Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

Eliminating poverty housing with efficient and alternative energy use

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015 - posted by eliza
A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity lays a timber frame on their first house, which was built with energy efficiency and alternative energy to lessen the burden of utility bills on people living in poverty.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity lays a timber frame on their first house, which was built with energy efficiency and alternative energy to lessen the burden of utility bills on people living in poverty. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

When North Carolina’s Ashe County Habitat for Humanity formed five years ago, seven people, some who live off the grid, came together to study how to best build a home.

They made a commitment not only to affordability, but also to energy savings, and the board voted to build all Ashe County Habitat houses to maximize efficiency and place an emphasis on alternative energy.

“The benefits of energy efficiency fell into the basic requirements of the Habitat ministry,” says Gerry Tygielski, construction chairman for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity, which is founded on a “focus to eliminate poverty housing.”

To get a Habitat house, one must have an inherent need, be fiscally responsible, take part in the building process and take courses on house maintenance. The motive of Ashe County Habitat is to not only lower the cost of the mortgage, but also the cost of living in the house. Almost one in seven families in Ashe County live below the poverty line, according to the most recent census data.

“This past winter, we heard of some people having heating bills of $500 a month,” Tygielski says. “When you’re renting for another $500, that can bankrupt some people.”

The first Ashe Habitat house is a net-zero building, meaning that the energy produced by alternative energy on the house is equal to the energy used in the house. The average cost of heating and powering the house is $50 each month, says Tygielski. The second Ashe County Habitat house is currently underway and will be near, but not quite, zero net energy, due to budget constraints, but Tygielski says that they will be close since the price of solar has gone down.

The house is built with insulated concrete form, a novel construction material that uses what we commonly know as styrofoam, and has a higher insulation and fire rating than conventionally built homes with timber, insulation and drywall. It eliminates air leaks, which, on average, amounts to the air that escapes through an open window, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Insulated concrete foam is not widely used, but it is becoming more popular for constructing basements.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity set foam blocks into place. Concrete will be poured over the blocks to create an airtight wall.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity set foam blocks into place. Concrete will be poured over the blocks to create an airtight wall. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

High-quality storm windows also reduce air leakage, a metal roof reduces the amount of energy absorbed in the attic and solar panels provide a renewable energy source. But arguably the most efficient aspect of the house is the heating system, a geothermal heat pump. A six-foot trench, a pond or a well accesses the water table at Earth’s year-round internal temperature of 55 degrees. A compressor extracts heat from the water to heat air and pump it into the house. A conventional heat pump extracts heat from the air outdoors down to five degrees.

In northwestern North Carolina’s High Country, harsh winters are commonplace and days with temperatures below five degrees are increasing.

Conventional electric heat pumps are three times more efficient than a gas or oil furnace, Tygielski says. A geothermal heat pump is three times more efficient than an electric pump, reducing a $300-400 heating bill to $100.

“There is a premium you pay for having that opportunity, but it pays for itself so quickly that it’s a good investment,” he says. Their initial estimate says that the extra costs of making the first Ashe County Habitat house will be paid back in 10 years through lower utility bills, mainly due to greatly reduced heating costs.

This concept has a similar ring to on-bill financing, a utility-led program that provides loans for energy efficiency upgrades. The repayments, made on a homeowner’s utility bill, are structured so that they are equal to or less than the amount of energy savings resulting from the upgrades.

John Parker, an electrician who founded Parker Electric, donated his time to install solar panels on both Ashe County Habitat for Humanity's houses.

John Parker, an electrician who founded Parker Electric, donated his time to install solar panels on both Ashe County Habitat for Humanity’s houses. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

Tygielski recognizes that there is a lack of public understanding about the basics of energy efficiency and that something can be done about high heating bills. Not to mention “people are busy working themselves to death to pay the bills,” he says. “They’re not in the position to be investing in home improvements.” He says an on-bill financing program gives people a chance to do something they probably would never be able to do otherwise.

In the last two years at least six people in Ashe County have been referred to Tygielski that cannot afford their utility bills. His response is to direct them to a Habitat for Humanity house application. Within a year, he may also be able to direct people to apply for an on-bill finance program offered by Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp, an electric co-op that serves the High Country.

