BOONE — “We are in a climate crisis and the question is — what are our local utilities here in the High Country doing about it? Are we treating this as a crisis?”
Appalachian Voices Director of Programs Matt Wasson posed this question on Feb. 22 at the first High Country Energy Justice Summit, a participatory event that encouraged discussion about local clean energy. The event took place at Harvest House in Boone and brought in students, community members and town council members.
The summit was a collaborative effort of Appalachian Voices, Sunrise Boone, Climate/Transition Blue Ridge, Climate Action Collaborative at Appalachian State University and Energy Justice NC. Each organization set up a booth with information about its mission for environmental justice.
The summit opened with music from the Kraut Creek Ramblers and presentations followed from speakers in each hosting organization. The audience then broke out into four groups, focused on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Cooperative, New River Light and Power, Duke Energy and youth involvement.
Wasson said that while North Carolina is third in the country for installed solar, the High Country has contributed little in terms of renewable energy.
In late 2018, the environmental organization Southern Environmental Law released a report stating that northwest North Carolina electric utility cooperative Blue Ridge Energy was undermining its customers’ ability to use solar power because Blue Ridge Energy charges net metering customers with rooftop solar a $53 fee, resulting in $29 more per month in flat monthly fees than residential customers without solar.
The report and accompanying website, ratesofsolar.com, aimed to “provide simple, straight-forward information about how utilities across the Southeast are treating customers with rooftop solar on their homes.”
Blue Ridge Energy spokesperson Renee Whitener said this $53 “grid charge” is for members who have their own private solar system but choose to benefit from connecting to the utility’s grid to be assured of reliable, always-on electricity, including at night and on cloudy days. All Blue Ridge Energy members pay their fair portion, Whitener said.
Members of Sunrise Boone, an organization of young people interested in climate change, presented case studies highlighting situations said to be intensified by global climate change. Included were the Australian wildfires, Hurricane Florence and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Climate/Transition Blue Ridge Board Chair Lynnwood Brown said climate change is apparent in severe weather events. Brown said “restrengthening those muscles of working together on a local basis” is important in combating this change.
Appalachian Climate Action Collaborative member Caitlyn Daas spoke about her organization, a non-university-affiliated group fighting for climate justice. Daas said that through energy democracy, community members can facilitate climate justice in the High Country.
Daas said the university’s largest greenhouse gas emitter is purchased electricity. App State is entering a new contract with NTE Energy in 2022. Daas said if the new contract does not support customers using solar, the community will have to fall back on natural gas.
Climate Action Collaborative member Maggie Rumley said the group supports the university reaching climate neutrality by 2025 rather than the UNC system’s 2050 goal.
The organization has a petition urging Chancellor Sheri Everts to respond to the SGA Climate Neutrality Bill, with a goal of climate neutrality by 2025, and Faculty Senate Climate Neutrality Bill, with a goal of climate neutrality by 2035. Over 500 people have signed the petition, according to its website.
Madelyn Parker, youth climate justice organizer at NC WARN, showed a “monopoly money tracker” which tracked Duke Energy campaign contributions to elected officials.
Wasson said the most important part of the summit was not the speakers, but rather hearing from the audience.
Boone Town Council Member Dustin Hicks suggested the community form public groups to discuss New River Light and Power. Town Council Member Nancy LaPlaca said App State students and community members should work together to pressure New River Light and Power into using cleaner energy.
Participants in the Blue Ridge Energy group said that while they are pleased with the fast and effective quality of the electric company, Blue Ridge Energy is adding obstacles to solar users with expensive fees.
Participants in the Duke Energy group said that progress is being made as climate change becomes mainstream for politicians and everyday people. Group members said contributing to environmentally friendly companies is key.
The youth-oriented group said young people should view older generations as mentors and use their knowledge as guidance. Attendees said youth representation is important when talking about environmental issues.
Wasson said hearing from the young voices at this event was a major goal of the summit.
“Of all the things that are going kind of wrong with the climate crisis right now, one of the few things that we’re doing right is this emerging youth leadership,” Wasson said.