Posts Tagged ‘Electric Utilities’

A “crass abuse of power” in the N.C. Senate

Thursday, May 21st, 2015 - posted by brian
North Carolina Sen. Bob Rucho must be hard of hearing since several of his Senate colleagues attest that a bill to freeze the state's renewable portfolio standard failed on a voice vote before he declared the bill passed.

North Carolina Sen. Bob Rucho must be hard of hearing since several of his Senate colleagues attest that a bill to freeze the state’s renewable portfolio standard failed on a voice vote before he declared the bill passed.

The disgust with North Carolina Sen. Bob Rucho today is broad and bipartisan.

Yesterday in the state Senate finance committee, which he chairs, Rucho prevented any debate on provisions of House Bill 332 that would undermine a policy central to the success of North Carolina’s solar industry.

Then he broke Senate rules by refusing to allow an individual tally of votes and declared a failed bill passed.

North Carolinians: Send a message to your state senator telling them to oppose anti-solar provisions in H322.

As the News & Observer reports:

Senate finance chairman Sen. Bob Rucho pushed through a bill freezing renewable energy rates on Wednesday, cutting off discussion and refusing to allow a head count instead of a voice vote.

He declared the bill had passed, despite a louder and possibly more numerous chorus of “no” votes. The meeting ended with several senators, including at least two Republicans, openly complaining about the way Rucho had handled it.

“It wasn’t even close,” Sen. Jerry Tillman, a seven-term Republican from Archdale, told Rucho afterward.

Rules adopted by the Senate earlier this year require the presiding officer to hold a “division,” an individual tally rather than just by voice, if it is called for prior to the vote. In this case, the committee’s leading Democrat, Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, called for a division. Rucho refused and moved forward with a voice vote.

After the committee meeting, Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte tweeted:

Even former Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers called out legislators for their regressive tack on proven clean energy policies. “They are not focused on the future,” Rogers told an audience at Charlotte Business Journal’s Energy Inc. Summit today. “They are focused on the past.”

The benefits of clean energy are abundant, but the game in Raleigh is rigged. Since opponents of sound energy policies that promote job growth and create billions in local economic benefits can’t win adhering to the rules, they break them. Bob Rucho has more than earned his nickname, “Napoleon Rucho.”

If you’re still finding it hard to believe Sen. Rucho could treat the democratic process with such brazen disregard, well, here’s his most recent tweet from back in January 2014.

Sen. Rucho, respectfully, treat people with respect if that is what you expect in return.

If HB332′s flawed passage is allowed to stand, the bill could be brought up on the Senate floor for a full vote. If that happens, we hope the bipartisan outrage with the way the bill has been handled thus far, and the fact that it’s bad policy to begin with, remains.

TAKE ACTION NOW: Send a message to your state senator telling them to oppose anti-solar provisions in H322.

Duke Energy to close aging Asheville coal plant

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 - posted by brian

Duke Energy plans to retire its Asheville coal plant and build a natural gas-fired facility in its place. The announcement should be celebrated as progress, but it also represents another precarious step toward a future reliant on fossil fuels.

A plan to “end an era of coal” in Asheville and enter an era of natural gas.

In a surprise announcement that some predicted and many have long advocated for, Duke Energy shared plans today to “end an era of coal” in Asheville, N.C., by retiring the coal-fired power plant that sits on the banks of nearby Lake Julian.

The aging power plant, which began operating in 1964, has been a constant target for Appalachian Voices and many of our allies in North Carolina working to address coal ash pollution and promote investments in cleaner energy.

The company plans to spend around $750 million over the next four or five years to retire the coal plant and replace it with a 650-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant, nearly doubling the current plant’s capacity. The plans also include building solar generation on the site, but it’s unclear how large — or small — the size of the renewable portion of the project will be.

While the news should be celebrated as progress, it also represents another precarious step along a dangerous road that will prolong our region’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and saddle consumers with long-lived investments in natural gas.

Duke, more than any other southeastern utility, has been at the forefront of the coal-to-gas fuel-switching trend, retiring seven of its 14 North Carolina coal plants in the past five years. The utility is also slated to be the largest customer of the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but, in this case, plans to upgrade an existing natural gas pipeline to supply the new plant.

