Posts Tagged ‘Electric Utilities’

Coal Ash Rule reaches White House for final review

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 - posted by brian
After four years of hand wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

After years of hand-wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

On Monday night, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a long-awaited rule to regulate the disposal and storage of coal ash to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review.

“We are pleased to see the draft rule move into the final phase of review needed for its release in December,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator.

“Having experienced the consequences of poor enforcement and weak or non-existent state regulations, North Carolina serves as a clear example of why states must have federal baseline standards for coal ash,” Adams says. “We must place our hope in the strength of the EPA rules and the resolve of the federal government to protect citizens from this toxic waste.”

Observers say the administration should have enough time to finalize the rule by the EPA’s court-ordered deadline of Dec. 19, which the agency apparently “fully expects” to meet.

Until then, however, we won’t know much about how far the rule will go to protect communities across the United States from coal ash pollution.

Infographic: The Truth About Coal Ash

At least for the next several weeks, the substance of the rule is still subject to change and there are a few different ways it could go. Environmental groups have for years pressured the EPA to regulate coal ash as the dangerous substance that it is. This option would put the rule under the hazardous waste program of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act’s Subtitle C. Utilities and other industries hope the rule will regulate coal ash under Subtitle D of RCRA, which emphasizes state oversight and enforcement through citizen lawsuits.

In both scenarios, the EPA says it won’t regulate the use of coal ash in concrete and other construction material, or as fill material — the latter will fall under the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s upcoming Mine Fill Rule. Beyond that, the description of the rule on OMB’s website offers little insight, which may be just how the White House wants it.

As Earthjustice’s Lisa Evans points out, the OMB review process is “a black box — opaque, inscrutable and exceedingly dangerous. Rules never come out the way they go in — the offices of OMB are littered with crumpled pages of strong rules gone soft after revision by the White House.”

Evans uses an example from 2009, when former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent the White House a plan to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste following the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Timeline: Five years after the TVA coal ash disaster, what do we have to show for it?

The EPA received more than 400,000 comments on the rule, and thousands attended public hearings to support stronger protections. But heavy lobbying by the coal and utility industries ultimately weakened the administration’s resolve.

Since then, the EPA hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about the status of the rule. In fact, had it not been for a lawsuit brought against the EPA by Earthjustice on behalf of Appalachian Voices and other environmental and public health groups last year, the timeline for a final rule might still be murky.

While unavoidable, Evans says the OMB review “introduces uncertainty at the end of a rulemaking process that must, by law, be based on science and transparency and governed by the requirements of the enabling statute.”

The evidence that coal ash poses significant risks to human health is abundant, and the need to do more could hardly be more urgent. The White House should listen to the thousands of citizens demanding strong protections against coal ash pollution.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to clean up coal ash.

Appalachian Power’s solar customers rise and shine for clean energy

Friday, October 24th, 2014 - posted by hannah
Customers of Appalachian Power gather in Lynchburg to learn about their utility's resistance to expanding energy efficiency and investing in solar.

Customers of Appalachian Power gather in Lynchburg to learn about their utility’s resistance to expanding energy efficiency and investing in solar.

Appalachian Power Company must bring large-scale clean energy to our area; that’s the message this week from hundreds of APCo’s Virginia customers.

The company goes before state utility regulators next Tuesday with its long-term plan to meet electricity demand, which includes only the most modest investments in renewable energy sources despite a new rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intended to spur clean energy development and cut carbon emissions.

No one is more vocal about the need for APCo to invest in solar than those who already have: customers with their own solar arrays. Residents concerned by the utility’s recent proposal to levy a new fee on customers with solar are just part of a larger group of APCo customers demanding their utility stop limiting its proposals for energy efficiency programs and take advantage of the same opportunities to expand residential solar that utilities such as Georgia Power have taken advantage of lately.

At a program co-led by Appalachian Voices in Lynchburg on Thursday, APCo customers examined the utility’s proposed efficiency and clean energy investments and saw just how minimal they are. The risks of dirty energy are clear to Lynchburg residents who saw a train carrying crude oil derail and explode in the heart of the downtown district this past summer, polluting the James River and threatening historic properties.

The large, diverse area of Virginia served by Appalachian Power also is home to several thriving solar companies, and many successful community Solarize initiatives have encouraged more homeowners to go solar. So, increasingly, area residents see purchasing solar as a way get reliable, affordable and pollution-free energy. In other words, it’s money well spent.

