Posts Tagged ‘Virginia’

If I had a hammer…

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 - posted by Lara Mack

Finding collective power at the “March on the Mansion”

Appalachian Voices' Virginia Field Organizer Lara Mack (l) and friend Amy Cantrell from Harrisonburg.

Appalachian Voices’ Virginia Field Organizer Lara Mack (l) and friend Amy Cantrell from Harrisonburg.

Last Saturday, more than 600 Virginians gathered at the footsteps of Governor McAuliffe’s mansion in Richmond to demand energy justice for all citizens of the Commonwealth. Chartered buses arrived from major cities including Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, and Roanoke, as well as rural areas like Nelson County and Montgomery County.

I helped organize the bus from Harrisonburg, where I live, and we started our drive to Richmond with the song If I had a Hammer:

“If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land

And I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land…”

This well-known song was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 in support of social justice efforts of the time. For us, starting with the historical tune was a clear reminder that this march was not just about fracked-gas pipelines, climate change, coal ash, and renewable energy, but also about the stories and struggles of people impacted by corporate power and monied special interests.

Our voices were represented in an open letter, signed by more than 60 organizations, sent to Governor McAuliffe last month. Saturday’s march was the next step; We walked as a part of a legacy for democracy, environmental justice, and the power of community.

The bus arrived and the doors opened to a hazy and hot day on the banks of the James River. The temperature was expected to reach 99 degrees, which meant the day felt more like 104 degrees. We took a group photo before the march (why not get a photo of us before we all wilt?) with our signs and grins and enthusiasm easily seen in the snapshot.

by laraAs other marchers slowly arrived from all corners of the Commonwealth, I saw the crowd of dedicated and concerned citizens grow. Many carried creative signs about the local issue their community was struggling with (my favorite was “NO PIPELINES. Especially [from schools] to prisons”). Though the messages were diverse, the overarching statement was very clear. We know what is best for our communities. We know that we can create a system that can be safe and healthy for all, that doesn’t create sacrifice zones or climate change to meet monolithic electricity production expectations, that doesn’t deny a person’s rights and humanity no matter their race, age, income or sexual orientation, or whether they live in the country or in the city. And the current system is not meeting our needs.

The “March on the Mansion” was a message directed at Governor Terry McAuliffe and our voices rang loud and clear. But as we gathered back on our buses to head home, I realized this gathering was also a reminder to all those in the crowd that we each carry a hammer, a bell, and a song and when we stand as a community together, we can get work done.

New SWVa project shows top spots for turning old coal mines into economic drivers

Monday, June 20th, 2016 - posted by cat

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 4.45.15 PM

Contact:
Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Coordinator
(o) 276-679 1691, (m) 804-240-4372, adam@appvoices.org

Norton, VA — Appalachian Voices today released preliminary findings in an ongoing review of abandoned coal mine lands in Southwest Virginia to identify the best potential sites for reclamation and redevelopment for positive economic benefit for the region.

The nonprofit organization partnered with two expert consulting firms, Coal Mining Engineering Services and Downstream Strategies, to design and implement the analysis of 500 sites officially designated as “abandoned mine lands” (AML) by federal and state regulators. The initial findings released today narrow down the field of eligible sites to 21, scattered across seven counties in Southwest Virginia.

“This project brings a new way of thinking to the old problem of what to do with our region’s abandoned mine lands,” says Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Coordinator with Appalachian Voices. “We’re using this study to connect existing ideas from communities across the area with new funding sources to create new economic activity while improving the environment.”

Among the potential projects the joint team is considering for the sites are solar farms, community parks, forestry operations and permaculture farms with closed-loop systems that integrate waste back into improving the soil for growing organic crops.

The team evaluated the hundreds of AML sites based on a variety of criteria. It reached out to local planners to find sites that are already earmarked for some level of redevelopment activity. The team also assessed sites for proximity to population centers, transportation, and utilities infrastructure and markets. Finally, the team evaluated sites based on potential eligibility specifically for funding from the RECLAIM Act, bipartisan legislation introduced this year by Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers and co-sponsored by Virginia Congressman Morgan Griffith, along with several other Appalachian lawmakers. The bill would expedite expenditure of $1 billion from the existing Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, which would be in addition to the fund’s annual allotment already coming to Southwest Virginia for mine reclamation.

The next step of the analysis will be a deeper assessment of each of the sites for its suitability for a variety of economic activities such as recreation and parks, renewable energy production, agroforestry, agriculture, and business or industrial park development.

The study was launched earlier this year, and the team expects to complete the final report this fall, which will be distributed to local, regional, state and federal entities to help further the growing conversation around economic diversification in Southwest Virginia.

###

The Miracle of Harvest

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

Meadowview Restaurant and Farm Focuses on Local Foods and Community

By Eric J. Wallace

After co-authoring 2007’s wildly successful New York Times best-seller, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with his wife, Barbara Kingsolver, Steven Hopp got an idea: What if he used his portion of the profits to open a farm-to-table restaurant?

However, for many, Hopp’s 2008 decision to found Harvest Table Restaurant in the tiny southwest Virginia town of Meadowview seemed ludicrous. The area’s population totaled 967 and had a per-capita income of around $15,700.

‘Why would anyone open a gourmet seasonal restaurant here?’ scoffed Hopp’s critics. ‘It will have no clientele. The idea is naive. Foolhardy. And doomed.’

