sugar Grove, N.C.

Sean Dunlap of Sugar Grove, N.C.

Sean lives with his wife and two children in a 1938 farm house built by his wife’s great-grandfather, making their children the fifth generation to live there. Despite making what energy efficiency improvements they could, there is still a lot to do. Their prize money will cover adding insulation and weatherization the lack of which places their plumbing at risk and results in a cold home in the winter. “We are so excited to find out that we won,” said Mr. Dunlap. “Now our work with Appalachian Voices will continue as we upgrade our house. Their professionalism and expertise has already made a huge difference and now we are able to look forward to making our home more efficient, comfortable and livable for our family.”

The contest was sponsored by the local businesses listed above as well as the Blumenthal Foundation and LifeStore Insurance. The North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance provided home walk-through assessments and energy audits. Appalachian Voices extends our deepest gratitude to each of the businesses and organizations for their support.

If you are a BRE member and would like to show your support for BRE developing an on-bill energy efficiency finance program that could help folks like Zack, Vance and Sean, or are in need of such support yourself, join the Energy Savings for the High Country campaign and sign the petition!