Posts Tagged ‘Virginia’

Refuge, Restoration and Radio Silence at Laurel Fork

Thursday, April 13th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Chris Robey

fallen tree

Maintaining trails along Locust Spring Run often involves removing fallen trees. Photo by Lauren D’Amato

In the northwest corner of Highland County, Va., there is a secluded, stream-furrowed valley unlike anywhere else in the state. Here, clear waters amble among remnant stands of red spruce. The high-pitched calls of northern saw-whet owls echo among the restless boughs, while snowshoe hares duck in and out of the understory and northern flying squirrels den in the old cavities left by wayward woodpeckers.

Located in the Warm Springs Ranger District of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, the Laurel Fork Special Management Area was once a priority candidate for the protective status of a wilderness designation. Resistance from local landowners, however, stalled these efforts.

Despite this, Laurel Fork offers some of the best opportunities for solitude in the state — a quality enhanced by its proximity to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, just a crow’s flight south and over the border in Green Bank, W.Va. Here, astronomers utilize the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

The popular astronomer Carl Sagan wrote that the energy received by all the radio telescopes on Earth is dwarfed by a single snowflake striking the ground. To protect the radio observatory’s sensitive instruments from electromagnetic interference, which could drown out these impossibly faint signals, the Federal Communications Commission established a 13,000 square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone. Laurel Fork, it so happens, sits smack in the center of this zone. Wifi and radio use in the immediate area is restricted, and cell phone towers are few and far between.

For those seeking solitude, this radio silence is part of the attraction, according to Warm Springs District Ranger Elizabeth McNichols. “In my mind, it really enhances the experience,” she says. Freed from the buzzes and pings that punctuate the livestream of smartphone-dependent living, a hiker’s thoughts may wander along with their feet.

Locust Spring Run trail

After the trail work is complete the path is again clear for hikers. Photo by Lauren D’Amato

Twenty-eight miles of trails wind among Laurel Fork’s myriad tributary runs. Many follow old narrow-gauge railroad beds where, almost a century ago, steam engines carted men with crosscuts and axes into the woods each morning and emerged laden with timber at day’s end. In their absence, a clarifying, restorative silence reigns.

This past fall, I served as the assistant leader with a trail crew for Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, a regional conservation nonprofit. Over nine days, five other young seasonal staff and I, wielding the same hand tools the 20th-century logging crews once used, removed 65 fallen trees, cleared brush and painted blazes along eight miles of trail, dug over a dozen drainage features, and improved trail visibility at numerous stream crossings along a 12-mile loop of trails. Though the entire loop is a worthwhile hike, you need only walk the 3.5-mile Locust Spring Run Trail to gain a sense of the area’s history.

Locust Spring Run

On the long, windy drive out to the trailhead at Locust Springs Day Use Area, you may notice signs reading “NO PIPELINE” posted by the roadside. At one point, the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline ran just a few miles south of Laurel Fork. Dominion Energy moved its proposed route even further south after the Forest Service issued a letter expressing concerns over the pipeline’s potential effects on sensitive local habitats. Despite this change, the pipeline will still cross nearly 16 miles of George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in the state, including sensitive habitats.

SAWS trail crew

The SAWS trail crew working on Laurel Spring Run stand near the trailhead on the first day of the project. From left: Matt Baker, Lauren D’Amato, Sina Varshaneh, Chris Robey, Emily Rose and Kathleen Murphy.

From the picnic area, the trail delves for a mile and a half through stands of red spruce transitioning into red pine. The path is easy underfoot — the old railroad bed is preserved in the trail’s gentle grade. You may notice a series of ditches spaced at intervals along the trail — or, if we did our job well, you may walk right over them without a second thought.

The field crew did the majority of our drainage work along this stretch. The ditches are meant to divert rainwater off the trail, slowing the process of erosion. Though structurally simple, most trail features are incredibly labor intensive. Hours of struggle and strife go into building something expressly intended to be invisible to the average hiker’s eye. Our work should preserve the illusion that you’re walking a path worn by years of boot-shod feet tracing the most pragmatic path over the land.

Eventually you will come to the intersection of Locust Spring Run and Buck Run Spur. From here, the trail veers right and braids itself with the creek. As you press further, note the sudden transition to northern hardwood forest, characterized by the occurrence of sugar maple, black cherry, yellow birch, northern red oak, red maple and sweet birch.

The young hardwoods loom tall and thin above you, taking on a cathedral aspect, their long branches supporting the canopy like flying buttresses. It is shadier, more subdued. Rusted engine parts, twisted railroad ties, bent wheels and axles jut from the ferns and moss, artifacts of bygone logging days. Reckless logging radically altered the forests here. These northern hardwoods dominate where red spruce once stood, suggesting periods of unchecked wildfires and erosion following the turn-of-the-century timber frenzy.