But Hopp thought differently. By considering the venture in terms of traditional, profit-motivated business models, detractors all but missed the point. Indeed, Hopp believed the true riddle was how to maximize a business’s positive impact on its community.

Turning a ‘Miracle’ into Reality

For Hopp, a professor of environmental science at Emory and Henry University, the notion seemed a logical outgrowth of Miracle. After all, the book had, at its heart, been about the Hopp-Kingsolver family’s year-long journey to eat and drink as locally sourced and seasonally specific as possible. As co-authors, while Kingsolver dramatized their day-to-day adventures, Hopp placed them in a larger context. Using the family’s individual struggles as a point of departure, Hopp wrote about America’s problematic eating habits.

“We’re having a lot of fun, and we’re healing the earth in the process,” says Steven Hopp, founder of Harvest Table Restaurant. Photo courtesy of 621studios.com

“We’re having a lot of fun, and we’re healing the earth in the process,” says Steven Hopp, founder of Harvest Table Restaurant. Photo courtesy of 621studios.com

Among the socio-environmental issues he took on were the problems of processed foods, genetically modified ingredients, shipping procedures that carry products thousands of miles via fossil fuels, the overuse of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, inhumane factory farming methods, and the disappearance of the family farmer, just to name a few.

“The story about our experiment to eat in-season, locally grown foods became more than just our story,” explains Hopp. “Thousands of folks responded, telling us of their efforts to reclaim a healthier food culture — they found their local farmers’ market, raised chickens and planted gardens. [Miracle] helped inspire individuals, families and communities to be involved in local food movements.”

Considered from such a vantage, opening a restaurant based on principles outlined in Miracle made perfect sense. It was simply the next phase of the project.

“The experiment started when we realized we could do something for [our little] town of Meadowview,” says Hopp. “Clearly we needed jobs. However, we needed jobs that created a deeper sense of community.”

Hopp hypothesized that if you create a business that maximizes local and regional participation, this will in turn bolster the community’s overall well-being.

Present the notion to many accountants and they will laugh in your face, decrying your thinking as, economically speaking, a loser’s bet. And likely they would be right. But in Hopp’s case, with financial backing provided by Miracle, while he wanted the business to be financially viable, he was ultimately chasing a different kind of profit.

“A sustainable and socially responsible business has three cornerstones: Financial, environmental and social,” explains Hopp. “For us, the latter was the most important … We believed if we made the restaurant a model for sustainable principles, it would effect a kind of paradigm shift for the community at large.”

Determined to test the hypothesis, Hopp bought and renovated a big building in the center of Meadowview’s dilapidated, .1-mile strip of a downtown that had once been a booming railway and textile hub. He convinced his long-time friend, protégé and farm-to-table mastermind Phillip Newton to man the kitchen, and promptly set to work.

Within a few short months of opening, Hopp and Newton had discovered nearly 50 local farms from which to purchase sustainably raised ingredients. They devised an impressive menu of Virginia-made wines, ciders and beer. Eventually, beyond free-trade coffee, South Carolina-produced rice, North Carolina seafood, organically grown Florida lemons and some spirits, Harvest Table was sourcing 90 percent of its items within a 100-mile radius.

“We quickly got to know our area producers,” says Hopp. “While we couldn’t buy every last heirloom tomato grown in the county, if someone was producing celery in October, we’d buy every last bit of it. It was a learning experience for [everyone].”

It didn’t take long for relationships to form. Growers began phoning Newton before planting the season’s vegetables. Expert foragers would stop in and peddle what they’d found. Farms were upgrading their infrastructure and purchasing additional heritage breed livestock to meet the restaurant’s demand for organic, sustainably raised meats.

In short, the project was working. However, Hopp and Newton weren’t done.

With sky-high culinary ambitions — “We wanted our food to taste as good as anywhere in the U.S.,” says Hopp. “That was one of our major goals.” — there remained specialty ingredients that weren’t getting produced. For farmers with the know-how to pull it off, the labor demands of raising small batches of specialty vegetables, herbs and spices didn’t make economic sense.

Harvest Table’s menu features well-crafted standards like stone-oven pizzas, pasture-raised meats, and vegetarian and vegan offerings. Photo courtesy of 621studios.com

Harvest Table’s menu features well-crafted standards like stone-oven pizzas, pasture-raised meats, and vegetarian and vegan offerings. Photo courtesy of 621studios.com

So in early 2010, Hopp purchased a 4.5 acre tract of property adjacent to his and Kingsolver’s homestead and hired Appalachian State University agro-ecology and sustainable development graduate Samantha Eubanks, charging her with the task of transforming the property into a world-class vegetable farm.

“Bringing on Sam allowed me to focus on the kitchen,” says Newton.

Beyond managing the farm and, as Newton and Hopp call it, ‘growing to the gaps,’ Eubanks took on sourcing duties and became Harvest Table’s insider within the local and regional farming community. In this manner, she was able to avoid growing what other farmers were already producing.

“A lot of my job is working with our suppliers to keep us all on the same page,” says Eubanks. “I coordinate with Phillip to make sure that everyone’s growing their share of what’s needed now and anticipating what’ll be needed in the future.”

Overall, the strategy has worked. Within seven years of opening, the number of partnering farms and artisans has blossomed to nearly 100. Taste-wise, by 2011 the buzz was so audible it attracted a New York Times food writer, who subsequently described the restaurant as a place that would be “an instant hit in a progressive, urban enclave like Brooklyn or Berkeley, California.”

