Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

A good idea is right under your nose

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Greensboro, N.C. artist and activist Caroline Armijo grew up in Stokes County, N.C., near one of the state’s largest coal ash impoundments. This post originally appeared on Caroline’s website.

Caroline Armijo

Caroline Armijo

Last summer, as I was pondering about how to resolve this coal ash situation, I came across these words of wisdom on the bottom of a coffee bag: “A good idea is right under your nose.” I cut it out and placed it on a coal ash ideas collage that has been hanging in my closet for the last year. Granted, the collage is incomplete.

But this recent opinion piece from the Greensboro New & Record, based on a more in-depth report on a coal ash breakthrough, reminds me that perhaps we are that much closer to a solution than we think.

In June 2014, I read an article featuring a professor from North Carolina A&T University who created Eco-Core, a material to be used in submarines because of its exceptional resistance to fire. I kept wondering about the project over the next 18 months. I finally reached out to them in February.

When I first met with Professor Kunigal Shivakumar and Wade Brown, I told them stories of my loved ones from Belews Creek and about the illness and devastation found in all of the communities surrounding coal ash pits. Even though they had been working in the industry for 15 years or longer, they had no idea of these issues. However, they did have a new product, which can be molded and shaped into anything you can dream of! They were looking to create a wide range of marketable products, like chair railings or sound barriers. I loved that the lab reminded me a lot of an art studio. Yet, we had more serious matters at hand than art projects.

I asked if they could start with creating an alternative to the current landfill model. Professor Shivakumar said something beautiful about once you know the truth, you are able to find a solution. And so they started working on a prototype for a coal ash block, which can be created in any size, but ideally a half-ton to a ton. But more importantly, the block can be ground up by manufacturers and reused as technology advances.

From what I have gathered over my years of advocacy, coal ash is safest in a solid state.

FullSizeRender_2-1400x1050

I do not like landfills because they cause a spike in pollution as the ash is excavated and transported long distances via trucks and rail cars. Landfills come with a built-in need for a leachate system that requires monitoring. And landfills are likely to fail, as the bulldozers that install the plastic barrier often puncture it during the installation process. Plus, people really do not have a say as to when these landfills are placed in their communities. Their property values plummet, often followed by a decline in health. At the end of the day, it seems like an extremely expensive solution that still places our people and environment at risk. We can do better.

We demand a better way.

This coal ash block does just that. It eliminates the massive transportation needed to transport the 150 million tons of coal ash (in North Carolina alone) to off-site landfills in an unwelcoming community. The blocks can be made and stored on site. There is no leachate. There is no need for long-term monitoring. Plus the ash, which seems like an overwhelming waste now, can be safely stored for reuse as a valuable resource. It provides both short- and long-term solutions.

One night this spring, I woke up to write down a thought that came to me: We need to save these blocks. One day they will be more valuable than gold. At least one other person believes this is true.

Coal ash is an incredibly complex issue plaguing our world. Yes, the pollution will likely get worse before it gets better. But we know that groundwater quality will improve because of the clean-up happening in South Carolina. I understand that this is just one of multiple approaches that must be made to address this issue. Perhaps wetlands, bioremediation, reuse in the cement industry, and other technologies combined together will result in a solution that will lead to the healing of these spaces and our people. I am open to exploring any and all ideas. My motto is expect the best, get the best. And if it costs less than the current solution (landfills), even better.

This week, we return to DC for Moms Clean Air Force Play-In For Climate Action. This time I am bringing with me a solution inspired by my son’s favorite brand of toys – Lego. Watching him play led to a good idea from right under my nose. (And often under my feet!) As we speak, Lucy is explaining to Oliver that this block is made of coal ash. It’s a pretty simple idea. Even kids get it.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

An open letter to the North Carolina General Assembly

Monday, June 27th, 2016 - posted by brian

Editor’s note: The following post is an open letter to North Carolina lawmakers from citizens threatened by coal ash pollution across the state that came together last year to form the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Read our recent coverage for more information on where coal ash cleanup stands in the legislature.

Members of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash hold a press conference outside of a public hearing in March.

Members of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash hold a press conference outside of a public hearing in March.

To the Members of the N.C. General Assembly:

Since the Dan River coal ash spill in February 2014, seldom has a day passed in North Carolina when coal ash is not in the news; the disposition of coal ash in North Carolina is of vital importance to public health and the environment. Our communities are being profoundly impacted: some of us already living day to day with contaminated water and air, and others are facing new impacts in areas which have been targeted for the disposal of coal ash.

