Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Crowdfunding Solar in West Virginia

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

In a state known for coal, solar energy emerges through a grassroots effort

By Eliza Laubach
Dan Conant affectionately calls his first successes cutting solar installation costs “barn raisings.” After years of political organizing in college and shortly after, he wanted to use community organizing strategies for solar power.


“Community-supported solar builds awareness about where electricity comes from,” says Than Hitt, center, holding his daughter Hazel at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Sheperdstown Presbyterian Church’s solar array. Photo by Mary Anne Hitt.

Policies that have helped to nurture the solar industry, such as affordable leasing options, tax credits and requirements for utilities to purchase renewable energy credits aren’t offered in his home state of West Virginia.

“I was trying to move back home, but there weren’t any jobs available at that point,” says Conant. He instead worked in Virginia and Vermont, helping pioneer innovative neighborhood-scale methods for going solar. He found ways to lower prohibitive upfront costs, which he describes as an effort to “crack the code for personal financing.”

As he gained a deeper understanding of solar financing, Conant saw how difficult it is for nonprofits and municipal organizations to buy solar panels, especially in West Virginia. Nonprofits don’t receive a tax credit, government entities are unable to take out loans, and commercial buildings receive less compensation than homeowners do for surplus power generated by their solar panels. After researching how to bring solar to these community groups with a model that could be duplicated in any state, he created Solar Holler.

The solar financing project raises funds to place solar panels on nonprofit or municipal buildings. The process mirrors crowdfunding, which depends on donations from interested parties, usually solicited online. But crowdfunding is less practical among small communities and low-income residents, so Conant brainstormed an alternative revenue stream.

He partnered with Mosaic Power, a company that pays homeowners for their hot water heater to be hooked up to Mosaic’s remote system. Creating a smart grid, Mosaic can then turn the hot water heater on and off in response to electricity demand. The utility pays Mosaic Power for helping them use electricity more efficiently, and the profit is transferred back to the homeowner through a $100 yearly payment. Residents can sign up for Mosaic’s program through Solar Holler, pledging their return to help fund a solar installation on a community building.

An investor will buy the solar panels after enough residents of a community pledge their revenue to a Solar Holler project to guarantee the investor a return. The pledged hot water heater payments will cycle to other Solar Holler projects once the initial project is paid off. “We’re using energy efficiency to fund the solar,” Conant says.

Conant launched the pilot project in his hometown at the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. The congregation considered solar in the past but could not afford it. Than Hitt, church member and community organizer, spent three years working with the congregation and Shepherdstown community. He provided the initial investment in the solar panels. “Self-reliance is a big thing in West Virginia and we’re tapping into that,” says Hitt.

Pastor Randy Tremba set up a table by the church’s hot water heater for people to sign up for the Mosaic Power program in April. “A trusted community leader is a crucial ally,” he adds. Within three months, enough people signed up for the program to guarantee the solar installation.

Main story_SPC Installation

Mountainview Solar crew members install the solar panels. Photo by Dan Conant.

With 100 people signing on to participate, plus the sale of renewable energy credits to various Pennsylvania utilities, the project quickly moved forward. Mountainview Solar, a local solar contractor, installed a 16.2-kilowatt solar array on the church this past August, providing about 40 percent of the church’s electricity. The Shepherdstown Elementary School principal brought the fourth and fifth grade classes to the ribbon-cutting ceremony and pledged to incorporate solar energy into the educational curriculums. “I think it’s the start of something big,” says Conant.

Solar Holler’s goal is to have a project in each of West Virginia’s 55 counties within the next five years. Two more projects are currently underway: the city hall in Lewisburg and the public library in Harpers Ferry, which achieved its quota for Mosaic Power sign-ups in mid-November.

Conant sees the importance in diversifying the economy of a state that has largely been powered by coal extraction. “We can still be an energy state, we just need to stop thinking of ourselves as a coal state,” he says. Ninety-six percent of West Virginia’s energy comes from coal, and mining has a continued legacy of destructive health, environmental and financial impacts. “Solar in West Virginia is more powerful than anywhere else in the country,” says Conant.

