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Pioneering community-owned renewable energy

Blog Posts for 2009

AIRE Covered in the Latest Issue of the Appalachian Voice!

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009 -

Read it online now!

Check out the coverage of AIRE in the latest issue of the Appalachian Voice, pages 11 and 14. You can find it “on the newsstand” or online at:

http://appvoices.org/pdfs/voice_2009_06_decjan.pdf (PDf)

The Washington Post – On the Trail of Community-Owned Renewable Energy

Sunday, November 15th, 2009 -

A small electrical utility, Amory Lovins, Duke Energy, and an advocacy group add their voices to this insightful piece on community-owned renewable energy from The Washington Post

Check it out at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/12/AR2009101203097.html.

Coal Country the Movie – Tuesday Nov. 17 at the Dragonfly Theater in Boone, NC!

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 -

The Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE) and Appalachian Voices cordially invite you to a screening of the documentary Coal Country at Boone’s Dragonfly Theater, Tuesday Nov. 17 at 6:00 p.m. – with a second screening of the film at 8 p.m. The film explores the dramatic struggle and tension around the mining and use of coal for electricity production in the Appalachian Region.

Individuals from AIRE and Appalachian Voices will be present to discuss the grave environmental impacts of coal mining and consumption in our region and the promise and economic affluence offered by the responsible development of Appalachia’s renewable energy resources. Tickets can be purchased for $10 at the offices of Appalachian Voices at 191 West Howard St. or AIRE at 164 South Depot St in downtown Boone. Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit AIRE and their continuing mission to encourage and advance community driven environmentally sensitive renewable energy development
throughout our Appalachian Region.

The Coal Country website offers this description of the feature:

“COAL COUNTRY is a dramatic look at modern coal mining. We get to know working miners along with activists who are battling coal companies in Appalachia. We hear from miners and coal company officials, who are concerned about jobs and the economy and believe they are acting responsibly in bringing power to the American people. Both sides in this conflict claim that history is on their side. Families have lived in the region for generations, and most have ancestors who worked in the mines. Everyone shares a deep love for the land, but MTR (Mountain Top Removal mining which has leveled over 500 Appalachian mountains) is tearing them apart. We need to understand the meaning behind promises of “cheap energy” and “clean coal.” Are they achievable? At what cost? Are there alternatives to our energy future?”

The production features music by Kathy Mattea, Natalie Merchant, John Prine, Willie Nelson, and many other artists.

We hope you will join us for an evening of community fellowship and dialogue concerning the continued livelihood and well-being of our beautiful Appalachia!

Will green energy and electric cars drive a new global climate change plan?

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009 -

This from NOW on PBS…Home to a worldwide summit on climate change in early December, Denmark is setting a global example in creating clean power, storing it, and using it responsibly. Their reliance on wind power to produce electricity without contributing to global warming is well known, but now they’re looking to drive the point home with electric cars.

See the segment on NOW’s website

Major Inaccuracies Found in the Nature Conservancy’s “Energy Sprawl” Report

Monday, November 2nd, 2009 -

This blog posted was cross posted from Appalachian Voices Front Porch Blog. Research and reporting by Appalachian Voices’ Dr. Matthew Wasson.

As Congress was returning from the August recess, there wasn’t much news about the climate bill. The only energy-related news breaking through the coverage of the rancorous health care debates and town-hall tea parties was a study on “energy sprawl” published by five staff members of the Nature Conservancy.

“Renewable Energy Needs Land, Lots Of Land” was the headline of an August 28th story on NPR about the study.

“Renewable technologies increase energy sprawl,” was the headline summary on the journal Nature’s website.

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, in an Op/Ed published in the Wall Street Journal, summed up the message that was heard by legislators and the public from the news coverage of the study:

“we’re about to destroy the environment in the name of saving it.”

The interesting thing about the news coverage is that none of it addressed the actual analysis. The study didn’t actually measure the impacts of different energy technologies, but rather compiled estimates from a smattering of reports, fact sheets and brochures from government and industry sources in order to arrive at an acre-per-unit of energy figure for each energy technology. Those figures were then applied to the Energy Information Administration’s modeling of four climate policy scenarios under consideration by Congress.

So the coverage was generated not by the study’s results, but entirely by the assumptions that went into it about the relative impacts of renewable versus conventional energy technologies. Looking at the counter-intuitive findings (wind is 8 times as destructive as coal), it’s no wonder that the media took such an interest.