The electric cooperative is currently looking into on-bill finance program designs. If you are a member, please sign our letter of support to Blue Ridge Electric!

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Turning down the heat: A collaborative effort to reduce energy bills

Friday, July 10th, 2015 - posted by rory

This piece was co-authored by Jen Weiss, a senior finance analyst at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing easily within reach for all income levels.

The North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing easily within reach for all income levels.

There’s no doubt about it. June was HOT.

While extreme temperatures can make outdoor activities unbearable, they can also send electric utility bills skyrocketing across most of North Carolina and place high demands on the state’s electric utility infrastructure.

As heating and cooling equipment are pushed to the max, the demands are made even more significant due to inefficiently insulated and poorly weatherized houses that lose cool air as quickly as it is generated. But the cost to weatherize a home can make energy efficiency improvements unaffordable — particularly for homeowners who are already burdened with basic housing costs that can outweigh their limited income.

With the aim of providing these homeowners with a solution that will reduce their energy bills and improve home comfort, a collaborative working group was recently been formed by leading energy advisors in the Southeast. Working with multiple stakeholders across the state, the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing within reach for all income levels.

The Challenge: High Energy Costs

High energy costs can be particularly challenging for lower income Americans. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average North Carolinian spends $3,714 annually on energy costs. With a median household income of $46,334, this equates to 8 percent of the average residents’ annual income. This is nearly three times the national average of 2.7 percent in 2012. In rural communities where median household income tends to be much lower, averaging $22,000, energy expenditures as a percentage of household income can be as much as 17 percent or higher.

This situation is only going to get worse as it is predicted that energy costs will continue to rise in coming years. Energy efficiency improvements for North Carolinians can alleviate the impact of current and future energy costs. Unfortunately, many homeowners cannot afford the upfront cost to weatherize their properties or purchase energy-efficient appliances that will reduce their energy bills. North Carolina residents of all income levels need access to streamlined and simple energy efficiency finance programs that can help make energy more affordable.

A Solution: Utility On-Bill Programs for Energy Efficiency Financing

Fortunately, proven models exist that expand access to financing for energy efficiency improvements for everyone, including people who may not qualify for loans under traditional underwriting criteria. Known as “on-bill” programs, these financing models provide a mechanism whereby the upfront cost of energy saving improvements and equipment is funded by the electric utility or a third-party financier, and ratepayers are able to pay down the cost through a monthly payment on their electric bill.

Depending on the structure of these programs and the initial source of capital used to finance the program, on-bill programs offer a number advantages to participants, particularly low-income consumers. Advantages include performance-based repayment schedules that align the monthly payback with projected savings achieved, creating a net savings for the consumer. In other words, even with the new charge added to their electric bill, the customer will still pay less on an annual basis than they would have without the improvements. Additionally, on-bill programs can be structured so that they are available to renters and businesses.

Partners in Efficiency: North Carolina’s Rural Electric Member Cooperatives

Together, North Carolina’s 26 electric member cooperatives (co-ops) serve roughly 937,000 members, provide electric service to rural areas in 93 of the state’s 100 counties, and account for 23.7 percent of total electric sales in the state. Many of the state’s electric co-ops and municipal utilities serve communities characterized by ratepayers with lower than average median household incomes and limited access to low-cost financing.

A 2014 study of census data found that these utilities serve the highest concentrations of low-income communities across the Southeast, making co-ops and municipal utilities key stakeholders and powerful allies in addressing this issue. Dedicated to improving the lives and communities of those they serve, many co-ops have developed or are exploring energy efficiency finance programs. It is the goal of the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group to support all of North Carolina’s electric co-ops who are interested in developing an on-bill program for their own members.

Benefits to North Carolina Residents

  • Expanded access to capital for ratepayers at all income levels including homeowners, renters and businesses.
  • Performance-based repayment schedules that align the monthly payback with energy savings.
  • Low- to no-cost opportunity to improve energy performance and home comfort.