Thirty-two solar homeowners sent a collective comment to the State Corporation Commission this week calling for Appalachian Power to build clean energy at the same scale they have built fossil fuel power plants. Those homeowners and other citizens who are following the EPA’s proposed carbon rule believe that their utility is acting unreasonably by not addressing the new limits in its long-term planning.

Following the hottest September on record worldwide and an historic demonstration in New York City, the need for Virginia utilities to shift to energy efficiency and carbon-free sources is now clear, and APCo customers are telling their utility it can make a start, while lowering bills and creating jobs at the same time.

Corporate windfall lets N.C. utilities charge customers under outdated tax rate

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by brian
A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is tasked with regulating public utilities operating in the state and the rates they charge for services that millions of North Carolinians use every day.

So it’s no surprise that a decision by a majority (4-3) of the seven-member commission to allow Duke Energy and other utilities to charge customers using an outdated, and inflated, corporate tax rate is rankling their dissenting colleagues, government watchdogs and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.

As The Charlotte Observer reports, the commission (somehow) decided that even though the legislature cut North Carolina’s corporate income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5 percent last year, utilities can continue charging customers at 6.9 percent and pocket the difference.

In their dissent, three Democratic commissioners called the decision a corporate windfall that “allows the utilities to charge ratepayers in perpetuity to collect for taxes that the utilities no longer pay.” Yeah, it’s messed up.

The rate individual utilities, including electric, gas and water companies, are able to charge their customers could change the next time they seek rate adjustments. But even then, the dissenting commissioners warned, ratepayers will never be refunded the over-collected funds; the utilities have simply been afforded an unearned gain at the expense of North Carolina ratepayers.”

This is all pretty scary for several reasons. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fundamental disagreement between commissioners on the issue of “single-issue ratemaking,” or when and how adjustments in tax structures should influence the amount utility customers see on their bills.

Although Republican commissioners said they sympathized with the points made by the dissenting commissioners, they claimed that the “doctrine against single-issue ratemaking in full force in this state, designed to prevent changes to utility rates outside general rate cases, should be adhered to except in limited, closely circumscribed situations.”

“The insubstantial and immaterial changes at issue in this docket do not fit within the exception,” Republican commissioners wrote. “The limitations should be preserved to prevent single-issue ratemaking in the future when tax rates increase in insubstantial and immaterial ways.” No word on who decides what constitutes substantial and material changes, or why this shouldn’t be considered a limited, closely circumscribed situation.

But maybe they’re right. After all, Duke spokeswoman Lisa Parrish told The Charlotte Observer that, if Duke decides to stop sharing the tax savings with its ratepayers, its customers would only see a 17 cent increase on their monthly bill. Progress customers would pay 9 cents more each month.

Overall, the charges could help Duke Energy, Duke-Progress, Dominion North Carolina and PSNC Energy bring in around $21 million more a year.

That’s not so bad, right? Just ignore that you’re paying extra for a corporate tax rate that no longer exists. Parrish of Duke Energy also said that a little bump in North Carolinians’ electric bills wouldn’t really hurt them because it would go toward operating expenses or it could be spent on programs with broad community benefits. Hopefully they remember that when a real discussion about how to address the state’s coal ash problem comes up.

Another thing: You also may remember that HB 998, the bill that lowered corporate taxes in North Carolina, did much more than cut taxes for big corporations. It also more than doubled sales taxes on electricity from 3 percent to 7 percent. The commission approved a rate increase related to that change back in May, and over the summer, monthly bills of Duke customers increased by around 50 cents. Last I heard, the company isn’t sharing that burden with its customers.

Meanwhile, for three consecutive quarters, Duke has received a larger rate of return and rate of equity, the profit a company generates with shareholders’ money, than authorized by state regulators, in this case, the utilities commission. The Charlotte Business Journal reported that it is the first time since 2003 that the utility has significantly exceeded the returns set by the commission.

Finally, it’s understandable that the vast majority of the commission’s activities are not scrutinized the way major decisions, such as the 5.1 percent rate increase it granted Duke Energy last year or the merger between Duke and Progress Energy that the commission approved the year before, have been. But in this case, the commission used its discretion to not include Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat expected to run for governor in 2016, or the Public Staff, which represents the interest of consumers on issues before the commission.

Now Cooper says he plans to appeal the decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and the Public Staff are weighing an appeal.

Oh, and the eventual decision of whether Duke will be allowed to saddle its ratepayers with the cost of cleaning up its leaky, polluting coal ash ponds across the state — that quagmire will land in the commission’s lap too.