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Entrepreneur Banks on the Sun

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

By Eliza Laubach


This Sunbank installation at Bethlehem Farm near Talcott, W.Va, is part of a radiant heating system on an energy-efficient house. Photo courtesy Sunbank Solar Water Heaters

The contraption looks like a piece of a tanning bed, exposed on a rooftop, leaning toward the sun. But rather than emitting powerful UV rays, these tubes capture them and heat water in a process called solar thermal, harnessing the sun’s energy at a rate that is more than five times more effective than most photovoltaic solar panels.

James Richards, solar entrepreneur, first experimented with solar thermal while working in Nicaragua for an organization that brought alternative energy and water filtration systems to impoverished communities. When he got back to his parents’ home in West Virginia, he took his research, refined it and produced the Sunbank, a sophisticated solar water heater that calls on an ageless concept: using the sun to heat water.

Richards counts himself as lucky to have found pockets of the community open to incubating his business in West Virginia. He anticipated a challenge, but found that was easy to overcome. “There aren’t much more conservative places,” says Richards. “It was a good test case.” The West Virginia legislature got rid of a $2,000 solar renewable energy credit last year. Although that did not affect the Sunbank, Richards called it a bad omen for solar in West Virginia. “People are pragmatic,” Richards says. “Public support will happen when it makes financial sense for them.”

At $3,000, the Sunbank costs thousands less than a solar panel, but is still a substantial investment in a state where the poverty rate is nearly 18 percent. In 2013, Richards received a fellowship to explore financing for the Sunbank on a large scale, which led him to move to California to work with experts and take advantage of the state’s progressive policies and support for solar.
While Richards has shifted his focus on pitching the Sunbank to commercial businesses that have a high demand for hot water, such as bakeries and breweries in his new home base of Santa Cruz, Ca., the inventory and distribution remains in West Virginia. The jobs in solar are in installation, says Richards, which he leaves to local contractors.

Recent Sunbank installations in West Virginia reflect Richards’ large-scale outlook. Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic nonprofit retreat center near Talcott, W. Va., recently ordered eleven Sunbanks for its buildings. Coalfields Development Corporation, a not-for-profit community organization that offers construction training for low-income residents, will be installing five Sunbanks in a renovated apartment building near Huntington, W.Va.

Be cool and keep fighting

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 - posted by thom
After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

For the next couple of weeks, you’ll have a hard time turning on the TV or going online without seeing reactions to the midterm elections. Most pundits will analyze what happened, and some will try to tell you what it means.

Here’s what it really means: maybe not that much.

To put things in historical perspective, let’s take a moment to look back at some very recent elections and their outcomes.

2008: Democrats take the White House and a supermajority in both the House and Senate! They proceed to pass climate legislation, stop mountaintop removal coal mining, usher in a new age of clean energy take a few moderate steps toward reducing the amount of permits issued for mountaintop removal coal mining.

2010: Republican wave! The GOP takes the House by a wide margin and nearly takes the Senate. They proceed to remove EPA’s ability to regulate carbon pollution and then expedite all mountaintop removal permits create a fuss while federal agencies continue to take moderate steps towards limiting coal pollution.

2012: Democrats keep the White House, and improve their numbers in both the House and Senate! They proceed to make permanent changes to coal mining and coal ash regulations while stopping global warming in its tracks make no headway on coal mining regulations, allow mountaintop removal mines to be permitted, and take only moderate steps on coal ash regulation and carbon emissions.

We don’t know what the future holds, but considering what happened yesterday there are a few things that we can be pretty sure of moving forward.

The politics of Virginia and Tennessee are not much different today than they were yesterday. No major incumbent lost their race, and the election’s outcomes gives us no reason to believe federal office holders from either state will change their behavior going forward. Appalachian Voices, for one, is happy to continue to work with members from both states and both parties.

West Virginia and Kentucky are still in Big Coal’s stranglehold. But like coal itself, the industry’s power is finite. We can’t say how soon the politics of coal will change in Central Appalachia, but we will continue to work with our allies in those states to change the conversation. For now, members of the two states’ delegations will continue to vote the way they have for years.

After 30 years as an advocate for coal miners and the coal industry alike, Rep. Nick Rahall lost to his Republican challenger, Evan Jenkins, in the race for West Virginia’s 3rd district. Rahall was the senior Democratic member and had a firm grasp on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act. His replacement in that role will likely be someone who opposes mountaintop removal coal mining. For that, we can be all be happy.

North Carolina’s Senate election was a bit of a surprise. Though, aside from Democrat Kay Hagan being replaced by Thom Tillis, the rest of delegation is unchanged.