Benefits to North Carolina Utilities

  • Reduced complaints from customer regarding high bills and problems paying electric bills.
  • Enhanced customer satisfaction.
  • Reduced need to build new generation facilities by reducing peak demand.
  • Helps to achieve energy efficiency and/or renewable energy goals

About the North Carolina On-Bill Finance Working Group

The North Carolina On-Bill Finance Working Group — a partnership of Appalachian Voices, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Finance Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance — has been formed to work with North Carolina co-ops and other community stakeholders to provide the education and support resources needed to establish on-bill programs and expand access to energy efficiency programs for residents across the state.

As the Working Group ramps up its efforts, we will be reaching out to electric co-ops, community partners and other stakeholders to identify the needs and challenges faced by co-ops, and to work toward solutions that facilitate the development of new on-bill programs throughout North Carolina. If you are interested in learning more about the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group or supporting our efforts, send an email to NCOnBill@seealliance.org.

“It’s just vitamins!” Industry confuses residents on coal ash safety

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 - posted by sandra

While Duke Energy sows seeds of confusion, CEO Lynn Good gets a raise.

Belmont, N.C., resident Amy Brown has rallied her neighbors to demand answers from Duke Energy and state officials on how her well water was contaminated. See video below.

Belmont, N.C., resident Amy Brown has rallied her neighbors to demand answers from Duke Energy and state officials on how her well water was contaminated. See video below.

Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources continue to confound and confuse families that have the unfortunate luck of living in close proximity to the utility’s coal ash lagoons.

Well testing required by the state’s Coal Ash Management Act has shown unsafe levels of toxic heavy metals in hundreds of drinking water wells near coal ash ponds.

Residents began to receive letters in May from the state health department advising them to not drink or cook with their well water. Soon thereafter, Duke Energy began to offer those who received these notices a gallon of bottled water per day per person.

Beyond the notice and the insufficient supply of bottled water, Duke and the state have not done much to help these citizens process the information that their water is unsafe. In fact, Duke Energy hired experts to contradict the state’s public health officials.

So citizens and county health departments are stepping in to help residents air their frustrations and, hopefully, to receive some answers.

Belmont resident Amy Brown organized a recent community meeting and invited Duke Energy representatives to speak. Part of her community is surrounded by coal ash ponds at Duke’s G.G. Allen plant. The water notice Brown and her neighbors received recommends not using the water for drinking and cooking, but she asks, “How safe would you feel bathing your 2-year-old child in water that you’re being told is unsafe to ingest?”

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At the meeting, Duke Energy was met with anger and tough questions from residents who are understandably afraid and concerned. Although Duke representatives agreed to stay until the end of the meeting to answer questions, they quickly left after their presentation, about 30 minutes before the meeting ended.

Another meeting, held in Salisbury, was hosted by the Rowan County Health Department. While the meeting was less contentious, it left residents more confused than assured.

Duke Energy brought coal ash “expert” Lisa Bradley along with them to the Salisbury meeting. Bradley, a toxicologist on the executive committee of the American Coal Ash Association, is known for trying to convince the public that coal ash is safe enough to feed your kids for breakfast.

Bradley insisted that metals like vanadium and chromium are minerals that you can get at your local vitamin shop and therefore are no cause for concern. Bradley’s rhetoric glosses over the fact that chromium changes form easily, sometimes into hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic form of the substance that is often a by-product of industrial processes.

Ken Rudo, the toxicologist from the Department of Health and Human Services, who has been personally calling residents to make sure they heed the “do not drink” notice, called baloney out on Bradley’s presentation as seen in the following video clip (thanks to Waterkeeper Alliance for the footage).

In the background of all this, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good got a raise of $50,000 for, as some of the business coverage framed it, having “confronted a coal ash spill” as if Duke Energy was a victim versus the perpetrator of the spill.

Will Good use the the money to buy some hexavalent chromium and vanadium supplements? Or might she donate that money to the residents whose lives Duke Energy has disrupted so they get more than the measly gallon of water a day the company is currently providing?

Not only do these residents need more clean water; they need clear answers on the future of their water supply and the effect drinking from it may have had on their family’s health.