This isn’t just about about the pennies added to our monthly electric bills — even though those pennies are piling up and becoming dollars — and, as the dissenting commissioners wrote, for families struggling to pay their utility bills, “every cent counts.”

It’s bigger than that. It’s about the commission adhering to the first tenet of its mission statement: to provide just and reasonable rates and charges for public utility services.

A huge win: Gainesville enacts policy to stop using mountaintop removal coal

Monday, September 29th, 2014 - posted by matt
Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

At a time when Congress can’t seem to conduct even routine business and nearly half of the country still denies climate change, that old Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” can seem a little quaint and dated, if not hopelessly idealistic.

But earlier this month, a group of citizens in Gainesville, Fla., proved the truth of those words. Because of the heroic efforts of a small group of citizens, Gainesville became the first city in America to enact a policy to curtail — and possibly eliminate altogether — its reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

A cheer went up in the packed city hall chambers when the city commission voted 5-2 for a policy designed to break the city’s longstanding reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia to power its electric grid. This victory was the culmination of three and a half years of work that included five hearings by the city commission, hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and dozens of meetings with city commissioners.

The policy’s passage, championed by city commissioner Lauren Poe and supported by three Democrats and two Republicans on the commission, proved that bipartisanship is still alive in some corners of the country and that democracy can still work the way it was intended to; responsive to the will of citizens instead of just private interests with the power to make unlimited campaign contributions.

At the hearing on Sept. 18, staff of Appalachian Voices gave commissioners a virtual tour of some of the mountaintop removal mines that had supplied coal to Gainesville in the past. Suppliers included the Samples mine in West Virginia, which the late Appalachian hero Larry Gibson fought for decades to prevent the destruction of his beloved Kayford Mountain. Another supplier was the nearby Twilight Surface Mine, which was responsible for turning the community of Lindytown into a ghost town, as The New York Times powerfully eulogized in this 2011 story.

Use the arrows on the slideshow below to see excerpts of the presentation Appalachian Voices shared with the Gainesville City Commission:

There are no mountains within 100 miles of Gainesville. So how a group called Gainesville Loves Mountains became one of the city’s most active and influential advocacy groups is an interesting story.

The group’s founder, Jason Fults, first became aware of mountaintop removal as a student at Berea College in eastern Kentucky. After graduating and moving back to Gainesville, he was horrified to learn the local power plant operated by Gainesville Regional Utilities, the Deerhaven Generating Station, was purchasing most of its coal from some of the biggest and most destructive mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

But Jason didn’t stop with being horrified; he resolved to do what it takes to break Gainesville’s connection to mountaintop removal, and he found others willing to makes the same commitment. Three and a half years later they succeeded — or at least they’ve come very close. But the battle is not over quite yet. The policy enacted by the city ensures that Gainesville Regional Utilities will not purchase coal mined using mountaintop removal as long as it has bids from other types of mines that are not more than 5 percent higher than bids from mountaintop removal operators.

Based on my experience, that should generally be sufficient to ensure the city does not purchase mountaintop removal coal. If bids from mountaintop removal operators do come in at least 5 percent lower than other bids, however, the utility can come back to the commission to request special dispensation to purchase the cheaper, but in many ways more costly, coal. Several commissioners indicated that they may still very well choose to purchase from the more expensive non-mountaintop removal coal suppliers if that’s the case, but it’s going to require a contentious vote. And, if that time comes, the folks at Gainesville Loves Mountains will undoubtedly pull out all the stops to ensure the city doesn’t vote to purchase mountaintop removal coal.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices' staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices’ staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

The big question is whether other cities can follow Gainesville’s lead. The short answer is that some can, though there are not many other cities served by a municipally-owned utility that operates its own coal-fired power plant and buys coal from Central Appalachia. There are a few such examples — the city of Orlando, Fla., for example — but folks who are customers of private investor-owned utilities or municipal utilities that purchase power from investor-owned utilities will have a very different challenge on their hands if they want to ensure companies like Duke Energy, American Electric Power or Dominion Resources stop purchasing coal from mountaintop removal mines.

The good news is that the city of Gainesville paved the way by coming up with a thoughtful and substantive policy that also provides some protection to ratepayers. That’s important because utilities have successfully used scare tactics about the potential for increases in electricity prices to defeat every previous attempt to pass bills banning the use of mountaintop removal in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. Even the students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill were unable to get a policy passed to ban purchases of mountaintop removal coal from the power plant on campus because of the scare tactics employed by the operators of the plant.