During the summer of 2015, North Carolina communities previously impacted by coal ash, and those currently dealing with new coal ash landfills, joined together with a shared vision and common goal to form the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Believing that the coal ash emergency in North Carolina deserves a real, comprehensive solution that will protect all communities, we crafted the ACT Against Coal Ash unifying principles. A few of the key principles are below, and the full document can be found here.

Please don’t let this short session close without taking action to assure that communities near coal ash sites have safe replacement water supplies as soon as possible, that communities facing new coal ash landfills are protected and that cleanups move forward quickly, with no “capping in place.”

We believe that all people, regardless of race and socio-economic class, have a right to healthy communities, clean water, clean air, and safe food and soil.

We believe that living in close proximity to coal ash infringes on these basic rights.

We demand a transparent process to coal ash cleanup in which Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers are open and honest about the health effects of chemicals found in coal ash, and any plans for disposal or recycling coal ash.

We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to urgently respond to the need to test any water supply well that may have been contaminated by coal ash, not just those within 1,000 feet. The tests must be paid for by Duke and performed by an independent lab using the most sensitive and comprehensive testing methods.

We call on N.C. decision makers to require Duke Energy to pay for independent oversight of the coal ash cleanup process, independent analysis of current coal ash contamination, research by public and private entities to find the best solutions to this problem, and random and unannounced inspections of the coal ash sites by state regulators.

We demand that N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy prioritize worker safety during all phases of coal ash cleanup and site remediation.

We call on N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy to strive for a permanent solution to coal ash that prioritizes community safety. We demand that any coal ash that cannot be safely recycled or processed be stored on Duke Energy property with the company maintaining liability. We will not accept dumping of the ash in other communities or capping-in-place as solutions. We demand that the ash be urgently isolated from ground and surface water at all locations.

We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to invest in a sustainable, healthy, affordable, and responsible energy future for N.C. that supports the growth of solar, wind energy, and energy efficiency programs, and moves away from coal, natural gas, and other harmful and expensive methods of generating power that poison communities and affect North Carolinians’ quality of life.

As our elected representatives, you have the opportunity — and responsibility — to do what is right for the residents of North Carolina. We call on the General Assembly to make sure no community is left to suffer from coal ash now, or in the future.

Sincerely,

The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash
actagainstcoalash.org

Individual community representatives:

Bobby Jones, representing Down East Coal Ash Coalition, Goldsboro
Caroline Armijo, representing Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup, Belews Creek
Roger Hollis, representing residents near Cliffside / Rogers Energy Complex
Debbie Baker and Amy Brown, representing neighbors of Allen Steam Station
Jeri Cruz-Segarra, representing resident near Asheville Steam Station
John Wagner and Judy Hogan, representing Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dumps
Deborah B. Graham, representing neighbors of Buck Steam Station

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Speaking up for energy savings

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editor’s note: This post by Michael Goldberg originally appeared on the website of We Own It, a national network to help electric cooperative members rediscover their role as owners of a democratically-controlled enterprise. The piece focused on the efforts of Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for the High Country campaign.

How members of Blue Ridge Electric got their co-op’s attention, and action, on energy efficiency.

Mary Ruble speaks at an Appalachian Voices event to present more than 1,000 signatures from Blue Ridge Electric members supporting access to "on-bill" financing.

Mary Ruble speaks at an Appalachian Voices event to present more than 1,000 signatures from Blue Ridge Electric members supporting access to “on-bill” financing.

“Oh, I don’t think we can do that.”

Mary Ruble says that was the initial response from her electric co-op — Blue Ridge Electric in western North Carolina — to the idea of an “on-bill financing” program to help more members afford home improvements that reduce electricity use and lower bills.

A year later now, Blue Ridge has launched just such a program, called the Energy SAVER loan program. As an on-bill financing program, it aims to better serve co-op members who don’t have the up-front money for weatherization and other efficiency upgrades for their homes, especially those who may not be able to get a traditional bank loan. Members who qualify for the program get a loan for upgrades such as better insulation, air and duct sealing, and improved HVAC systems – with no upfront costs – and then repay over time through a charge on their utility bill. The goal is that the electricity savings generated through the improvements will be greater than the annual repayment, so that there’s a net savings for members.

So how was Blue Ridge convinced?

“Blue Ridge kept telling us they needed to hear from the members,” explains Ruble, a retired librarian and Blue Ridge Electric co-op member in Boone, North Carolina. “So we got over 1,000 signatures from co-op members on a petition. We got publicity. We went to board meetings. We made sure they heard from members.”