Locust Spring Run
Length: 7 miles (3.5 in, 3.5 out)
Difficulty: Moderate
Directions: From the intersection of US 220 and US 250, head west on US 250 for about 23 miles, passing into West Virginia, to the junction with WV 28. Turn right and go about 6.5 miles to the Locust Springs Picnic Area sign, then turn right.
Contact: Call Warm Springs Ranger District (540-839-2521) or visit tinyurl.com/locustspringrun

Rhododendron grows thick near Locust Spring Run’s terminus. If you plan to stay the night, there are a number of campsites right along Laurel Fork. The namesake of the largest, most popular campsite, Slabcamp, is immediately clear. Past pilgrims have stacked slabs of smooth shale from the creek beds into armchairs and hearths. Though it’s as close to a luxury suite as you’ll find in a potential wilderness area, don’t follow their example by stacking more — the local aquatic life will thank you for not disrupting their home.

While Laurel Fork’s trails were our workplace, Slabcamp was our home. The stream’s gentle voice coaxed us awake each morning and lulled us to sleep each night. During our breaks, we’d ease back onto our packs and gaze up through the shifting boughs. In our free time, we’d wander the streambeds and scramble up the cobbled slopes, suddenly kids again. Some nights, we lounged around a roaring fire and read Game of Thrones and poems by Wendell Berry aloud to one another. Other nights, we swapped ghost stories or, content after a long day’s work, sat silent and reflective, gazing up at the star-studded night sky.

Just a ways south, over the next few ridges, astronomers confronted the roaring silence of deep space, hoping for a sign that we’re not alone in the void.

At Laurel Fork, the silence presses close like a soft blanket. Those looking outward may cast their hopes with the scientists at the radio astronomy observatory. Here, one comes to look inward.

VA County Bans Fracking, Maryland Close Behind

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017 - posted by molly

By Molly Moore

In February, Augusta County, Va., voted six to one to become the first county in the commonwealth to ban fracking.

Also known as hydraulic fracturing, this shale gas extraction process involves injecting a mixture of chemicals, sand and water into wells at high pressure to create fissures underground. Scientists have linked fracking to water contamination, air pollution and earthquakes.

Virginia code allows localities to prohibit or restrict fracking as part of their authority to determine land use. King George County approved restrictions on the practice in August 2016.

Further north, the Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed a statewide fracking ban into law on April 4. A bill to prohibit fracking had passed the state House 97 to 40 with bipartisan support on March 10.

The following week, Gov. Hogan, a Republican, called for a ban. “The possible environmental risks of fracking simply outweigh any potential benefits,” he said during a news conference.

On March 27, the state Senate approved such a bill with a 35 to 10 vote. The ban replaces the state’s current moratorium on the practice and make Maryland the second state to institute a prohibition on hydraulic fracturing.

Editor’s note: At press time, Gov. Hogan had not yet signed Maryland’s fracking ban into law. This article has been updated to reflect that change.

Cutting carbon pollution in Virginia: Governor McAuliffe should finish what he started

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017 - posted by Peter Anderson
In his final year in office, Governor McAuliffe can cement a powerful legacy on climate and on the economy by doing what the new White House won’t.

In his final year in office, Governor McAuliffe can cement a powerful legacy on climate and on the economy by doing what the new White House won’t.

30×30! Take action now to cut carbon pollution 30% x 2030!

A Brief History of Executive Order 57

A year ago, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation prohibiting the Department of Environmental Quality from spending money on state compliance with the Clean Power Plan while legal challenges to that federal regulation were pending. So in June 2016, Governor McAuliffe issued Executive Order 57, which convened a work group “to study and recommend methods to reduce carbon emissions from electric power generation facilities,” including state-level carbon regulation.

Then Donald Trump became president. Realizing that the new administration would take steps to reverse and, eventually, bury the Clean Power Plan, state-level climate action became more urgent than ever. The result of Governor McAuliffe’s EO57 process will be his climate legacy — the ball is squarely in his court.

The Best Ways to Reduce CO2? Efficiency and Renewables

The two best methods for reducing carbon emissions from power plants are straightforward: energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Energy efficiency measures are the low-hanging fruit of climate action. Utility-led energy efficiency programs are the cheapest energy resource — after all, it’s far cheaper to reduce demand than to build new power plants. These cost savings benefit utilities but, more importantly, they benefit customers, especially those who might struggle to afford their monthly bills.

Weatherization and other efficiency upgrades also increase comfort in the home and reduce costs for businesses, spurring job creation. In fact, the energy efficiency industry directly employs 2.2 million Americans and indirectly creates several times as many jobs.

When new power generation is necessary — preferably to replace fossil fuel-fired plants — zero-carbon resources like solar and wind should be deployed. The public health benefits are quite obvious: aside from mitigating climate impacts, zero-emission power also means we avoid breathing the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and other harmful byproducts of fossil generation.

