A Step Closer

On April 17th, the Gainesville City Commission heard the voices of our brothers and sisters in Appalachia who have spent decades combating the poisonous repercussions of MTR. The spirits of Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson, both of whom visited Gainesville and inspired our movement, were in the Commission chamber standing with us.

Many of the local citizens who gave testimony were first-time attendees at a Commission meeting. Others drove from nearly an hour away because of their heartfelt commitment to this issue. They were young and old, and many of them had roots in West Virginia and Kentucky. Led by Commissioner Lauren Poe, and moved by the passionate testimony of dozens of citizens, the Commission voted unanimously to direct the City Attorney to draft a resolution condemning MTR “…and the resulting environmental, social and economic devastation incurred by such practices.”

The Commission also voted, by a 5-2 majority, to direct our utility’s General Manager to help draft a policy that states “…Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) will no longer purchase coal sourced from MTR operations, and will from the effective date forward only purchase performance or compliance coal from the Central Appalachian region from deep mine operations.” Both the resolution and the policy will need to come before the Commission again for final approval.

All of our Commissioners expressed trepidations about how a transition to solely deep-mined coal could potentially impact electricity rates, and Commissioner Chase and Mayor Braddy would not support the policy for this reason. Yet Commissioner Poe wisely inserted an “escape clause” into the motion that would allow the Commission to temporarily suspend the policy if it was found to have a significant impact on rates. The policy deals clearly with rate concerns. It is also comparable to the MTR policy of Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility and one of GRU’s main competitors.

Gainesville Loves Mountains believes that this policy is a sound compromise between fiscal concerns and our commitment to environmental stewardship. Our supporters have collectively spent hundreds of hours volunteering for weatherization programs for low-income residents and are keenly aware of the difficulties that high utility bills can bring. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating: our community does not have to choose between dirty energy and high utility bills.

In addition to our efforts to end GRU’s consumption of MTR coal, we are also pursuing comprehensive energy efficiency policy that will help residents and businesses conserve energy, strengthen our local economy, and transition our community away from a dependence upon fossil fuels. We have been leaders in the countywide effort to adopt a financing mechanism for clean energy and energy efficiency retrofits for local businesses. We are also advocating for a “Renters’ Initiative” that would finally bring the financial benefits of energy efficiency to everyone in Gainesville, not just property owners.

There is still much work to be done on all these fronts, and we invite all who love mountains and all who love Gainesville to join our efforts. Communities everywhere face difficult choices ahead as the age of low-cost, easily accessible fossil fuels comes to an end. We all must grapple with the implications of this monumental transition by vigorously pursuing energy security and energy efficiency, and through persistent, focused efforts to reduce our energy footprint. Last Thursday’s Commission meeting was a small victory, but it was an important one. Our sincerest thanks to the Gainesville City Commission, the citizens of Gainesville, and the inspiring work of our friends in Appalachia for moving us one step further along the path to a clean energy economy.

-Jason Fults

Gainesville MTR Ordinance Letters of Support from Appalachia

We’ve received several letters of support from our allies in Appalachia in support of our ordinance ending Gainesville Regional Utilities’ purchase of coal mined by mountaintop removal. We want to take this opportunity to thank them and share their encouraging words as we prepare for tomorrow’s City Commission meeting.  Come out and show your support for Appalachian communities by standing alongside your fellow Gainesville citizens!!

Take some time and read the letters below to see how much this means to our concerned friends in Appalachia. Click on the image to view the full letter:

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth's letter supporting MTR Ordinance

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth’s letter supporting MTR Ordinance

A letter of support for the MTR Ordinance signed by several concerned action groups in Appalachia

A letter of support for the MTR Ordinance signed by several concerned action groups in Appalachia

Alliance for Appalachia Letter for Community Publication

Alliance for Appalachia Letter of support for MTR Ordinance

 

 

Our Current Impasse with GRU Fuels on Procurement of Mountaintop Removal Coal

Unfortunately, despite more than 2.5 years of dialogue, we have reached an impasse with GRU Fuels on the continued procurement of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal. Their representatives have refused to even acknowledge the repercussions of this mining method for Appalachian communities, instead asserting that “All reasonable goals relative to market and local recognition of the issue have been achieved” and that “Concrete regulatory and economic factors have achieved tangible results,” leading to the “…elimination of MTR operations over time.”