A lot of effort, but rewarding

Ruble is careful to explain that convincing the executives at her co-op took a lot of work. Members of other electric co-ops may find that the challenges she describes sound familiar: “In the old days our electric co-op used to have big meetings with festivities and music, and food and door prizes,” Ruble says. “Now voting is by proxy. The board meetings are in the middle of the week in the middle of the day, so they’re hard for people to attend. You get three minutes to speak. It can feel intimidating. It can feel like they don’t really want people there.”

Another challenge is that many people don’t think much about electricity. Ruble says that showing the cost of wasted electricity gets people’s attention. “You have to pull people in based on their interests,” Ruble says. “We had a graphic of a house with very few words, just showing the loss of energy – dollars flowing out the window. That gets people’s attention. I went to that first workshop myself to see how I could save.”

In addition to workshops, staff and volunteers with Appalachian Voices talked with co-op members and gathered over 1,000 signatures from members in support of an energy efficiency loan program with on-bill financing. Appalachian Voices also organized a “Home Energy Makeover Contest,” which awarded free home energy upgrades to several residents, as well as public events to raise awareness.

The Blue Ridge program is similar to a no-debt investment program called Upgrade to $ave offered by another NC cooperative, Roanoke Electric Cooperative, which provides on-bill financing through an opt-in tariff rather than a loan. While both of these approaches are opening the doors of opportunity for members, the tariffed terms allow renters to also benefit from a utility’s cost effective investments in energy upgrades. For more information on no-debt energy efficiency, see “How Electric Co-ops Can Save Money for their Members.”

Ruble says that at first she wasn’t sure how she could best help on the effort, but realized that as a retiree she had time to spare to help with tabling at grocery stores and local fairs, and had local connections and contacts she could call on. “It’s inspiring to be involved,” she reflects. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, like extending the program to renters, which is really needed but Blue Ridge hasn’t done so far. But it’s a start. We made progress, and we can make more going forward. An electric co-op is still member-owned,” Ruble adds. “You just have to be tenacious, and stay nice.”

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Coal ash controversy continues in North Carolina

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Hannah Petersen

A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality's risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state.

A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state. Click to enlarge.

UPDATE: As of June 22, North Carolina lawmakers had taken no further action on legislation related to coal ash cleanup in the state.

On May 18, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the rankings for Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments across the state following 15 public hearings throughout March.

Eight sites are classified “high priority,” meaning the impoundments must be closed and the toxic ash excavated and moved to a lined landfill by 2019. Duke has already agreed to fully excavate these sites. The remaining 25 were ranked intermediate and must be closed and excavated by 2024. It will be Duke’s decision as to whether the intermediate sites’ ash remains on Duke property or is moved to sites such as those in Chatham or Lee counties.

But those rankings could still change. DEQ requested a change to the state law governing coal ash disposal and asked the General Assembly for an 18-month extension during which Duke Energy can take action to remediate issues such as dam deficiencies, one of the key factors leading to the intermediate classifications.

DEQ officials also say that providing water to communities around the impoundments will alleviate drinking water quality concerns, another key factor. Giving Duke 18 months to make these changes would likely cause DEQ to reclassify the sites, opening the door for Duke to cap ponds in place. Citizens living near coal ash sites disagree with DEQ’s suggestion.

“Residents are angered that DEQ is already asking the legislature to consider changing the coal ash law in 18 months, likely creating further delays and loopholes,” according to The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash — a coalition of community members directly impacted by the state’s coal ash.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, an independent commission is required to approve DEQ’s rankings within 60 days. But that commission no longer exists. In March, Gov. McCrory disbanded the state Coal Ash Management Commission after the state Supreme Court found that the commission appointment process encroached on the executive branch’s power.

Citizens waitiing for clean water

On May 24, however, the legislature announced that it was currently revising Senate Bill 71 to reestablish the commission and provide future regulation for coal ash cleanup. Under the current writing of the bill the commission would have seven members, five of whom would be appointed by McCrory. Duke would have to provide water to residents within half a mile of coal ash impoundments. And if the appointed commission does not approve of the rankings within 120 days after recommendations, the rankings would be rejected.

The bill could relieve Duke from the responsibility of excavating coal ash threatening the water quality and harming nearby residents by causing air quality concerns and reducing property values.

Both the state House and Senate have approved the bill, but Gov. McCrory has vetoed it saying that it “weakens environmental protections, delays water connections for well owners, ignores dam safety, hinders efforts to reuse coal ash and violate the state constitution.”

Both the House and the Senate have enough votes to override the veto, but it now appears unlikely that lawmakers will take action.