Renewable energy resources also have the potential to save customers money and create a lot of jobs. Even under conservative projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, wind will be the cheapest type of generation to build over the next five years, and utility-scale solar can be cheaper than a combined cycle gas plant under the right circumstances. The cost of solar installation has dropped 60 percent over the past 10 years, and the U.S. solar industry employs more than 260,000 people, with an additional 100,000 jobs expected to be added in the next four years.

Unfortunately, Virginia lags far behind in installed solar capacity and jobs. In 2016, our neighbor North Carolina employed 7,112 people in its solar industry, while Virginia only put 3,236 people to work in solar.

The Governor Can Regulate CO2 and Create a New Energy Economy

Virginia’s power sector is in dire need of an incentive to ramp up energy efficiency programs and commit to renewables for any new electricity generation. Nearly 30 states including North Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania have mandatory “renewable portfolio standards,” which require a minimum amount of renewables in the electricity mix; Virginia does not. Virginia’s largest electric utility, Dominion, designed several options in its 2016 resource plan that would have added considerable new solar capacity, but those plans all assumed that a federal Clean Power Plan would be implemented.

With a regulation capping carbon emissions from power plants, the McAuliffe administration can provide that incentive. The Department of Environmental Quality can use its authority under Virginia law to cap carbon pollution from new and existing power plants to achieve similar results to the federal Clean Power Plan, and the power sector can comply rather painlessly.

In his final year in office, Governor McAuliffe can cement a powerful legacy on climate and on the economy by doing what the new White House won’t. States must now lead the way on environmental protection and climate action. Let’s hope the governor continues to show the leadership he displayed when he signed Executive Order 57 last year.

Tell the governor you want a rule to reduce carbon pollution 30 percent by 2030!

Get out the sunscreen: Solar is coming to Southwest Virginia

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017 - posted by Adam

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 11.56.11 AM

The Southwest Virginia Solar Fair on May 9 in Wise, Va., will be a celebration of the upcoming solar development in Southwest Virginia and brings an emerging and exciting effort full circle. In May 2016, the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum hosted by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise asked how we can diversify the region’s economy to meet the demands and challenges of the 21st century.

During plenary sessions and in the hallways there were a series of conversations among citizens and area leaders that raised questions around how solar energy could be developed locally in a strategic way to create jobs, spur and support other economic initiatives, and build and retain wealth in our region.

Those conversations were the seeds of what has become an action team called the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia. Co-convened by Appalachian Voices, UVA-Wise and People Incorporated, and professionally facilitated by Dialogue and Design Associates, the Solar Workgroup has laid out clear objectives and paths to meeting them. Chief among those goals is to directly support high visibility and high impact solar energy installations that will prove to the region that this technology is a viable option for meeting energy demand and spurring economic development, even in the heart of coal country, even in a state that’s not especially solar friendly — yet.

With international companies eyeing Wise County for solar projects, the growing number of stakeholders in the Solar Workgroup — which include many local economic development entities, educational institutions and other nonprofits — agree that the region has the potential to become a solar industry hub. With solar now employing nearly twice as many people in the U.S. as coal, oil and natural gas combined, many in the region think solar development could be the key to revitalizing the economy with high-paying local job opportunities.

Southwest Virginia has long been an energy producing region. For generations, coal was the backbone of our economy and continues to be an important part of our regional identity. As the world changes around us, many leaders are now working to honor our past while looking to a future that will be powered in large part by renewable sources. We can still be an energy-producing region, it’s the medium of that production that will inevitably need to shift toward sources like solar, which promise to be the backbone of the new economy of the 21st century.

That need to honor the past, look toward the future and build public support for a key pillar of our new economy is what the Solar Fair is all about. People will have the opportunity meet SPARC-E, Mountain Empire Community College’s off-the-grid, 5,000-watt, mobile solar system built by students. They will also have a chance to get an up-close and personal view of solar energy systems and see how they work.

The Empty Bottle String Band, a local favorite, will be performing live and amplified by solar power. And for the kids, we’ll also have an inflatable bouncy house powered by solar energy and other free, fun games.

And Appalachian Voices will announce the winners of our solar mini-grants contest for middle and high school students. Two $500 grants will be awarded to teams of students for developing a “Solar in your School” project plan to be implemented this fall.

The Solar Fair is also the launch date of the Solarize Wise residential solarization program, a collaborative effort of the Solar Workgroup, to make it cheaper and easier for homeowners, small businesses and farmers to install solar power in Wise County.

Contact Adam Wells (adam@appvoices.org) or Lydia Graves (lydia@appvoices.org) at 276-679-1691 for more information.

Unnecessary and unwanted: Opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline grows

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017 - posted by Lara Mack
There’s still time to add your voice to the choir of people across the country urging FERC to reject the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

There’s still time to add your voice to the choir of people across the country urging FERC to reject the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

There’s still time to add your voice to the choir of people across the country urging FERC to reject the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Click here to submit a comment.

Despite a faulty format, the public has taken every opportunity to tell the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. At the start of 2017, Appalachian Voices and our partners criticized the many flaws in FERC’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Now, as the 90-day public comment period nears its conclusion, thousands of people have told FERC that the DEIS is insufficient and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline poses significant threats to the environment and public safety.