To put those assumptions in perspective, the habitat impact of the Mount Storm Wind Farm in the first image is assumed to be 25% greater than the impact of the 12,000 acre Hobet mountaintop removal mine in the second image (images are taken from the same altitude and perspective; the bright connect-the-dots feature in the windfarm image is the actual area disturbed):

MtStorm2  Mount Mine Site from 9 miles

“Garbage in, garbage out” is a concept most people are familiar with, but the problems with the “energy sprawl” study go farther than that.

When I taught a course in ecological modeling, we used a hypothetical study on acts of violence in industrialized countries to examine how you could generate any result you desire simply by choosing how to define an “act of violence.” For instance, if you wanted to show that the French are the most violent industrialized society, you might define rude treatment by waiters as an act of violence. The study does something very similar, but worse – it fails to define a consistent measure of land-use impact across the various energy technologies it purports to compare. It’s as though we defined “acts of violence” to include rude treatment only by French waiters, but not by German, English or American waiters.

While I won’t get into detail of the math and science (a full analysis and response is in preparation), here are just a few of the jaw-dropping errors and assumptions that went into the study:

  • A 2 megawatt wind turbine is assumed to disturb between 100 and 120 acres of wildlife habitat (smell test: does it really make sense that one of those wind turbines you always see on television is disturbing more than 100 football fields worth of land?). These estimates were not from published studies, but from portions of brochures discussing the area required for ideal placement of a windfarm. Instead of using additional estimates from those same brochures that only 3-5% of that area is directly impacted, the study used vaguely-worded, unreferenced and unsupportable biological justifications to include the other 95-97% in their analysis.
  • The acreage impacts of coal mining, from Wyoming to Alabama, were extrapolated from one mine in Illinois, and apparently one other mine, though no location, details or references were provided. In the case of Appalachian mining, a casual examination of available data reveals that many – probably most – Appalachian mines exhibit a “landuse intensity” 5 to 10 times higher than either estimate used in the study.
  • The impacts of blowing up a mountain and dumping resulting toxic-laden waste into nearby valleys and streams is treated as a comparable disturbance to, say, being located several hundred yards away from a wind turbine. Worse, fragmentation of habitat (the category that increased wind’s alleged impacts by 95-97%), was only considered for renewable technologies but not for nuclear and coal, despite a wealth of published studies showing fragmentation effects as much as five times greater than the footprint of a strip mine.

It’s obvious that the authors of this study don’t spend a lot of time thinking about coal mining (the fact that they refer to underground or deep mines as “pit” mines is revealing). That could partly explain the distorted picture the study gives of the impacts of coal mining, but the assumptions are so consistently weighted against renewable energy that it gets hard to ignore. If the pattern of assumptions so consistently tilted against renewables and in favor of coal and nuclear doesn’t raise a red flag, consider the language used in the study. The EIA’s “No International Offsets/Limited Alternatives” scenario, which would emphasize rapid expansion of renewable energy technologies (and which purportedly creates the most “energy sprawl”), was renamed the “Few Options” scenario by the authors. A real gem of a PR strategy from the group that came up with “energy sprawl.”

As for the policy options that the study’s results (and assumptions) favor, the “Core” scenario from the EIA’s analysis of the Warner-Lieberman climate bill was renamed the “CCS” scenario – shorthand for carbon capture and storage. This could also represent a real tipping of the hand as to the policy priorities at the Nature Conservancy. That, in turn, would go a long way toward explaining the blind spot the Nature Conservancy possesses regarding the wholesale destruction of the most biologically diverse forests and streams on the continent through mountaintop removal coal mining. The fact that plants installing CCS will need to consume at least 15-30% more coal to produce the same amount of electricity (if and when CCS becomes available), would cause a little cognitive dissonance in anyone concerned about the environment but supportive of widespread CCS deployment.

What the study didn’t look at

From the perspective of communities impacted by coal mining, a study on energy impacts that looked no further than the land area affected by mining was never going to carry much weight anyway. EPA biologist Gregory Pond, who published a study in 2008 showing the loss of entire orders of insects downstream from mountaintop removal mines, told the news media when the study was released:

“While habitat degradation from mountaintop mining is what one sees on the surface, we found that chemical effects are quite pronounced and limit much of the expected biodiversity from what were once naturally rich, diverse Appalachian stream systems.”