“This bill is the latest attempt by Raleigh politicians to bail out Duke Energy,” said Frank Holleman in a statement for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Now, after heavy lobbying by Duke Energy, the Raleigh politicians want to reopen the process to try to find a way to let Duke Energy off the hook.”

While the law has been the center of attention for policymakers, it also concerns North Carolinians.

“This is a way for Duke to wiggle out of fixing the problem,” says Doris Smith, a Walnut Cove resident who lives roughly two miles from Duke’s Belews Creek Power Station, which was ranked intermediate. “And providing water does nothing for the pollution. The only solution is to get the ash out of here.”

Last year, more than 300 residents living near Duke Energy coal ash ponds were sent “Do Not Drink” letters from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services informing them of unsafe levels of heavy metals in their well water including hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen. This March, the state agencies rescinded the majority of these letters claiming that further studies revealed the recommendations were overly cautious.

But no well testing or on the ground studies had occurred. DHHS State Epidemiologist Megan Davies revealed during a deposition that the “extensive study” that the letters referenced were actually literature reviews of other state and federal policies for regulating contaminants.

“I know the language of the letter says, ‘after extensive study,’ said Davies. “To me, that doesn’t mean — it just means after reviewing the literature.”

When asked if she thought the letters should have been rescinded, the deposition transcript shows Davies’ response was, “No.”

“They treat us like we are dirt,” said Doris Smith of Walnut Cove. “I know why they don’t want to move the ash, it’s because there is so much of it. But it’s done enough damage.”

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Survey says … energy efficiency financing needed in western NC

Monday, June 13th, 2016 - posted by Amber Moodie-Dyer

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 12.33.05 PM

Want to learn how to lower your electric bill and make your home more comfortable? Turns out, lots of folks do. Appalachian Voices, in partnership with Resource Media, conducted a Facebook survey last month in parts of Western North Carolina and the results from 300 respondents shed light on values and needs when it comes to energy efficiency in the region.

Respondents included members of four western North Carolina co-ops (Energy United, Surry-Yadkin, French Broad, and Blue Ridge electric cooperatives) and customers of Duke Energy. The vast majority, 89%, reported that they have trouble paying their energy bills.

We know from data available in these areas that tens of thousands of homes are older and drafty, with outdated appliances and heating and cooling systems. Inefficient homes lead to unnecessarily high utility bills and huge energy waste, which has a negative impact on pocket books, health and comfort and our environment.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 5.00.26 PM

Poverty rates in the counties surveyed range from 17% to 23%. But even a family of four earning up to $47,700 a year (twice the poverty level) would struggle to pay high electric bills, and that constitutes almost half of the population in the survey area. So it’s no surprise that 69% said that being able to afford the upfront cost of energy efficiency upgrades was the biggest challenge to improving their homes. Another one-third said taking on debt to make upgrades would be a challenge.

This survey is just one of many indicators of the tremendous unmet demand for financing for energy efficiency upgrades, which would lower bills and make homes more comfortable. Fortunately, a program model exists which would help overcome barriers for families so that they could access financing without taking on personal debt and make much needed improvements on their homes.

Comprehensive on-bill financing is a tool that some electric cooperatives in the South have already implemented with great success. With this type of program, the electric utility pays the upfront costs for home improvements which result in energy savings for most members. The member then repays the utility each month on their bill using a portion of the savings that result from the efficiency improvements. When respondents were asked whether they’d be interested in learning more about this type of opportunity, 80% reported some level of interest.

There are some no-cost and low-cost measures that residents can do on their own to improve home efficiency, and there is help available from social service organizations to assist with home weatherization for some who can’t afford it. But unfortunately, the need far outweighs the resources available.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 4.59.10 PM

On-bill energy efficiency financing is a program that can help meet that need and it’s a win for everyone involved — our environment benefits from reduced reliance on fossil fuels due to a reduction in energy use, residents benefit from more comfortable homes and lower electric bills, and the community benefits from increased economic opportunity with the addition of more jobs to do the home upgrades.

Appalachian Voices continues to work to educate communities about ways to implement energy efficiency measures, and to help electric cooperatives implement comprehensive on-bill financing in Tennessee and North Carolina. If you’d like to send a letter to your utility to ask them to provide energy efficiency financing visit our Energy Savings Action Center.

Reports show need for energy efficiency financing in western NC

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016 - posted by cat

Contacts:
Rory McIlmoil, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500, rory@appvoices.org
Amber Moodie-Dyer, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500, amber@appvoices.org
Daniel Kauffman, ResiSpeak, 919-812-5657, dk@resispeak.com

John Kidda, a Boone-area home energy contractor, donated an extensive energy audit on the a local home as part of the "High Country Home Energy Contest."