FERC is required to provide an opportunity for the public to comment on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline DEIS, and communities have taken every opportunity to tell the commission to reject the pipeline. In February and March, FERC visited communities in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia to receive spoken and written comments.

Community members turned up at every Atlantic Coast Pipeline DEIS listening session along the pipeline route to share their concerns. Turnout at the events varied from roughly 40 to more than 150 people, with the Nelson County listening session in Lovingston, Va., topping out at 157. Commenters at every listening session sent a clear message to FERC — nearly all spoke in opposition to the pipeline.

Groups not only found fault with the DEIS itself, but also with the FERC listening session format. Unlike the public hearing procedure that most of us are familiar with, FERC sequestered commenters one at a time into a separate room or private space to record their comments. The Society of Environmental Journalists, a professional association of more than 1,200 journalists, objected to FERC’s public listening session process.

In a letter to FERC, SEJ President Bobby Magill wrote:

“The ‘listening’ format, which may be an effort to encourage commenters to speak freely, bars the public and the media from bearing witness to the event, much less hearing the information and arguments presented by other citizens.

“We understand that comments taken at such sessions are recorded, and that transcripts are posted in the online docket for the project in question, and that they are generally available for review there within a couple of weeks. But that effectively suppresses the news about the content of the meeting by divorcing it from the immediacy of the event itself. The public is left to wonder what transpired, when there is no reason to make them wait.”

The DEIS comment period has proved to be a rallying point for organizations to connect with new folks concerned about pipelines. A number of grassroots groups along the pipeline route are hosting comment-writing parties and encouraging pipeline opponents to submit their concerns using FERC’s online system or via good ol’ snail mail. Comment-writing parties have popped up in Charlottesville, Staunton and Buckingham, among other places.

But you don’t need to attend a party to learn more about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or to send comments to FERC. A number of useful documents exist to help people navigate FERC’s website and comment submission process. And, if none of those are quite what you need, you can always call the FERC help desk to walk you through the online submission process or click here to sign on to Appalachian Voices’ grassroots comments.

As we dive into the final two weeks of FERC’s public comment period for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline DEIS, don’t forget to tell FERC why the pipeline is unnecessary and unwanted! Click here to send your comment to FERC.

FERC’s pipeline review process is broken

Monday, February 20th, 2017 - posted by Peter Anderson

Former chairman adds his voice to public demands for greater scrutiny

As new research refutes industry's pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

As new research refutes industry’s pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

Sign the petition to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today!

It’s no secret: oil and gas pipelines have captured the nation’s attention, not to mention the new administration’s. Standing Rock’s resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline continues to put water protection, indigenous rights and environmental justice at the fore of any pipeline discussion. And not so long ago, the Keystone XL pipeline came to symbolize the United States’ willingness to lead (or not) on climate action. Now the Trump administration hopes to revive both.

The Trump administration also hopes to push through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would transport fracked gas 600 miles from the Marcellus Shale in northern West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina. A list of the administration’s top 50 infrastructure priorities leaked in January includes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at number 20. The document reports the pipeline’s permitting process as “done,” despite the fact that comment periods for some federal and state permits are currently open and no permits have been issued. How’s that for alternative facts?

Pipelines not needed

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency with primary authority for permitting interstate gas pipelines, was generally viewed as pipeline-friendly even prior to the Trump era. The agency allows a 14 percent rate of return on investments in pipeline capital, and its environmental reviews typically fall short in analyzing both the need for additional pipelines and the projected climate impacts of new projects (in addition to many other deficiencies).

However, former FERC Chairman Norman Bay offered a surprising call for reform of the agency’s pipeline certificate process when he stepped away at the beginning of February (see the last six pages of this FERC order). Bay criticized the method FERC uses to determine whether or not there is a need for a pipeline. He pointed out that FERC usually looks to precedent agreements between pipeline owners and gas shippers as evidence of need. But this method is flawed.

According to Bay, “focusing on precedent agreements may not take into account a variety of other considerations, including … whether the precedent agreements are largely signed by affiliates.”

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In other words, a company applying to build a new pipeline says, “Look, we have subscribers lined up to buy gas from the pipeline, so there must be a need for it.” But a closer examination reveals that the buyer and the seller are both affiliates of the same parent corporation.

This echoes a concern highlighted in a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published in April 2016. That report found that “in situations in which a pipeline developer contracts with an affiliate company to ship gas through a new pipeline, this is strong evidence that it is doing so because of the financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is a need for the pipeline.”

This report studied the risks of building both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile gas pipeline that would also cut through the Appalachian regions of West Virginia and Virginia. It pointed out that for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, five of the six companies contracted to buy gas are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline. Energy behemoths Dominion Resources and Duke Energy have a combined 85 percent ownership stake in the pipeline, and their subsidiary companies have subscribed to 86 percent of the gas shipped. For the Mountain Valley Pipeline, all six of the buyers are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline.

