DOUG ROSS: Sierra Club isn't just blowing smoke

2014-07-06T00:00:00Z DOUG ROSS: Sierra Club isn't just blowing smokeDoug Ross doug.ross@nwi.com, (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 nwitimes.com

In Indiana, at least, it ain't easy being green.

The Sierra Club knows this well. It's trying to reduce Indiana's heavy reliance on coal for electricity, and it's meeting resistance from state lawmakers and the governor who say Indiana has enough coal reserve to last for centuries, even at the current consumption patterns.

Utilities are reluctant to change, too, when they are so heavily invested in coal-fired power plants. More than 80 percent of electricity in Indiana comes from coal. Those utilities are generous and effective lobbyists, too.

So how does the Sierra Club try to get its message out in this political environment? By catering to Tea Party principles.

The Sierra Club message in Indiana promotes empowering individuals, just like the Tea Party.

Jodi Perras, the Sierra Club's Indiana representative, said Indiana's net metering program — which allows Hoosiers with excess electricity from wind and solar to put it back into the grid — favors the utilities, not the individuals.

Utilities are powerful, especially in the Statehouse.

Making matters worse, Indiana lawmakers pulled the plug this year on the Energizing Indiana program, which has been effective in reducing the need for additional power generation.

Gov. Mike Pence refused to sign Senate Bill 340, letting it become law without his signature. Pence promised to propose an alternative in the next session.

Sierra Club is trying to promote energy efficiency and alternative fuels so Indiana's aging coal-fired power plants can belch less smoke.

Perras said Energizing Indiana could have helped Indiana meet new Environmental Protection Agency rules calling for Indiana to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.

"Half of that could come by just giving us the energy efficiency program back," Perras told The Times Editorial Board recently.

She also wants to make coal-fired power plants more efficient.

"There's a lot of wasted heat. There's a lot of wasted energy," she said.

But mostly Perras wants more emphasis on wind and solar power — not to replace coal, but to reduce the need for it.

Solar power, she explained, "is produced when we're awake, at peak times," so the need to burn coal during the day could be lessened by investing more in solar energy. That includes research, not just installations.

"Really smart people are working on energy storage, and that's going to break one of these days," Perras said.

The U.S. Department of Energy is funding research at Valparaiso University's James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility, one of about five such operation in the nation.

Solar needs to become less expensive to install, and that means providing the right incentives for customers.

A new Illinois law requires the Illinois Power Agency to purchase solar power for a portion of the state's electricity needs. Among other things, it encourages homeowners' use of rooftop solar panels to sell any leftover power back to the grid.

Indiana could use stronger incentives for this, too.

"It's a race for clean energy we're not even in," Perras said. "I mean, we're getting lapped."

Natural gas powers some power plants, and that burns cleaner than coal. But there are issues with fracking, leaks and other environmental threats to deal with.

So wind and solar are looking really good right now.

"The wind and the sun are going to be there long after the coal is gone," Perras said.

Editorial Page Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. Follow him at www.facebook.com/doug.ross1 and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer's.

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