John Kidda, a Boone-area home energy contractor, donated an extensive energy audit on the a local home as part of the “High Country Home Energy Contest.”

BOONE, N.C. — Two reports released today by Appalachian Voices show how effective home energy efficiency improvements can be for saving families money and the tremendous customer demand in western North Carolina for accessible, upfront financing to make such improvements.

The first report details the energy savings achieved after one year for the three winners of the “High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest” launched in late 2014 by Appalachian Voices. A total of $5,300 was spent on insulation, air sealing and other improvements for the three families, which are served by the Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.

The report found a direct correlation between the amount of money invested and resulting energy cost savings. Importantly, the contest winners immediately benefitted from more comfortable and healthier homes. Zack Dixon of Boone and Vance Woodie of West Jefferson each saved 15% on their energy bills: Dixon had $3,200 worth of improvements and saved $181 for the year, and Woodie had $1,300 worth of improvements and saved $125. The Dunlap family of Sugar Grove had $800 of improvements and saved 8%, amounting to annual savings of more than $80 even though their home is heated primarily with wood.

“We are so thankful for all of the work that was done on our house. We immediately began noticing an improvement in the comfort of our home and saved quite a bit on our heating costs last winter,” Sean Dunlap says.

The three families won the improvements in the contest and do not have to pay back the costs, but for a utility-financed program, the energy savings from the upgrades on the three homes would pay off the cost, on average, in 13 years, and the savings would continue after that. “Based on the results from these homes, it is clear that a modest investment in insulating, air sealing and fixing air ducts can save significant amounts of energy and provide a decent return on investment,” says Daniel Kauffman, President of ResiSpeak, which produced the report.

Appalachian Voices conducted the contest in part as a way to raise awareness of the opportunity for rural electric cooperatives to help pay the upfront costs for their members to invest in energy efficiency and enable them to pay off the cost on their monthly bills over time, a financing tool called “on-bill financing.” In April, Blue Ridge EMC announced its pilot Energy SAVER Loan Program, which is providing $100,000 in loans to as many as 30 homeowners to pay for weatherization, insulation and heating system improvements.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil hopes to see the pilot expand to a permanent, larger-scale program and says other co-ops in the region could offer comprehensive energy efficiency financing as well.

“In the region served by Blue Ridge, Surry-Yadkin and French Broad electric cooperatives, there are 24,000 families living in poverty and 72,000 homes that are more than 30 years old,” says McIlmoil. “These numbers suggest that what’s needed to fully tackle the problem of high energy costs is millions of dollars a year that is made available to help residents of all income levels afford energy efficiency improvements. That level of investment would also provide a significant boost to local economies.”

Also released today are the results of a regional Facebook survey conducted for Appalachian Voices by Resource Media that further illustrate the need for accessible financing for home energy improvements. Of the 300 survey respondents, which include customers of four western North Carolina co-ops and of Duke Energy, 89% said they have trouble paying their energy bills sometimes, often or always. Additionally, 69% said being able to afford the upfront cost of improvements was one of the biggest challenges, and 40% said they would apply for on-bill financing from their electric utility if such a program were offered.

“We know that there are still many unmet needs when it comes to achieving the region’s energy efficiency potential,” says Amber Moodie-Dyer, North Carolina Energy Savings Outreach Coordinator at Appalachian Voices. “We continue to partner with the community and electric co-ops to expand access to energy upgrades that improve home comfort, help residents save money, provide local jobs and business opportunities, and help protect our water, air and other natural resources.”

Visit Energy Savings for Appalachia for more information.
###

Announcing the Energy Savings for Appalachia webinar series

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016 - posted by Amber Moodie-Dyer

Three-part series highlights on-bill financing as a unique opportunity for our region

If you happened to miss our first energy efficiency on-bill financing webinar on May 11, don’t despair. You can watch a recording of the webinar, which is the first in a series describing the benefits of on-bill financing entitled “Leveraging Energy Savings: On-bill Financing as an Economic Opportunity in the Southeast.”

At this point you may be wondering, what is on-bill financing and why might I want to watch a webinar about it? Do you care about saving money on your electric bills, minimizing energy waste, helping the environment and your local economy? Energy efficiency on-bill financing can address all of these concerns. With on-bill financing, people can make energy efficiency improvements to their home without having to foot the bill upfront. Instead, residents pay for the improvements over time through a monthly charge on their electric bill. With a well-designed program, many residents will have lower bills even while paying back the project cost because of the energy savings they’re achieving.