Growing Beyond the Table

Devoted to spreading the gospel of sustainability through participatory education, Hopp began expanding his operations. He and Eubanks tapped into the World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farms network and partnered with Appalachian State to offer farming internships. They reached out to area public school systems, coordinating guided field-trips to the farm, and partnered with the Old Glade Antique Tractor Association, the city of Abingdon and White’s Mill to grow and mill heirloom corn varieties.

Harvest Table Farm gathered wood chips for mulch from state road crews, and collected nitrogen-leaching manure from local cattle and poultry operations to add to the wood chips for compost. And they spearheaded an effort to open a collective canning kitchen accessible to area growers.

As a board member of the Abingdon-based regional nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Development, Hopp also offered keen insight into the organization’s 2012 Rooted in Appalachia initiative to create an online listing through which farmers could sell produce to regional restaurants.

Most recently, he and Eubanks partnered with the local 4-H club. “Basically we taught the kids how to grow broccoli using sustainable methods,” says Hopp. “We provided them with a template and instruction and then committed to helping them sell their crop.”

Nothing is fresher than a bite picked from the Tasting Garden, which is located along the patio in back of the restaurant and is available to patrons. Photo courtesy of 621studios.com

Nothing is fresher than a bite picked from the Tasting Garden, which is located along the patio in back of the restaurant and is available to patrons. Photo courtesy of 621studios.com

The idea was to show kids that money can be made growing more than hay and cattle.

“They got to sell produce to stores and restaurants, [which] got them excited,” says Hopp. “They could see this was a viable career path.”

The Farmers Guild General Store, a two-story cooperative retail outlet adjacent to Harvest Table, features the work of over 200 local artists and artisans, including hand-carved chess boards, home-spun wools, paintings, photographs, books, hand-blown glass ornaments, soaps, jams, furniture, jewelry, earthenware and myriad other items. All are exquisite, locally produced and definitely for sale.

By combining the storefront with the restaurant, Hopp is able to provide talented local artisans with a sales platform.

With an estimated 40 percent of Harvest Table’s customers streaming in from nearby arts presentations in Abingdon, Trip Advisor recommendations, or articles like this one, the benefits to the community are substantial. And the fact that the restaurant has been named by both Virginia Living and Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine as the state and region’s “greenest” restaurant has certainly helped.

“When someone visits we want them to have a good time and be amazed by the food,” says Hopp. “We want them to access the community experience. Which, I think, is why we have so much repeat business. That’s what keeps them coming back.”

In the end, while Hopp is quick to point out the project is not making anyone rich fast, he says the farm, restaurant and Guild are putting money in the pockets of over 300 individuals and families. The overall result, he asserts, is a net positive for the community.

“When you shop at a big-box store, 90 cents on the dollar leaves the community,” says Hopp. “Here, 85 cents of every dollar is going back into the town. A substantial share of that money comes from non-local sources … In just eight years we’ve put upwards of $1 million back into the local economy.”

Meanwhile, according to Hopp, everyone involved is learning a little something about sustainable agriculture.

“We’re touching tons of people,” he says. “Hundreds and hundreds of farmers have altered their perceptions. Children and diners are learning about environmentally responsible agriculture. We’re having a lot of fun, and we’re healing the earth in the process.”

And all of this has been made possible simply by believing in local foods. Isn’t it amazing what a meal can do?

To find more information, visit harvesttablerestaurant.com

A power play for Virginia’s power plan

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Citizens signal their support for clean energy at a recent meeting of the Dept. of Environmental Quality's Clean Power Plan stakeholders group,

Citizens signal their support for clean energy at a recent meeting of the Dept. of Environmental Quality’s Clean Power Plan stakeholders group.

The shift to a clean energy economy in Virginia faces many obstacles – extreme mining, extreme drilling, and apparently extreme legislating. Weeks after the 2016 General Assembly’s regular session adjourned, opponents of clean energy progress attacked state climate policy in an unorthodox way: through the budget of the agency tasked with preparing a state plan to cut carbon pollution.

Those budget provisions will take effect July 1, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s not stopping Appalachian Voices and other organizations and clean energy advocates from continuing to push for a transition to wind, solar and energy efficiency.

Let’s take a step back and see how we got here. But first, a quick primer. In August 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency passed the historic Clean Power Plan, the first federal rule to reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s fleet of coal-fired power plants. Based on years of research and public feedback, the rule establishes a series of deadlines, as well as individualized reduction goals for each state, and provides a framework for states to devise their own plan for how to get there on time. The rule was immediately challenged by the fossil fuel industry and their political allies, and earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily stayed the rule pending further review.

State government: Checks, balances and the occasional blatant overreach

At stake in this past Virginia legislative session, as it was in the 2015 session, was control over the state plan to implement the federal Clean Power Plan., and whether the General Assembly would wrest that authority away from the governor.

Bills mandating that the legislature approve a state plan prepared by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) were introduced and approved, with highly charged rhetoric and dire claims of skyrocketing utility bills used to justify the power grab. Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed these bills, for the time being preserving his administration’s opportunity to produce a strong carbon reduction plan on time.

Meanwhile, an official stakeholders group convened by DEQ began working through many fiendishly technical areas, from the pros and cons of basing standards on emissions rates versus using an overall statewide cap, or mass-based plan, to the thorny socially oriented questions like how the state plan can yield the most benefit for low-income Virginians and what approaches would yield jobs where they are needed most.

