The Front Porch Blog, with Updates from AppalachiaThe Front Porch Blog, with Updates from Appalachia


Hitting the Road to Promote New Power for the Old Dominion

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | No Comments

We're hitting the road to tell Virginians about our plan to transition the commonwealth to clean energy. Find out when we're coming to your town.

We’re hitting the road to tell Virginians about our plan to transition the commonwealth to clean energy. Find out when we’re coming to your town.

Starting today, Appalachian Voices and the Wise Energy for Virginia coalition are embarking on a statewide road tour to promote New Power for the Old Dominion, a commonsense campaign to change the direction of Virginia’s energy future.

Our events in Richmond and Charlottesville this week are the first stops on our tour where we’ll lay out the Wise Energy for Virginia coalition’s solution for a viable shift to clean energy in Virginia. It is a shift that Dominion Virginia Power, the commonwealth’s largest utility and the electric provider to a majority of Virginians, discounts in its recently released long-term planning report. The Dominion plan snubs energy efficiency and renewable energy in favor of additional nuclear power and new natural gas plants.

Dominion’s plan has token amounts of solar, and while it does not include significant wind, I realize it was written before Dominion’s successful bid for a potential 2,000-megawatt wind farm off Virginia’s gusty coast.*

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Virginia votes are key to protecting America’s waters from coal ash pollution

Monday, August 12th, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | No Comments

Senators Mark Warner (l) and Tim Kaine of Virginia are key to an upcoming vote on coal ash.

Senators Mark Warner (l) and Tim Kaine of Virginia are key to an upcoming vote on coal ash.

There’s a move afoot in Congress to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from passing the first-ever national rule for power plants to properly dispose of coal ash–all 125 million tons of it produced every single year.

U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, of my home state of Virginia, are key votes on this proposal.

Coal ash, left over from burning coal for electricity, contains toxins like arsenic, lead and mercury. Coal ash sometimes goes into concrete mixes, wallboard materials, and even into golf course construction. But usually, it’s mixed with water and stored in huge impoundments, often near rivers and streams where the coal-fired power plants are located. Because there are no federal rules for handling coal ash, it’s up to the states to oversee disposal, and most states treat it with less care than common household garbage.

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Stepping Toward Wind and Solar Energy in Virginia

Thursday, August 1st, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | No Comments

English offshore wind farm

Virginia may not be a renewable energy leader anytime soon, but the commonwealth is coming closer to embracing industries that will yield economic and environmental benefits.

The call for action on climate change has grown louder in the weeks following the announcement of the Obama administration’s climate action plan. As the president laid out in June, the plan that leads to a more sustainable energy policy, and as the newly confirmed administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, reminded us this week, it is also an incredible opportunity for job creation.

In Charlottesville, Va., last week, Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos and City Councilwoman Dede Smith spoke about climate change at a press conference that was organized by Environment Virginia. The speakers highlighted the need to reduce carbon emissions by investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, while removing support and subsidies for dirty energy sources.


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$108 Million awarded for VA Coalfields Expressway?

Thursday, July 11th, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | 1 Comment

Residents fear the Coalfields Expressway highway project will benefit coal companies more than the communities it will bypass. Photo by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Residents fear the Coalfields Expressway highway project will benefit coal companies more than the communities it will bypass. Photo by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

To help citizens raise their concerns around the coal industry-proposed route of the Coalfields Expressway in southwest Virginia, we’re inviting residents of the commonwealth to submit letters to the editor of their local newspapers. Sign-up to submit your own letter to the editor here.

Recent headlines announcing $108 million in funding for the Coalfields Expressway suggest the project is well on its way to completion. Unfortunately, $108 million is a tiny sum compared to the total amount officials hope the Virginia and federal taxpayer will spend on this project.

The next section, currently under review by the Virginia Department of Transportation, is more than 24 miles long, routed by the coal industry for maximum extraction, and is slated to cost $2.8 billion – before cost overruns, which seem inevitable.