Curious? Watch the webinar below to learn more!

You can watch the one-hour webinar, or simply review the slides here. In the video above you’ll hear Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil discuss the effects of energy waste in the Southeast and Appalachian region, how energy efficiency programs can benefit communities by saving people money and creating jobs, the best practice Pay-As-You-Save® model of on-bill financing for weatherization improvements, sources of capital for on-bill financing programs, case studies of successful on-bill finance programs and ways you can engage in our campaign.

Keep a look out for an announcement about the second webinar in the series next month that will delve into what we’re learning about on-bill financing from a number of electric cooperatives throughout the country who offer this program (including some in our own region and state). Visit the Energy Savings for Appalachia homepage to learn more about campaign, and while you’re there, be sure to go to our Energy Savings Action Center to submit a letter to your utility provider a letter asking them to offer on-bill financing.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

DEQ dodges legitimate coal-ash safety concerns

Thursday, May 19th, 2016 - posted by amy

Editor’s note: The following op-ed about how far the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has strayed from its mission appeared in The News & Observer on Monday, May 16. On Wednesday, the department announced tentative closure deadlines for coal ash ponds at Duke Energy facilities across the state, but told lawmakers it wants to revisit those rankings in late 2017. Read our statement on the tentative rankings here.

Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.

Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.

Sworn testimony of a state epidemiologist that became public over the weekend confirms what many North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds already assumed. Health experts who developed the drinking water standard that led officials to tell hundreds of residents last year that their water is not safe did not support the McCrory administration’s decision in March to rescind the warnings.

The disclosure comes as state lawmakers consider a bill that would prohibit local health departments from issuing health advisories to private well or public water users unless contaminants exceed levels set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But that law is intended as a backstop to be built upon, not as a floor for states like North Carolina that are content with the bare minimum.

From the state’s perspective, the bill is a quick fix to make certain that officials with the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services never again suffer the backlash they have seen since lifting the warnings about high levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium – potentially due to proximity to coal ash ponds. Residents were told their water was unsafe to drink or use for cooking. There is no federal drinking water standard for vanadium or hexavalent chromium.

These are just the latest examples in a long pattern of attempts by the McCrory administration to insulate itself from outside criticism and, more importantly, from citizens’ legitimate concerns. These tactics have been central to the dismantling of DEQ, where I worked for nearly nine years. I resigned in 2013, around the time former Secretary John Skvarla pledged to transform the agency into a “customer-friendly juggernaut” with the primary role of serving industry.

After Skvarla’s departure, the promotion of Donald van der Vaart to the position showed McCrory’s skill at hand-picking leaders guided by an ideological compass that points away from environmental protection. Enabled by anti-regulatory powers in the legislature, DEQ’s leadership has abandoned the principles necessary to serve the public. North Carolinians across the political spectrum should be alarmed at the state of the agency today.

As we await the announcement this month of DEQ’s final plans for closing coal ash ponds across the state, we recognize that there has been progress toward addressing this significant problem. But the pledges to safely close ponds and protect communities after the Dan River disaster are distant memories now. Instead, DEQ’s top-down decision-making has dominated the process.

Read More: NCDEQ wants changes to coal ash law before finalizing rankings

The final months of the coal ash pond ranking process have been particularly frustrating for citizens, advocates and, presumably, many of the rank-and-file at DEQ. After a draft report leaked last December revealed that DEQ’s own experts recommended full closure of most coal ash ponds, van der Vaart stepped in, assuring the public that the draft was based on “incomplete data.” Two weeks later, the agency’s final report listed only eight of the state’s 32 ponds as being “high” risk and deserving full closure. Most are now proposed as “low” or “low-intermediate” risk, meaning the coal ash could be capped in place and continue to threaten to water quality.

What would have been the only remaining line of defense, the Coal Ash Management Commission, was created in part to review DEQ’s recommendations before they become final. But McCrory disbanded the commission in March as a series of hearings to gather public input on the state’s coal ash sites was underway. Rather than acknowledging the independent role the commission was created to play, van der Vaart has asserted that his department has everything under control.

DEQ leaders know citizens are concerned about their water and health. The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, a statewide coalition of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash sites, has made that evident. They’re concerned with good reason. When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights arranged a town hall meeting in Walnut Cove near Duke’s Belews Creek power plant, it wasn’t to spotlight DEQ’s success mitigating an environmental injustice.