But as it turned out, the struggle to uphold administrative authority over the process was not over, and it continued into the spring when a budget amendment (369#1c) was introduced that would ensure that funds for DEQ to plan state compliance with the Clean Power Plan be withheld. The budgetary tactic was unusual, sidestepping the responsibilities that normally rest with each branch of government. The legislature was becoming involved in a matter delegated to the executive, not ordinarily within its purview, by going after the “purse strings.” This break with tradition may be viewed as a symptomatic part of a larger, multi-issue partisan divide.

Amid murky intricacies of the Constitution of Virginia, Governor McAuliffe did not exercise a full veto of the budget amendment, but rather made a line item edit, striking a reference to using funds “for planning” state implementation of the new standards. The prospect of upholding this fix was slim, requiring 51 votes out of 100 members of the House of Delegates, spelling real trouble for the state’s formal planning process, which was on track to produce a draft outline by early summer 2016. As expected, the amendment language prevailed, revoking DEQ funding as of July 1, 2016, for state planning.

While aiding polluters, CPP stop-work order shortchanges Virginia workers and communities

As energy markets continue to shift, our sources for generating electricity need to diversify, and the change is underway. From the proliferation of solar arrays on Virginia homes and small businesses to mid-size and large projects at data centers and universities, examples bear out the proven economics of renewable energy. According to the Energy Foundation, Virginia has seen an increase in jobs in the solar energy business of 157% since 2012, and this is a field that is immune from outsourcing, like home energy efficiency assessment and retrofitting.

The state DEQ is first charged with ensuring adherence to pollution limits in Virginia. However, the scope of its work has extended to consider the policy impacts of how air and water pollution are reduced, from the cost savings or increases to energy customers to the reliability of the electric grid over time. Perhaps no aspect of the issues that DEQ deals with is more deserving of its attention than the environmental justice implications of these rules.

Areas of Virginia that have been burdened by job loss, disproportionately high energy bills relative to household income, and extractive activities that carry environmental risks deserve immediate attention. While these communities should be directly involved in designing a just and beneficial state carbon-reduction plan, political grandstanding may shut down the planning effort altogether. Leaders that operate by rigid, lock-step dedication to polluting industries are clearly missing opportunities to act in the interest of the people they represent.

DEQ may yet be able to carry out work with similar aims to the Clean Power Plan in the absence of the planning funding. The agency intends to meet new rules for the energy sector, as Director Paylor made clear in remarks made during public stakeholder meetings, and Governor McAuliffe has stated support for this approach and will still have a chance to leave a robust legacy in that regard. But there is uncertainty over Virginia’s ability to have a plan by the EPA deadline. If we fail, a federal plan will be imposed, without the same level of public input in Virginia. In that situation, there will be a greater need than ever for citizens to engage with the administration and with our legislators to pursue a clean energy future in the commonwealth.

Where the Clean Power Plan court case stands

Just as a strong majority of Virginians expects government officials to take meaningful action to address carbon pollution, national polls reflect that the Clean Power Plan is popular – even in states that are suing over the plan. And just as there are opponents in Virginia, including elected officials who put politics over people and use red-herring arguments to justify calling off the planning process, there are opponents who have sued over the EPA’s rule.

The legal challenges were filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which would normally hear it before a panel of only three judges.But the process has been changed for this case, likely due to the significance of the issues involved, and it will now be an en banc hearing with at least nine judges presiding. The court will meet September 27, which sounds like a delay from the previous hearing date of June 2, but since the full court might have asked to review the decision, and prolonged the process anyway, this change may actually streamline the case.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, as the planning funding restrictions draw closer, watch for news in Virginia as to how the McAuliffe administration plans to move forward with Clean Power Plan planning.

New Virginia Main Street Towns Aim to Thrive

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

Lexington and Wytheville, Va., are two of four new towns to be considered Virginia Main Street Communities. The Virginia Main Street Program, managed by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, works to revitalize select downtown economies, while preserving their historic value. Towns with a Main Street designation become eligible for certain grants, such as Downtown Improvement Grants that can provide up to $25,000 for one-time projects. Economic consulting services will also become available.

Main Street Lexington Executive Director Stephanie Wilkinson hopes to make use of the upper floors of downtown buildings for condos or small businesses. Wytheville plans on opening several new businesses over the summer in addition to the six that were established last year, and potentially more by the end of 2016. — Dylan Turner

Groups force strong pollution controls on Virginia gas plant

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016 - posted by cat

Contact:
Evan Johns, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, 434-738-186, ejohns@appalmad.org
Hannah Wiegard, Appalachian Voices, 804-536-5598, hannah@appvoices.org
Ben Weiner, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, 804-225-9113 Ex. 1002, benjamin.weiner@sierraclub.org

RICHMOND, Virginia – In response to extensive comments from citizens and conservation groups, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has imposed precedent-setting protections against greenhouse gases and other air pollutants from Dominion Power’s proposed gas power plant in Greensville County, VA. Appalachian Mountain Advocates prepared the comments on behalf of Appalachian Voices and the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. The groups are pleased with DEQ’s action, and they say the agency must apply the same scrutiny to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The DEQ outlined these stronger protections in the revised draft air permit for the Greensville Power Station, a proposed 1,558-megawatt power plant. If built, the gas plant would be the largest in the state. It would burn fracked natural gas supplied directly by another Dominion project — the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — a nearly 600-mile long large-diameter pipeline that would take private property and destroy forests and streams in Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

Based on Appalachian Mountain Advocates’ analysis of the draft permit, DEQ will force Dominion to employ the “best available control technology” at the plant as required by the Clean Air Act. DEQ dramatically tightened carbon dioxide limits, cutting allowable emissions by more than 10% from Dominion’s original proposal.