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Duke expands coal ash cleanup, but leaves N.C. communities in danger

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 - posted by amy
Duke Energy announced plans for its future coal ash cleanup efforts. But the fates of several coal ash sites threatening North Carolina communities remain unclear.

Duke Energy announced plans for its future coal ash cleanup efforts. But the fates of several coal ash sites threatening North Carolina communities remain unclear.

On Tuesday, Duke Energy announced it plans to excavate coal ash from ponds at three power plant sites in North Carolina, along with two more at its South Carolina facilities.

But the fates of several sites that pose significant threats to drinking water and nearby communities remain unclear.

Duke is already required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act to clean up four sites deemed “high-priority” by lawmakers. By recommending additional sites be excavated, Duke is committed to cleaning up ponds at seven of its 14 power plants across the state. That is, as long as the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is on board.

The total amount of coal ash now planned for excavation is 35.4 tons of ash. Duke plans to move the excavated ash to lined landfills or use it as structural fill material.

Although the company has now committed to cleaning up the ash at half of the sites in North Carolina, the majority of the ash polluting the state’s waterways remains largely unaddressed. As for the seven sites not included in today’s announcement, the company says further environmental testing is needed to assess contamination and determine clean up plans.

Importantly, the sites Duke has not committed to excavating are the largest in the state, including the 12.5 million tons of ash at Belews Creek, the 11.5 million tons at G.G. Allen, and the 27 million tons of coal ash stored at the Buck and Marshall plants. That amounts to more than 70 million tons — the bulk of Duke’s coal ash — still sitting in leaking, unlined ponds seeping and discharging into our waterways.

Around these unaddressed sites, nearly 500 households have been warned by the N.C. Department of Health that their well water is unsafe for drinking or to use for cooking due to contamination possibly associated with nearby coal ash ponds.

While Duke’s announcement is welcome news for the communities living near Moncure, Goldsboro, Lumberton and those who rely on the Cape Fear, Neuse and Lumber rivers for drinking water, others worry they’re being left behind and are concerned about potential harm caused by coal ash stored in landfills — and who is responsible for it.

A year and a half after the Dan River spill, Duke is certainly taking steps in the right direction. But there is still much work to be done for the company to prove it is the “good neighbor” it claims to be.

As the company’s coal ash cleanup efforts expand, we have just a few questions: Does Duke plan to leave more than 70 million tons of toxic ash in unlined ponds polluting North Carolina’s waterways? Will the company ensure the health and safety of workers and residents throughout the clean up process?

Until Duke makes an announcement that takes into account the safety of all its current and future neighbors, we’ll hold our applause.

Learn about the threat of coal ash pollution. Stay up to date by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

High Country residents speak up to save energy

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly
Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation's CEO Doug Johnson.

Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation’s CEO Doug Johnson.

Visit our Energy Savings Action Center

Urge your utility provider to provide debt-free energy efficiency financing for your community.

On a sweltering day earlier this month, several residents of North Carolina’s High Country packed into cars and made what for some is a one-hour trip to the annual membership meeting of their rural electric cooperative.

The reason? To tell the Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BRE) Board of Directors they want incentives to improve their homes’ energy efficiency, specifically, though an “on-bill” financing loan program.

While this may sound too boring to encourage anyone to take hours out of their day to address the co-op board, the benefits of such a program are so exciting that they warranted the trip.

On-bill financing is a type of loan offered by utilities that pays for energy efficiency upgrades with no upfront cost to the homeowner or renter, making these improvements accessible to people of any income level. Loan recipients receive immediate savings on their electric bill after the upgrades, which may include insulation or air duct sealing. A portion of that monthly savings goes directly to the resident and the rest goes to the utility to pay back the cost of the upgrades.

These programs are designed so that no money ever comes out-of-pocket for the residents, who not only see immediate savings but also immediate improvements in the comfort of their homes and often their health. When all the upgrades are paid for (usually in five to ten years), the resident can see as much as a 40 percent reduction in their average monthly electric bill. Further, on-bill finance programs have substantial positive impacts for local economies and job creation.