Another report, published in September 2016 by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., studied conservative estimates of future gas demand in Virginia and the Carolinas. It concluded that, even under scenarios where gas use for electricity production is high, existing pipelines have more than enough capacity to provide energy to the region. That is, we can keep the lights on and businesses thriving without ever building the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

Climate impacts of gas pipelines

In addition to the needs analysis, Bay also called on FERC to reform its evaluation of climate impacts. In its draft environmental review of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, FERC refused to consider that the pipeline would spur more gas production, enabling more methane leakage along the entire supply chain. Without quantifying them, FERC compared downstream smokestack emissions to global greenhouse gas emissions and concluded that the pipeline’s emissions would merely be a drop in the bucket.

In its draft environmental review for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, FERC did attempt a rough calculation of downstream emissions but again refused to analyze upstream effects or methane leakage. FERC’s review stated that emissions from burning the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s gas would be roughly 29 million metric tons (MMt) per year.

A new briefing published by Oil Change International puts a comparable number on emissions from gas combustion for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, estimating 31 MMt annually. But when you add increased gas production and methane leakage along the supply chain, total emissions more than double, reaching nearly 68 MMt per year. The organization also published a briefing for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, estimating total life-cycle emissions at nearly 90 MMt annually.

To put that in perspective, emissions from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be the rough equivalent of adding 20 coal-fired power plants to the grid or putting 14 million more cars on the road. Emissions from the Mountain Valley Pipeline would be like adding 26 coal-fired power plants or putting 19 million more cars on the road.

While Norman Bay defended FERC’s existing climate analysis methods from a legal perspective, he also argued for change. He stated that “in the interests of good government” the agency should analyze downstream impacts and perform lifecycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions — not just from pipelines — but from the entire Marcellus and Utica gas production region.

Other environmental impacts

Besides bludgeoning our atmosphere with huge amounts of new greenhouse gas pollution, the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines would, of course, threaten thousands of groundwater sources, surface streams and wetlands. Constructing the pipelines would force the permanent removal of trees along their routes, fragmenting habitats and spoiling views from the Appalachian Trail. The projects would threaten human health and safety, especially near powerful compressor stations used to pump gas along the line. They would disproportionately impact lower-income communities, communities of color and Native American communities, threatening important historic and cultural resources.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, Bay did not follow his own advice and revise the way FERC analyzes pipeline need or climate impacts while he led the agency. But here’s how you can do your part:

Mountain Valley Pipeline:

Atlantic Coast Pipeline:

Protect natural resources for Southwest Virginia’s future

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices

Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule using a rarely invoked law called the Congressional Review Act. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends rushed to urge lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal coal mining. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Central Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies, state agencies and the federal government accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.

Ron Short

Ron Short

I was born and raised in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. My father was a coal miner, and without his efforts to send me to school, I would have been a coal miner also. For all my life, the coal economy has ruled this region and its people. Now we are facing the demise of the coal industry, and we must save the valuable natural resources that we have left if we are ever to develop cultural tourism and eco-tourism as important parts of a new economy that works for everyone.

When I was small, one company dumped coal waste into the Pound River and I saw the deadly effects that followed: thousands of dead fish, mink, muskrats, frogs, birds and water so polluted with metals and minerals that for the first time in my life I could not swim in the river. I was 10 years old and it took the river 50 years to heal itself. My father was 90 years old before we could go fishing in the Pound River together again. Sadly, pollution from mining operations is still contaminating our waterways today.

The Stream Protection Rule — the product of nearly a decade of community engagement and scientific and economic studies — is designed to preserve this life-giving resource. Unfortunately, Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to kill the Stream Protection Rule using an obscure procedure known as a Congressional Review Act as part of the mad rush to rip the last of the coal out of the ground at any cost.

Water truly is life! We have more pristine and biologically valuable waters than most places in the world, and we need to protect them for our health, our economic future and our grandchildren. Senators Kaine and Warner, you are our only allies in Washington. Please do not let your colleagues kill the Stream Protection Rule. Killing this rule would produce a short-term political gain for their ilk, but it could create a future that we in Southwest Virginia may never be able to recover from.

Ron Short

Why is Dominion’s IRP important for Virginia’s future?

Friday, December 16th, 2016 - posted by Peter Anderson
Peter outside his landlords' home in Charlottesville.

Peter outside his landlords’ home in Charlottesville.

I recently moved into a basement apartment in Charlottesville, Va. The house has solar panels on the roof, and I must admit that knowing my electricity comes almost entirely from a renewable source feels pretty good.

My landlords are not wealthy, so getting solar on their roof was going to involve some sacrifice. They had to think strategically about their retirement funds, energy bills, and fees for staying connected to the grid. Fortunately, they made the numbers work. Now they’re living comfortably and sustainably, and they no longer have an electric bill (except for a modest draw from the grid in the dead of winter). This decision balanced their interest in financial stability with their desire for reliable electric power from a sustainable source.