Appalachian Voices has worked hard to build relationships with members of Congress and their staffs in both the House and the Senate. But we have known for a long time that getting comprehensive legislation through Congress is not a good short-term goal.

The White House, on the other hand, is armed with the science and has the legal authority and moral obligation to take on mountaintop removal, coal ash pollution, climate change and other threats. President Obama was never going to be able to rely on Congress to act on those issues. So from that perspective, nothing has changed.

It’s okay to be excited about a candidate you like winning an election. It’s okay to be bummed when a candidate you like loses. But it’s not okay to get so caught up in it all that you forget the big picture.

As we see it, the job before us has not changed. Our responsibilities to Appalachia, and yours, are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

We will keep fighting for a better future for Appalachia, and push every decision-maker, regardless of their political leanings, to stand with us. We will fight to end to mountaintop removal and for a just economic transition away from fossil fuels. We will fight because no one else is going to do it for us, and we will need you there by our side.

As Companies Warn of More Layoffs, Lawmakers Look to Employment Training Programs

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Brian Sewell

Two Appalachian coal companies warned nearly 1,500 West Virginia employees that layoffs are likely this fall, underscoring the dire need for other job opportunities in central Appalachia.

On July 31, Alpha Natural Resources issued a 60-day notice to 1,100 employees at 11 surface mines and associated operations that could be idled by mid-October. In early September, Patriot Coal put 360 employees on notice at a surface mining complex in Boone County.

Several elected leaders responded to the news by promising to combat the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while others are considering different options. E&E News reported on Sept. 12 that representatives David McKinley (R-W.Va.), one of the most pro-coal members of Congress, and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) were working together to craft legislation that would pay laid-off coal workers to participate in workforce training.

In the past two years, the U.S. Department of Labor has granted WorkForce West Virginia $7.4 million in National Emergency Grant funds to train displaced miners. The program provides up to $5,000 to individuals for occupational skills training aimed at fostering long-term reemployment.

Health Research Disregarded in Mountaintop Removal Mine Permitting

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Brian Sewell

In both West Virginia and Kentucky this year, federal courts have ruled against groups that believe scientific research into the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on health should be considered by the agencies in charge of issuing permits.

In August, a federal judge for the Southern District of West Virginia sided with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and ruled that the agency did not act “arbitrarily” when it issued a permit for a 725-acre mountaintop removal mine in Boone County, W.Va., without considering health impacts. A coalition of environmental groups, including Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Coal River Mountain Watch, asserted that research the Corps called “ambiguous” in fact showed a strong link between mountaintop removal and health impacts, such as higher instances of birth defects, cancer and other diseases.

The judge claimed that too many of the studies environmental groups presented as evidence focused on health effects associated with coal in general and made no stated connection to mining discharges in streams below mountaintop removal sites.

The decision echoes a ruling six months ago in Kentucky in a case between the Corps and a coalition led by Earthjustice, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalachian Mountain Advocates over the 756-acre Stacy Branch mine. In that case, the Corps argued it was only responsible for considering the effects of dumping mining debris in streams — not the environmental or health impacts of the entire mining operation. That responsibility, the Corps contends, belongs to state agencies in charge of issuing mountaintop removal permits.

Currently, there is no clear agency tasked with studying or addressing the connection between mountaintop removal and health. Meanwhile, a bill that would place a moratorium on new permits until a federal study into the health impacts of mountaintop removal is completed sits stagnant in Congress.

Employees of DEP-certified lab conspired to violate Clean Water Act

Thursday, October 9th, 2014 - posted by brian
An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act.

An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act. Photo from Flickr.

We learned some unsettling news from West Virginia yesterday afternoon. The Charleston Gazette reports that an employee of a state-certified company pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act after he faked compliant water quality samples for coal companies between 2008 and 2013.

John W. Shelton, who worked as a technician and then a field supervisor for Appalachian Labs Inc., a Beckley, W.Va., firm, admitted to diluting water samples taken from mine pollution discharge points with clean water, among other unlawful measures taken, to ensure pollution levels were in compliance with permitted limits. Prosecutors say Appalachian Labs conducts water sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia, but for now it’s unclear what mine sites or coal companies could be implicated in the case.

