Localities across Appalachia and the nation have pledged to fully convert to green power — but restrictive policies and monopoly utilities are holding them back
In December 2016, the town of Boone, N.C., became the first municipality in the United States to call for a nationwide transition to 100 percent clean energy. The town council voted unanimously on a resolution announcing their support for completely phasing out fossil fuels by 2050, citing a need to avoid human-caused climate catastrophe.
Since then, Boone has pledged to achieve climate neutrality for the town government by 2030 and to use only renewable energy by 2040, and has set a target for all of Boone to run on clean energy by 2050. The council also directed that all new town construction be carbon neutral.
Today, approximately 28 percent of the nation’s population lives in a municipality, county or state that has committed to achieve 100 percent clean energy use by 2050 or earlier, according to the Sierra Club. Local governments like Boone are running into a variety of barriers to implementing clean energy policies that require finding creative solutions. But for many of these communities, it starts with outlining goals.
“Unless you have a goal which has been adopted which you can reference, you don’t have the underpinnings for any of the policy decisions to implement that goal,” says Boone Councilmember Sam Furgiuele.
But Boone still has a ways to go, according to newly elected Councilmember Nancy LaPlaca, who stated that the town currently runs on about 1 percent clean energy — the same amount as when the council passed the 100 percent clean energy resolution.
“Unless we change some things, we’re going to get about as far as we got in the last few years,” says LaPlaca.
She states that Boone should prioritize cutting the 80 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions that come from energy and transportation. LaPlaca adds that local utilities have very restrictive residential solar policies and source much of their energy from fossil fuels.
Town Manager John Ward states that he has talked with New River Light and Power, the town’s electricity provider, about installing a solar farm outside of Boone that would provide between 200 kilowatts to 1 megawatt of power to the town. Ward is also looking to incorporate net metering in any upcoming contract with the utility. Net metering allows those with solar panels to receive bill credits for excess power they generate back to the grid, which makes solar more cost effective.
For LaPlaca, these types of projects are just the beginning.
“If we are going to reduce greenhouse gases by 50 percent by 2030 — what the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says we need to do — we need to reduce greenhouse gases by 6 to 7 percent from current levels every year, not just one year,” she says.
Many localities are running into challenges similar to Boone’s. Municipal governments often have long-term contracts with their utility providers that may limit their ability to access clean energy. In January 2019, the Central Appalachian Network — a coalition of environmental nonprofits, universities and consumer advocates including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper — released a report outlining barriers to clean energy development in the region and ways to overcome them.
The barriers highlighted by the “Central Appalachia Clean Energy Policy Toolkit” include restrictive state and utility policies, politicians’ ties to fossil fuel industries, monopoly utilities’ resistance to change, lack of public awareness, and more. The report lists several policy priorities to foster large-scale and home solar as well as increased energy efficiency. To view a selection of policies suggested by the report, scroll to the bottom of this page.
Local leaders can advance solar in their community by pushing to get their municipality designated under the federally funded SolSmart program. Through this, local governments work with SolSmart advisors to ensure their policies are pro-solar, with the intent of attracting potential businesses. Eight Southwest Virginia towns, counties and cities achieved SolSmart designation in summer 2019.
“Many manufacturing companies are looking for communities and counties who are forward thinking, and having this designation just solidifies our commitment to our future,” Lou Wallace of the Russell County Board of Supervisors said in a July press statement.
On Sept. 17, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 43, which requires several state agencies to develop a plan by July 2020 to source 30 percent of Virginia’s power from renewable energy by 2030 and from 100 percent carbon-free sources such as wind, solar and nuclear by 2050.
But the order does not define “renewable energy,” which allows the state to include carbon-intensive biomass and trash incinerators as power sources. Nor does the order mention the Mountain Valley or Atlantic Coast pipelines. If completed, these pipelines would carry heavily polluting fracked gas.
Later in September, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced the completion of a clean energy plan that sets a goal for a 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030 and complete carbon neutrality by 2050.
This follows Cooper’s October 2018 Executive Order 80, which set a 40 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal for state agencies by 2025 and established a council of state department heads to develop the plan. The Climate Change Interagency Council held several meetings across the state to collect local input and held a public comment period on the draft plan.
While the plan was met with applause from many environmental groups, protesters who felt it did not go far enough called on the governor to revoke permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and to end large-scale deforestation that is supplying European biomass power plants. The plan acknowledges that both the Atlantic Coast pipeline and the more recently proposed MVP Southgate pipeline face “significant opposition from local communities and environmental groups.”