Our friends in Appalachia, who live daily with the realities of MTR, do not find this answer to be acceptable, or reflective of their lived experiences, and neither do we. So our campaign continues. Our only option now appears to be concrete, legislative action by the City Commission. GRU’s next round of coal purchases will likely take place in Spring 2014, so we have a window of a few months to get a solid commitment from our City Commission that there will be no future purchases of MTR coal by our community.

Please continue to contact your Commissioners with this message, and continue to help get the word out about our petition. If you would like to help with further outreach and/or research on this issue, please contact us. We need your continued support to win this campaign!

Moutaintop Removal Ordinance Reviewed by Regional Utilities Committee

On Thursday, September 12th, Gainesville Loves Mountains (GLM) was given our first public opportunity to engage with Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) and members of the City Commission regarding our proposed ordinance to end GRU’s purchases of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal.

We had a great showing, with more than 25 GLM supporters present at the standing-room only meeting. In fact, the best part of the meeting was seeing all of the amazing, articulate folks who turned out to support our ordinance. With a coalition like this one, we can’t lose!

Meeting Highlights

Our ordinance did not get referred from the Regional Utilities Committee onward to the full Commission. While Commissioner Lauren Poe was a great advocate for us, Commissioner Chase and Mayor Braddy were more sympathetic to GRU’s concerns and worried about our ordinance’s potential impact on rates, so could not offer their support.

However, the consensus amongst the Commissioners and Mayor was that Gainesville Loves Mountains (GLM) will work with Commissioner Poe and GRU to craft something that we can all potentially agree on. Once we have worked through negotiations with Commissioner Poe and GRU, we will bring the final product forward to the full City Commission for their consideration.

We also learned at the meeting that GRU will likely not be making any more coal purchases until April 2014 at the earliest, so we have some breathing room. We will keep our supporters posted as the process moves forward. In the meantime, please continue to contact the City Commission (citycomm@cityofgainesville.org) and Bob Hunzinger at GRU (hunzingerre@gru.com) to let them know that this is important to you and is not an issue that will be going away anytime soon.

GRU’s Recommendation on MTR Ordinance

Sept 12, 2013 RUC Meeting Agenda

GRU’s John Stanton started off by presenting their objections to our ordinance, which are, in summary:

1) The definition of MTR that we use in our ordinance is overly-broad.

2) Verification of the sources of GRU’s coal would be costly to implement, if even possible.

3) Compliance with our ordinance could cost GRU $400,000-$2,000,000/year, a cost that would be passed on to GRU customers.

4) GRU would be the only coal-fired generating utility in the US with this type of restriction, thus putting the utility at a competitive disadvantage from a cost perspective when compared with other generating utilities.

In short, GRU opposes our ordinance and asks that they be allowed to “continue to follow the current process of identifying the mining methods used when procuring coal including MTR production and provide an annual report to the RUC.”

After considering GRU’s objections, Commissioner Chase and Mayor Braddy were unable to support our proposed ordinance, primarily based upon concerns of increased costs to GRU ratepayers.

“I cannot support anything that adds $.01 more to utility bills.” -Mayor Braddy

Both Mayor Braddy & Commissioner Chase also seemed to resonate with GRU’s concerns about verification. We hope that Mayor Braddy and Commissioner Chase, in particular, will join us in a healthy skepticism of some of GRU’s claims, especially given their campaign promises of not taking such claims at face value. But we do take GRU’s concerns seriously and want to make sure that they are addressed.

Many of GLM’s members have volunteered as energy auditors for low-income homes throughout our community. We take the allegation of increased costs to ratepayers very seriously and intend to fully investigate this issue.

Following Mr. Stanton, Jason Fults gave a presentation on behalf of GLM. He was followed by a stream of other volunteers who also supported our ordinance. In specific response to GRU’s concerns:

1) MTR definition

We would be happy to replace our current definition of MTR with “Surface-Mined Coal from Central Appalachia,” as many of our Appalachian allies have suggested. Such a definition would also make verification and compliance a much simpler process.

