Posts Tagged ‘Virginia’

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Controversy Shrouds Coal Ash Cleanup

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Elizabeth E. Payne

In March, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality held a series of 15 public hearings across the state to solicit stakeholder comments on the classifications for the 33 coal ash impoundments located at Duke Energy’s 14 coal-fired power plants.

These classifications — low, intermediate and high — are used by NCDEQ to assess the risk of each site and determine the timetable and minimum standards that the cleanup process will follow.

At the hearings, area citizens were able to speak with NCDEQ staff about their concerns with the cleanup process. Many urged the agency to rank their community as intermediate or high priority.

“We drank the water, ate the food in that soil,” said Leslie Brewer, who raised her family near the Belews Steam Station coal ash pond in Danbury, N.C. “Please make this high priority, my children don’t have another ten years to wait until this is cleaned up.”

Read more about the hearings here.

These hearings were required by the state’s Coal Ash Management Act, which also established the Coal Ash Management Commission to oversee the process amid an atmosphere of public distrust. Following legal challenges reaching the state’s Supreme Court, Gov. Pat McCrory disbanded the nine-member commission in mid-March.

The act tasked the commission with ensuring that NCDEQ’s classifications accurately reflected the level of risk posed by each site, and allowed them 60 days to review and comment on the classifications. Whether a new commission will be appointed in time to provide oversight is unclear.

The same week that the commission was disbanded, staff members from the NCDEQ and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services lifted the do-not-drink warnings from households near coal ash ponds whose wells had been contaminated by hexavalent chromium and vanadium.

The agencies lifted the ban on water containing levels of hexavalent chromium exceeding the state standard of 0.07 parts per billion. Citing federal standards of 100 parts for billion for total chromium, Tom Reeder, the state’s assistant secretary for the environment, argued that the previous standards had been overly cautious. There is no federal standard for hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen.

Duke Energy, which denies responsibility for the contamination, will soon stop providing bottled drinking water to the affected households.
In other news, two groups have dropped their complaints against Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to release wastewater from coal ash ponds at two of its power plants into the Quantico Creek, which feeds into the Potomac and James rivers. After Dominion announced that it would adopt stricter standards for treating the wastewater than were required by the Virginia DEQ, the Prince William County, Va., board of supervisors and the James River Association agreed to stop fighting the plan, according to the Bay Journal.

Other groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and the state of Maryland, will continue to appeal Dominion’s discharge permit.

Regional Solar Updates

Friday, April 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

N.C. ranks second in solar growth in 2015, with big plans for 2016

In 2015, North Carolina ranked second in new solar installments with 1,134 megawatts of new installed capacity, driven by utility-scale projects, according to a report by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industry Association.

This is the second consecutive year the state was ranked second. North Carolina started the new year off strong, with the most solar capacity in advanced development in the nation as of mid-February, a report by SNL Financial shows. According to the report, this advancement was encouraged by the extension of a 35 percent state tax credit to 2017. — Eliza Laubach

Partnership salvages VA solar project

A solar project denied by Virginia regulators last fall is moving forward due to an agreement between the state, Dominion Virginia Power and Microsoft. Through the public-private partnership, Dominion agreed to sell power generated by a 20-megawatt solar project in Remington, Va., to the state, which will then provide Microsoft with renewable energy credits to help the company meet its renewable energy goals. The project is still subject to regulatory approval, but could begin service in late 2017. — Brian Sewell

Virginians Call on McAuliffe for a Bold Clean Power Plan

Friday, April 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

roanoke_inavVirginia residents gathered for a Day of Action on April 2 to remind Governor McAuliffe of his commitment to cut carbon and focus on renewable energy job creation for the Commonwealth. At events across the state, which took place in Bristol, Charlottesville, Richmond, Roanoke and other cities, residents spoke of the 157 percent increase of solar power jobs in Virginia since 2012, and how jobs in the field can help the economy of Southwest Virginia. Some citizens also attended to stand up against fossil fuel projects like the two proposed natural gas pipelines that threaten the state (see more on here).

