Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

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.

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.

DENR deserves an environmental leader to replace John Skvarla

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 - posted by brian
John Skvarla, the embattled secretary of DENR, is leaving the agency to lead the state Commerce Department.

John Skvarla, the embattled secretary of DENR, is leaving the agency to lead the state Commerce Department.

After a tumultuous two years as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, John Skvarla is stepping over to lead the state’s Commerce Department. Skvarla will replace Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker, who is leaving her post to join a digital media company.

Environmental groups, concerned citizens and prominent media outlets have been critical of Skvarla throughout his tenure, and unsurprisingly so — he has expressed doubt over whether oil is a non-renewable resource claiming, “There is a lot of different scientific opinion on that,” and he questions the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

After assuming his position, Skvarla rewrote DENR’s mission statement to be in the service of industries in North Carolina. Under his watch, information related to climate change was removed from the agency’s website, and the department was reorganized and reduced to nearly inept levels.

READ MORE: DENR found critics and praise under Skvarla

By any measure, Skvarla is committed to being business-friendly. Responding to an op-ed by Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams in the News & Observer last December, he called DENR a “customer-friendly juggernaut.” But many saw Skvarla as being too cozy with companies like Duke Energy. A federal grand jury is still investigating ties between DENR and the company responsible for the Dan River coal ash spill.

While this announcement should engender optimism in the North Carolina environmental community, that hopefulness is tempered by trepidation over who will take over the position, and concern that he could be replaced by an even more extreme and environmentally detrimental successor.

There is no word on who will replace Skvarla yet, but Gov. McCrory says he is interviewing candidates and plans to appoint a new secretary later this month. Here’s to hoping he or she is the environmental leader DENR deserves and North Carolina desperately needs.

A statement from Appalachian Voices North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams:

John Skvarla ushered in an era of regressive environmental policies and procedures that placed industry over the needs of the environment and people. It is our sincere hope that his departure from DENR will allow the return of accountability and reason to the agency.

Gov. McCrory must choose a leader who will balance real environmental protection and industry growth without the wholesale abandonment of either. The goal of the new DENR secretary should be to restore the mission and integrity of the department by prioritizing environmental protection.

We look forward to working with someone who will reconsider Skvarla’s industry-first approach, which repeatedly put North Carolina’s natural resources as risk as exemplified by the handling of Duke Energy’s coal ash contamination.

N.C.’s Sutton Lake finally gets the protection it deserves

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 - posted by Jaimie McGirt
Padding on the Cape Fear River. Photograph by Jaimie McGirt

Paddling on the Cape Fear River. Photo by Jaimie McGirt

Wilmington, N.C., is the site of the L.V. Sutton Power Station — a retired coal-fired power plant operated by Duke Energy along the Lower Cape Fear River. Though Duke recently converted Sutton to burn natural gas, the carcinogenic-laden waste generated from decades of coal combustion remains in 135 acres on site.

The largest is Sutton Lake, a cooling pond now managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission that previously received unregulated discharges from three adjacent coal ash ponds. According to Frank Holleman with the Southern Environmental Law Center, however, the District court of Wilmington ruled last week that Sutton Lake is a Water of the United States, meaning it will no longer be an authorized site for unpermitted coal ash discharges and the adjacent coal ash ponds ponds must undergo frequent inspection.

Though I’ve lived the past five years away from home, I am from the Wilmington area. I spent a lot of time as a kid on the Cape Fear River in a boat with my parents. We would idle along, my dad showing me the spots where he used to camp, squirrel hunt and shoot mistletoe from tree canopies along the river. Eventually, I began kayaking to those places, exploring them for myself and venturing further downriver. While I was often surrounded by wild things, periodic sights of clear-cut forests and the distant red and white-striped smokestacks of the Sutton plant reminded me that development and pollution was not far off.

At first, I wasn’t aware that I was paddling a stone’s throw from Sutton Lake or the ash ponds. Unlike so many people, I had never been out on the lake; I had only seen the brown recreational boat ramp sign off Hwy. 421 and wondered what it was like. But on one occasion my dad and I were heading downriver admiring the giant cypress trees and we stopped at the river bank where there was a small gap in some pines. We scrambled up the riprap and debris and suddenly I realized what I was seeing — Sutton Lake.

