A bill calling for a 20-month moratorium on new electric-generation projects surfaced in the last month of the legislative session, proposed by Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, and passed out of committee without discussion. The bill, it was said, would allow legislators time to study the fast-changing electricity-generation industry. But it was hard to tell who was supporting it.
The Indiana Energy Association, which represents investor-owned utilities, expressed concern about the bill. Environmentalists were worried too, suggesting that coal interests, seeking to slow the conversion to alternative power sources, were behind it. They pointed out that the measure would pause Merrillville-based NIPSCO's plan for three large wind farms as part of the utility's effort to become coal-free by 2028.
"It's something we were watching very closely," NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said Wednesday of the moratorium efforts. The wind projects were part of an integrated research plan it had taken the company almost a year to develop. NIPSCO is confident its plan, which comprises wind, solar and storage strategies, will be both economical and reliable, he said. But, he said, "we can't make last-minute decisions."
Environmentalists were of two minds about the measure because it also would have paused the plan by Evansville-based Vectren to build a massive, natural-gas powered electricity plant. The plant would replace aging facilities that burn more than 100 million tons of Indiana coal. But though coal-burning is the dirtier form of pollution, production of electricity with natural gas also produces greenhouse gases. Vectren's plan would have locked the utility in to natural gas use for the next three decades.
"We were staunchly opposed to that plant," said Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Indiana Consumers Action Coalition. "The coal companies were also opposed to that plant."
In the end, Soliday's measure had so little support, the Republican-supermajority House approved an amendment offered by a Democrat, Rep. Matt Pierce of Bloomington, to strip the moratorium language.
Then, just as the legislative session drew to a close, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission announced it was rejecting Vectren's proposed plant. The company, the commission said, had not looked closely enough at alternative power sources and did not include "enough flexibility for the company to respond to rapid technological changes in power generation."
Environmentalists rejoiced at the commission's decision. Vectren will go back to the drawing board. Meanwhile, NIPSCO is free to seek approval for its wind farms. As the cost of alternative sources continues to drop, utilities are closer to producing cleaner, cheaper energy.
"In the end," Olson said, "wind and solar are going to win out."