VDOT would like taxpayers to focus on the 45 percent savings promised on these “coal-synergy” highway projects but, perhaps, the majority of southwest Virginians would rather see 2.8 billion spent on improving the narrow pot-holed roads that take them to work and back home, which would leave plenty of money to support high-speed internet – something that is much more likely to bring prosperity to the region than an isolated highway that bypasses communities rather than directing visitors to them.

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Two Big Scores for Virginia Greens, but the Game is not Over

Thursday, June 20th, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | No Comments

Over the past week, green groups in Virginia celebrated victories including the denial of a permit to mine Ison Rock RIdge, one of Virginia's most endangered mountains.

Over the past week, green groups in Virginia celebrated two victories including the denial of a permit to mine Ison Rock RIdge, one of Virginia’s most endangered mountains.

Over the course of a week, the state agency that oversees mountaintop removal mining in southwest Virginia denied a massive surface mine proposal in Wise County, and officials reviewing a huge natural gas plant recommended the application be denied because the applicant had not shown necessity in light of other options.

This week, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy upheld its decision to deny a permit that would have allowed A&G Coal Corporation to flatten Ison Rock Ridge near Appalachia, Va. The proposed 1,230-acre mountaintop removal mine poses a serious threat to the air and drinking water of several towns in the southwest region of the state.

Appalachian Voices and our partners have fought for years against the permit. In 2010, the outlook for Ison Rock Ridge looked bleak after the DMME granted approval of the massive mine. However, the permit’s approval was conditional and required A&G Coal Corporation to pay for or resolve numerous violations at other mines it owns. The company failed to take care of these issues over a two-year period prompting the DMME to deny the permit.

It is a huge victory for the residents of southwest Virginia and for mountain lovers everywhere. However, the decision does not close the book on the Ison Rock Ridge mine. The company has 30 days to request a full hearing and, should they fail again in that hearing, they can submit a new application for the same mine.

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Dominion Power is Living in the Moment — and We’re Paying the Price

Monday, June 10th, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | 3 Comments

Relying on quick returns, Dominion Virginia Power is unable to act in the long-term interests of consumers.

Relying on quick returns, Dominion Virginia Power is unable to act in the long-term interest of consumers.

On June 4, Dominion Virginia Power hosted Appalachian Voices, the Sierra Club, and the Southern Environmental Law Center at the second stakeholder meeting in an ongoing series designed to increase the information shared between the utility and environmental groups.

The meeting was held in downtown Richmond, Va., on the banks of the James River, and adjacent to Belle Isle Park – the urban oasis that offers trails and river recreation for tens of thousands. It was an ironic meeting place for a utility that leaves heaps of toxic coal ash near communities and spews mercury and climate disrupting gases into our air.

We were ushered into a windowless conference room adorned with an expansive painting of power lines and received multiple apologies that we were unable to meet in the sprawling suburbs west of the city. Clearly, we value some things differently, and perhaps that is the purpose of these meetings – not to agree, but to understand.

And maybe I understand them a bit better now.

Dominion appears to believe in the now – not the potential. When the utility asked last year to build natural gas plants, it was because the fuel was cheap. A year later, however, Dominion is asking for a fuel factor rate increase based on its poor foresight of rising natural gas prices, a shift that it presents as being a complete surprise.

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Advancing Energy Efficiency in Virginia

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | No Comments

Learn about the electric membership cooperatives that serve Virginians and communities across the region on our Energy Savings for Appalachia page.

When it comes to energy efficiency, Virginia’s policymakers could do more, a lot more. The commonwealth came in 37th place on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) most recent state scorecard, which ranks states by energy efficiency policies.

The scorecard follows up on a report the group published in 2008, stating that Virginia could meet 31 percent of projected demand by 2025 with “cost-effective” energy efficiency initiatives.

The report defines cost-effective measures as those that would cost less to implement than what the average resident currently pays for electricity. In Virginia, that is slightly over 10 cents per kilowatt hour meaning that for less than 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, Virginia could avoid 31 percent of projected electricity demand. In fact, 85 percent of the recommendations would cost less than eight cents per kilowatt hour.