I couldn’t help thinking about this decision as I began studying the long-term planning process used by Virginia’s electric utilities. Utilities providing public services are regulated to ensure that they — like my landlords — balance reliability, sustainability, and affordability. In return, utilities are guaranteed a profit. In Virginia, this balancing process is embodied by an annual integrated resource plan (IRP).

What’s an IRP and What’s at stake?

Simply put, an IRP is a long-term plan created to ensure that our utilities keep the lights on and avoid sticking customers with a bill for big investments that don’t pan out. This is sometimes referred to as “least-cost planning,” but that doesn’t mean the cheapest option is automatically selected. It means that by studying different alternatives, companies attempt to meet reliability and sustainability goals at the lowest possible cost.

It’s no simple task. With rapidly changing technologies, fuel prices, regulations, and customer-use trends, projecting how much electricity we’ll need and how much it will cost to provide can be quite complex. But an IRP shapes the energy mix and customer bills for several decades, so the stakes are high.

In April, Dominion Virginia Power, the largest electric utility in the commonwealth, submitted its proposed 2016 IRP to the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) for approval. (See an update at the end of this blog.)

What’s in Dominion’s IRP?

Dominion published five alternatives, including four plans that would comply with the federal Clean Power Plan (CPP). Although the fate of the CPP now lies with the courts and the incoming administration, the company believes carbon emissions from power plants ultimately will be regulated.

Under the CPP, states are given an option to comply using either “rate-based” or “mass-based” approaches. Rate-based means a limit on the amount of carbon emissions per unit of electricity produced. In theory, carbon emissions can actually increase if electricity production increases. By contrast, mass-based compliance means a total cap on carbon emissions from the electric sector in the state. Many experts agree that such a cap would reduce climate pollution more effectively.

All five of Dominion’s options share some common elements. For example, each would add 500 megawatts (MW) of solar power produced in Virginia and 1,585 MW of gas-fired electricity at Dominion’s new Greensville power plant. They also would renew 20-year licenses for all four of Dominion’s existing nuclear units, and retire two coal-fired units at its Yorktown plant.

The main differences among the plans are summarized below. New capacity across these plans differs because each would retire different amounts of coal-fired capacity—the greater the coal retirements, the more new capacity.

  • Plan A: No CO2 Limit – A least-cost plan for the unlikely scenario in which there are no carbon regulations. All new generation would be gas-fired.
  • Plan B: Rate-based dual rate – Would add 1,100 MW of solar, plus an additional 3,641 MW of gas-fired capacity.
  • Plan C: Rate-based state average – Would add 3,400 MW of solar, plus an additional 2,049 MW of gas-fired capacity.
  • Plan D: Mass-based emissions cap – existing units only – Would add 2,400 MW of solar, plus 3,641 MW of gas-fired capacity.
  • Plan E: Mass-based emissions cap – existing and new units – Would add 7,000 MW of solar, plus 2,435 MW of gas-fired capacity, plus 1,452 MW of capacity at a new nuclear unit at North Anna

Without making an official recommendation, Dominion stated a preference for Plan B. Plan B would add the least amount of new solar generation, but according to Dominion’s analysis, it would also be the cheapest of the CPP-compliant options.

Why are These Plans Flawed?

The SCC scrutinized Dominion’s IRP at a hearing in early October. In a “battle of the experts,” Dominion’s senior energy planning employees were cross-examined, followed by expert witnesses from other participants in the case, including Appalachian Voices.

Three major flaws in the IRP stood out:

1) Inflated Future Demand and Becoming an “Island”

Electricity demand in Virginia has been pretty flat for the past several years, and with ongoing efficiency improvements, many predict it to remain so, even as our population and economy grow.

However, Dominion’s model shows steady demand growth. One expert explained how the regional transmission organization, PJM, changed its forecasting model in 2014 because it observed in recent years that electricity demand no longer closely tracks economic consumption. PJM’s new modeling accounts for this decoupling of economic growth and energy demand. By contrast, Dominion’s model still uses the old assumptions, tending to produce an inflated picture of demand.

Testimony also revealed that Dominion fails to properly account for how quickly its customers adopt energy-efficient technologies. For example, Dominion’s model includes data from 30 years ago, meaning that 30-year-old lightbulb technology is still part of the calculation. How many 30-year-old lightbulbs are still burning? Dominion admitted that it needs to pay closer attention to the market penetration of LEDs and other technologies.

Dominion pairs this inflated demand forecast with another dubious assumption: the company states that it cannot rely on carbon credit trading or purchasing power on the wholesale market to meet customer demand and comply with carbon regulations. Instead, Dominion intends to generate most of the power needed itself. The company claims that this “island” approach to compliance is the prudent, conservative decision in a time of uncertainty.