Unlike Sutton Station, the lake is hidden by a stand of trees adjacent to the river. Vast and obviously man-made, it seemed such a stark environment; I couldn’t imagine that anyone would actually visit it recreationally — and I didn’t even know about the coal ash dumping there at this point. But people did visit. They still do. Like so many other lakes that serve as illegitimate or unregulated coal ash dump sites, Sutton is a popular fishing and boating site.

Why, when it looks nothing like a natural lake with its concrete retaining berms and gravel access roads on top of the berms and is polluted with heavy metals? I didn’t know about the nearby coal-fired power plant and coal ash ponds — and I grew up as a privileged, environmentally aware, English-speaking kid in the area. It’s a large body of water well stocked with bass, bluegill and a variety of other fish; on the surface, it appears normal. That’s my best guess as to why.

That’s how it’s been for a long time. Looking out over the pond that day, my dad said, “I used to fish here and now some people say that it’s bad. I didn’t know any better back then.” Despite the time that has passed, some people still believe it is safe to be on the lake, and worse, fish for subsistence. Today, contaminants like arsenic, chromium, boron and selenium exist in Sutton Lake. These toxins pose a major threat to fish and human health if consumed. While some fisherman catch-and-release, others, especially those from under-resourced and/or immigrant communities, don’t know better or don’t have an alternative — and that goes for fish caught in the river too. (While groundwater contamination affects people in close proximity and discharges affect people downriver, contaminated fish in the river are not stationary. Some species travel upriver to spawn, affecting plenty of people upriver from the waste sites.)

That’s what Kemp Burdette, the Lower Cape Fear Riverkeeper, shared with my dad, me and other Appalachian State University students during a “source-to-sea” kayak expedition I led two years ago. I was raised on fresh-caught freshwater fish and seafood, and despite having known about mercury levels in some fresh and saltwater fish, I couldn’t turn down fried catfish until Kemp told us that a woman shouldn’t eat catfish from the Cape Fear but once a year, and a pregnant woman — forget about it. At that moment I remember feeling such remorse for all of the people who had catfish lines trailing under low-hanging branches over the river, planning to take their catch home to their families, just as my dad used to do. And that doesn’t even account for the remorse I now feel for people across our state, nation and world seeking and finding their livelihood near coal ash ponds and other toxic waste sites.

Today, I know much more about coal ash and the associated threats. That counts for something. Today, my parents live about two miles upriver from the plant and the lake. No longer fishing in that area and having well water, they really aren’t at risk like so many others downriver in Flemmington Road, Navassa, Leland and other rural communities. But they know the risks. That counts for something. There are advocates inside and outside of communities — concerned local businessmen and women, children, parents, elders, hard laborers, fishermen, scientists, doctors and lawyers — that are challenging the corporate status quo and inadequate regulations that fail to protect their drinking water. That counts for something. And finally, our courts have listened and ruled to protect Sutton Lake from unpermitted discharges from Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Of course, until the coal ash waste is moved into lined ponds, as required under the new state coal ash law, we’re still left with 135 acres of coal ash ponds at the Sutton site that constantly leach contaminants and are at risk for structural failure. That’s not to mention the 13 other contaminated coal ash storage sites across North Carolina, 10 of which are not prioritized for cleanup under the new law.

Prioritization is on the table, however. By December 2015, all coal ash storage sites must have a priority designation — which will determine pond closure and cleanup plans under the N.C. Coal Ash Management Commission’s watch. Maybe the Sutton reclassification as a Waters of the United States is only a small move toward environmental justice, but it gives me hope for the remaining coal ash sites in North Carolina, and more importantly, hope for the marginalized residents that bear witness to the injustice in their communities every day.

Weak fracking rules pass in N.C.

Monday, November 17th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg

The North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission issued their final vote on proposed changes to the rules regulating the process of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas last Friday, Nov. 14, voting unanimously to approve the rule set.

Members of the Frack Free NC Alliance, comprised of over 30 groups across N.C., deliver nearly 60,000 petition signatures to Gov. McCrory calling for a ban on fracking.

Members of the Frack Free NC Alliance, comprised of over 30 groups across N.C., deliver nearly 60,000 petition signatures to Gov. McCrory calling for a ban on fracking.