The most important factors in the “what the study doesn’t look at” category, however, are the impacts of energy on people and communities. The thousands of people in Appalachia without access to clean and safe drinking water do not show up in the “energy sprawl” study’s land impact estimates. The photo on the right of a child in Prenter, West Virginia, is the lead photo of a remarkable piece of reporting from the New York Times that provides a lot of insight into the awful tragedies faced daily by families in Appalachia who are forced to drink and bathe in water polluted with coal waste.

The authors of the “energy sprawl” study stated explicitly that aquatic and health issues are not what the study was about, and it wouldn’t be fair to blame them for any failure to address those problems. It’s the inevitable distortions of the study that do the most violence to those fighting for safe homes and clean drinking water in coal and uranium-bearing regions. The lead author addressed some of those distortions directly, shortly after Senator Alexander’s “We’re destroying the environment in the name of saving it” op-ed. Here are a few excerpts from his post on the Nature Conservancy’s blog:

First, climate change is the big threat to America’s wildlife (and to our communities). Severe climate change has the potential to imperil many more species than energy sprawl.

Moreover, we show in our paper that most of the energy sprawl from now to 2030 will happen regardless of whether or not there is a comprehensive climate bill. By far the largest amount of energy sprawl will come from biofuel production, driven by the renewable fuel standard and other laws already in place.

So I say to everyone writing or blogging about energy sprawl: If you are concerned about energy sprawl, then fight for energy efficiency!

The Nature Conservancy’s tireless efforts to support energy efficiency, build awareness of climate change, and bring climate policy to the table deserve both thanks and respect. But the concept of “energy sprawl,” now that it has been associated with such a distorted picture of the impacts of wind, solar, coal and nuclear technologies, adds nothing but confusion and false impressions to the debate over climate.

The study also does a lot of harm to those working to reduce the impacts of mining and to promote green jobs in their communities. “Nature Conservancy says wind and solar are more harmful than coal” is a talking point that will be repeated in mine permit hearings, utilities commission proceedings, letters to the editor and at coal rallies across the country for years into the future.

There is no way to repair the concept of “energy sprawl” at this point. Environmental and climate advocates would do well to strike that buzzword from their lexicons and literature entirely.

Burn this blog post after reading.

cross-posted with Huffington Post and iLoveMountains.org

Wind Power Educational Forum Scheduled

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 -

Contact: Jessica Hocz
Wind Power Educational Forum Scheduled
Mountain Valleys RC&D
10-22-2009 Alternative Energy Manager
828-649-3313, ext.5

Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation & Development, Blue Ridge Resource Conservation & Development, Toe River Valley Watch and the UNCA Environmental Center are sponsoring ‘Wind Power Educational Forums’ on November 11th in Asheville at UNCA’s Owen Hall and on November 12th in Spruce Pine at Mayland Tech.

The forums will consist of speakers from Appalachian State University, the North Carolina Sustainability Association, North Carolina State Legislators, representatives of commercial wind developers and various environmental groups. Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation & Development will also present their Alternative Energy for Farms project.

The economic opportunity and environmental implications of developing wind energy in Western North Carolina will be discussed, for both for small and large-scale projects. North Carolina Senate Bill 1068, which has passed in Senate and will go to the House next May, will be discussed. If Senate Bill 1068 is passed the opportunity for clean, renewable, large-scale wind energy in Western North Carolina will be eliminated. There will also be discussion on local counties’ efforts to adopt local ordinances related to responsible wind development.

The meetings will begin to at 6 pm each night and are expected to last until about 7:30pm. Light refreshments will be served at both meetings. For more information please contact Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation & Development at 828-649-3313, ext 5.

Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation & Development is an organization that seeks to encourage wise use of our natural and human resources as well as economic development that is balanced with the natural environment. Members work toward common objectives to improve the overall quality of life for residents and the overall quality of our natural resources.

Minnesota Cities Cooperate to Develop Renewable Energy

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 -

The cities are part of an 11-city consortium called the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (MMPA) that is trying to meet the state’s progressive renewable energy mandates. All 11 cities are erecting recycled windmills that should be generating electricity by year’s end….

Read the story here…


On cheap energy and misinformation…

Sunday, October 18th, 2009 -

If your electricity comes from an electric membership corporation (a “cooperative” or EMC) chances are you’ve come across Find a Balanced Solution (http://www.findabalancedsolution.com/). This is a national campaign to kill climate change legislation aimed at you through EMCs, such as Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation here in northwestern North Carolina. “Affordability” is their hot button, something that obviously and with good reason, resonates nowadays.