This spring, Governor McAuliffe has the opportunity to create a strong Clean Power Plan that would drive investments in proven clean energy sources, or he could allow Virginia to become more deeply dependent on fossil fuel fuel for power. If you’re from the state, ask your governor to do the right thing for all Virginians. Visit: cleanpowerva.org

Another step toward clean water in Southwest Virginia

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 - posted by Erin
Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Appalachian Voices, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) and the Sierra Club recently lodged a settlement addressing several sources of water pollution in Southwest Virginia. The settlement must still be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. If approved, several sources of the toxic pollutant selenium in Wise County, Va., will be cleaned up and the city of Norton, Va., will be one big step closer to cleaning up an abandoned coal-loading facility.

The Case

In 2014, SAMS, the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, filed a legal action against Penn Virginia for violations of the Clean Water Act. In response to our allegations, Penn Virginia filed claims against A&G Coal Corp., a Jim Justice-owned company, claiming the company was responsible for at least some the pollution. A&G operates a mine neighboring the Penn Virginia land identified in the case.

The violations included unlawful discharge of the toxic pollutant selenium into several tributaries of Callahan Creek. The violations were discovered by SAMS through a review of records submitted by A&G Coal to state regulators in Virginia. The reports showed discharges of selenium and sulfate. Both pollutants are harmful to aquatic life. Selenium can be particularly harmful, resulting in fish deformities and reproductive failure.

A two-headed trout deformed from exposure to selenium

The Settlement

If approved, the settlement will resolve this case and results in several important water quality improvements in Southwest Virginia. Under the settlement terms, A&G Coal will treat three seeps currently discharging selenium into the Kelly Branch tributary of Callahan Creek. The settlement also requires the companies to provide $35,000 for the initial cleanup assessment of a nearby abandoned coal processing site in Norton known as Tipple Hill. Once the site has been restored, it could be included in the Norton Guest River Walk project. The Tipple Hill project is supported by the City of Norton, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable.

Moving Forward

This settlement offers our organizations a unique opportunity to resolve pollution from both an active mine and from legacy mining on land owned by a large landholding company. Large swaths of land in Southwest Virginia are owned by companies like Penn Virginia that lease land to timber, coal and gas companies for resource extraction. These landholding companies often escape liability when problems arise from the activities on the land.

Several mechanisms exist for addressing water pollution and other problems associated with coal mining. On active mines, including those undergoing reclamation, the coal company is responsible for monitoring conditions and addressing problems that arise. The state oversees this monitoring to make sure the law is enforced, but a lot of problems still occur.

Problems arising from mines that were closed prior to passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) are eligible for federal Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funding. There is a fairly large amount of money available through the AML reclamation fund, but not enough to cover every problem left over from these pre-SMCRA mines. Mines permitted after the passage of SMCRA include bonds to cover the cost of reclamation should the company fall into bankruptcy. Unfortunately, in many instances, bonding has proved insufficient for proper reclamation, especially as many coal companies go bankrupt in close succession.

In many cases, it is difficult to determine exactly how water pollution arose. Many areas around Central Appalachia have been mined underground, surface mined prior to SMCRA, and surface mined after SMCRA. Add gas well drilling to that mix, and it becomes very difficult to pinpoint the individual companies responsible. Many people, including all of us at Appalachian Voices, primarily want to see water problems cleaned up, regardless of who’s responsible. But with limited resources for cleanup, identifying liability can be a critical part of addressing the sources of water pollution.

Moving forward, we’re going to have to identify multiple resources – funding, expertise, and local knowledge – to help us restore Central Appalachia.

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Virginia’s Clean Power Plan approach unchanged after court’s action

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that Virginia will “stay the course” and continue working to reduce carbon pollution after the U.S. Supreme Court hit pause on the Clean Power Plan. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that Virginia will “stay the course” and continue working to reduce carbon pollution after the U.S. Supreme Court hit pause on the Clean Power Plan. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court made a disappointing decision by issuing a “stay” of the Clean Power Plan. But that doesn’t mean what polluters and their allies would have you believe it does – and the opportunity is as great as ever for Virginia to develop a truly bold plan.