If the permit is ultimately approved by the State Air Pollution Control Board, Dominion would have to meet more protective standards on carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, methane, and particulate matter as well. The final permit would also force Dominion to conduct additional performance testing to prevent formaldehyde pollution, and enforce more powerful controls for methane leakage. These pollution controls will heavily reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the plant and that reduction in dangerous emissions will improve air quality throughout the region.

“The impacts of this decision could ripple through the energy sector,” said Evan Johns, staff attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates. “By strengthening efficiency requirements, this permit will serve as the new benchmark against which all similar Clean Air Act permits must be measured in the future.”

The groups will continue to push DEQ for similarly strong protections against the massive quantities of methane that could leak from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. “DEQ’s revisions to the permit demonstrate how important the Clean Air Act is in curbing greenhouse gas emissions,” Johns said. “That’s why we’re urging regulators to follow the Act’s clear requirement that the pipeline and the power plant be treated as a single, integrated source of air pollution.”

As a greenhouse gas, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Unless Dominion is required to reduce these leaks, the proposed plant and related facilities may produce as much greenhouse gas pollution as a coal-fired power plant.

“When the State Corporation Commission approved this plant, an extension of existing dirty gas lines was approved. Dominion doesn’t need the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to service this plant,” said Kate Addleson, Director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Instead of expanding our dependence on gas, a focus on renewable energy like solar would ensure costs remain low and citizen’s health is protected.”

They will also appeal DEQ’s failure to require Dominion incorporate solar at the facility. “Solar farms don’t have smokestacks and they don’t leak methane, so incorporating solar is absolutely the best technology for controlling emissions,” said Hannah Wiegard, Virginia Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices. “Plus, Dominion itself says solar energy is more affordable for ratepayers.”

###

Connecting the economic dots in Southwest Virginia

Thursday, May 19th, 2016 - posted by cat
Tammy Owens, owner of Foxfire Farm in  Dickenson County, Va., at the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum in May.

Tammy Owens, owner of Foxfire Farm in Dickenson County, Va., at the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum in May.

At a recent economic summit in Wise, Va., Tammy Owens paused at a display booth about the benefits of reclaiming abandoned coal mines as sites for new business. Owens owns land in nearby Dickenson County that years ago was a strip mine; it’s now in pasture for livestock as part of her organic commercial farm, established in 2011.

She also owns land along the Russell Fork River and wants to start an outfitter company that runs river trips. She’s working with the county and the U.S. Forest Service to put the take-out site downstream from her property, on another abandoned strip mine.

“It all circles back to sustainability, with the way our land is, the way it’s laid out, and keeping the natural beauty while we have a new economy,” she says. “It’s really exciting, there’s so many possibilities.”

Owens was one of more than 300 people who attended the 2016 Economic Forum on May 12, hosted by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. The school is a key player in efforts to improve the region’s economy, and hosted the forum — with the tagline “Discover. Connect. Ignite.” — as a way to bring together the many public, private and nonprofit entities working on economic development initiatives to help move Southwest Virginia forward.

Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development addresses the audience. Copyright Tim Cox.

Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development addresses the audience. Copyright Tim Cox.

“Our commonwealth cannot be successful unless all our communities and regions are successfully growing,” said Matt Erskine, Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary for Commerce for Economic Development and the morning’s featured speaker. “Yes, there are longstanding challenges in this region … but there is good reason to be optimistic.”

Under the Obama administration’s POWER Initiative to boost areas around the country hit hard by coal’s decline, the 2016 federal budget includes a total of $65 million for matching grants. The key, Erskine said, is partnership and collaboration. “It is not and cannot be a silver bullet,” he said. “It’s not a hand out. It’s all merit-based and competitive, and regional and local entities have to have skin in the game.”

at-tables-web

To help encourage the dialogue needed to foster collaboration, the conference planning partners — which included Appalachian Voices — set up a series of breakout sessions for the afternoon. Topics covered education, workforce development, health and wellness, keeping and supporting existing businesses, attracting new businesses, developing the region’s agricultural and natural assets, and tapping into emerging industries like solar energy.

Appalachian Voices, along with many other groups, companies and government agencies, had an information booth at the conference, and solar was one of our featured topics. Over the past several months, Appalachian Voices has been intensively researching the opportunities for community-scale solar energy in the region. It’s one of the fastest growing sectors in the U.S. economy, and we’re seeking ways to help Southwest Virginia tap into it. Our emphasis is on building local wealth, developing local systems and capacities that “in-source” labor, services, materials and procurement.

Adam Wells, Appalachian Voices' Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator, who is based in our Norton, Va. office.

Adam Wells, Appalachian Voices’ Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator, who is based in our Norton, Va. office.

The other topic displayed at our booth was the opportunity for turning abandoned mine lands (generally strip mines closed prior to 1977) into a force for positive development, including solar energy but also a variety of other economic endeavors. Appalachian Voices is currently working to identify optimal sites for potential funding under the RECLAIM Act, bipartisan legislation that would release $1 billion over five years for remediation of sites that have a post-cleanup economic benefit.

The concept resonated with Didi Caldwell, an international expert in industrial site selection. Caldwell stopped by the Appalachian Voices booth to talk about reclamation opportunities, and during her address to the conference she mentioned the idea and our work.