Some state lawmakers are taking urgent action to re-establish the Coal Ash Management Commission. I’m glad; a strong independent commission is critical to earning the public’s trust and properly closing coal ash ponds. But dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become.

Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on coal ash cleanup, not continuing to enable an agency that has lost its way.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Energy efficiency success in western N.C.

Friday, May 6th, 2016 - posted by rory

This post was co-authored by North Carolina Energy Savings Outreach Coordinator Amber Moodie-Dyer.

Will Haddaway, owner of HomEfficient, seals Blue Ridge Electric member Vance Woodie's leaky air ducts before insulating them.

Will Haddaway, owner of HomEfficient, seals Blue Ridge Electric member Vance Woodie’s leaky air ducts before insulating them.

As advocates and organizers working to solve big problems, we often forget to celebrate the incremental success of our campaigns and jump right into the next problem to solve. Just last month, one of those noticeable steps toward achieving our larger goals occurred in our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign, so we want to acknowledge the moment even as we continue to expand our work throughout the region.

The Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BRE) rolled out a pilot energy efficiency financing program called the Energy SAVER loan program. In short, the co-op pays the upfront costs of energy efficiency home improvements for eligible members, who repay the money over time as a charge on their electric bill while immediately benefitting from a more comfortable, healthy home.

Appalachian Voices has worked for two years with BRE and organizations, residents and businesses throughout the High Country to establish this kind of “on-bill financing” program with the co-op. These days it is rare to come upon an issue that is a win-win for everyone involved and on-bill financing offers just that kind of opportunity.

Our Energy Savings campaign is focused on promoting energy efficiency programs to benefit the people, economy and environment of our region. Our goal is to help rural Appalachian communities tap into these benefits by working with electric membership cooperatives to develop a financing program that simultaneously reduces energy costs, makes people’s homes more comfortable and healthy, creates local jobs in energy services industries and reduces our carbon footprint. We’re now expanding this work to the French Broad and Surry Yadkin co-ops.

On-bill financing enables people to make energy efficiency improvements without having to foot the bill upfront. Instead, residents pay for the home improvements over time through a monthly charge on their bill. With a well-designed on-bill financing program, many residents will have lower electric bills because of the energy savings they’re achieving.

BRE provides electricity to more than 65,000 residents of all or parts of seven counties in western North Carolina, so its commitment to this program has the potential to make a big impact. We commend BRE for taking this step and we thank the many partners and volunteers who worked to make it happen. Residents, volunteers and allied organizations knocked on doors, made phone calls, spoke at press events and shared their stories at the BRE annual member meeting last year to ask for such a program, and BRE listened.

John Kidda, owner of reNew Home Inc., conducts a blower door test on the home of Blue Ridge Electric member Sean Dunlap.

John Kidda, owner of reNew Home Inc., conducts a blower door test on the home of Blue Ridge Electric member Sean Dunlap.

The Energy SAVER program will provide loans of up to $7,500 to qualifying BRE customers to make energy efficiency improvements such as increased insulation, air sealing, duct sealing, basement and crawl space sealing and upgrading heating and cooling systems. These types of upgrades can save between 10% and 40% of energy use consumed.

While we applaud this achievement, based on what we’ve seen with other on-bill finance programs in North Carolina and other states in the Southeast, we also know there is room for improvement. For instance, eligibility for BRE’s program is limited to owner-occupied properties, meaning that renters — which account for approximately 9,500 dwellings in the BRE service area — cannot apply.

Additionally, because the program is structured as a loan, anyone who sells their home before paying off the loan must repay the full remaining principle to BRE before the home is sold. As a result, anyone who is uncertain whether they will remain in the same house for the next seven years may not want to take on new debt, regardless of the benefits they would receive from the energy efficiency improvements. So unfortunately, the cycle of energy waste and higher-than-necessary energy bills would likely continue for subsequent property owners.

Another shortfall of BRE’s loan program is that the repayment term is limited to seven years, making it unlikely that most participants would see a lower monthly electric bill. Only participants who consume around 3,000 kilowatt hours (approximately $300) a month or more–at a $7,500 loan amount–would see a net reduction in their electricity costs, while most others would likely see a net increase due to new monthly loan charge that is greater than the savings achieved as a result of the efficiency improvements. This provides a disincentive for most customers to participate in the program.

Despite all of this, BRE’s Energy SAVER loan program is an important first step toward expanding access to energy efficiency financing to all of BRE’s members. Appalachian Voices will continue working with BRE to make the necessary adjustments to the program to achieve that goal.

