Indiana Senate panel advances controversial coal bill with some changes

A bill that could slow Indiana utilities from shutting down coal-fired plants is advancing to the Senate floor, after a panel voted Thursday to approve the measure — but with changes that could save money for ratepayers compared with the original bill.

The Senate Utilities Committee voted 8-2 in favor of the bill, though it would no longer require utilities to stockpile a 90-day supply of coal and pass those costs along to ratepayers.

Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, the committee chairman, offered the amendment that scraped the 90-day requirement. The amendment also did away with language requiring utilities to keep their coal plants completely operational, even if they planned to close them in the near future.

The amendment, which was adopted on a voice vote, also would move up the law’s sunset date by four months — to Dec. 31, 2020.

The legislation comes as 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 bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the transformation in Indiana’s energy landscape from coal to other sources is happening quickly, and utilities need to pause to allow policymakers to study the ramifications. His version of the bill would have required that utilities submit plans to close coal-fired plants to utility regulators for review, a process that could take months.

“There’s not one thing in this bill that stops renewable (generating units) from being built,” Soliday said.

But the amended Senate version scraps that language in favor of having utilities align their closing with an existing process known as the integrated resource planning process, which requires several hearings and extensive financial forecasting.

Coal still accounts for more than 70% of the electricity generated in Indiana.

Some critics, however, say the legislation is nothing more than a way to prop up the coal industry, which is struggling as utilities shift to other fuel sources. In 2010, Indiana had 26 active coal burning power units. But in 2016, it had just 13, and now that number is on track to decrease by at least another 10 by 2028.

More than a dozen people testified Thursday, including coal miners, environmentalists, business groups and grassroots activists.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for further discussion and a vote.

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