Contrasting what is possible with what would have a chance in the Virginia legislature, the report also looked at a less aggressive option of 19 percent efficiency by 2025. The costs for these measures would all be less than 8 cents per kilowatt hour and many would be under three cents — or less than one-third of what it would cost to fill that gap by burning coal and natural gas.

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A Week of Education and Action

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | 1 Comment

As part of Mountain Justice Spring Break, students acted out a skit demonstrating how banks directly support mountaintop removal. Photo by Nathan Jenkins

Last week, more than a hundred college students from around the country spent their spring break in Appalachia, Va., to learn about mountaintop removal coal mining, involve themselves in nonviolent actions, and volunteer for social projects that benefit a community that all too many choose to ignore.

By the time I arrived on Friday, the students had already learned about mountaintop removal coal mining. They had toured several mine sites in Wise County, learned how to test water for contaminants, and studied the ecosystems of Appalachia’s incredibly diverse forests.

They had worked on a full day of trail maintenance on Pine Mountain and volunteered much needed manpower to a mobile health services group that provides essential care to impoverished residents forgotten by the coal industry.

Earlier in the week, the students learned about banks that invest in mountaintop removal and how to use nonviolent action to effect change. By Friday, they were ready to make a statement. After a hot breakfast, we loaded up a caravan of cars and set out for a peaceful protest on the sidewalks outside of UBS Bank in Kingsport, Tenn.

Once there, I had my first glimpse of handcrafted props for the planned skit as they were pulled out of pickups and station wagons. The group marched around the block drawing cheers and honks of support from passing motorists. The students then sat on the sidewalk singing songs and chants, as well-dressed bankers peered out from the windows above and sent secretaries to lock doors despite a significant presence from the local police force.

For their part, the officers were incredibly polite and a few even asked me for more information about mountaintop removal. I walked the officers through the narrative of the skit as we watched a giant “fat cat” banker slip dinner plate sized coins into a 4-foot wide piggy bank while a dragon inspired dragline chewed through our mountain resources.

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Renewed Resolve: Pushing for Energy Reform in Virginia

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | No Comments

Appalachian Voices remains committed to achieving a more robust renewable energy policy that brings clean energy and good jobs to the commonwealth.

Reform of Virginia’s renewable energy law was in the spotlight on both sides of the political spectrum in the General Assembly this year. In the end, only a few adjustments were made to the law, none of which encourage the vibrant solar and wind industries that Virginians want, nor support a market for small businesses promoting renewable technologies.

But the shortcomings of Virginia’s latest legislative session have only strengthened Appalachian Voices’ resolve to achieve a more robust renewable energy policy that actually brings clean energy and good jobs to the commonwealth.

Laws have been enacted in 38 states to encourage the development of the renewable energy industry – and they have ushered in cleaner air and job growth. In some of those states, the industry is growing exponentially, in thousands of jobs and tens of thousands of clean megawatts.

Virginia has had a renewable energy law since 2007, but utilities have purchased credits rather than investing in Virginia jobs. At times, state law has been interpreted so that utilities cannot invest in renewable energy despite the enactment of renewable energy goals.

Appalachian Voices hoped to fix that during this year’s legislative session by advocating for a requirement that Virginia utilities could only use new wind and solar power built in Virginia to satisfy the law. Instead, a law spawned by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli simply removed financial incentives for renewable energy and ignored our fix, despite support from the utilities.

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Virginia Transportation Board OKs Coalfields Expressway Project

Thursday, February 21st, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | 1 Comment

Approved on Wednesday by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the redrawn route prioritizes Alpha Natural Resources' access to coal, not travelers' access to local communities. Click to view the full-size map.

Yesterday, Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a four-lane divided highway that will flatten steep mountain ridges in southwest Virginia along a route proposed by Alpha Natural Resources — the largest coal company operating in Appalachia today.

The proposed 26-mile Coalfields Expressway is only a few miles off of several less destructive routes studied by the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2001 when it conducted a detailed environmental review of the area. The difference is that VDOT looked for a suitable place to build a highway. Alpha and other coal companies such as Rapoca Energy, on the other hand, selected the most profitable route for surface mining, using the highway as justification for the environmental toll they would inflict along the way.