Even though the company has brought on large-scale solar projects in recent years, Duke’s enthusiasm for clean energy doesn’t come close to its eagerness to expand natural gas generation and infrastructure. That fact is reflected in the mixed responses of environmental groups and clean energy advocates to today’s news.

“The retirement of the Asheville Plant is a step in the right direction, but it is a half measure, undermined by continuing reliance on an economically unpredictable and polluting source of power. Duke can do better, and our community deserves better,” a coalition of groups made up of MountainTrue, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance announced in a joint statement. “We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight for clean energy solutions for Western North Carolina.”

According to Duke, electricity demand in the Asheville area has doubled over the past forty years and the Asheville plant is a “must run” facility, meaning it operates around the clock to maintain reliability. But data charted by SNL Energy shows the plant’s capacity factor has been trending down since 2010, likely due to new capacity at the more-economical Cliffside power plant coming online.

Closing the plant will dramatically reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury, and the new natural gas plant will emit about 60 percent less carbon dioxide per-megawatt hour. But its larger generating capacity could mean overall carbon emissions stay about the same.

The cost of retrofitting the plant’s coal ash ponds to comply with the state’s Coal Ash Management Act is sure to have played a role in the decision to retire the plant. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also cited Duke in February for contaminating groundwater at the facility, which could lead to fines.

The Asheville plant is the only facility out of the four deemed “high priority” by the coal ash law that still burns coal. It is also one of the few still-operating plants involved in the federal lawsuit over coal ash pollution that led Duke to plead guilty to nine misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act.

The case for closing the Asheville coal plant is clear. But Duke must do more to meet its promises to North Carolinians. At a time of tremendous opportunity to expand clean energy, America’s largest electric utility has the obligation and more than enough influence to lead.

The economic impact of energy efficiency

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly

Making the case for utility on-bill financing in the High Country

Several High Country businesses would see their customer base grow dramatically if an on-bill energy efficiency financing program was adopted by Blue Ridge Electric.

Several High Country businesses would see their customer bases grow dramatically if an on-bill energy efficiency financing program was adopted by Blue Ridge Electric.

While not as exciting as solar panels glimmering in the sunlight, energy efficiency retrofits can be just as important in reducing energy consumption, lowering utility bills, and making an economic impact. One such program that makes energy efficiency retrofits accessible on a large scale is utility on-bill financing.

On-bill financing programs are a way for utilities to offer energy efficiency upgrades with no up-front cost to customers. After receiving the upgrades, customers see immediate savings. A portion of the savings goes back to the utility to pay for the upgrades through residents’ monthly bills (hence the name on-bill). When the improvements are paid for, residents pocket all their utility savings, which could be up to a 40 percent reduction in their bill. In turn, residents are able to use what they would otherwise be spending on electric bills to further stimulate the local economy.

Energy efficiency upgrades covered by most on-bill financing programs include air sealing, insulation, duct sealing, and heat pump repair or replacement, depending on what needed improvements are identified through energy audits. General contractors have specialized in energy efficiency certifications in order to do this work. Because this work is more labor intensive, every dollar that is redirected from the energy sector and spent in the home improvement industry has a more prominent impact on the local economy and jobs.

According to The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a dollar spent in the local economy has more than double the positive effect on domestic employment and wages of spending a dollar on utility bills. John Kidda is the founder of reNew Home, Inc., a Boone-based home energy improvement company. “An additional $300,000 annual revenue stream would be a game changer for my business,” he says. “It would mean at least two new employees.”

The ideal on-bill financing program is accessible to everyone because it is tied to the meter, meaning once the renter or homeowner moves, the on-bill financing charge will not follow them but will instead be paid by the next occupant or owner who will also see savings. The program that works best also operates without a credit check, with eligibility instead being based on utility payment history, thereby removing traditional barriers of getting a loan.

Appalachian Voices is working in the High Country to promote and help develop programs that will benefit residents who are suffering from poorly constructed or aging homes. Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BRE) provides electricity to most of the High Country. The rural electric cooperative serves approximately 66,500 residential customers.