As Ken Ward Jr. points out in The Gazette, this crime is a serious cause for concern, since state and federal agencies rely heavily on self-reported data to determine if coal companies are obeying the law. But honestly, while we’re appalled, it is hard to be surprised by this latest discovery. We have some experience with misreporting of water monitoring data that has taken place in Central Appalachia in recent years.

The way this story is coming together suggests a frightening collusion between employees at a lab that maintained certification from DEP. We know from the plea agreement that Shelton did not act alone. Check out the section titled “The Conspiracy to Violate the Clean Water Act” that begins on page 4. But the truly damning language comes in the following section, which states the “objects of the conspiracy were to increase the profitability of Appalachian by avoiding certain costs associated with full compliance with the Clean Water Act … and to thus encourage and maintain for Appalachian the patronage of [its] customers.”

Shelton faces up to five years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. The investigation into Appalachian Labs, however, is ongoing and is being handled by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, the FBI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Following is a statement from Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator Erin Savage:

The discovery that a lab employee in West Virginia knowingly altered sampling procedures to assure that monitoring reports submitted for coal companies would be in compliance with the Clean Water Act raises serious questions about the reliability of monitoring reports for the coal industry across Central Appalachia.

False reporting of water quality data from mines in Central Appalachia is not unheard of. In 2010, Appalachian Voices uncovered water monitoring reports that contained duplicated data for the three largest mountaintop removal companies in Kentucky. During the period they were submitting erroneous monitoring reports, these companies never reported a single pollution violation.

No criminal charges have been brought in Kentucky in relation to those cases. In light of the charges brought in West Virginia, however, we have to wonder how widespread these criminal practices are. This shocking discovery further highlights the extreme need for state agencies to seriously reevaluate their enforcement efforts and for the EPA to step in when the states do not properly enforce the law.

Updated Oct. 21: Under oath in federal court, Shelton told a judge that coal companies “put a lot of pressure” on labs to get good water data. Read more in The Charleston Gazette.

Compensation Remains Elusive After Elk River Chemical Spill

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014 - posted by molly

By Kimber Ray

Prospects of a full cleanup are uncertain at the site of a chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginia residents last January. Freedom Industries in August submitted a proposal to the state bankruptcy court outlining its intention to abandon the site that housed the culpable chemical storage tank if cleanup costs exceed $850,000.

This proposal was rejected by Judge Ronald Pearson, who noted that the company has spent almost $2 million on lawyers and efforts to shield company documents from investigators. At a September hearing to address these concerns, Freedom stated that it would remove the reference on abandoning the site, and also that it may release budget documents regarding cleanup costs and estimates.

Pearson also closed a $3 million settlement between Freedom Industries and residents affected by the spill. Rather than dividing the money into negligible individual payments, the money will be used for water testing, health studies and other projects to benefit victims of the spill.

Fourteen businesses and individuals have also sued additional companies connected to the spill including West Virginia American Water and Eastman Chemical Company. The water utility distributed contaminated water the day of the spill, while the chemical producer omitted critical health information from its chemical safety warnings.

Injustices Follow Elk River Chemical Spill

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

By Kimber Ray

For many in West Virginia whose water was contaminated by Freedom Industries this past January, the $11,000 fine issued against the company by federal officials in July demonstrated the failure of state and federal officials to demand corporate accountability.

In a Charleston, W. Va., prison, inmates are reporting that they had to choose between dehydration and drinking the contaminated tap water. Although the jail initially reported that inmates were supplied eight bottles of water a day, later investigation revealed that inmates sometimes had as little as a single bottle of water each day.

At press time, no action has been taken against jail officials.

Also in July, evidence emerged that the spill may have caused a greater health impact than initially indicated. Research funded by the National Science Foundation found that MCHM — the primary chemical that contaminated the water of 300,000 West Virginians — is significantly more toxic to aquatic life than the manufacturer had reported. The implications for human health are still being evaluated.

Cleanup of the Freedom Industries site is underway, and the public had a deadline of Aug. 1 to file claims against the company.

Keeping West Virginia Wild

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

Lovers of outdoor recreation and stunning scenery can now permanently enjoy expanded public access to the popular Gauley River. The 665 acres in Gauley River National Recreation Area acquired by West Virginia Land Trust this spring includes a gorge once intended for development. According to Brent Bailey, executive director of the land trust, “The importance of this land to public recreation can’t be overstated.” Nearly 60,000 whitewater rafters visit the river each fall.

