By Emily Hopkins
April 7, 2019 - At a time when two of Indiana's biggest electric utilities are planning to retire a majority of their coal power, a House committee has voted to put a moratorium on such decisions.
The House Utilities committee voted 8-4 on an amendment that would temporarily prevent Indiana regulators from approving large projects that generate electricity for Hoosiers.
The two Indiana utilities — Vectren and NIPSCO — issued reports in recent years that indicated moving away from coal would be more cost effective for their customers. Under their plans, called integrated resource plans, Indiana would lose more than 2,300 megawatts of coal capacity by 2028.
The new amendment, which was added to Senate Bill 472 on Wednesday without testimony, would prohibit the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission from approving plans written by electric utilities to change the way they generate electricity.
The moratorium would be in affect from April 30 to January 1, 2021.
The effect of the amendment on the Vectren's and NIPSCO's plans is currently unclear, but both utilities currently have cases pending in front of the IURC that would lessen their reliance on coal.
Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the amendment was necessary to slow down the rapid changes happening in Indiana's energy markets. It would give a statewide energy task force, formed by another amendment to the same bill, the time to properly study and make recommendations about the state's energy future.
"If we don’t do something that slows things down we will have a policy dictated by decisions" made by utilities and the IURC, Soliday said at a House Utilities committee meeting this week.
Opponents of the measure say it's just another way to keep coal alive in the state, an idea that Soliday vehemently denied in this week's committee meeting.
"Neither amendment is a coal amendment," Soliday said on Wednesday.
But Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, said that he finds that hard to believe, as the only parties benefiting from the amendment are coal companies.
"This is sort of the Hail Mary, in our opinion, for coal, because the only way that we can keep burning coal is to effectively stop the commission from issuing orders for new generation, which sort of requires the coal plants to stay open," Olson said.
Bruce Stevens, president of theIndiana Coal Council, a trade association promoting the state's coal industry, did not respond to an interview request from IndyStar.
In March, Seth Schwartz, president of the Energy Ventures Analysis consulting firm, testified on behalf of the Indiana Coal Council in favor of a "pause" on approving plans that would close large parts of utilities' coal fleets.
Tom Stevens, director of internal communications for NIPSCO, said that the utility is still reviewing the current version of the bill. "It is too early in the process to comment on the potential impacts of this legislation," Stevens said in a statement.
Natalie Hedde, director of Midwest communications for Vectren's parent company, CenterPoint, also said that it is too soon to comment on the potential impacts of the proposed legislation.
"Vectren believes a moratorium in constructing generation in Indiana is bad policy and is working through the Indiana Energy Association to oppose such a moratorium. Vectren will continue to work with all stakeholders on our commitments to providing reliable and reasonably priced electric generation to serve our customers in southwest Indiana," Hedde said in an emailed statement.
Mark Maassel, president of theIndiana Energy Association, which represents Indiana's investor-owned utilities, told IndyStar before Wednesday's hearing that a halt on the current generating makeup "would be a terrible idea," and would lock utilities into technology that was first implemented 50 years ago while also prohibiting them from bringing newer technologies online in that time period.
The IURC is allowed to approve smaller projects during that time period, provided that the projects do not significantly change the way Indiana's utilities generate electricity. The agency can also approve projects of in the case of an emergency.
IEA's Maassel said that he would have to take a closer look at the amendment's language to know how it would affect each of the five investor-owned electric utilities he represents.
The bill now heads to the House floor.