SCC judges were sympathetic to Dominion’s view on credit trading, but not on purchases. Historically, Virginia has been anything but an island — buying and selling electricity in the PJM wholesale market, which includes parts or all of 13 states plus Washington, D.C. In fact, Virginia is usually a net importer, relying on power generated in other states to satisfy 10-15% of demand. Switching from being a net importer to purchasing virtually zero power from other states represents a major shift for the commonwealth, and the SCC judges were clearly sceptical.

Dominion’s assumptions that (1) demand will steadily increase and (2) that Virginia must be an “island” simply serve to justify the company’s preference for building new generation, most of it gas-fired.

Even if the company’s assumptions are accurate, why not meet all of this new demand with a greater reliance on utility-scale wind, solar, and other renewables? At the hearing, Dominion expressed concerns about the effect that adding large amounts of renewable generation could have on grid reliability. However, a 2014 study commissioned by PJM found that the regional grid “would not have any significant reliability issues operating with up to 30% of its energy (as distinct from capacity) provided by wind and solar generation.”

As a point of reference, solar and wind currently provide less than 1% of the energy for electric generation in Virginia. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the fuel mix for electric generation in Virginia is comprised of approximately 40% gas, 33% nuclear, 20% coal, 5% biomass, and less than 2% hydroelectric. In other words, there is room to bring a significant amount of renewable generation online before starting a discussion about reliability.

2) Inflated Cost of Solar Energy

The main reason that Dominion did not include more solar in its IRP is that it assigned solar a hefty price tag from the start. The plan adds an “integration charge” of $390.43 per kilowatt for all new solar generation. Several witnesses said this surcharge is higher than it should be — up to 35 times higher — creating an inherent bias against solar when it comes to least-cost planning and comparing alternatives.

Dominion witnesses were unable to support their number, essentially conceding that the company will need to do a new analysis. The effect of the inflated surcharge in the IRP is that adding solar to a plan immediately makes that alternative much more expensive than it should be. Therefore the plan is less likely to be selected.

3) Unwillingness to Make Big Shifts to Renewables

Dominion’s stated reliability concerns and its unsupported price tag for solar are in line with the company’s business-as-usual preference for fossil fuels. In fact, the company decided not to publish one of the plans it modeled because it relied too heavily on solar.

Through legal discovery and public testimony, Dominion revealed that an early version of Plan E contained an additional 15,000 MW of solar power and did not include a new nuclear unit. This was referred to as Plan S, and it cost over $1 billion less than the published Plan E. Experts testified that if Dominion had used a reasonable solar surcharge in its modeling, Plan S may have been up to $4 billion cheaper. When pressed, Dominion witnesses again cited their fear that deploying large amounts of solar all at once could present reliability issues.

Forecasting a Sunny Future

Despite all this, I remain hopeful that the SCC will hold Dominion to a higher standard. As an investor-owned utility, Dominion has an obligation to its shareholders. But it’s also a regulated utility, so the company must consider sustainability when balancing reliability and cost concerns. However, the company will only do that if the SCC holds it accountable.

The good news is we have a great recent example of how that’s done. Shortly after Dominion’s SCC hearing, Minnesota gave the country a glimpse of what a successful balancing effort looks like. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved an Xcel Energy IRP that would double the state’s wind and solar capacity while retiring two coal-fired plants by 2030. According to the Sierra Club, the plan will add “no new gas without a deeper analysis into other options,” and the plan stands to reduce Minnesota’s carbon emissions by up to 60 percent.

Perhaps the key to getting more companies to take sustainability seriously in their IRPs is to show them why doing so makes financial sense. Groups working on the Minnesota plan used data to make “a persuasive case that renewable energy was the most affordable, economic path forward for the utility — not propping up aging coal plants or adding new gas.”

Just like my landlords installing solar on their roof — once the numbers made sense, choosing sustainability was obvious.

Update: On December 14, the State Corporation Commission approved the Dominion IRP, including all of the scenarios, as a long-term planning guide. Under state law, however, Dominion still will need SCC approval to implement any of the individual projects in the IRP, for example, building a particular power plant or adjusting rates. The good news is that next year the SCC is requiring Dominion to model plans without placing caps on the amount of power that can be bought or sold on the wholesale market. The order also says that Dominion must model “regional” as well as “island” approaches to CPP compliance next year for comparison. Unfortunately, the order does not address Dominion’s method of modeling future demand, nor does it address the company’s approach to pricing solar resources.

Electric Cooperatives Initiate Community Solar Projects

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Tristin Van Ord

“We’re at an age where we need to start looking at alternative energy,” says Olivia Haney, a member of the BARC Electric Cooperative since 1989.

The BARC electric co-op in Virginia and the Appalachian Electric Cooperative in Tennessee have both launched community solar projects to help members save money while reducing carbon emissions.

Community solar is a cooperative alternative to installing solar panels on an individual residence. Instead of dealing with the upfront and maintenance costs of solar panel installation on their house, homeowners can invest in a solar farm, or array of solar panels, provided by the BARC electric cooperative. BARC’s solar farm is a grid that consists of 1,750 solar panels. Now members of BARC can invest in solar and avoid dealing with personal solar panel installation.