The day after the high court’s decision, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that Virginia will “stay the course” and continue working to reach our goals to cut back on carbon pollution:

“Over the last several months my administration has been working with a diverse group of Virginia stakeholders that includes members of the environmental, business, and energy communities to develop a strong, viable path forward to comply with the Clean Power Plan. As this court case moves forward, we will stay on course and continue to develop the elements for a Virginia plan to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate our clean energy economy.”

For a state like Virginia, which began engaging stakeholders last fall and has a state planning process in full swing, this stay might have been taken as a reason to slow or halt our process by signaling to leaders unfamiliar with the legal foundations of the Clean Power Plan that it might be overturned.

In fact, the Supreme Court has already upheld the EPA’s authority to limit carbon pollution, as Virginia’s leaders know. A solid grounding in existing law — namely the Clean Air Act — increases the likelihood that the Clean Power Plan will survive. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit must now consider briefs and arguments, and has agreed to an expedited timeframe for this work, with arguments expected in early June.

Overwhelming support exists for prioritizing clean energy and efficiency – we can’t stop now!

Virginia is one of many states moving forward with implementation. Smart leaders will continue down that path. With more than two-thirds of Americans supporting the Clean Power Plan, including numerous prominent companies and investors, our country wants action to address carbon pollution and climate change.

There is already an inescapable trend shifting the electricity sector from the pollution-intensive fuels of the past to a safer, cleaner future – with the big caveat that, especially in the Southeast, it is critical to combat investments in gas-fired power, an energy source all-too-widely believed to have a cleaner production and combustion process than it really does.

There’s more that we’re counting on Governor McAuliffe to deliver

Virginia is positioned to implement a long-term plan to cut carbon pollution while simultaneously boosting the economy, creating new jobs and reducing customers’ electricity bills. Despite this, some of Virginia’s biggest polluters are out to rig the plan to benefit their bottomlines by building new fossil fuel infrastructure.

If the polluters get their way, Virginia could actually see a net increase in greenhouse gases under the Clean Power Plan. The ultimate decision lies in the governor’s hands. The question is: will he side with Dominion and choose a plan that increases global warming pollution or create a plan true to the intentions of the Clean Power Plan that charts a healthier future for the commonwealth?


Take action now and call on Governor McAuliffe to remain committed to “staying the course” for a bold Clean Power Plan in Virginia.

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Fracked-gas Pipelines Would Threaten Homes and Dreams

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

A Tale of Two Families

By Cat McCue

Jill Averitt and her dog, Cliff, enjoy a moment outdoors. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cut through her land, along the hillside just beyond the swing set. Photo by Cat McCue

Jill Averitt and her dog, Cliff, enjoy a moment outdoors. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cut through her land, along the hillside just beyond the swing set. Photo by Cat McCue

At the top of Sinking Creek Mountain in western Virginia, where Craig, Giles and Montgomery Counties meet, sits a 50-acre parcel of land with views in all directions. To Judy and Steve Hodges, who built their dream home here in 2003, it’s heaven.

“We’re from the ‘70s. Leftover hippies, that sort of thing,” says Judy. “We love it here. We have lovely neighbors.”

But to a Pittsburgh-based company, their land is just one of over 1,000 parcels to survey and whose owners have to be dealt with in order to build what would be the largest-diameter natural gas pipeline ever to cross the central Appalachian mountains.

In June 2014, Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, announced plans to run a 301-mile line between West Virginia and Virginia to carry gas from the Marcellus and Utica fracking fields. The project would plow a 125-foot-wide construction zone of clear-cutting and excavation across the two states, and require a permanent 50-foot easement.

The pipeline would bisect the Hodges’ land and come so close to their house that an explosion could damage or entirely destroy it. “From everything I’ve heard, this is a new animal we’re dealing with, these 42-inch, high-pressure pipelines,” Judy says. “We don’t want it.”