Between July 14 and Sept. 30, the MEC received 217,000 public comments on more than 100 draft rules regarding safety standards for fracking in the state. More than 2,000 North Carolinians attended the commission’s four public hearings, and the vast majority of speakers opposed fracking and asked for stronger rules. The MEC’s response, written in the Hearing Officer’s report released two weeks ago, showed a considerable lack of consideration for public comments, a fact that disappointed concerned citizens and advocates across the state. Almost all of the recommendations fell short of what the public overwhelmingly asked for, and the few recommendations that strengthen the rules only minimally do so.

Hundreds gather at the MEC hearing in Cullowhee, N.C. All 80 speakers opposed fracking.

Hundreds gather at the MEC hearing in Cullowhee, N.C. All 80 speakers opposed fracking.

For example, though the MEC received over 2,000 comments asking them to increase setback distances from occupied buildings and water sources from 650 feet to at least 1,500 feet, the Hearing Officer’s only recommended one change to setbacks– an additional setback of 1500 feet from surface waters that supply municipal drinking water (all other setbacks remain 650 feet). Though the MEC originally promised that North Carolina would have the strongest rules in the country, they acknowledged in the Hearing Officer’s report that many states have much larger setbacks from occupied buildings and water supplies, ranging from 800-2,000 feet. Clearly, the MEC was not willing to follow through on their promises to the public or adequately respond to the public’s overwhelming concerns.

The MEC acknowledged in the the Hearing Officer’s report public concern over several other aspects of the rules, including comments to ban open pits for fracking waste-water storage, and advocating for unannounced inspections, air monitoring, stronger bonding rules, and health studies. However, despite these concerns, the commission did not make any substantial changes in these areas before adopting the rules. While the MEC did change the language that had previously required inspections to be announced, they did not include any provision in the rules requiring that inspections be unannounced, either.

Additionally, the rules do not address air quality issues, chemical disclosure or compulsory pooling, an extremely controversial practice where landowners who do not wish to lease their mineral rights are forced to accept drilling anyway. Some of these issues, most notably, forced pooling, may have to be dealt with by the general assembly before drilling can begin in the state.

Hearing Officers (Pickle, Taylor, and Womack) listen to concerned citizens’ comments at an MEC hearing.

Hearing Officers (Pickle, Taylor, and Womack) listen to concerned citizens’ comments at an MEC hearing.

In the meetings preceding Friday’s final vote, members of the commission were heard making negative statements about the public’s comments. Both commissioners Howard and Womack dismissed the public’s comments as “useless” and lacking science. The detailed comments recommending stronger rules for well construction were disregarded as “telling the industry how to suck its own egg.” These responses from the commissioners are especially disturbing given that many groups and individuals did submit scientific comments, complete with peer-reviewed studies, and that North Carolinians put forth a great deal of effort to express their concern with the MEC’s weak rules. Perhaps the only voice of reason came from commissioner Amy Pickle, who warned the other commissioners against speaking too proudly of the rules since they are not what the public wants to see.

Given the rushed time frame for review and consideration of the public’s comments and the industry-friendly makeup of the commission, it’s not surprising that the final rules do not adequately protect North Carolina’s water, air and public health from the documented risks associated with fracking. However, given the enormous public outcry, members of the anti-fracking community had at least hoped for better.

The rules will now move onto the Rules Review Commission and, barring legislative action, permits for fracking may be issued as early as April 2015.

Keep updated on how you can help keep fracking out of the tarheel state by signing up for FrackUpdates here.

Be cool and keep fighting

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 - posted by thom
After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

For the next couple of weeks, you’ll have a hard time turning on the TV or going online without seeing reactions to the midterm elections. Most pundits will analyze what happened, and some will try to tell you what it means.

Here’s what it really means: maybe not that much.

To put things in historical perspective, let’s take a moment to look back at some very recent elections and their outcomes.

2008: Democrats take the White House and a supermajority in both the House and Senate! They proceed to pass climate legislation, stop mountaintop removal coal mining, usher in a new age of clean energy take a few moderate steps toward reducing the amount of permits issued for mountaintop removal coal mining.