A report produced by Appalachian Voices in early 2014 found that a larger portion of BRE members’ income goes to utility bills than the national average. If Blue Ridge Electric offered on-bill financing, and, if just 1 percent of its residential customers took a $7,500 loan:

• $5 million could be spent on energy efficiency projects in a 5-year period
• 70 total jobs could be created from that investment
• $600 a year could be the amount the average household saves (the customer would pocket $120 a year until the improvements are paid in full.)
• Another 80 jobs could be created from the reinvestment of this saved money in local goods and services

Several businesses already focus on weatherization and energy efficiency improvements in the High Country, and could see their businesses grow if an on-bill finance program were in place. “If there were financing available, I would be hiring local contractors to improve the homes in our local area,” says Sam Zimmerman, President of Sunny Day Homes. “It means local jobs and reduced reliance on fossil fuels while improving home value and comfort.”

With an average 23 percent poverty rate in Blue Ridge Electric’s service area, this program would help raise the market accessibility for companies such as Sunny Day Homes and reduce the cost of living for families some of whom are barely making it. “The economic benefits are dramatic for the people who get the jobs and the people who get the work done,” Zimmerman says.

Energy efficiency and on-bill financing programs would have a significant and positive impact on all of the area’s weatherization businesses says Will Hadaway, founder of HomEfficient. “My usual crew consists of myself and two others,” Hadaway remarks. “This would equate to 2/3 to 3/4 of a years worth of work for us, and that is very significant to say the least.”

Kent Walker of Blue Ridge Energy Works agrees that the program could have a significant impact and provide a steady stream of work for his business. “BRE could really stimulate the economy with this program!” says Walker.

You can help bring energy efficiency programs like on-bill financing to the High Country. If you’re a member of BRE, sign a letter to support on-bill financing today! If BRE is not your electric provider, visit Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Action Center to ask your utility to support energy efficiency initiatives.

The job estimates were calculated using state and region-wide values reported from a 2013 Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance report. Loan investment and average annual household savings were calculated by Appalachian Voices.

Don’t drink the water

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy's coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking.

Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking. Photo by Avery Locklear

Dozens of residents across North Carolina received notices this week telling them not to drink or cook with their well water due to recent tests which show unsafe levels of contaminants that may be associated with coal ash.

As part of North Carolina’s coal ash law enacted last year, Duke Energy is required to test the well water of residents living within 1000 feet of the massive coal ash ponds that dot the state.

For years, the demands of residents in communities next to coal ash ponds and environmental advocates were ignored by Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, despite independent water sampling that showed elevated levels of contaminants. Now, more than a year after the Dan River coal ash spill, water testing results are coming back, giving residents and regulators a clear picture of just how widespread the problem is.

Tell Duke Energy to supply residents with safe water!

Residents living near 9 of the 14 coal plants across the state have been notified of exceedances of the groundwater standard for concerning metals such as arsenic, chromium, and vanadium. According to DENR, 87 of the 117 wells Duke tested exceeded North Carolina’s groundwater standards for one or more toxic constituents. Some wells also had high levels of constituents that may be naturally occurring in North Carolina soil, such as iron, manganese and pH.

Duke has been quick to latch onto those exceedances as evidence that the contamination is not from their illegally leaking coal ash ponds. But residents who can see coal ash ponds from their yards and have watched Duke’s smokestacks for decades have little doubt why they are now being told “don’t drink the water.”

DENR officials say they will investigate the source of contamination and, if it is linked to coal ash pollution, Duke will be required to provide residents with clean water. But that reassurance is hardly recompense for North Carolinians who may have been unknowingly drinking contaminated water for an unknown amount of time. And until the source is determined, residents will have to foot the bill for bottled water.

Take action now!

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

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 - posted by jmcgirt

Community Partners

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

Business Partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates. 

Virginia lawmakers act on energy bills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gov. McAuliffe signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

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

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

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

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

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

Criminal charges filed against Duke Energy

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

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

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

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

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

Related stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Clean coal” is on the fritz

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by brian

By Brian Sewell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FutureGen’s Downfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proceed with Caution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 - posted by eliza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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