Same story, different pipeline

To the east, about 110 miles as the crow flies, live Jill and Richard Averitt, who share a similar story to the Hodges. They found property in rural Nelson County in 2005 and built a home where they are raising two children and plan to grow old. The Averitts had done their research to assess the potential for new highways or other public projects that might disturb their idyllic setting.

They didn’t consider pipelines.

In September 2014, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, announced plans for a 564-mile line, also 42 inches in diameter, also originating in West Virginia and slicing through Virginia, but continuing into North Carolina. This pipeline would run so close to the Averitts’ home that should it explode, their house would be damaged or destroyed. It would also cross a separate parcel where the couple is planning a resort complex that could employ up to 150 people.

Photos by Jill Averitt

Photo by Jill Averitt

Prayers Not Pipelines

Seeking to demonstrate community solidarity against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, in fall 2015 Jill Averitt initiated a community art project. White squares of cloth, with colorful, affirming messages written by local residents, line either side of Scenic Route 151 in Nelson County, Va., near the Rockfish Valley Foundation Natural History Center. The display stretches 125 feet on either side of the road — the width of the proposed pipeline.

“Our intention for this is to send out positive messages to the community and the forest. Blessings and protection, if you like. So what is left is not a bunch of ‘No Pipeline’ signs, but prayers going out to the world that this is a protected and sacred place,” she wrote in an email when the project began.

At press time, Averitt was continuing to add new flags with messages from the public.

Photos by Jill Averitt

Photos by Jill Averitt

Since that summer, both families have joined other property owners and climate and clean energy activists (including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper) to attend public meetings, research the issue, write letters and make phone calls to company and elected officials, hold rallies and stage press conferences.

“It’s been all-consuming,” Jill says. “It’s been incredibly stressful.”

Law against landowners

For Richard Averitt, the most egregious aspect is the 2004 Virginia law that allows natural gas companies to access private property without the landowner’s permission to conduct surveys, even prior to securing federal approval for a project.

“The law transgresses on private property for profit,” he says. “It’s inconsistent with American beliefs. It’s inconceivable this is allowed.”

The Averitts refused to allow pipeline surveyors on their land, and are now being sued by the company, along with about 150 other landowners in Nelson County alone who also refused access to the surveyors. Some landowners, the Averitts included, are fighting back, hiring attorneys to challenge the law’s constitutionality. The cases were unsuccessful in the lower courts and are now on appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia, says Ben Luckett with the Appalachian Mountain Advocates, a nonprofit organization representing some of the plaintiffs.

The group also challenged a similar law in West Virginia over the Mountain Valley Pipeline. There, however, the statute requires that such projects are in the “public interest,” and because the pipeline was not providing natural gas to local communities, the landowners won. The company has appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Unlike the Averitts, the Hodges did allow surveyors on their land; they were told they would be responsible for court costs if they sued and lost. “So we pretty much caved at that point and let them on the land,” Judy says.

Several teams of surveyors arrived on different days. One day, the surveyors packed up and left, telling Judy the land was “unbuildable” due to the steep slope, karst geology and multiple sinkholes.

Yet when Mountain Valley Pipeline filed for its federal permit in October, the proposed route still ran smack through the middle of the Hodges’ land.

Forest Service Denies Atlantic Coast Pipeline Route

In January, the U.S. Forest Service announced it had denied a “special use permit” to Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, to cross 50 miles of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and George Washington National Forest in Virginia. The agency declared that the proposed route failed to protect “highly sensitive resources, including Cheat Mountain salamanders, West Virginia northern flying squirrels, Cow Knob salamanders, and red spruce ecosystem restoration areas.” The decision means the company must find an alternate route that does not impact the areas of ecological concern to the forest agency.

Editor’s note: A new route that cuts through Highland, Bath and Augusta counties was proposed on Feb. 12, 2016. Read the response from environmental groups including Appalachian Voices.