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Efficiency aids bridge-building between industry, environment

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Energy efficiency improvement — the idea that the full use of energy with as little wasted as possible — is bridging the divide between groups that often find themselves in opposition.

On the first day of the The Building Conference in Morgantown last week, an environmentalist, a coal mining executive and a power generation executive all shared a stage. Speaking largely to those in the construction business, all shared the common desire for energy efficiency.

"Basically everybody should be concerned about wasting energy," said Larry Harris, Appalachian Stewardship Foundation chairman.

Harris said that people are standing up for more action on sustainability and the environment in West Virginia. He said his organization tries to inform people about water, air and other issues with the environment associated with energy extraction and use.

"I know we have a global economy now, but we also should be doing the best we can to conserve our resources for future generations," Harris said. "It's important for everyone to conserve, it's a hard sell though."

Jim Laurita, the president and CEO of coal-mining company MEPCO, said he chose to speak at the event to begin "building bridges for people that tend to be polarized. He said everyone at the Morgantown-based conference was meeting to discuss common goals of working toward a sustainable future.

"Why would someone in the industry business want to sponsor an event like this? I'm born and raised here, live here, got about 800 employees, care for West Virginia and the future," Laurita said. "I've spent the last 20 years trying to make this area better."

Laurita said that part of what he comes up against is those that think renewables can overtake fossil fuels. He said the need for baseload power, at least for now, necessitates the need for coal, natural gas or nuclear power.

"At first blush it looks like it hurts us, but to have a sustainable environment here, and not just the natural environment, but our communities, we have to understand the future and what our citizens want," Laurita said. "Waiting until things happen is not the way I typically work."

Jim Fawcett, manager of Energy Efficiency & Consumer Programs with Appalachian Power Co., said that as a generator of power, Appalachian Power wants consumers to be able to control electrical usage.

"We have a good bit of generation right now, and it's cost effective and profitable to run it," Fawcett said. "As we continue to maintain our business, there's a lot of investments we have to make in the transmission grid as we're closing in on some of our plants that don't meet efficiency standards. There's a limited amount of capital, so if there's ways we can maintain or lower the growth rate of electric usage, then it puts off the investment we have to make in additionally power plants to meet that load."

To a certain degree, Fawcett said, efficiency is much cheaper for the power company than building a new power plant. Cooperative customers and early adopters of efficiency technology are easy to fold into the program with little or no incentive.

Those not interested in energy efficiency, Fawcett said, can be expensive to attract into efficiency programs.

"There are ways people can essentially have a more comfortable home and business and still save money," Fawcett said, adding that the energy efficiency programs are generally means of improving quality of life.  

Rebecca Kimmons, the communications director for The Building Conference, said that event was "eye-opening" for many in attendance because of the passionate viewpoints of the parties involved.

"We tried to create an event here that is a no-hype zone," she said, expressing that civil discussion was needed to avoid being dragged into camps of polar opinion. "…We need that in West Virginia, we need a lot more of it."

A similar conference, Kimmons said, will be held next year.