Camp Creek: Gateway to West Virginia Wonders

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis

By Molly Moore

A shaded section of the Farley Ridge Road & Trail at Camp Creek State Park.

A shaded section of the Farley Ridge Road & Trail at Camp Creek State Park.

Just two miles away from busy Interstate 77, visitors to West Virginia’s Camp Creek State Park trade the hum of passing traffic for birdsong and the rushing chatter of waterfalls.

“As soon as you come through the mountains and to the park, you enter a very vast, remote part of the country here, just a beautiful, vast forest with lots of things to do,” says Park Superintendent Frank Ratcliffe.

Convenient access to the interstate makes the park a handy stopover for travelers, and the broad range of recreational options marks it as a destination in its own right. The park is open year-round, and visitors can hike, fish, hunt, splash in the creek or bring their horses and mountain bikes. Of the roughly 36 miles of trails, about six miles are for hiking only, while the others are also open to equestrian and bike use.

The 5,500-acre Camp Creek State Forest abuts the 500-acre state park, giving the park’s trail system more room to roam and providing access to public hunting areas. The park and forest also include two creeks, where anglers can find ample trout in winter and early spring, and might even catch enough trout in midsummer for a hearty dinner.

The camping facilities also reflect the park’s broad appeal. Accommodations range from a modern campground outfitted with wi-fi to rustic camping, a horse-friendly campground and a new backcountry site. The latter two are the only horse and backcountry camping areas in the West Virginia state park system.

Double C Campground, the creekside camping area shared by hooved explorers and their riders, provides access to 25 miles of horse trails and cements Camp Creek’s place as an equestrian jewel.

Similarly, Ratcliffe hopes to draw more mountain bikers to the park with a new backcountry campsite. The site is tucked near the center of the park’s trail system, three miles from the main office parking area along a new path, Almost Heaven Road and Trail, named for its scenic views of the Allegheny mountain range. From here, mountain bikers of all levels can devise their own routes.

For those who prefer a refreshing mountain stream, Campbell Waterfalls and Mash Fork Waterfalls are popular wading areas and are both a short jaunt along the Turkey Loop Road and Trail from the park’s two main campgrounds.

Mash Fork Magic

Hikers looking for a more secluded journey to Mash Fork Waterfalls can link to hiking-only footpaths from the multi-use paths marked “road and trail.” One invigorating foray combines Farley Ridge Road and Trail with the Mash Fork Trail for a 1.6 mile loop that’s more challenging than its mileage suggests.

From the main office parking area, hikers follow the Farley Ridge Road and Trail as it climbs uphill — sometimes steadily, sometimes abruptly. The trail’s shade eases the strain of elevation gain, and the surrounding forest sports an array of rainbow-hued mushrooms and seasonal wildflowers. Look for trillium and columbine in spring, admire rhododendron blossoms around the 4th of July, find bright red cardinal flowers along the creek in late summer, and keep an eye out for asters in fall.

After .6 miles on Farley Ridge, the trail meets the hiking-only Mash Fork Trail. The intersection evokes Robert Frost’s reference to “the path less traveled,” with the narrow dirt path to the left breaking off from the wide gravel one.

On this seemingly less-traveled path, the Mash Fork Trail descends a series of switchbacks for 1.1 miles, gradually becoming steeper until it reaches the waterfall. Those who continue on Farley Ridge Road and Trail will soon reach the namesake ridge, which the path follows for about two relatively level miles before intersecting Almost Heaven Road and Trail.

Hikers who trek to the falls will be greeted with the sight of Mash Fork Creek tumbling off a broad rock ledge. The falls form a captivating cascade when the water level is high and spill across the mossy stone in several smaller fountains when the stream is shallow. Below, a wide pool provides an opportunity to dip trail-weary feet.

Visitors can reach Mash Fork Waterfalls by an easily accessible route or a challenging hike. Photo courtesy

Visitors can reach Mash Fork Waterfalls by an easily accessible route or a challenging hike. Photo courtesy

From the waterfall, return to the parking area without stepping on asphalt by turning left on a short section of Turkey Loop Road and Trail and taking another left on a brief section of the horse bypass trail.

This Mash Fork loop offers a taste of the possibilities at Camp Creek State Park and Forest, but visitors needn’t stop at the parking area — there are many more miles to discover.