2010: Republican wave! The GOP takes the House by a wide margin and nearly takes the Senate. They proceed to remove EPA’s ability to regulate carbon pollution and then expedite all mountaintop removal permits create a fuss while federal agencies continue to take moderate steps towards limiting coal pollution.

2012: Democrats keep the White House, and improve their numbers in both the House and Senate! They proceed to make permanent changes to coal mining and coal ash regulations while stopping global warming in its tracks make no headway on coal mining regulations, allow mountaintop removal mines to be permitted, and take only moderate steps on coal ash regulation and carbon emissions.

We don’t know what the future holds, but considering what happened yesterday there are a few things that we can be pretty sure of moving forward.

The politics of Virginia and Tennessee are not much different today than they were yesterday. No major incumbent lost their race, and the election’s outcomes gives us no reason to believe federal office holders from either state will change their behavior going forward. Appalachian Voices, for one, is happy to continue to work with members from both states and both parties.

West Virginia and Kentucky are still in Big Coal’s stranglehold. But like coal itself, the industry’s power is finite. We can’t say how soon the politics of coal will change in Central Appalachia, but we will continue to work with our allies in those states to change the conversation. For now, members of the two states’ delegations will continue to vote the way they have for years.

After 30 years as an advocate for coal miners and the coal industry alike, Rep. Nick Rahall lost to his Republican challenger, Evan Jenkins, in the race for West Virginia’s 3rd district. Rahall was the senior Democratic member and had a firm grasp on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act. His replacement in that role will likely be someone who opposes mountaintop removal coal mining. For that, we can be all be happy.

North Carolina’s Senate election was a bit of a surprise. Though, aside from Democrat Kay Hagan being replaced by Thom Tillis, the rest of delegation is unchanged.

Appalachian Voices has worked hard to build relationships with members of Congress and their staffs in both the House and the Senate. But we have known for a long time that getting comprehensive legislation through Congress is not a good short-term goal.

The White House, on the other hand, is armed with the science and has the legal authority and moral obligation to take on mountaintop removal, coal ash pollution, climate change and other threats. President Obama was never going to be able to rely on Congress to act on those issues. So from that perspective, nothing has changed.

It’s okay to be excited about a candidate you like winning an election. It’s okay to be bummed when a candidate you like loses. But it’s not okay to get so caught up in it all that you forget the big picture.

As we see it, the job before us has not changed. Our responsibilities to Appalachia, and yours, are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

We will keep fighting for a better future for Appalachia, and push every decision-maker, regardless of their political leanings, to stand with us. We will fight to end to mountaintop removal and for a just economic transition away from fossil fuels. We will fight because no one else is going to do it for us, and we will need you there by our side.

Upgrade to Save? Sounds like a good idea to us!

Friday, October 24th, 2014 - posted by rory

Roanoke Electric Cooperative receives first federal loan for energy efficiency financing

realogo

“Now we can open access to low cost capital for all cost-effective energy efficiency improvements sought by members with sound bill payment history, regardless of income, credit score, or status as renters or home owners.”

With that simple statement, Curtis Wynn, CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative (REC) in eastern North Carolina, perfectly summarized the benefit and accessibility that well-structured on-bill energy efficiency financing programs can offer. Wynn’s statement was part of yesterday’s announcement that REC had been approved for one of the first loans provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program.

The $6 million loan from USDA will fund REC’s new Upgrade to $ave on-bill finance program, which was modeled on the Pay-As-You-Save (PAYS) program developed in 1999 by the Energy Efficiency Institute of Vermont. We have written before about other on-bill finance programs that have also used the PAYS model, most notably the How$martKY program developed by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. This is also the model that Appalachian Voices is promoting to rural electric cooperatives in the region through our Energy Savings for Appalachia program.

The most important part of Curtis Wynn’s statement is the reference to the fact that the Upgrade to $ave program is available to all of REC’s members who have a demonstrated history of paying their electric bills. It doesn’t matter if the member owns or rents their home, what their credit score is, or what income bracket they fall under. This is a key aspect of on-bill finance programs because it means that financial support is available for the people who need it the most, but cannot pay for the upgrades themselves and may not be qualified to receive a loan from a traditional bank or credit union. And given that REC serves an area with an average poverty rate of more than 28 percent, there is undoubtedly a substantial number of residents that need such support.