In September, Appalachian Voices’ Rory McIlmoil submitted a letter responding to the draft plan.
“We call on Governor Cooper and state government agencies to do more to ensure that rural areas in N.C. are set more squarely at the center of the final plan,” wrote McIlmoil. “If equity is a central focus of the plan, it can’t just be a plan for Duke Energy customers, for urban areas and for the affluent. But to achieve that goal, we need to address the significant barriers to expanding clean energy opportunities for rural and low-income communities.”
The state clean energy plan projects that under the current “business as usual” approach, natural gas would become North Carolina’s dominant electricity source as coal plants retire, preventing the state from meeting its 2030 goal.
The plan suggests enhancing North Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio standard, which requires utilities to produce a certain percentage of their electricity using renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal. Other solutions include accelerating coal plant retirements and increasing energy efficiency measures.
So far, 22 North Carolina communities including Asheville, Blowing Rock, Canton, Clyde and Macon County have passed resolutions calling for 100 percent clean energy, according to the nonprofit N.C. Climate Solutions Coalition.
Wake County, N.C., passed its resolution in October 2018. According to Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria, people working in the public sector are enthusiastic to talk to other local governments about clean energy.
“Unlike innovations that are developed in the private sector, advances on the public sector side are readily and easily shared,” says Calabria. “Ultimately, elected officials throughout a region, a state, or even nationally are a community.”
“Other places like Apex, N.C., have passed similar resolutions since then, and part of that is inspired by what we’ve done in Wake County,” he adds.
North Carolina and Virginia aren’t the only states in the region with clean energy goals. In May 2019, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan allowed the Clean Energy Jobs Act to go into law without his signature. The plan mandates that electric utilities in the state source at least 50 percent of their power from renewables by 2030, and for Maryland to come up with a plan to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2040.
On June 1, 2017, President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, an international voluntary agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. This led to a wave of localities pledging to stick to the terms of the agreement.
In August 2017, Morgantown, W.Va., Mayor Bill Kawecki signed on to the National Mayors Climate Action Agenda with the leaders of 427 other cities. Participants aim to meet the Paris agreement goals of reducing municipal greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025.James Kotcon chairs the Morgantown Green Team, the city’s volunteer environmental advisory board. In January 2019, the team completed a climate action plan outlining potential ways to reduce emissions. But working with the city’s utility Monongahela Power has been challenging.
“It’s been slow,” says Kotcon. “They’ll listen to us, but they don’t really respond; they say they’ll consider it, and not much has happened.”
Kotcon states that a major way Morgantown could reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be by replacing the city’s roughly 1,700 streetlights with LED bulbs. However, neither the utility nor the West Virginia Public Service Commission has an official rate structure for LED streetlights, making it difficult to accurately plan for project costs.
Monongahela Power has implemented a small pilot project of LED streetlights but has not prioritized a citywide transition, according to Kotcon. He expects a rate charge for LED lights to be implemented within two to four years.
The Morgantown Green Team also suggested solar installations to reduce emissions. However, Kotcon states that the monopoly utility does not have effective net metering, and state law prohibits third-party power purchase agreements. These restrictions make city solar too costly at the moment.
“Our utility has a lot of excess generation capacity with their power plants, so adding additional generation in the form of solar or other renewables is counter to their business plan,” says Kotcon.
He states that the West Virginia legislature would need to implement solar-friendly policies in order for solar installations to become cost-effective for the city.
But the city has made progress on other energy efficiency measures. According to Kotcon, Morgantown has allocated $50,000 in the last two years for investments in municipal buildings such as improved ventilation systems, efficient light bulbs and better insulation.
“Right around that time, we were hearing from more and more citizens who were alarmed at this change in federal policy,” says Blacksburg Sustainability Manager Carol Davis, referencing Trump’s decision to depart from the international climate agreement.
Davis states that a number of locals and businesses signed onto a letter in support of maintaining the Paris agreement goals, and that the town was approached by the nonprofit Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League about strengthening their environmental goals. Blacksburg had already resolved in 2007 to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Davis acknowledges that there are questions surrounding the technological feasibility of reaching 100 percent clean energy by 2050.
“But, regardless if there’s some margin of uncertainty about whether it’s 100 percent achievable by 2050, there’s no reason to not start working on it aggressively now,” says Davis.
Generating their own renewable power has been challenging. Davis states that Blacksburg doesn’t have enough wind for turbines nor enough open landmass for a utility-size solar project. Additionally, state restrictions on third-party power purchase agreements limit access to residential solar.
