State task force holds first meeting on renewable energy

A new task force that hopes to help Indiana move from its coal-dominated past and present into a future that includes more renewable energy held its first meeting Monday, hearing hours of testimony from consumer groups and industry representatives.

The 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force was formed out of House Bill 1278, which passed in the legislative session earlier this year. The goal is to examine, evaluate and develop recommendations for creating renewable energy resources in Indiana, with a report to be delivered to Gov. Eric Holcomb by Dec. 1, 2020.

The task force is made up of members of the Indiana General Assembly as well as experts and researchers in the field of renewable energy.

The first meeting, held in the House of Representative chambers, focused on an overview of the issues from a variety of stakeholders representing the energy industry, both current providers and the renewable energy industry; consumers, environmental groups and regulators.

Brian Hasler, a former state representative who now is a lobbyist with Capitol Assets which represents the Sierra Club of Indiana, told the task force that the transition away from coal is already happening.

“Indiana is third in the nation for proposed coal plant retirements since the Beyond Coal campaign began in 2010,” Hasler said, citing the Sierra Club’s objective of replacing all coal power plants with cleaner energy alternatives. “In 2010, there were 26 coal-fired, coal-burning power plants in Indiana. Since then, all but 11 have been retired or are being announced to retire.”

Hasler said that by relying on coal, Indiana’s waters have been poisoned.

“Indiana has more coal ash ponds than any other state, and every one of these ponds is contaminating ground water and leaking into lakes, rivers and streams,” Hasler said. “We’ve said it before: Indiana will be left behind if we don’t develop policies and programs to manage our transition from outdated expensive coal and risky gas to affordable renewable and economic and efficient energy economy.”

Hasler, though, acknowledged that a critical question that the state needs to address is how to handle the economic impact of closing existing plants while switching to cleaner sources.

“How will Indiana help communities that will suffer from that transition away from coal without simply asking customers to bail out high-cost coal plants? Will the legislature put forth resources to help these communities or will we leave these communities to fend for themselves?” Hasler asked.

Bruce Stevens, president of the Indiana Coal Council, warned against “the premature and unnecessary closure of existing coal-powered plants” and noted Indiana produces little natural gas. Coal, he told the task force, accounts for many jobs. He said the economic impact of closing the plants–from lost wages to the lost tax dollars to local communities and school districts–has to be weighed.

He suggested to the task force that the remaining coal plants should continue to operate for another 10 to 15 years until renewable forms of energy are in place and proven reliable, rather than investing in new natural gas plants that would have to run for many more years–and put out carbon emissions during that time–in order to cover the investments.

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the legislature has passed numerous incentives for the expansion of the current power grid in Indiana based on what he called “a proven paradigm for decades.”

“But the paradigm as we all know is rapidly changing,” he said. “Today, consumers, whether they are bent as conservative or liberal, are wanting to generate their own electricity. They will find ways to fully generate independently of the grid.”

That leads to customer decline, and rising costs for the customers that remain, he said.

Kharbanda said the top request the environmental council has heard from the public is to have “affordable options to go solar at their homes, places of worship and small businesses.”

He said the task force needs to develop policies that allow them that possibility and to “develop recommendations that scale up Indiana’s investment in energy efficiency and thereby lower the average electric bills for small businesses, factories, struggling economic families and senior citizens.”

Rep. Ed Soliday, the Valparaiso Republican who is a co-chairman of the task force, said Monday’s opening task force meeting was aimed at building “an understanding of how it all works.”

“Let’s be Hoosiers, let’s be very measured, let’s do things in a very constructed way,” Soliday said. “Build our knowledge on data and fact.”

Soliday said the next meeting will be on Sept. 19, also at 10 a.m. in the House chamber. “We will be talking about demand, we’ll be talking about baseload, we’ll be talking about peak–how do we define those things,” he said.

Future meetings will focus on supply, the regulatory framework and “the issue of encouraging investment,” he said.

“We have a rapidly changing environment, and what’s the role of locals and what is the role of the state? And if there are risks to be mitigated, maybe we could craft legislation that deals with those risks that will fit uniformly around the state” with no surprises and uncertainty for businesses, he said.

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