The most important adjustment we’d like to see in BRE’s program is to convert it from a loan-based offering to a program structured on the Pay As You Save (PAYS) tariff-based model of on-bill financing. The PAYS model solves each of the problems listed above by: (a) tying the repayment obligation to the meter instead of the customer; (b) extending the repayment term to a maximum of 15 years; and, (c) only financing appliance upgrades or weatherization improvements that can achieve an annual cost savings that exceed the annual payments to the utility over the repayment term.

While loans of all types have been around since the dawn of capitalism, tariffed on-bill financing is relatively new, debuting with the launch of the How$mart Kansas program in 2007. Since then, tariffed programs based on, or strongly reflecting the PAYS model have been developed in Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Arkansas. Each one is achieving significant energy savings of between 25% and 40% for participating customers while achieving a net reduction in annual energy bills of as much as $300. And in order to maximize the local economic benefits associated with the new energy efficiency investments, some programs such as Roanoke Electric’s Upgrade to $ave program are combining the on-bill financing with a concerted workforce training and development component in collaboration with Advanced Energy.

Given the success these other co-ops have achieved through tariffed on-bill energy efficiency financing, we hope that BRE will ultimately follow their lead and adopt the PAYS model as well. Only by doing so can BRE, and all rural electric co-ops across Appalachia and the Southeast, achieve a measurable impact for their members and for the local economies in the communities they serve.

If you’d like to add your voice to the chorus and send a letter to your electricity provider asking for a tariff-based energy efficiency on-bill financing program, visit our Energy Savings Action Center. And to volunteer with our campaign contact Amber by email or phone at 828-252-1500.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

The Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding: Part 2

Friday, April 29th, 2016 - posted by Ridge Graham

Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series about the ways our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign is expanding to increase access to energy efficiency programs in western North Carolina. Read Part 1 here.

Announcing our new Surry-Yadkin electric co-op campaign

Pilot Mountain in Surry County. Photo by Joe Potato / iStockPhoto

Pilot Mountain in Surry County. Photo by Joe Potato / iStockPhoto

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding in western North Carolina.

Throughout 2015, we engaged with communities surrounding our Boone, N.C., office about the widespread benefits of energy efficiency. Now our local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric, is offering the Energy SAVER Loan Program, an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency upgrades. After achieving success in the North Carolina High Country, we are expanding our efforts to additional electric cooperative service territories.

To the east of the Blue Ridge Electric territory is the Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation (EMC). Surry-Yadkin EMC provides utility service to over 27,000 people in the beautiful Yadkin Valley and surrounding areas. This region, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is known for its agricultural heritage, vineyards and music festivals.

Surry-Yadkin EMC currently offers programs that demonstrate its commitment to energy savings for its members, including rebates on the purchase of energy-efficient heat pumps for home and water heating. While these programs are healthy incentives for those in the market for an upgrade, most families cannot afford the upfront costs of standard efficiency retrofits which average $6,500, according to local weatherization programs.

In Surry, Yadkin and Wilkes counties, which make up more than 80 percent of Surry-Yadkin EMC’s service territory, the median household income is approximately $7,000 less than the North Carolina average and $13,000 less than the national average. To put that in perspective, residents of the area who live in manufactured housing have stated that their energy bills are 25 percent of their monthly income in the winter. More than half of all the housing units in the area are at least thirty years old and likely have common needs for efficiency upgrades.

Members of Surry-Yadkin EMC are in an ideal situation for achieving high energy savings because the area experiences cold winters and hot summers. With proper insulation and air sealing, both heating and air conditioning can be maintained efficiently. If Surry-Yadkin EMC introduces an on-bill financing program, members could save on average over $100 each year on their energy costs while enjoying increased comfort and home health.

Download our Surry-Yadkin EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Forsyth, Stokes, Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin counties Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Download our Surry-Yadkin EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Forsyth, Stokes, Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin counties Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Our Energy Savings for Appalachia team has met with community organizations to learn about the need for local residents to lower their energy bills and we’ve met with energy efficient businesses that recognize the benefit that energy savings can provide in job growth and increased local capital. In addition to developing these partnerships, we have presented to local groups about home energy improvements and options their utilities provide with the goal of increasing understanding about energy efficiency and successful programs across the Southeast.

We are hopeful that we can work alongside Surry-Yadkin EMC to provide an accessible program for its members and to cultivate a broad awareness of the need to expand energy efficiency programs throughout the region.

Do you know what energy efficiency options your utility offers? Visit the Energy Savings Action Center to find out! And if you are a Surry-Yadkin EMC member, take action here or contact ridge@appvoices.org to learn about volunteer opportunities.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.