“It’s still worth us saying that we will make this commitment because we know to actually make this transition, it’s not about individual households or even an individual locality taking this on,” says Davis. “This is about shifting policy at the federal and state level.”
“The options that are available [to towns] are small-scale options that really only chip away at the problem at the edges,” she continues. “I think what we need is really state-level utilities to transition to clean energy.”
Davis states that many government employees from around the region wanted to make sure communities were a part of the renewable energy conversation, which was dominated by utilities and environmental groups.
So in 2017, Blacksburg joined with around 20 other Virginia localities to form the Virginia Energy and Sustainability Peer Network to advance local sustainability measures. Government employees are not able to engage in direct lobbying, which can make it difficult for them to make their voices heard while staying within legal boundaries.
“We’re new to this game,” says Davis. “We haven’t been a part of that lobbying and advocacy place, and it’s a real uncomfortable space for the whole government because it’s just not the way they operate — but we also are out of time, and we really need ambitious leadership on this, so we sort of have to figure out how to be those leaders within the framework that’s available to us.”
In December, the group is slated to meet with a similar organization of communities based in Colorado to receive a grant-funded training on environmental policy work.
“We’re going to build a framework for how we work on these policy issues together,” says Davis, “so we’re speaking with one voice. Not just, ‘Fairfax County wants this, Richmond wants this.’ Actually, we’re going to be able to come to the table and say, ‘20 localities are banded together and this is the policy priority for them.’”
Banding together in this way can be a strong tool for smaller communities, according to Drew O’Bryan with the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, which works to help communities commit to a goal of 100 percent clean energy. He points to how Salt Lake City, Utah, partnered with several nearby smaller communities to make large renewable energy asks of their coal-heavy utility provider Rocky Mountain Power.
“The utility didn’t want to change their structure,” says O’Bryan. “But once the cities actually started threatening to pull out of that utility and municipalize or just do something at the state level, the utility came to the table and passed a bill in partnership with the cities to say that any city in Utah that has made a 100 percent renewable energy commitment by the end of the year will be supplied with that renewable power from the utility by 2030.”
In Tennessee, multiple communities are pressing the Tennessee Valley Authority to offer more renewable energy. Memphis’ municipal utility, TVA’s largest customer, is even considering leaving the federally run monopoly utility in favor of creating its own power generation facilities. The mayors of Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn., are all members of the National Mayors Climate Action Agenda.
With more and more communities reaching for clean energy goals, Davis says that she is excited.
“It feels like something is shifting; it seemed pretty bleak for a couple of years there,” says Davis.
“This, to me, speaks to the importance of continuing to do that plodding, incremental work so that you are well positioned when the opportunities for transformational change come along,” she continues. “If you just throw up your hands when it seems hard and hopeless, then you’re going to be out of the game.”
A January 2019 report by the Central Appalachian Network outlined barriers to clean energy development in the region and potential solutions to them. CAN is a coalition of environmental nonprofits, universities and consumer advocates including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper. Below are several solutions offered in the report.
Defend and amend effective net metering laws
Net metering allows those with solar panels to sell any excess power they generate back to the grid, which can make solar more cost effective. The report states that while more robust net metering rules are needed in the region as a whole, Ohio and Virginia need special attention. The same is now true in Kentucky, where the state legislature passed more restrictive net metering rules in 2019, and regulators are now considering rules to implement the new law.
Allow or clarify access to power purchase agreements
Power purchase agreements allow solar developers to buy solar arrays for customers and sell power to them at a lower rate than their prior electric bill while the customer makes payments on the panels. Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia all disallow these agreements, and Virginia utilities have severe restrictions for PPAs.
Expand utility energy efficiency programs
Cities with municipal utilities can require the utility to offer energy efficiency initiatives, and local governments without municipal utilities can offer alternative programs such as rebates for weatherization measures. State policies like an Energy Efficiency Resource Standard can order utilities to save a certain amount of energy through efficiency.
Expand Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs
PACE allows residential and commercial property owners to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements. Participants can repay qualified energy improvements over time through a voluntary property tax assessment collected by local governments, so the debt is associated with the property rather than an individual. Once state law enables PACE, local governments must implement their own programs. Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia allow PACE, and these state programs are in various stages of development, according to nonprofit PACE advocacy group PACENation. To advance PACE programs in these states, the report suggests that rural counties engage with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In states without PACE, the report suggests legislative advocacy.
CORRECTION: Dec. 18, 2019
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Town of Blacksburg, Va., as a city.