This very specific definition would, however, significantly reduce the range of coal procurement options available to GRU, as more and more Appalachian mining operations have switched to surface-mining in recent years. Alternately, we would be willing to work with GRU to arrive at an agreed-upon definition of MTR.

2) Source of purchased coal verification

We will definitely need greater clarification from GRU on the verification issue. For the past two years, GRU has not only been reporting the MTR content of their coal to us, they’ve actually reported which specific mines their coal is coming from. Our ordinance has not asked for any higher level of verification than they have already been providing.

We are certainly not asking GRU to dispatch staff to every coal tipple in every holler of Appalachia to inspect the coal being loaded on the trains, nor would we turn back a trainload of coal if there were found to be a few pieces of MTR coal inside. We simply want to monitor GRU’s coal suppliers as best as is currently possible within the industry, and to send a message up the supply chain that we find MTR to be an unacceptable mining practice.

3) Increased costs

On the issue of cost, we will need greater explanation from GRU on these estimates. GRU’s Thomas Foxx reported to the RUC earlier this year that when they’d studied the issue a few years ago, not using MTR coal would cost GRU an additional $300,000/year.

Therefore, we would like to ask GRU for more detail as to what their cost estimates are based on, what they would actually mean for the average ratepayer, and why the projected cost has gone up so much, particularly as reliance upon Central Appalachian (CAPP) coal has declined and coal prices have remained low.

It may be that compliance with our ordinance would raise costs slightly to ratepayers, in which case we’d like to have as good an idea as possible how much those increases would be so that citizens can make an informed decision.

4) GRU as a leader in renewable energy

GRU has certainly not demonstrated a hesitancy about being among the first in the nation when it comes to biomass or solar generation, or award-winning energy efficiency programs. We see no reason to shy away from ending our relationship with MTR simply because it hasn’t yet been done elsewhere. Besides, other utilities have weighed in on this issue.

One of GRU’s competitors, and in fact the largest utility in the nation, Duke Energy, released a statement a couple of years ago announcing their preference for non-MTR coal stating,“…our goal is to strike the right balance between economic, environmental and social considerations.”

In summary, we stand behind the substance of our ordinance and desire for its passage. While we certainly hope that the Commission will pass our proposed ordinance, or some version of it, we believe that GRU’s recommendation, which is to continue identifying the mining methods used and reporting on that to the Commission after the fact, is inadequate.

At the least, we request a formal statement from our Commission in direct opposition to MTR coal mining and directing our utility to avoid its use wherever practicable. We also request direct citizen oversight into the coal procurement process, during the process, not after, perhaps via the Gainesville Energy Advisory Committee (GEAC) or another similarly-empowered citizen body.

5) Rate payer struggles

Finally, we plan to take Commissioner Chase & Mayor Braddy at their word when they speak of their sincere concern for Gainesville’s low-income residents who are struggling to pay their utility bills. GLM has been researching this issue for months and we have concrete suggestions to help address high utility bills in low-income communities.

We had a productive meeting with the Mayor Monday morning on the topic of energy efficiency and jobs creation, and we also received a sincere and encouraging follow-up message from Commissioner Chase the day after our presentation.

As this dialogue moves forward, we request of all our local leaders that they do not perpetuate divisive narratives in the civic arena that force people to choose between dirty energy and high utility bills. Energy efficiency can help us convert to a clean energy community with relatively low utility bills.

What’s next?

Moving forward, we will need everyone’s support to make Gainesville a greener, more efficient community. If you have feedback or resources to offer, or would like to volunteer with us in any capacity, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Post authored by Jason Fults

One Year Later, Gainesville Still Loves Mountains

One Year Later, Gainesville Still Loves Mountains

We are proposing an ordinance to Gainesville City Commission that would prevent Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) from buying coal extracted by mountaintop removal mining. Jason Fults’ article in the Iguana outlines some of the background for this ordinance. If you agree, please take some time and sign our petition to the Gainesville City Commission.