It’s also what intrigues Tammy Owens of Dickenson County.

“How do we go from the industry of coal that all these generations have grown up with … into something that’s drastically new?” she asks. As she has talked with people in the region, she has found some still deny coal’s decline, but more often she finds hesitation, misgivings, a “fear of the unknown.” “We’re at the point now, coal is gone forever and it’s not coming back. We’ve had lean years before and could wait it out.”

But this time, Owens says, the region has to embrace the chance to reinvent its economic future. Judging from the turnout and enthusiasm around the UVA-Wise Economic Forum, she’s not alone.

“We wanted it to build positive energy and we definitely accomplished that,” said Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor at UVA-Wise and head of the school’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement. As far as she knows, it was the first time in the region so many people had come together to focus on solutions. “I think there’s power in getting that many people together who care about the region, and their neighbors.”

Hundreds of ideas came out of the breaking sessions, which Blevins and others have grouped into six broad areas and will post on UVA-Wise’s website inviting people to join those groups and keep the conversation going.

In the week since the forum, Blevins has heard positive feedback from people who attended, including one woman who told her it felt like a pivotal moment, “like in five years we’ll point back to the forum as the day things really started to turn the corner.”

No need for more fracked-gas pipelines

Thursday, April 28th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Special to the Front Porch: Our guest today is Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, and lead author of a new report on the overbuilding of natural gas pipelines in the mid-Atlantic. Kunkel has undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics, was a senior research associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and has testified before regulatory bodies.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 2.08.53 PM

We’ve published a report today that concludes that two natural gas pipelines proposed for construction from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina are indicative of a rush toward industry overbuilding.

The study, “Risks Associated With Natural Gas Pipeline Expansion Across Appalachia,” examines the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would traverse West Virginia into eastern Virginia, and the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would cross Virginia and branch deeply into North Carolina. The pipelines combined would run for more than 800 miles and together would cost roughly $9 billion.

There’s a widespread assumption that such pipelines would only be proposed if they were necessary. This assumption is not supported by the facts.

We found that the dynamics of the pipeline business tend toward overbuilding, toward building excess pipeline capacity. Major pipeline companies are competing with each other to build out the best, most well-connected pipeline networks. And utility companies are entering the pipeline space because much of the risk of overbuilding can be pushed off onto captive ratepayers. And natural gas production companies are entering the pipeline business because their core business — drilling — is underperforming and they are looking for ways to boost revenue and investment value. These kinds of financial considerations on the part of individual companies do not add up to socially rational, prudent long-term planning.

pipeline capacityThe pipeline business is able to attract more capital than is needed—because of the high rates of return that pipeline companies typically earn. Pipeline rates are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC allows higher rates of return for pipeline companies than it does for electric transmission companies or than state utility commissions typically allow for state-regulated utilities. For example, by policy FERC allows a 14 percent rate of return, while regulated utilities at state public service commissions typically are only allowed in the 10 percent range.

The tendency towards overbuilding is widely understood in the industry -— executives and analysts talk openly about it -— and FERC’s regulatory process currently misses this dynamic. There is no regional planning process for natural gas pipeline infrastructure in the way that there is for electric transmission lines, for example. FERC looks at pipelines on a project-by-project basis. The agency considers a line necessary if the project developer is able to enter into contracts for the majority of the capacity of the project. What we’ve found in the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipeline cases is that the project developers and the shippers who are entering into contracts with the pipeline are subsidiaries of the same company. So the fact that a pipeline developer is signing a contract with an affiliate is strong evidence that there is financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is an independently established basis for the pipeline need. The private assumptions of individual pipeline developers are not adequately checked against broader standards of the public interest.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.08.04 AM

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a good example of this. If it is approved it appears that two separate pipelines will serve the same power plant -– an example of too much pipeline capacity. The Atlantic Coast project is a joint venture with Duke, Dominion, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources having ownership interests and are the developers. The main shippers on the project are subsidiaries of Duke and Dominion — those two companies have contracted for 68 percent of the capacity on the pipeline. Consumers will bear the risk of higher rates if project assumptions do not materialize. The cost of building the pipeline, including the profit for the developers, will be passed through to the shippers of the pipeline who will be able to recover it from their ratepayers through rates established by state public service commissions.

Put another way, the regulatory structure gives Duke and Dominion an incentive to prioritize building their own pipeline rather than using that of another company. If the demand for the capacity along the Atlantic Coast pipeline does not materialize, ratepayers will still be on the hook to pay for that capacity.

It appears that the need for the Atlantic Coast pipeline has been overstated. In its application to FERC, Atlantic Coast asserts that one use of the gas from the pipeline will be for Dominion’s new Brunswick and Greensville natural gas plants. But in its applications to the State Corporation Commission to build those power plants, Dominion asserted that the plants will be fueled from the Transco line. In the case of the Brunswick plant, a spur from the Transco line to the plant has already been built. Without better coordination and planning it appears that two pipelines are being built to supply one power plant. The Atlantic Coast pipeline is a relatively low risk venture for Duke and Dominion, the main project developers. Most of the risk for the project is borne by those utility customers in Virginia and North Carolina.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline has a different risk profile. The Mountain Valley pipeline is a supplier-driven pipeline. The majority-owner of the project is an affiliate of EQT, one of the largest Appalachian shale gas drillers, and the entity that has contracted to ship the largest volume of gas on the pipeline is EQT. We found that the biggest risks of this project stem from the financial weakness of EQT. EQT is not doing badly relative to other Appalachian shale drillers, but the entire sector is in turmoil because of sustained low natural gas prices, which are widely expected to remain low into 2017. EQT’s credit ratings are one notch above junk, and its stock has fallen 26 percent since January 2014. Bankruptcies are widely expected in the natural gas drilling sector this year, and banks are expected to cut back on lending. EQT has diversified into the pipeline business presumably because of the traditionally stable and higher returns to be found in this sector.