One of the greatest things about on-bill finance programs modeled after the PAYS program is that they offer “debt-free financing” for households to pay for improving the efficiency of their home, which results in significant reductions in their energy bills. If the homeowner or renter moves away, they don’t have to pay off any remaining debt, and it doesn’t follow them around. Instead, the “debt” remains with the electric meter, and the next owner or tenant continues the payments through the monthly fee.

Average annual costs and estimated savings for participants in Roanoke Electric Cooperative's new Upgrade to $ave program.

Average annual costs and estimated savings for participants in Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s new Upgrade to $ave program.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these programs, however, is that the monthly payments made by the member/customer end up being less than the savings achieved as a result of the upgrades! In other words, even though the resident is paying a new fee on their monthly utility bill, their energy costs still go DOWN! That’s the brilliance of REC’s simple title for their program: Upgrade to $ave. And for REC’s part, the way they’ve structured the program allows the cooperative to fully recover their own costs for offering the energy efficiency service, meaning that other customers don’t have to share any of the costs associated with the program. This is a true and elegant example of an “everybody wins” situation.

Based on information provided in REC’s press statement, the cooperative will be able to provide approximately 800 energy efficiency “loans” using the $6 million being guaranteed by USDA. That represents around 6 percent of the cooperative’s total membership, which is pretty outstanding, and this is likely just the first USDA loan that REC will apply for. Further, the savings potential of the Upgrade to $ave program is substantial. With an average savings of 25 percent per home, as much as 4 million kilowatt-hours or more will be saved each year as a result of the program. For an individual households that could amount to around $650 saved each year (of which 75-90 percent would be used to pay the monthly fee).

On-bill finance programs like Upgrade to $ave are a commonsense approach to achieving significant reductions in the amount of energy and natural resources we use; alleviating the impacts of poverty and high energy costs; and, promoting the development of local jobs in communities that need them. The term “commonsense” doesn’t even capture just how much of a no-brainer developing these programs should be for all electric utilities, especially rural electric cooperatives because they serve some of the most disadvantaged and impoverished communities across the United States.

As REC’s press statement notes, “As an electric cooperative, Roanoke EMC is committed to cooperative principles: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, and concern for community.”

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association describes “concern for community” as “working for the sustainable development of [the cooperatives’] communities through policies accepted by their members.” On-bill finance programs can go a long way toward contributing to the sustainable development of communities served by electric cooperatives such as REC.

It is notable that, partially as a result of our own efforts, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, in partnership with many of its member cooperatives and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, is currently in the process of designing its own on-bill finance program and is expected to submit a loan application to USDA in the near future. Appalachian Voices is also promoting on-bill energy efficiency finance programs to electric cooperatives in western North Carolina, and we hope that REC’s example moves some of them toward developing their own program.

Appalachian Voices wholeheartedly applauds Roanoke Electric Cooperative for taking this important step, showing in practice what “concern for community” really means, and for being the first cooperative in the U.S. to receive an EECLP loan for the funding of an on-bill finance program!

North Carolinians speak out against fracking: Are elected officials listening?

Monday, October 20th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

More than two dozen environmental and social justice groups came together recently to hand deliver 59,500 petition signatures to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, calling on him and other elected officials to reinstate the ban on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for natural gas in the state.

Groups of the Frack Free N.C. Alliance, which include environmental organizations, environmental justice groups and grassroots organizations, have been working diligently all across the state to educate citizens about the potential impacts of fracking and encourage them to get involved. The nearly 60,000 petition signatures are a testament to the strong opposition to fracking throughout North Carolina.

Despite a forecast of rain, the organizations and supporters gathered at the governor’s office last Tuesday to rally and hold a press conference before hand delivering the petitions to McCrory’s staff (the governor, unsurprisingly, was unavailable to receive the petitions). Supporters held anti-fracking signs, images of North Carolina’s unique landscape, and art created by citizens portraying the dangers of fracking and the value of clean water.

The speakers came from all across the state, and included Kathy Rigsbee from Yadkin-Davie Against Fracking, an every-day citizen and mother turned activist, Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for N.C., the founding organization of the Frack Free Alliance, and Luke Crawford from EnvironmentaLEE, a grassroots organization in Lee County, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the state.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices' North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

I was honored to speak on behalf of the numerous grassroots organizations from western North Carolina that contributed significantly to the petition and the anti-fracking movement sweeping across the state. Those organizations include the Coalition Against Fracking in western N.C., Frack Free Madison County, and community groups from Swain and Jackson counties.