The folks from North Carolina who traveled to BRE’s annual meeting wanted to advocate for these benefits. Mary Ruble, who, like almost anyone, could benefit from an on-bill financing program, spoke to the BRE board. She is hopeful that members will become more engaged so they too can voice the need for energy efficiency programs like on-bill financing.

“I know for myself I never really understood I was a member. It was just an electric bill,” she reflected.

Marisa Schor, another BRE member, spoke about being a renter and her limited ability to improve her home’s energy efficiency. “I can’t do anything about the insulation quality or efficiency of the heating system — I’m barely allowed to put nail holes in my walls,” Schor told the board.

Schor believes on-bill financing is part of the solution for her situation and for other renters. “What this program would do, however, is make it easy and convenient for landlords to increase the energy efficiency of their rental units,” said Schor. “As a tenant, this program would allow me the opportunity to easily reduce my energy consumption and would provide me with an easy, convenient and sustainable way to save money on my electric bill.”

BRE’s CEO Doug Johnson responded after each comment and assured the members that the co-op is seriously considering adopting an on-bill financing program for their members. In a press release after the meeting, Johnson stated publicly for the first time: “As we evolve into the utility of the future, key areas we are studying for programs to offer to members include renewables, more energy efficiency options, peak demand management, and a home weatherization/conservation program.”

Listen to a recorded presentation by Johnson here.

Electric co-op customers are actually members who own equal shares in the company and have the ability to significantly influence co-op decisions and direction. Appalachian Voices is working in western North Carolina and northeast Tennessee to connect folks with their electric co-ops and help them advocate for energy efficiency programs like on-bill financing.

This is especially important in the Southeast, where almost half of all co-op customers in the U.S. reside. The Southeast also accounts for almost half of electric co-op sales in the nation, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As electric co-op members continue to speak up — as in the case of BRE co-op in North Carolina’s High Country — demand will grow for on-bill financing and other energy efficiency programs.

Visit Appalachian Voices’ Energy Action Center to learn more, and take action now!

Video illustrates need for energy efficiency in the High Country

Friday, June 19th, 2015 - posted by eliza

In the mountainous northwestern corner of North Carolina, people pay higher percentages of their income on energy bills than almost every other part of Appalachia and the country. The especially harsh winters in this high-elevation region and widespread, outdated and energy-inefficient housing factor heavily into this problem.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia team held the High Country Home Energy Makeover contest this past winter to raise awareness about the issue and help three families in need. Their stories are representative of the more than 70 applications and inquiries we received about the contest. Our team is promoting affordable and accessible improvements to energy efficiency as a solution and advocating for our local rural electric cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp., to develop a program that will offer these improvements to its members.

This video takes you to the homes of the three winners and provides a glimpse of their experience living with high energy bills and struggling to heat their homes in the winter. See for yourself what the face of energy efficiency looks like, and how it can make you smile with lower bills and a more comfortable home!

If you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric, sign on to our letter of support asking for an on-bill financing program, which would help members cover the cost of home energy improvements.

Residents Near Duke Ash Ponds Told To Not Drink Their Water

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
Residents impacted by coal ash join together with concerned citizens to rally outside the annual Duke Energy shareholder’s meeting in Charlotte on May 7. Photo courtesy of NC WARN

Residents impacted by coal ash join together with concerned citizens to rally outside the annual Duke Energy shareholder’s meeting in Charlotte on May 7. Photo courtesy of NC WARN

Utility pleads guilty to separate water pollution charges

By Sarah Kellogg

Jeff Keiser and his wife, Kim, have lived in a small neighborhood in Belmont, N.C., near Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen power plant, for 15 years. Although their community is surrounded on three sides by coal ash, the toxic by-product of burning coal, the Keisers have used their tap water just like anyone else. But that changed in late April when they and their neighbors started receiving letters from the state health department advising them not to drink or cook with their water.

“It was pretty frightening for us to hear all of our neighbors getting do not drink letters from the state,” recalls Keiser. “We had been drinking the water with no worry at all, now we’re scared for our health.”

