A Utility In The Middle Of Coal Country Opts For Renewable Energy
Indiana is coal country. According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2018, 70% of the electricity in the state came from coal-fired generating stations. Vectren is the largest utility company in the southern part of the state, which snuggles up to other states like Kentucky and Ohio where coal has been king for nearly a century.
Given that background, imagine how startling it is that Vectren announced this week it plans to slash the use of coal-generated electricity in its system from 78% to just 12% over the next few years and dramatically increase the amount of electricity it gets from renewable sources. The company says the move will significantly decrease carbon emissions and save rate payers more than $300 million.
According to E&E News, Vectren’s latest 20-year integrated resource plan, which will be filed with state regulators shortly, will call for shuttering most of its coal-fired generation by 2023 and add more than 1,000 megawatts of wind energy and solar. Grid-scale battery storage will also be included to improve the dispatchability of the renewable electricity.
The move by Vectren comes despite heroic efforts by the coal industry to protect their interests with sweetheart legislation designed to delay the transition away from coal. Sunrise Coal, which supplies coal to Vectren, hired former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as a lobbyist in the final weeks of the 2019 legislative session. But nothing, not even hiring professional prostitutes like Pruitt, can hold back the economic imperative that is driving the renewable energy revolution forward.
“When you have a utility in the heart of [the state’s coal-producing region] that says we’re only going to be 12% coal in 2025, that’s huge,” says Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizen Action Coalition. “It’s especially huge understanding what’s been happening politically, on the ground, in Indiana. Despite an enormous effort by the coal industry, the market has spoken. Utilities are saying these old dinosaurs are done. We’ve known that for a number of years. This is just further evidence.”
There’s even more good news. Vectren says it has decided against building a new natural gas-fired generating station that would have cost $900 million. As coal goes, so will natural gas. One of the economic factors that favors renewables is the ability to plan what the cost of electricity will be decades from now. Natural gas may be cheap now, but experience suggests it can rise dramatically in price if market conditions change. In the world of electricity generation, predictability is almost as important as getting the lowest possible price.
The utility says closing three coal units will save an estimated $700 million that would be required to meet environmental regulations. Replacing the units with wind and solar energy, meanwhile, will reduce the utility’s carbon emissions by 75%.
Lynnae Wilson, chief business officer for Vectren in Indiana, issued a statement this week saying the new plan “considers a broad range of potential conditions and variables to determine a preferred fuel mix which allows Vectren to meet future electric energy demand in a safe and reliable manner.” The lower emissions are just a bonus consumers get, but one with significant benefits for those who live and work anywhere near a coal-fired generating station.
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