As the sun came out, we began carrying boxes of the signed petitions into the governor’s office. As the petitions were passed from person to person and on into the building, elementary students on a field trip joined us in chanting “Frack Free N.C.!”

Governor McCrory has yet to acknowledge the concerns of the 59,500 signees on the petition, though it is clear that opposition to fracking across North Carolina has grown as more citizens learn about the risks associated with the practice.

In August and September, 1,800 North Carolinians attended Mining and Energy Commission hearings on the proposed rules to regulate fracking. The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed fracking. The MEC reports that they received between 100,000-200,000 additional written comments addressing the rules and that the majority suggested the rules be strengthened. According to Commissioner Jim Womack, about half the comments were statements opposing fracking. Womack told reporters that those “didn’t really count.” Clearly, thousands of North Carolinians oppose fracking, the question is, are our elected officials listening to us?

The organizations and citizen groups of Frack Free N.C. promise to continue fighting to protect North Carolina’s air, water, communities, property values and way of life from the dangers of fracking.

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.

Community members gather for Blue Ridge energy efficiency kick-off

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by Eliza Laubach
Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Did you miss the party? Last Thursday, Energy Savings for Appalachia hosted a launch party for our new campaign focusing on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.

Energy efficiency advocates and residents facing high energy costs gathered in our downtown Boone office to hear about the campaign and how they can get involved in our outreach efforts. Local business owners, students, farmers and families spilled out of the conference room as we brainstormed different ways to educate the community about our exciting High Country Home Energy Makeover contest and to gather signatures for our petition calling on Blue Ridge Electric to provide more energy efficiency programs.

What are we asking for? Blue Ridge Electric provides electricity to Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell and Watauga counties, and some of Wilkes and Avery counties, excluding the town of Boone. Last winter, thousands of people served by Blue Ridge Electric could not afford to pay their bills and their electricity service was shut off. This is of particular concern given that 23 percent of Blue Ridge Electric members live at or below the poverty line, and we want to help families find solutions to their high electric bills.

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

That is where on-bill energy efficiency financing comes in. As Sam Zimmerman, owner of Sunny Day Homes, said at the party, most people do not have the disposable income to make large-scale home energy upgrades but would greatly benefit from them. With on-bill financing, the cooperative utility provides a loan for members to pay for home energy retrofits, and the loan is repaid on the member’s electric bill. Because so much energy is saved through the efficiency upgrades, the member’s electric bill is always lower than it was, even while they pay back the loan! By providing on-bill financing, utilities can help a wider range of homeowners and even renters make improvements to their home that would lower their energy use and electric bill.

So far, Blue Ridge Electric has rejected the idea of offering an on-bill financing program, citing lack of substantial member support as one of their primary reasons. This came as a surprise to Blue Ridge Electric members at the launch party. We are working to demonstrate that there actually is significant member support by circulating a petition, presenting to community groups and going door-to-door in local neighborhoods. Additionally, the Home Energy Makeover contest will not only help a few families whose homes could use efficiency upgrades now, it will also highlight a need for an on-bill finance program.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Chatter filled the room as large sheets of paper were filled with names of local businesses, community organizations, churches and other places where we can reach community members. Volunteers came up with innovative methods of outreach, such as utilizing technology or using church signboards, and signed up to help us with our ongoing canvassing project.

It was exciting to see folks be so enthused about our campaign, to hear a homeowner’s personal story detailing how much energy efficiency programs could help, and to strive for inclusion in the process of organizing a community around an issue.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings team has followed viable pathways of outreach, but the power of people coming together to focus their hands and hearts on helping us, which in turn helps them, enhances the benefit of our outreach, as involvement sparks meaning within concerned community members.

October is National Energy Action Month and National Cooperative Month, and there is no better time than now to focus on our local electric cooperative to provide services that will help members lower their energy use. Sign our Blue Ridge Electric petition or send a letter to your utility. Send us an email at energysavings@appvoices.org for volunteer opportunities, and, if you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric and are in need of support for reducing your energy costs, apply for the contest!