The do-not-drink orders were a result of mandatory water tests conducted by Duke Energy and required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act. As of late May, wells had been tested near eleven of Duke’s fourteen coal ash pond locations. Of the 207 wells tested by May —all located within 1,000 feet of the ponds —191 were deemed unsafe to drink. Most of the wells tested high for vanadium or hexavalent chromium, both known carcinogens. The Belmont community received 83 do-not-drink orders, the most of any location.

Duke Energy claims that the elements found in the wells are naturally occurring and not a result of groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds, although the utility agreed to supply affected residents with bottled water until the source of the contamination is determined.

Keiser and other residents feel certain that Duke is to blame for their bad water. “I do feel like it’s their ash ponds that have created this whole mess,” he says. His neighbor, Barbara Morales, who also received a do-not-drink notice, told the L.A. Times, “Duke just won’t admit their coal ash is poisoning my water, but they need to take responsibility.”

Two weeks after the first round of water tests was released, Duke Energy pleaded guilty in federal court to nine violations of the Clean Water Act at five of its North Carolina coal ash sites and agreed to pay a $102 million fine. The lawsuit was unrelated to the well water results, but rather was the result of a federal investigation that began after Duke spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February 2014.

Separate lawsuits against Duke, filed by the state in 2013 for violations of the Clean Water Act at all 14 of the utility’s North Carolina coal ash sites, are still pending.

Duke’s guilty verdict and the do-not-drink orders come on the heels of a controversial wastewater discharge permit renewal for three of Duke Energy’s N.C. plants, including G.G. Allen. The state’s Clean Water Act lawsuits against Duke charge that the utility is violating the discharge permits at all of their plants due to toxic seeps from their coal ash ponds leaking into surface water and drinking water. Although the state is suing Duke Energy for the violations, it issued new draft permits that would make all current and future seeps from the coal ash ponds legal. As of publication, the permits have not been finalized, but hundreds of citizens submitted comments in April urging the state to limit the amount of coal ash pollution Duke Energy can discharge.

In Belmont and other communities, residents continue to process the news that their well water is undrinkable. “If we wanted to move, we’d feel obligated to let the purchasers of the house know about the issue with Duke and the drinking water in our neighborhood,” Keiser reflects. “That is very scary because this is our most valuable asset.”

Integrating a Plant Medicine Economy

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion
Vickers works in the Blue Ridge Bionetwork lab, which hosts training, education and outreach in addition to lab services. Photo courtesy of Bent Creek Institute

Vickers works in the Bionetwork lab, which hosts training, education and outreach in addition to lab services. Photo by Marie Knight

By Eliza Laubach

In a lab on the grounds of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Amanda Vickers looks at medicinal plants on a microscopic level. She is testing the plants — valued as a source of income by many in the biodiverse Blue Ridge Mountains — to determine their potency for use in herbal products.

As director of the U.S. Botanical Safety Laboratory, Vickers uses botanical labs at universities and community colleges across western North Carolina to conduct her tests. The results inform wild harvesters and farmers about when to harvest and how to process the herbs. Vickers also adds plant samples to North Carolina Arboretum’s Germplasm Repository, North America’s only gene and seed bank for medicinal plants.

“We’re sort of an engine for getting farmers’ crops qualified and getting them in the hands of other local people,” says Vickers.

The Bent Creek Institute, a nonprofit business accelerator, manages the lab and seeks to serve as a catalyst for economic development in a region abound with herbalists. As part of this goal, Vickers is currently working with a local salon to develop an herbal dry shampoo, first by connecting a wild harvester and a farmer with the hairstylists, and then testing the product as it undergoes development. This work is done out of the Bionetwork, a lab on the campus of A-B Tech that serves as public testing and teaching grounds. Ultimately, the dry shampoo may qualify for the Blue Ridge Naturally label, designating the local sourcing of the ingredients.

Blue Ridge Food Ventures is a commercial kitchen that also collaborates with the Bionetwork lab, initiated by the economic development group AdvantageWest. At the kitchen, entrepreneurs craft food and cosmetic products and can use the lab, or employ Vickers, to test the integrity of their ingredients. “We try to stay really embedded in the local economy,” says Vickers.

