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Gerard Scimeca: Regulators, utilities must step up to preserve coal sector

July 27, 2018

scimeca-gerard-viewpointProtection of Indiana’s coal sector and the more than 41,000 local jobs that support the industry have come under attack in recent months with talk of closures to coal power plants, the lifeblood of Indiana’s power generation.

Indiana-based utilities, such as Vectren Energy Delivery and Northeast Indiana Public Service Co., have announced plans to retire additional plants across the state and replace them with natural-gas plants that likely will be funded on the backs of taxpayers.

While there is no doubt the United States’ vast stores of natural gas have a crucial role to play in the future of our nation’s power grid, policymakers and ratepayers alike in coal states like Indiana have cause for concern that reach beyond the fear of squandering the state’s coal resources.

Studies consistently show that coal remains the most resilient and reliable source of fuel for the nation’s power grid. In Indiana, it is abundant, locally available and easily delivered to—and even stored on—the sites where it is needed. The same cannot be said of natural gas—a fuel source that, while ample in places like Pennsylvania, must depend upon a sometimes-strained network of pipelines to make it from the ground to the power plant and ultimately on to consumers.

Likewise, coal production has become cleaner and more efficient. By some estimates, we burn twice as much coal as in 1970, yet emissions are down 73 percent, and they meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mandated standards for healthy emissions.

For all the promise of natural gas and other alternative fuel sources, nothing can match coal’s resiliency. Other sources of power face challenges like intermittency, price volatility, supply shortages and pipeline disruption. Coal power is always ready when consumers flip the switch.

Additionally, the potential closures could have a significant impact on the local economy. Indiana is a top-10 coal producer nationally and contributes more than $5 billion to the state’s economy annually.

Indiana should not put the future of its power grid in doubt by migrating excessively from coal to natural gas or other alternatives like solar. Even as the grid is modernized, abundant, affordable, reliable coal has an essential role to play in providing baseload power under any and all conditions.

As regulators at the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission continue to consider the actions of utilities, they should do so with the Indiana ratepayer and Hoosier workers at the center of their focus. Planned coal plant closures will leave the state of Indiana less energy-secure; regulators have an opportunity to step up to the plate to make sure that doesn’t happen.•

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Scimeca is an attorney and vice president of the Virginia-based advocacy firm Consumer Action for a Strong Economy.

 

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