Groups say energy recommendations could slow Indiana’s transition away from coal

Seven months after Indiana lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting utilities from shutting down coal-fired power plants before May 2021, a state energy task force is considering a sweeping array of measures that seem to favor existing large-scale utilities, many of which still burn coal, over providers of renewable energy.

The Indiana 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force, which was set up to guide lawmakers in crafting a long-term energy plan, released draft recommendations Wednesday after months of testimony.

One of the findings of the task force is that Indiana’s existing regulatory framework of large utilities “represents the best regulatory structure” for satisfying the five goals of energy reliability, resilience, stability, affordability and environmental sustainability.

The draft report did not say how that finding was made, or by whom. The 15-member task force is made up of lawmakers from both parties and both chambers. In the last session of the General Assembly, many Republicans said the state needed to pause during the industry transformation to cheaper energy and figure out whether the energy grid would be threatened by a continued move away from coal.

In the meantime, large utilities across Indiana have announced plans to shut down thousands of megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity in favor of cheaper fuel sources, such as natural gas, solar and wind.

The draft sets out seven recommendations, including that the General Assembly consider legislation to standardize property tax assessments and caps with respect to renewable energy facilities and for the siting of renewable energy projects and facilities.

But some consumer advocates and environmental groups took sharp exception to the draft, saying it will extend the life of coal plants and delay Indiana’s transition to renewable energy. The draft does not include any recommendations on energy efficiency, net metering or on-site generation.

“The Task Force should resoundingly reject this draft report,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana. “It completely ignores substantial testimony given throughout the process and dismisses the current business plans Indiana utilities already have on file.”

The Sierra Club said it planned to closely study the recommendations to see whether they would delay a transition from coal to renewable energy.

“I can tell you that we will fight any proposal that emerges from this process that aims to keep expensive polluting coal plants online or force replacement with fossil fuels,” said Wendy Bredhold, Indiana representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

The Hoosier Environmental Council said the draft seems to disregard the reality that several Midwestern and Plains states now get more than 25% of their electricity from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, with no compromise to reliability or affordability.

“The draft report portrays renewable energy, from an economic and technical perspective, in an outdated, partly caricatured fashion,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

The Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, the state’s advocate for utility customers, said it was still reviewing the report.

The Indiana Energy Association, a trade group that represents the state’s five investor-owned utilities, including Indianapolis Power & Light Co. and Duke Energy Indiana, did not immediately respond to IBJ with a comment.

Greg Ellis, vice president of energy and environmental policy for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said he didn’t see “anything unexpected” in the draft, and said he liked some of the recommendations. The chamber plans to release its own energy study later this week.

The 21st Century task force recommendations were drafted by the Legislative Services Agency of the Indiana General Assembly. The task force plans to vote on the report Thursday. A full report is due to the governor and legislature on Dec. 1.

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