For more information, visit botanical-safety.com

CORRECTION: The original article misidentified where the lab Amanda Vickers works in as being in the basement of the North Carolina Arboretum and what is is called. It misidentified Bent Creek Institute as a business incubator, stated that the dry shampoo Vickers is working on will qualify for the Blue Ridge Naturally label and did not name the photographer of the picture.

Blazing Trails in Mars Hill

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett

By Kimber Ray

With the scheduled opening of Bailey Mountain Bike Park in Mars Hill, N.C., this June, mountain bikers skilled at high-speed maneuvering down steep, rough terrain may soon travel to rural Madison County from across the country.

Unlike traditional downhill trail operations, which often convert to ski slopes in the winter, Bailey will be the first in the U.S. to remain open year-round and cater exclusively to mountain bikers. The first stage of the park will include five trails, but the long-term plan is to build as many as 30 trails.

The nonprofit Natural Capital Investment Fund, a business loan fund that supports sustainable economic development, helped finance the park.

“We’re looking to make ourselves a mini-destination,” says Bailey co-owner Jennifer Miller. “It’s highly likely that the people who come to us will go and explore other things in the area too, whether it be the hot springs or downtown Marshall or Mars Hill.”

Miller is optimistic that, combined with continued development of nearby cross-country bike trails, Bailey’s opening could help “put Madison County on the map for some major mountain biking action.”

Visit: baileymountainwnc.com

Reworking the Region

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
A Coalfield Development Corporation Quality Jobs Initiative participant works at a construction site.  Photo by Patty Brewer

A Coalfield Development Corporation Quality Jobs Initiative participant works at a construction site. Photo by Patty Brewer

By Dan Radmacher

As Appalachia suffers through the effects of yet another downturn in the coal industry, a number of organizations are stepping up efforts to create jobs, retain young adults in the region and better educate the workforce.

“It’s a challenging environment, for sure,” says Brandon Dennison, executive director of Coalfield Development Corp., an organization devoted to revitalizing the local economy in Wayne, Mingo and Lincoln counties in West Virginia. “Almost all of our crew members have been economically affected by the coal downturn. There aren’t a lot of job opportunities.”

The organization’s Quality Jobs Initiative gives recently unemployed young adults a 30-month contract and puts them on a weekly 33/6/3 schedule: 33 hours of construction work, six hours of community college and three hours of life skills training.

Crew members who graduate from the program gain an associate’s degree, multiple professional certifications, hands-on experience, and training in life skills areas such as money, time management and emotional health. Similar programs for agricultural and service workers are also being planned.

“We want to give them the tools to reverse the cycle of poverty,” Dennison says.

For Jeff James, chairman of the new nonprofit Create West Virginia, giving tools to individuals, while important, is insufficient. Create West Virginia wants to change the culture in Appalachia so that it’s more conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship. The organization is hosting a three-day conference in Fayetteville in September, “Building Bridges to a New Economy,” the latest in a series of conferences aimed at finding ways to shift the region’s focus.

West Virginia has several creative magnets — areas that attract people who want to come to an area not just for jobs but for a sense of place. These range from geographic locations like the New River Gorge to technology centers like the Fairmont/Clarksburg/Morgantown corridor.

“West Virginia needs to grow creative muscle and the ability to diversify,” James says. “Small towns and the people that come from them need to know they can build an innovation economy. ”

Financing Rejuvenation

One thing that could certainly help in a number of revitalization efforts is an infusion of cash in the region. This could come in the form of President Obama’s POWER+ Plan, which will devote significant new money to the coalfields if the plan can pass Congress.

The plan would add $25 million in funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission, $20 million a year for re-employment services and job training for laid-off miners, money for grants to help economically distressed communities foster “an environment conducive to job creation and economic growth,” and a $200 million annual boost in spending on reclaiming abandoned mine lands.

“The POWER+ Plan would utilize resources on a scale that a single federal initiative hasn’t done in our region in a very long time,” says Eric Dixon, an Appalachian Transition Fellow at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.