Communities along the pipeline route also bear risks that stem from EQT’s financial weakness. EQT does not appear to be a stable, long-term partner for these communities. EQT’s weakened financial position suggests it will adopt only a limited commitment to communities or perhaps be forced to sell its ownership interests to a new company that is not part of current deliberations

To sum up, our study finds that natural gas pipeline infrastructure out of the Marcellus and Utica regions will become overbuilt within the next several years, an outcome recognized by many in the industry itself.

The economic and financial factors that incentivize companies to invest in the development of new natural gas pipelines will not produce a socially rational outcome. Without a coordinated approach to natural gas pipeline planning, as exists for many other types of infrastructure, the FERC cannot make an honest determination of the need for these pipelines. Ratepayers and communities will shoulder much of the costs and risks of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, investments of nearly $9 billion that are poised for approval without adequate scrutiny.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Power of Cooperation: Co-ops put solar on rooftops

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Dan Radmacher

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

When Joy Loving decided to add solar power to her Rockingham County, Va., home in the spring of 2012, she did it the hard way. She taught herself what she could, then found an installer through a Google search. A full six months later, she turned on her system. Since then, she’s been working to make the process a lot easier — and cheaper — for others.

“My decision wasn’t driven by economics,” Loving says. “I’m 70 years old, and without state tax incentives or any kind of discount, my payback period for this system will be very long. I might live long enough to reap the economic benefits. I might not. But my primary motivation was about reducing my carbon footprint.”

When she first began looking into solar, Loving thought there might be some sort of program through her electric utility, or state policies that would help. Instead, she found obstacles. Unlike some other states, Virginia mostly forbids power purchase agreements, a solar financing model in which companies own the solar arrays they install on homes and charge homeowners for the power they use.

The state also limits the size of systems residents can build on their homes and caps the power generated by all Virginia residential arrays combined to no more than one percent of all power generated in the state. It also allows utilities to charge minimum monthly fees to solar users — even if the resident generates more power for the grid than they use.

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Loving says all the obstacles to solar put in place by the state and politically powerful utilities irritated her. “It got my back up,” she says. “The freedom to choose my energy source was very important to me. I believe that I need to be a good steward of God’s creation, and this is one thing I can do positively to be a good steward.”

Even after her own system was installed, Loving kept reading and learning. “There was just nothing like the thrill of not having an electric bill,” she says. “I kind of got obsessive about it, checking the system and the power meter and watching what the system could do. After six or seven months, I thought ‘this is something that other people should know about.’”

She reached out to local/regional environmental group Climate Action of the Valley in Harrisonburg, Va. Leaders there ended up connecting with Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods, also known as VA SUN, which is a branch of the Community Power Network in Washington, D.C.

VA SUN helps solar co-op groups — usually collections of neighbors — by providing the experience and expertise it takes to get organized, research installers, issue a request for proposals, evaluate and negotiate with installers, and then see the process all the way through the installation and hookups.

Ben Delman, communications manager for Community Power Network, says the various state SUN groups in Appalachia — DC SUN, VA SUN, WV SUN and MD SUN — have helped around 1,000 people go solar across the region, with about a third of those in Virginia. According to Delman, when individuals organize into co-ops, they gain expertise and save money by negotiating bulk purchases.

Co-ops Accepting New Members

  • Richmond, Va.: Deadline April 30; For information, contact VA Sun Program Director Aaron Sutch, aaron@vasun.org
  • Tucker, Randolph and Upshur counties, W.Va.: No deadline yet
  • Monroe County, W.Va.: No deadline yet. For information on WV co-ops, contact WV Sun Program Director Karan Ireland, karan@wvsun.org

In addition to helping co-ops, Community Power Network has also supported groups that use the “Solarize” model, in which the installer is pre-selected rather than picked based on competitive bids.

After discussions with VA SUN, the Harrisonburg-based Climate Action of the Valley decided to sponsor a co-op in Harrisonburg and Rockbridge County. They asked Loving to lead it.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t know about co-ops when I installed [my system],” she says. “All the co-ops exploding around the state are like seeds — making people more aware and more informed about solar.”

According to Delman, the co-op experience generally works like this: “We start work with one or two local organizations — some sort of community group that can guide the process and begin recruiting co-op members.” The group holds a number of informational meetings during the recruitment phase. “We take them through understanding solar energy, the different ways to finance and help them understand the co-op process,” he says.

“In some ways, it’s the same as doing any home construction project,” Delman continues, “But how great would it be if you’re adding a deck or renovating a bathroom to be able to go through that with a group of people all doing the same thing?”

A critical mass of people interested in installing solar is necessary to move forward to the next step of actually reaching out to contractors. “Once a group gets to about 25 or 30 members, we work with them to issue a [request for proposal] to installers,” Delman says. Co-op members make the final decision. “We help group members review the bids, but it’s up to the selection committee to choose.”

