Posts Tagged ‘Electric Utilities’

EPA finalizes long-awaited coal ash regulations

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by brian
The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy's Dan River plant.

The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant.

The day we’ve been waiting for has finally come. Yes it’s Friday, but today was also the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s court-imposed deadline to release federal regulations for coal ash storage and disposal.

As expected, the rule it took the EPA five years to finalize is modest at best, falling short of what it takes to truly address the prevalent problems associated with coal ash such as contamination of waterways and drinking water supplies.

Rather than classifying coal ash as the hazardous waste it clearly is, the EPA rule places it under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the nation’s primary law for regulating solid waste. Other types of waste regulated under Subtitle D include household garbage — you know, banana peels, candy wrappers and the like.

“For the thousands of citizens whose groundwater is no longer safe for consumption due to leaching ponds or whose air is contaminated by fugitive dust, failing to regulate coal ash as hazardous is a slap in the face,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator. “While we’re pleased that we finally have federal regulations, they are far from perfect and demand we continue fighting for cleanup of these toxic sites.”

U.S. coal plants produce around 140 million tons of coal ash each year. Much of that is stored near waterways in unlined pits held in place by earthen dams. Even years after coal plants have closed, ponds that have stored toxic coal ash for decades can continue to pollute water and put communities at risk.

In 2012, Appalachian Voices and several partner groups, represented by Earthjustice, sued the EPA in federal court to force the agency to issue a rule. Late last year our coalition reached a settlement holding the EPA to today’s deadline.

According to the EPA, the rule establishes safeguards to protect communities from catastrophic spills, like the Kingston, Tenn., spill in 2008. It was the disaster in Kingston that spurred the agency to act.

But more spills, like the one at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River plant in Eden, N.C., have happened in the time since, representing hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental and economic costs.

To address the threat of another catastrophic failure, the EPA rule calls for the the closure of inactive sites that fail to meet engineering and structural standards, more frequent inspections and monitoring, and restrictions on where coal ash impoundments are located.

The rule also requires water quality monitoring and public disclosure of the results, which should help groups like Appalachian Voices and our community partners better track pollution and take companies to court that fail to stop it. More frequent reports and accurate information coming directly from utilities could be a big boost for efforts to protect clean water, as long as coal plant operators commit to transparency.

But while the regulations set a minimum federal criteria, states are not required to adopt them, develop a permitting program, or submit a program to the EPA for approval. That’s all more of a suggestion, really. So while the EPA says it expects states to be “active partners” in regulating coal ash, well, states unfriendly to the EPA may feel differently. And should states refuse to clean up coal ash pollution or fail meet the new standards, the EPA will not step in to enforce the rule. That job will still fall to citizens who identify the insidious pollution and file lawsuits to correct it.

According to Earthjustice, unsafe disposal of coal ash into the nation’s more than 1,400 coal ash dumps has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and sources of underground drinking water in 37 states. There are 331 high- and significant-hazard coal ash ponds in the country. Many of the highest hazard sites are concentrated in the eastern U.S.

Learn more about our work to clean up coal ash.

A schizoid rate case and a climate directive in Virginia

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014 - posted by hannah
Virginia ratepayers made their voices heard before important orders by the State Corporation Commission on residential solar fees and electricity rates.

Virginia ratepayers made their voices heard before important orders by the State Corporation Commission on residential solar fees and electricity rates.

Here’s the bad news: Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved a charge of about $3.50 per kilowatt on Appalachian Power Company customers with solar arrays larger than 10 kilowatts.

But it’s even more disappointing in light of Virginia’s recent explosion in residential solar installations and our state’s opportunity to lead by encouraging efforts that make clean energy affordable.

We’ve covered the “solar standby” charge problem and examined theories about why such “taxes on the sun” are spreading. Regardless of the reasons behind Appalachian Power’s pursuit of the charge, it is now in place and applies to five accounts currently and any customer who installs a new solar system larger than 10 kilowatts in the future. But there’s a more interesting aspect of the SCC’s recent order that’s worth a look.

Elsewhere in the very same ruling, regulators rejected an APCo proposal to raise fixed fees for residential customers that would have had serious consequences for energy use, conservation and renewable energy in the region.

This sort of restructuring spells trouble for advancing technologies like solar, small residential wind and energy efficiency. It’s an issue that’s been popping up recently in rate hearings around the country. In states such as Nevada and Wisconsin, utilities have proposed major changes to the way most customers’ bills are set up in the form of vast increases in fixed monthly fees and cuts to usage-based rates. Imagine being a utility and feeling concerned about how the public views the way you do business. Do you think you might be tempted to announce cuts to rates, while making up the balance from fees that many customers might overlook on their bills? APCo proposed a near doubling of the flat fees their residential basic customers pay from $8.35 to $16.

Public relations aside, it only takes a quick thought exercise to see how these changes would play out for customers in real life: a middle-class family in a mid-size home might not see a difference in their bill at all, with savings on per-unit energy costs negated by higher fixed fees. A family that lives in a large home and uses a lot of electricity each month might see lower bills since the fixed fee makes up a smaller share of their bill. But a small home of a low-income family that uses less energy, perhaps with fewer electronic gadgets and a habit of keeping the thermostat low during colder months, could be stuck with higher bills in spite of lower rates per kilowatt-hour as fixed charges drive up their energy costs.