“The way the [Abandoned Mine Lands] plan is structured, the money has to be used for projects that pose an economic development potential,” Dixon says. “These sites have potential for beekeeping, agriculture, recreational tourism and other economic engines, but those solutions won’t pop up unless we have a very big public dialogue about this money and this program to spark people’s imaginations across the region.”

The boost to the Abandoned Mine Lands program could be especially important for the region, both in the short and long terms, Dixon says. Getting laid-off miners and others with the necessary skills to reclaim old mine sites back to work will give communities an immediate economic boost. But the long-term impact could be far greater.
Adam Wells, economic diversification campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices, publisher of this newspaper, is fully behind the plan.

“For so long, Appalachia has been giving away our natural resources, and our cultural and social resources,” says Wells. “It’s really good to see a federal program that gives back to us in a meaningful way, and one that focuses so specifically on moving us forward to a diverse new economy in Appalachia.”

An influx of federal money could be helpful, but many looking to better Appalachia’s economy are wary of waiting for any kind of external savior.

Building on the Past

“Our philosophy is that we already have everything we need to thrive in Appalachia,” says Coalfield Development Corp.’s Dennison. “We have a proud history to build from; enterprising, strong, smart, creative people; vibrant communities that work with the land and close to the land instead of exploiting it.”

The desire to build upon history and use resources that already exist guides much of the work Coalfield Development Corp. does, such as the recent renovation of the Urlings General Store in Wayne, W.Va.

“We like to work in historic, abandoned buildings,” Dennison says. “We like to maintain the character, the sense of stories and history embedded in those buildings.”

And bringing new life to a vacant building is healing. “Empty buildings can be a real scar on a community,” says Dennison. “It’s great to return vitality and purpose to a place like that.”

The former general store is now home to five affordable housing units, built with energy efficiency in mind, including solar water heaters, both because such efficiency is good for the environment and because it helps low-income tenants by lowering their bills.

The building will also house commercial space, including a coffee shop operated by the tenants, who — like the crew members who renovated the building — will be on Coalfield Development Corp.’s 33/6/3 schedule.

“We’re trying to create truly empowering opportunities and replicate our model in a new industry,” says Dennison.

A worker-owner arranges fabric at the Opportunity Threads plant in Morganton, N.C.  Photo by Willa Johnson

A worker-owner arranges fabric at the Opportunity Threads plant in Morganton, N.C.
Photo by Willa Johnson

Crafting Worker Ownership

Revitalization efforts are underway outside of Appalachia’s coalfields as well. In rural North Carolina, hit hard over the last few decades by the collapse of the tobacco market and the textile and furniture industries, the focus is on re-envisioning what labor looks like through worker ownership.

Opportunity Threads is a worker-owned garment plant in Morganton, N.C., with a focus on sustainable production and building local resources.

“Traditionally, labor in the South involved wealth being taken out of the community,” says Molly Hernstreet, founder and general manager of Opportunity Threads. “Our challenge was to build models in these heritage industries where the wealth can be more deeply rooted in our community.”

Like Dennison, Hernstreet believes understanding Appalachian character is the key to future prosperity. “We’re makers,” she says. “We can hope for change, or know that’s what we’re good at. Let’s find the models that are financially the most viable and create the most wealth.”

For Hernstreet, the worker-owner model makes the most sense, especially in a low-margin industry like textiles.
“We can drive those narrow margins into good hourly wages and benefits,” she says. “Worker ownership lends itself to meeting all the challenges in this industry: Quick turnaround, high quality and a competitive price structure. When a worker is also an owner, they understand the value of their own productivity.”

Opportunity Threads is part of the Carolina Textile District, a cooperative that helps small textile shops work together and aggregate demand.

Sara Chester, part of Carolina Textile District’s management team, says that the idea is to recruit work — rather than companies — to the region. But one challenge has been convincing a new generation of workers to trust in textiles.

“We lost so many jobs in such a short amount of time,” Chester says. “Kids grew up with their parents and grandparents telling them not to work in these jobs. It’s been a real battle to change that image.”

As with much of this work, patience is key. “We’re not going to turn it around in just a year or two,” Chester says. “This is a message we’ll have to reinforce for years to come.”