Fortunately, the Gainesville policy provides a model that should alleviate those fears, and we can hope that students at UNC and Michigan State University, where local power plants are still purchasing mountaintop removal coal, will try again now that the City of Gainesville has led the way.

Energy efficiency at the forefront of cooperative principles in Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updates: Stopping the “Tax on the Sun” in Virginia

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014 - posted by hannah

solar on house

As the comment period concludes on Appalachian Power Company’s proposed solar “stand-by” charge and next week’s formal regulatory hearing nears, we’re at full swing in a major push for solar freedom in Virginia.

Concerned ratepayers from Abingdon to Amherst, Botetourt to Blacksburg, Lynchburg and Floyd and all across the state have called for their power company to work with customer-generators and not to interfere with the free market for residential clean energy. Solar installation professionals, local elected officials, and solar homeowners have lent their voices in hope of denying an unfair and punitive new policy.

In local news sources — print and public radio – and in the blogosphere, the word is out: Virginia’s second-largest utility seeks to impose an unfair new fee on customers with solar arrays on their property over 10 kilowatts. Hundreds of Appalachian Power customers have already told the SCC that this fee punishes those who benefit their communities in so many ways by choosing to invest in clean energy for their homes, and it’s clear how this move by the company threatens to turn good candidates for new installations away from going solar.

To protect affordable clean energy options for customers, there is still time to take action and take this effort through the last mile. Come out and be in the room at the public hearing in Richmond at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, September 16 at the State Corporation Commission when citizen comments are heard on the utility’s proposal.

Contact me, your local campaigner Hannah Wiegard, at hannah[at]appvoices.org if you’re an ApCo customer and have questions, need a hand crafting testimony, or would like help arranging transportation to the hearing in downtown Richmond on Tuesday, September 16. See you there!

Is Obama’s Climate Action Plan on Track?

Friday, July 25th, 2014 - posted by Jeff Feng

“While no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged.” – President Obama, June 2013

President Obama lays out his administration's Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University in June 2013. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

President Obama lays out his administration’s Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University in June 2013. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan is pretty clear in establishing that if we don’t act now, our kids will be living on a different planet.

But since the release of his administration’s plan in June 2013, has Obama made strides in developing a clean energy economy and protecting the environment by fighting climate change?

Let’s take a look at his five-pronged approach to acting on climate: deploying clean energy; building a 21st-century transportation sector; cutting energy waste in homes, businesses, and factories; reducing other greenhouse gas emissions; and leading at the federal level.

First up is deploying clean energy. A major part of accomplishing this goal is first looking at power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution in the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first announced proposed carbon standards for new power plants in September 2013. Future power plants will have to adhere to these national carbon pollution limits. And just last month, the EPA made history by announcing the first-ever limits on carbon pollution for existing power plants.

Under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, states are given flexibility to meet individual emissions targets with an overall goal of cutting carbon pollution nationally by 30 percent below 2005 levels. Electricity generated by renewable sources such as wind and solar doubled during Obama’s first term, but the Clean Power Plan needs to continue the momentum. With that in mind, Obama hopes to redouble electricity generated through wind and solar by 2020. Utility-scale renewable energy is becoming more of a reality even with the reasonable, perhaps conservative guidelines of the Clean Energy Plan.

Seeing as it is 2014, Obama also wants to build a 21st-century transportation sector. The EPA and DOT are working to update heavy-duty vehicle fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards by March 2016. Implementing standards for heavy duty vehicles would build on the benefits of the fuel economy standards set in 2011, cutting emissions by 270 million metric tons and saving 530 million barrels of oil. Commercial trucks, vans, and buses are the second biggest polluters in the transportation sector, presumably behind passenger vehicles. Speaking of passenger vehicles, fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles now require an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

It seems like carbon dioxide has stolen the show, but what about other greenhouse gas emissions? What’s being done to stop hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from doubling by 2020 and tripling by 2030? Who’s working to make sure methane levels that don’t increase to the equivalent of 620 million tons of carbon pollution by 2030 (despite the fact that, since 1990, U.S. methane emissions have dropped by 11 percent)?

HFCs were used to phase out ozone destructive chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and are found in refrigerators and air conditioners. While HFCs do not deplete the ozone layer, they have a high global-warming potential and are sometimes referred to as “super greenhouse gases.” Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is working to ban the most detrimental HFCs and develop suitable replacements.

