Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: Buggy whips, rotary phones and coal

July 26, 2014

Sheila Suess KennedyThe history of business success has been the history of innovation—the triumph of visionary entrepreneurs who saw where the wind was blowing and left their more stubbornly traditional compatriots in the dust.

We all pity the poor guy who cornered the buggy whip market. We don’t remember who manufactured the last rotary phone. We lionize Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, because they saw the future and helped realize its potential.

Change is never easy, especially for those invested in and comfortable with a familiar way of doing things. That said, most Americans—including Hoosiers—are now aware that the future of energy is not fossil fuels, and especially not coal.

Public Opinion Strategies recently polled Indianapolis voters about IPL’s use of coal at its Harding Street power plant. Nearly seven in 10 Indianapolis voters (69 percent) supported IPL phasing out coal entirely in Marion County and substituting renewable energy like wind and solar. Eighty-two percent of self-identified Democrats, 69 percent of independents, and 51 percent of Republicans agreed that IPL should phase out coal and invest in clean energy resources.

The poll came in the wake of a proposal by City-County councilors Zach Adamson and Duke Oliver, asking IPL to phase out coal burning in Marion County by 2020, and to invest in greater amounts of “clean, renewable energy befitting a world-class city of the 21st century.”

The proposal also called on IPL, the Indianapolis Office of Sustainability and the City-County Council to develop cost-effective programs encouraging energy efficiency and conservation and creating a transition plan for plant workers and the Harding Street property.

Adamson noted that Omaha, Nebraska’s electric utility has recently voted to phase out its coal-fired power plant in North Omaha, making Indianapolis the last major city in the Midwest to have a coal-fired power plant within city limits. The Harding Street power plant is the largest source of dangerous soot and sulfur dioxide pollution in Marion County, and a major reason for central Indiana’s failing grades for air quality. (In its 2014 State of the Air Report, the American Lung Association ranked the Indianapolis area as having the 16th-worst air in the nation for dangerous short-term particle pollution.) According to the EPA, IPL’s Harding Street plant was responsible for 88 percent of the toxic industrial pollution released in 2012 in Marion County.

As renewable energies have become cheaper and more plentiful, power-generating companies are increasingly moving to them. That’s created a political problem for a few states—Indiana and Kentucky among them—where years of reliance on coal has shaped local decision-making.

As EPA air-quality regulations have tightened, Indiana politicians and utilities have been digging in their heels and vowing to resist. It will cost more money! Climate change is a hoax! Renewable energy is a fad—it will never work! We’ve still got lots of coal!

People will always need buggy whips! Wireless phones will never catch on!

The truth is, the writing is on the wall: Coal prices are going up; wind and solar prices are coming down (and rather dramatically).

In recent years, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul—just to mention a few—have taken steps to move beyond coal by announcing retirements of coal-fired power plants. If Indianapolis is serious about being a world-class city, we need to stop clinging to the technology of the past and embrace a cleaner, healthier and more renewable future.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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