Carl Droms, a member of Climate Action of the Valley, was a member of the Harrisonburg co-op’s selection committee. At that stage, there were 70 or 80 interested households, and about a dozen co-op members on the selection committee. “We all had different ideas about what was important and how to weigh the factors,” he says. “The price per watt — which included everything: panels, wiring, inverters, the electrical work, installation — was important, but there were other factors. Could the installer handle this number of installations and get things done in a reasonable time? Would they use local labor? What kind of guarantee did they offer? How much work had they done in the past?”
“In the end, we were pretty well agreed,” Droms says. “Everybody felt we made the right decision.”

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

The discount for a co-op member over an individual trying to buy their own solar power system is generally around 20 percent, Delman says. “It’s a good deal for the installers, as well,” he says. “To have a base of interested customers who are educated about solar is really good.”
Once an installer is selected, individuals in the co-op get a site inspection and, eventually, a contract for a system tailored to their individual needs at the agreed-to price. Co-op members aren’t obligated to buy unless they sign that contract.

Droms is very happy with the system he and his partner installed on their home. “Our total bill for the last year has been about $130 — and that includes a $9.50 a month fee just to stay connected to the grid,” he says. “We were really pleased with the co-op. If we had to negotiate everything ourselves, it would have been a lot more complicated.”

There’s not much of a downside to working through a co-op, says Cory Chase, a Tucker County, W. Va., resident who helped organize a co-op in his area. “WV SUN offers a lot of technical assistance that really helps. It might be a little more bureaucratic and slower than going on your own, but we’ll be able to help each other out, buy material in bulk and get a competitive bid,” he says.

According to WV SUN Program Director Karan Ireland, her organization has helped co-ops launch in the towns of Morgantown and Wheeling, and in Kanawha, Tucker and Monroe counties. “A co-op is like Solar 101,” she says. “It can be cumbersome if you’re trying to figure out everything by yourself. With the co-op, you work with friends and neighbors to learn about how to go solar.”

Like Loving, Ireland believes co-ops help create solar ambassadors. “As people understand the benefits of solar, they become invested in the policy as well,” she says. “Because they’re already working together, that creates a network of solar advocates.”

And solar advocates are needed, especially in states like Virginia and West Virginia where fossil fuel interests hold so much sway, says Mark Hanson, president of the Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Association, a do-it-yourself club in Roanoke, Va., that helps members with solar installations and other renewable energy projects.

“Our legislators don’t push the power companies to do the right thing,” Hanson says. “Power companies just see solar as a way for people not to pay for electricity. When it comes to legislators, the power companies pretty much get their way.”

Joy Loving says the co-op model is serving its purpose. “It has increased awareness of solar and gotten more press coverage,” she says. “People have heard about it. People see the panels going up and they talk. Co-ops will bring more people into the solar fold.”

States Consider Cuts to Mine Safety, Coal Taxes

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Brian Sewell

In Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, high-profile legislation related to mine safety laws and coal taxation policies is showing how far Appalachian lawmakers will go in attempts to sustain the ailing industry.

On April 1, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law legislation that rolls back a requirement that coal companies provide private rescue teams in the event of a mine disaster, a measure enacted following the Sago Mine explosion in 2006 that killed 12.

The bill, which would also relax fines for not immediately reporting major incidents like fires or explosions, was passed before the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training was able to analyze its potential impact. Nor was the bill’s economic benefit to the industry calculated.

“I don’t know that that created or saved one job,” state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, a Democrat running for governor who opposed the bill, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail after the Senate vote. “Once again, just because the industry is asking for it, we’re willing to roll over and give it to them.”

The West Virginia Senate passed a bill in March to reduce the state’s coal severance tax from the current rate of 5 percent to 2 percent. Severance tax revenues, which provide critical funds for counties and the state budget, are already in steep decline, contributing to budget cuts and public employee layoffs.

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, which opposed the bill, the tax cut would cost the state $159 million and local governments $11.6 million annually while doing little to fight the forces making central Appalachian coal uncompetitive. The bill was shelved by the state House of Delegates.

Both efforts were backed by the West Virginia Coal Association.

In Kentucky, the severance tax pie is shrinking even faster than in West Virginia. Tax revenue in January 2016 was $8.9 million, compared to $20.5 million during the same month in 2011. Multiple bills have been introduced this session to direct a larger portion of the dwindling coal tax revenue to eastern Kentucky counties most affected by coal’s decline. But bickering over how to divide the total $44 million in severance taxes in the state budget has dimmed the prospect for reform.

Kentucky legislators are also at odds on mine safety. In March, the Senate easily passed measures to eliminate state safety inspections of coal mines — leaving the role to federal inspectors — and end mandatory safety training for mine foremen.

Sen. Robin Webb, a former coal miner, was appalled. “I cannot ever have the blood of my brothers and sisters on my hands as a state policymaker, and I cannot support this measure,” she told her colleagues.

The measure is supported by the administration of first-term Gov. Matt Bevin and the Kentucky Coal Association.

In a recurring battle in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed House and Senate versions of a bill to extend state tax credits for the coal industry, which he described as “ineffective at creating or protecting economic activity or jobs.”

Between 1988 and 2015, the coal industry claimed more than $160 million under the Virginia credits. Over the same period, coal jobs in the state fell from 11,000 to less than 3,000.

UPDATE: On April 20, an effort to override Gov. McAuliffe’s veto of a bill to extend Virginia’s coal tax credit narrowly failed in the state Senate. The tax credit will expire on Dec. 31.