Solar farm

BARC’s solar farm contains 1,750 solar panels and produces 550 kilowatts of energy. Photo courtesy of the BARC Electric Cooperative

Mike Keyser, the CEO and general manager at BARC, explains that there was a lot of interest in solar by members of the cooperative, but there was no real increase in the installation of solar panels on individual houses. Keyser adds that certain aspects were preventing people from investing in renewables, including physical barriers such as shading and positioning of the house, along with financial barriers including upfront costs and commitments.

The new solar project provides up to one-fourth of the total energy needs of each of the 220 households that have a membership in the cooperative.

Not only does this option allow any member to invest in solar, it also prevents the possibility of future rate increases through a 20-year fixed rate at only a dollar more per month than what standard customers are paying.

BARC sells its solar energy in “blocks,” which are made up of 50 kilowatt hours each.

“We rolled the subscriptions into something called ‘solar energy blocks,’” Keyser explains. “If it’s an average customer, 25 percent of their consumption would be five blocks, which is an easy thing for people to wrap their mind around.”

Community members who live in the five rural counties in Virginia that BARC covers can apply to be a part of the program, including all of Bath County and parts of Highland, Alleghany, Augusta and Rockbridge counties. BARC member Haney joined the community solar program after learning about the environmental benefits of renewable energy.

When it comes to the growth of the project, Keyser is optimistic about the possibilities.

“We have room on the site to triple the size. It’s 550 kilowatts, and we can go up to about a megawatt and a half, so we are hoping to expand in another year or so,” says Keyser. “Once we feel like we’ve given the option to every member that wants an opportunity, then we would increase the percentage.”

According to Keyser, most subscribers in the solar project have shown interest in increasing the percentage of their electricity covered by solar.

Tennessee’s Turn

Appalachian Electric Cooperative, an electricity provider based in New Market, Tenn., is also starting a community solar program. According to Mitch Cain, the co-op’s director of member services, the solar array will be operational after Dec. 12 and consists of 9,471 panels at 145 watts each. Any residential or commercial member of Appalachian Electric, which covers Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson and Sevier counties in Tennessee, can take part in this new initiative.

Subscribers to Appalachian Electric’s solar program can invest in individual solar panels. Members pay $125 per 145-watt panel as an upfront cost. There is a cap at 5,000 watts per residential customer and 10,000 watts for commercial subscriptions. Members begin receiving solar energy credits on their bills the month after they start the program. The time needed to recover a member’s investment is estimated to be about 12 years.

Community Solar’s Effect on Carbon Emissions

United States businesses have installed enough solar energy to offset almost 890,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Solar panels convert energy from the sun into electricity that can be used in place of other non-renewable sources such as coal and natural gas.

BARC’s calculations state that their solar project will prevent 11,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.

Appalachian Electric’s program projects that 202 pounds of carbon will be offset per year for each panel installed. Over 20 years, one panel will keep 3,866 pounds of carbon from entering the atmosphere.

“Solar is here. It is something we can harness and use to help us and help the environment,” BARC co-op member Olivia Haney says. “Hopefully we will see more of this, and hopefully we will see more than just the co-ops looking to do this.”

Devastating Forest Fires Ignite Southeast

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

By Tristin Van Ord

The Party Rock Fire rages near Lake Lure, N.C., in November.  Photo by John Cayton

The Party Rock Fire rages near Lake Lure, N.C., in November. Photo by John Cayton

Numerous forest fires continue to burn across Southern and Central Appalachia due to dry weather conditions. According to USA Today, over 119,000 acres of forest have already burned throughout the region this fall.

Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia have all been affected.

At least 300 homes and business were damaged or destroyed after wildfires tore through the city of Gatlinburg and Sevier County, Tenn., on Nov. 28. Fourteen people lost their lives in the blaze and its aftermath.

The Southeast is currently experiencing a “once in a generation drought,” according to PBS News. While drought has increased the spread and intensity of the fires, arson is to blame for many of them. The Associated Press announced that multiple people were arrested for intentionally starting fires. A Kentucky resident was arrested after he started a wildfire to gain popularity on his Facebook page through a forest fire video.

Over 200 homes in the Nantahala National Forest in Western North Carolina were evacuated, and N.C. Governor Pat McCrory issued a state of emergency in 25 counties.

Smoke from the fires is also a public health hazard. According to the Weather Channel, at least two people in Kentucky died from respiratory complications due to the fires, while hundreds have been hospitalized.

Thousands of volunteers are working to stop the spread of the fires, including firefighters from across the country.

Citizens should check to see if their county is under an open burning ban. The North Carolina Forest Service advises keeping a shovel and water at hand if burning outside is necessary.

Editor’s note: The print version of this article stated that seven lives were lost in the Gatlinburg fire at press time. That figure has been updated in this version.