This campaign leads readers to believe that renewable energy and curbing carbon emissions are expensive whereas coal is cheap and its impacts are practically non-existent. To be charitable on this last claim, they imply that environmental impacts are manageable and well out in the future.

How convenient.

The reality though is that none of claims are true. We should note that sophisticated and incredibly well funded campaigns like this are ubiquitous in our world so long as climate legislation remains even a faint possibility. The US Chamber of Commerce and other groups are in lockstep with the big polluters.

Some interesting news and studies in recent days, however, give us pause to dust off our criticisms of these unfounded claims. Today’s Charlotte Observer reports that Duke Energy will be raising utility rates by 8%. (http://www.charlotteobserver.com/business/story/1010704.html) They’d asked the NC Utilities Commission for more. This is the same Duke Energy that is building Cliffside (http://stopcliffside.org/page.php?11), thereby locking ratepayers into rising coal prices for another 30 years.

And it will cost dearly. The problem is, the utilities are passing the buck. The National Academy of Research just released a study finding that electricity generation from coal costs $62 billion annually, which are nowhere reflected in the ledger sheet. Further, the study only looked at public health, not at other costs such as global warming or the environmental costs of mountain top removal coal mining. If $62 billion doesn’t stagger the mind, adding these additional costs would. By the way, the researchers assigned a $6 million dollar price tag on a human life.

Besides the public health costs that go unaccounted for (that is, are given for free to the corporations that mine and burn coal), studies are showing that coal may not be as plentiful as the “official” claims suggest. The catch here is what existing coal reserves are “economically recoverable” since we can blast the planet to smithereens but what would it cost?

Richard Heinberg’s Boston Review article (http://bostonreview.net/BR34.5/heinberg.php) points out that the first scientific study of US coal reserves in 1905 found that the nation had a 5,000-year supply of coal. The “official” study now in use, dates back to the 1970’s, which finds only a 250-year supply.

Heinberg’s point isn’t that we misplaced 4,750 years worth of coal. Rather, much of the coal that was accurately identified in 1905 simply will never be economical to mine. Current studies, including the USGS, point to the very real possibility that we may reach “peak coal” in the lifetime of Duke’s Cliffside plant now under construction. Whether peak coal or global warming is the correct argument is secondary to the fact that we need quick action.

So, back to renewables.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance just released a report (http://www.newrules.org/energy/publications/energy-selfreliant-states-second-and-expanded-edition), the second in a series, looking at local renewable energy. It finds that states like North Carolina can meet more than twice its electric generation needs with renewable sources found in state. Wind is already cost competitive at 3 cents per kwh, making the NC legislature’s acrimonious dance with wind puzzling at best; backward and costly at worst.

Wouldn’t utilities better serve the public by embracing renewables, even partnering with communities to build significant generation from solar and wind? If affordability is truly the utilities’ chief concern, then promoting a responsible mix of distributed wind and solar ought to be our path to the future. The fuel is free!

The National Academy of Research’s press release is here…


Other accounts of this important story are here:




Music on the Mountaintop Aug. 29th

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 -

Can’t wait ‘til Saturday! It’s the Second Annual Music on the Mountaintop in beautiful Boone, North Carolina on the headwaters of the New River. It’s time for some great music, some fun, fellowship, and a renewable energy revolution. Sam Bush is coming to town to help out. Telluride Bluegrass Festival, MerleFest, and now back to Boone for another amazing Music on the Mountaintop. Keller Williams, Acoustic Syndicate, Steep Canyon Rangers are also headline acts and some great local bands like Do it to Julia and Lost Ridge Band will also be performing on the three main stages.

Come on out for a huge day of soulful music. No “astroturfing” here. Your ticket purchase will help sustain the renewable energy movement. The event is a benefit for AIRE to help launch its One Megawatt Campaign for Watauga.

For tickets, information, and lineups go to Music on the Mountaintop.

Southern Energy & Environment Expo

Thursday, August 20th, 2009 -

Don’t forget that the 9th annual Southern Energy & Environment Expo (SEE Expo) in Asheville this weekend. Many great presentations and exhibitors. Runs August 21-23.

AIRE - pioneering community-owned renewable energy
a fiscally sponsored project of Inquiring Systems Inc.
164 South Depot St. • Boone, North Carolina 28607 • info@aire-nc.org • phone: 828.268.5022
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