This difference in purpose of the proposed routes is apparent when you look at the estimated impacts. The route VDOT selected in 2001 would have a 750-foot right of way that would disturb about 1,100 acres of land, four miles of streams and 720 acres of forest. Those impacts alone are daunting, but they pale in comparison to the redrawn route. Alpha’s path of destruction, with its 2,200-foot right of way, would flatten more than 2,100 acres, bury 12 miles of streams and clear-cut more than 2,000 acres of forest — not to mention destroy two churches and three cemeteries.

Nevertheless, VDOT sees this “coal-synergy” project as beneficial because it will cost taxpayers $2.8 billion to build, as opposed to the projected $5.1 billion without collaboration from the coal industry. The savings are disputable, however, and do not factor in the environmental cost of the road’s relocation. VDOT’s rush to make this project a reality has led them to disregard recommendations from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — all of which are asking for a full environmental review of the new route.

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Turning a Win-Win into a Lose-Lose: Virginia Senate Kills Renewable Energy Bill

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | 1 Comment

Rather than fixing a problem, Virginia lawmakers prolonged it when they killed legislation to reform the state's renewable energy portfolio standard.

Last fall, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli latched on to the idea that Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power did not deserve huge bonuses for buying cheap renewable energy credits without actually building wind and solar projects in Virginia, and released an unsolicited report on the issue.

Appalachian Voices and our partners in the Wise Energy for Virginia Coalition have long advocated that the bonuses were failing to develop the renewable energy industry in the state and that a legislative fix is in order. The Senate Commerce & Labor Committee reached the same conclusion and tasked Cuccinelli and the utilities to work out an agreement, which they did.

The problem is that Cuccinelli, while claiming to resolve concerns from the environmental community, failed to invite us to the table. The result was a bill that simply dropped the bonuses, but did not replace those incentives with a mandate to build renewable energy in Virginia or even a preference for better quality credits.

The Wise Energy coalition worked with Senator Donald McEachin and Delegate Alfonso Lopez on legislation that requires credits purchased by utilities to be from the newest and cleanest sources of renewable energy. The proposal was carefully crafted with the singular goal of picking up where the attorney general’s bill left off, but it actually solves the problem of misplaced incentives and the lack of investment in Virginia wind and solar power.

It was a reasonable measure. However, despite strong supporting testimony from our unlikely ally — even Dominion said it was the “best solution” for solving the credits problem — it failed in a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee last week. The Republican chairman, Delegate Terry Kilgore, and his colleagues refused to address the problem.

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Renewing the Push for Renewable Energy in Virginia

Thursday, January 24th, 2013 | Posted by Nathan Jenkins | 1 Comment

State-by-state Renewable Portfolio Standards. Map from Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

Each year, as Virginia’s General Assembly convenes, lawmakers are confronted with hundreds of proposals running the gamut from education to energy. Many involve complicated issues, and many are distorted by corporate interests and political posturing.

This year the legislature is grappling with a key renewable energy law, known as the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which it passed in 2007. An RPS sets a certain percentage of a utility’s power that comes from renewable sources; the intent is to spur modern technologies such as wind turbines or solar panels.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have a mandatory RPS with strict standards. In those states, thousands of megawatts of wind and solar energy is powering homes and businesses, and the renewable energy industry is producing thousands of new jobs every year.

In Virginia, the RPS is voluntary – and has not led to the construction of a single wind turbine or solar panel in the commonwealth. The RPS law provides significant financial rewards – paid for by ratepayers – as a way to encourage utilities to use renewables. It also has a very loose definition of what constitutes renewable energy, making it easier for utilities to meet the goal, and get their reward. Which they’ve done handily. Dominion Virginia Power has received $77 million in RPS bonuses, and Appalachian Power Company has received $15 million. They relied almost entirely on existing hydro-power dams, most built before WWII, and credits purchased from renewable facilities in other states, to meet the goal.


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