Clock ticking on Indiana coal power : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Clock ticking on coal power

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- By TIM STARKS, Courier & Press Indianapolis bureau (317)631-7405 or -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Regulators are questioning the future of Indianas coal-fired power plants.

Coal, already classified a fossil fuel, may be going the way of the dinosaurs as a means of producing electricity in Indiana. State utility regulators are questioning out loud the future of Indianas coal-fired power plants, and some utilities think that method of power generation may be doomed.

Most, such as Southern Indiana Gas & Electric Co., profess optimism about coal, but concede federal regulations are making things difficult.

Indiana relies heavily on coal-generated power, so what happens to these plants will have the potential for far-reaching consequences  on the environment they are often blamed for polluting; on the coal industry, a key

component of the Southwestern Indiana economy; and on electricity prices, which are traditionally low here.

Last week, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission held a hearing on Environmental Protection Agency actions and how they will affect the reliability of power.

The reason we had this session is because there are questions about the future of coal, said Ryan Soultz, a commission spokesman.

There are many questions about what effect EPA regulations could have on coal-fired plants, not just in Indiana, but throughout the country.

In recent years, the EPA has gone after Midwestern coal-fired plants such as SIGECOs Culley Generating Station in Warrick County. The EPA filed a lawsuit against SIGECO in 1999, arguing the company had failed to install proper cleaning equipment.

The EPA has also demanded power plants in several states such as Indiana reduce their emissions of nitrous oxide 65 percent by 2003.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management estimates coal-fired plants will emit more than 60 percent of the pollutant generated by stationary sources by 2007.

Two-part question

For last weeks hearing, the state utility commission posed this question combo to the major investor-owned utility companies and others interested in the industry: Given possible future EPA actions, what are the long-term prospects for the continued operation of coal-fired generating plants? What are the long-term prospects for new coal-fired generating plants?

Everyone agreed on the answer to the second question. Next to none.

But on the first question, answers varied from Coal-fired plants will be around for a while to Their time has nearly ended.

Pessimistic outlook

Gregory Troxell, assistant to the president of Northern Indiana Public Service Co., said it the most pessimistically.

The environmental uncertainty surrounding coal plants in this country, coupled with the already high capital cost to construct new plants, means that coal likely joins nuclear power as yesterdays technology, Troxell said in written comments.

Nuclear power is still around, but in a limited capacity  it makes up about 21 percent of the U.S. energy mix, second to coal, according to the Americans for Balanced Energy Choices.

As the plans of federal environmental regulators become clearer, Troxell wrote on behalf of the Northern Indiana company, Utilities will perform an economic analysis to evaluate whether it makes sense to continue to add controls to meet these regulations, to repower with natural gas, or to decommission existing generators entirely and rely on new technologies.

Gas seems likely

Natural gas seems to be the way things are going lately. Merchant and peaking plants are popping up across the state to supplement major power sources. The merchant plants rely on natural gas, which is viewed as a cleaner fuel.

When you look at nationwide trends just now coming to Indiana, you see that over the last five or 10 years, the amount of electricity generated by natural gas has increased substantially, Soultz said. Theres no reason to believe this trend wont continue.

Even SIGECO, which takes a sunny view of coal powers future, thinks natural gas will make inroads.

The role of natural gas is going to continue to increase, but I think coal will continue to be the primary fuel source for some time, said Michael Sandefur, manager of environmental affairs for SIGECO.

Right now there arent any real practical alternatives to replace coal, he said.

State relies on coal

Indiana gets 98 percent of its energy from coal sources, according to the balanced-choices organization, a group supported financially by the coal-based electricity industry. Indiana is the second most dependent on coal state in the nation, just below West Virginia.

The nation relies on coal for 56 percent of its power. Americans for Balanced Energy Choices says Indiana had the 12th lowest retail electricity prices in 1998 at 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Thats 19 percent below the national average.

There is a need for a national energy policy that recognizes coal is, and should continue to be, a source of energy for us, said Jewel Debonis, a consultant for the group. Its a reliable source, its an increasingly clean source, and its certainly an affordable source.

Valley Watch President John Blair doesnt dispute coal contributes to low energy costs in Indiana, but he thinks before long, that wont be the case. Blair has been one of the most vocal environmental critics of coal-fired plants.

When people have to start making hard decisions, theyll see that coal isnt that economical an energy source any more. When you do the heads-up capital costs, its not all that competitive, he said.

But if you start adding health costs in, it becomes really uncompetitive. I think weve dealt ourselves a bad hand by making ourselves so dependent on coal.

Gas prices fluctuate

Blair said natural gas prices fluctuate often. He hopes natural gas is just an temporary solution, though. He would like to see fuel cell and solar technology that allows households to generate power on their own take coals place.

Indiana produced 18 million tons of coal the first half of this year, a 9 percent increase over the first half of last year, according to the Indiana Department of Commerce. In 1999, Indiana power plants burned 55 million tons of coal.

The most recent U.S. Census data in 1996 indicated 2,300 Hoosiers were coal miners.

Not very cheery

The EPA leaves Russ Stilwell, Indiana representative for the United Mine Workers Association, not feeling very cheery about the future of the coal industry.

If they do half as much to the industry in the next 10 years as they have in the last 10 years, well be fortunate to mine 1 million tons of coal in this state, said Stilwell, also a Democratic state representative from Boonville.

Where would that leave coal miners?

It would leave them unemployed, he said. The future for the coal industry and coal-fired boilers is almost entirely dependent on the EPA, Stilwell added. If they continue to put constraints on the burning of fossil fuels, the future is very bleak indeed.

If is a word that seems to define coals future as a power source.

Were not just looking at five to 10 years out, were also looking 20 to 25 years out, said Soultz with the utility commission.

Over that time a lot of variables will come into play, and the one variable thats certain for coal is uncertainty.

-- Martin Thompson (, July 24, 2000


My family would rather depend on Indiana and Kentucky coal rather than Mideast oil refined to gas. Our closest neighbors are more reliable.

-- Ruth Angell (, July 25, 2000.

I'm glad to rely on non-polluting, renewable solar electric and wind power.

Coal burning is changing Earth's atmosphere. Nuclear waste is incompatible with creatures that use DNA.

As the Bell Telephone company said fifty years ago if we harness the power of the sun it would light every lamp and turn every wheel we would ever need.

And I'd like to give coal miners the first chance at the jobs at the solar power panel factories.

That's why I'm voting for Ralph Nader

-- mark (, July 27, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