Appalachian Power spokesperson John Shepelwich speaks to the media about the reasons the  utility pursued a "standby" charge on customers that have gone solar.

Appalachian Power spokesperson John Shepelwich speaks to the media about the reasons the utility pursued a “standby” charge on customers that have gone solar.

Shifting toward higher fees paid by all customers regardless of how much energy they consume and away from usage-based charges has been criticized in other states — not only on grounds of economic injustice but also for the obvious way it undercuts the incentive to conserve energy, and for the less apparent way it can deter investments in clean energy.

Lowering electricity rates fundamentally affects the calculation of whether installing a household solar array makes financial sense, and results in a big reduction in the returns that a solar owner would otherwise expect to receive The SCC found that APCo had not established that the charges were reasonable and rejected the increases, but experts in the region are looking ahead to other methods of rate restructuring utilities might pursue including minimum bills.

The second positive outcome of the APCo case came particularly as a result of representation by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the advocacy of clean energy supporters like you. It is the SCC order on APCo’s long-term resource plan that contains the seeds of future climate progress. In the big picture, it may be the most significant part of all the SCC’s orders from last month: the directive that APCo monitor the development of the EPA standards on carbon from power plants and model different methods to comply.

For regulators to tell a utility with a generation mix that is projected to remain over 80 percent coal-based through 2027 that it must model methods to address carbon pollution is huge. And the way the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is written, options that will truly benefit customers like investing in energy efficiency programs (which are also the lowest-cost options for compliance) should take center stage in the utility’s future plans to reduce its greenhouse gas intensity. It’s due to the engagement of several customers who have gone solar that wrote letters to the SCC, the dozens who commented in favor of a cleaner, more reliable, more affordable energy future for the region, and those who came to Richmond to be heard in person, that our message got through.

Virginians advocate for clean energy outside the state Capitol Building. Photo by Virginia Sierra Club

Virginians advocate for clean energy outside the state Capitol Building. Photo by Virginia Sierra Club

From here, it’s important to do your part to make sure your legislators are aware of these issues. The General Assembly originally approved a bill that authorized solar standby charges because they were portrayed as a tool to right a wrong: utilities used a red herring argument claiming that customers who generate their own solar electricity didn’t pay enough for the services they receive. In other words, in trying to solve a perceived problem presented by the utilities who contend that their freeloading solar customers are being subsidized by the customers who don’t generate clean energy, the legislature and regulators created a weapon to be wielded against a class of customers that by-and-large benefits the system by providing pollution-free energy at some of the year’s peak use times, helping other ratepayers avoid new generation and transmission expenses while cutting pollution.

Meanwhile, last month’s legislative committee hearing on the Clean Power Plan reminds us that most members of the legislature are in the dark about the effects of the fees they approve and the risks that these new charges will change the calculation for constituents in their districts who might otherwise see a much better deal and likely choose a local installer to outfit their home with a solar array. For instance, the infamous hybrid car fee passed in 2013 only to be hurriedly repealed in 2014 — with popular outrage, swift policy reform is impressively easy. And while the SCC has a certain degree of discretion, it’s bound to follow the letter of the law, which we, with help from our legislators, have the power to rewrite.

Coal ash cleanup still contested in North Carolina

Friday, December 5th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
 Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

In two weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will finally release the first-ever rule regulating the storage and disposal of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal. For years, communities and environmental groups across the country have pushed the EPA to finalize the regulations, and now, due to a court ordered mandate, the rules are expected to be released on Dec. 19.

In the years following the 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., the EPA repeatedly delayed finalizing a coal ash rule, allowing the dangerous waste to sit in unlined landfills and contaminate groundwater at sites across the country. As a result, there have been more coal ash disasters, including the February 2014 spill into the Dan River at Duke Energy’s plant in Eden, N.C. A new study conducted by Wake Forest University research biologist Dennis Lemly puts the cost of the Dan River spill at $300 million.

Spurred by the devastating Dan River spill, enormous public outcry, and a federal criminal investigation into the ties between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, state lawmakers set about writing their own coal ash regulations prior to the EPA rule’s release. The result was not what North Carolinians hoped for.

The Coal Ash Management Act, which became law in September without Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature, only requires the full cleanup of four out of the 14 coal ash storage sites in the state. The fates of the remaining 10, including Belews Creek (home to the the largest coal ash deposits in the state) have been left in the hands of a Coal Ash Commission, which may allow sites to be capped in place, a method of coal ash storage that does not eliminate the possibility of groundwater contamination.

McCrory did not sign the bill because he felt that the Coal Ash Commission was unconstitutional since a majority of its members were appointed by legislators and not the governor. On Nov. 13, McCrory and former governors James Hunt and James Martin sued the General Assembly, stating that the commission has been tasked with carrying out executive branch functions, as well as functions normally overseen by state agencies such as DENR. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, who are listed as defendants in the case, issued a statement opposing McCrory’s lawsuit as costly and time-consuming.