The federal government’s plan to reduce methane emissions also takes a multifaceted approach. Just last month, the EPA announced its plans to strengthen air pollution standards for new municipal solid waste facilities, the third largest source of methane emissions, by requiring them to capture 13 percent more landfill gas than previously dictated. Under the EPA’s plan, landfills would need to capture two-thirds of methane and air toxin emissions by 2023. To cut methane emissions from agricultural operations, the second largest source of the potent greenhouse gase, the USDA, EPA, and DOE released their “Biogas Roadmap” of voluntary suggestions to implement methane digesters. Apparently using a bottom-up approach in going from lower to higher emitters, the EPA has yet to build on voluntary programs in the oil and gas industry, which is the largest source of methane emissions. Methane regulations may be considered later this year, but would not be finalized until the end of 2016.

On to cutting energy waste in homes, businesses and factories. Ideally, we’d all want energy that’s both reliable and affordable. Groups like Appalachian Voices have demonstrated that energy efficiency is both the cleanest and most cost-effective method to reduce pollution, grow our economy by creating thousands of jobs, and save money for families and businesses.

The Climate Action Plan and the Better Buildings Initiative imagine that commercial and industrial buildings will be 20 percent more efficient by 2020. In Obama’s first term, DOE and HUD helped more than two million homes become energy efficient. The DOE is also finalizing conservation standards for appliances and equipment that would help customers save more. Finally, the USDA recently announced it would allocate approximately $250 million to developing energy efficiency and renewable energy for commercial and residential customers in rural areas.

By virtue of all the stakeholders mentioned above, President Obama believes the federal government must lead the charge towards a cleaner future. Last year, he signed a Presidential Memorandum dictating renewable sources make up 20 percent of the federal government’s electricity by 2020. By working with the U.S. military and other federal agencies, he hopes to lead by example and prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey plans to spend $13.1 million to develop three-dimensional mapping data to respond to weather disasters. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs is allocating $10 million to teach tribes ways to adapt to climate change.

Even with these initiatives, the road to energy efficiency and clean energy won’t be easy. Considering that Obama’s Climate Action Plan was announced just last year, historic work is starting to move the United States to a sustainable and stable environment. It’s a start, but we certainly have miles to go.

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

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 - posted by rory

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

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

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

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

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

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 - posted by rory

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

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

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

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

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

The Rural Electric Cooperative: History and Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Co-ops Should Provide Home Energy Efficiency Loans

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

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

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

 

Barriers to Implementation, and Resources Available to Co-ops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tennessee sprouting up as a leader in home energy efficiency

Monday, June 23rd, 2014 - posted by ann

Summer has arrived in Tennessee. Gardens are starting to produce a bounty of flowers and veggies. The longing for home grown tomatoes will soon be satisfied, and energy efficiency prospects are springing up all across the volunteer state.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association have recently announced that the Volunteer state was selected as one of six states to participate in the National Governors Association retreat on energy efficiency. According to TECA’s website, the special retreat will help Tennessee focus on policy development and implementation strategies for “reducing energy consumption, stimulating economic demand for local energy-related jobs and services, and lowering emissions associated with the electricity generation”.

Appalachian Voices has been working with TECA and rural electric co-ops in Tennessee to explore the possibilities for the development of an on-bill financing program for home energy efficiency.

Very few co-ops in the region (only five in Appalachia, all located in Kentucky) provide financing for their members to make multiple energy efficiency improvements all at once — improvements that include weatherization, insulation, and upgrading heating and cooling systems. In truth, the majority of co-ops in Appalachia could be doing a lot more to help reduce energy costs for their members and move the communities they serve closer to achieving real sustainable development.

The fact that TDEC and TECA applied for and received this grant shows that they care about the people they serve, and are willing to work hard to help reduce electricity bills by providing energy efficiency incentives and financing programs. The Tennessee workshop will address specific challenges the state faces in advancing energy efficiency programs in rural areas served by co-ops, and will help the state develop tools and strategies for designing and deploying successful financing programs for co-op members.

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The Tennessee Team will consist of representatives from the Office of Governor Haslam, TDEC, TECA, other state agencies, the USDA Rural Utilities Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, Appalachian Voices and Pathway Lending, a community development financial institution.

It’s exciting to see Tennessee sowing the seeds of a sustainable energy efficiency program, and we couldn’t be prouder to be part of this effort. Visit our Energy Savings Action Center to learn more about your local energy provider.