Despite the weaknesses of the Coal Ash Management Act, the law has already forced Duke Energy to begin cleaning up the coal ash at four high-priority sites, and to submit preliminary cleanup plans and groundwater assessment plans for the remaining 10. But now new controversies are emerging over where the company plans to relocate its waste.

Last month, Duke announced plans to move 2.9 million tons of ash from its Riverbend and Sutton plants to former clay mines in Chatham County and Lee County. Citizens in both counties are upset by the proposal, stating that they feel blindsided and citing the lack of an environmental or health impact study as problematic. In Chatham County, some residents already live near coal ash ponds located at Duke’s Cape Fear plant, which are not currently designated for cleanup.

Duke Energy contends that the clay mines are ideal for coal ash storage because of their close proximity to railways and the added environmental protection of impervious clay. The company says it will put in liners and install groundwater monitoring systems at the sites.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, millions of tons of coal ash precariously stored along North Carolina’s waterways will have to be moved somewhere. But the unfortunate reality of the law is that many previously unburdened communities and others already burdened by toxic waste dumps may be forced to house some of the ash. Ideally, most of the coal ash will remain on Duke Energy-owned property, but what cannot safely stay on Duke’s land will have to go somewhere. Every North Carolinian has a ton of coal ash to their name, but not every North Carolinian will have to deal with their ton.

In addition to considering new landfill sites, Duke Energy is also looking into the potential of beneficial reuse of coal ash.

If the EPA’s coal ash rule is weak, it will not protect communities from potentially dangerous coal ash landfills or coal ash reuse. Though there are no ideal solutions for the toxic waste, moving forward with the understanding that the substance is indeed hazardous would lead to more safeguards for human health.

If you haven’t already, take a moment to think about why you care about coal ash pollution and explore this topic with others. As North Carolina and the rest of the country move toward coal ash cleanup, it’s more important than ever for us to stand united to demand the safest storage possible.

Virginia utilities expand their menus with new energy-saving offerings

Monday, December 1st, 2014 - posted by hannah

Advocates for energy efficiency often, and rightly, call it “the first fuel,” and Virginia is now creeping ahead toward gains in this lowest-cost power source.

New programs could help Virginians harness the "first fuel" -- energy efficiency.

New programs could help Virginians harness the “first fuel” — energy efficiency.

As some of Virginia’s foremost energy efficiency leaders will tell you, Virginians are coming to a consensus that we need concerted energy efficiency improvements, and judging by our recent rank of 35 in a state efficiency scorecard, this sense of urgency comes not a moment too soon!

Utilities are responding with new programs that they will run over the next few years. For climate activists, affordable energy supporters and regular customers alike, these programs represent steps in the right direction.

Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion Power, serves dense population centers in the northern, eastern and central regions of the Commonwealth and already administers a handful of opt-in energy-saving programs. The intent behind these demand side programs is to invest in energy-saving home improvements in much the same way utilities invest in a generating facility, with a bonus rebate to help offset the initial cost for the energy user.

Dominion is now looking to add two new demand-reduction programs to its portfolio, with a regulatory hearing scheduled for March. One program is intended to be restricted to those who would need it most, open only to those living in poverty, the other would target some of the most woefully old, power-guzzling appliances that customers may still be plugging in (see chart). Dominion is also proposing a Qualifying Small Business Improvement Program, and the utility’s many other commercial programs are listed online.

Dominion Power's current and proposed energy efficiency programs in Virginia.

Dominion Power’s current and proposed energy efficiency programs in Virginia. Click to enlarge.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s other investor-owned utility, Appalachian Power, has announced a suite of programs it estimates will save energy equivalent to the annual usage of 3,000 homes. The company, which serves much of Virginia’s mountain, valley and piedmont residents, has just been granted approval for an air-conditioner on/off cycling option (which saves on system congestion and expensive summer-peak energy during high-use times) and a low-income weatherization program to kick-off its energy saving portfolio. The company is also seeking approval for programs that will provide for customers to save money on wealth-building measures like a home check-up and vastly cost-effective LED bulbs (again, see chart).

Descriptions of energy efficiency programs proposed by Appalachian Power Company in Virginia.

Descriptions of energy efficiency programs proposed by Appalachian Power Company in Virginia. Click to enlarge.

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to reduce the carbon intensity of our power sector allows states to count efficiency improvements toward reductions in overall emissions, meaning we can pursue the plan’s goals while creating jobs in the home assessment and efficiency retrofitting fields. It is the first time that the EPA has created a standard that allows for offsets in emissions from outside the walls of a power plant. We can take advantage of the EPA’s action to drive expansion of more ambitious efficiency programs.

The more we ask of our utilities in this regard the more we can expect Virginia’s rank on those national charts to climb, and the more we’ll see our neighbors finding work as home energy contractors doctoring our houses and looking after our leaky, energy-inefficient buildings.

Dominion customers can apply to and enroll in existing programs through dom.com. Stay tuned for news on APCo’s new programs which will soon be available for applications and enrollment.

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 classify coal ash as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act. 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!