Persistence and grassroots political activism finally won out in Indianapolis recently: On August 15, Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL) announced it will stop burning coal at its 1,094-megawatt Harding Street power plant – the only coal-fired power plant remaining within the limits of a major Midwestern city – and switch to natural gas-fired electricity generation by 2016.
The announcement marked a big victory for “small ‘d’ democracy,” one Indianapolis City-County Council member remarked. It was also a win for Power Indy Forward, the broad-based coalition of environmental and public interest groups that came together to persuade IPL and government officials to phase out the use of coal in electricity generation. The coalition is also lobbying for environmental and social remediation efforts, energy efficiency programs and goals, and much more in the way of clean energy generation capacity.
“More than 55 organizations comprising the Power Indy Forward Coalition have been working hard for this day, and we thank IPL for making the decision to stop burning coal at the Harding Street plant. The community fought for clean air and a plan to protect the health of our families by phasing out coal in Marion County,” Jodi Perras, senior campaign representative for Sierra Club Indiana Beyond Coal, wrote in an August 15 op-ed in the Indianapolis Star.
Moving ‘beyond coal’ in Indianapolis
IPL’s August 15 announcement came suddenly and as a something of a surprise to Power Indy Forward, which was expecting the council to adopt another resolution sponsored by Councilman Zach Adamson. The resolution called on IPL to, among other things: include a thorough cost-benefit analysis of ceasing coal use; clean up coal ash ponds; and make a transition to clean energy resources in its new 20-year integrated resource plan, which the utility is due to submit this November. It also called on IPL to take steps to assure the livelihoods of affected coal plant workers.
“We knew we had the votes to pass the resolution, so IPL coming out with its announcement the Friday before, after we knew we had won the hearts and minds of the city-county council, it was a huge victory for us,” Jodi Perras told Triple Pundit.
IPL’s Harding Street power plant is by far the biggest polluter in the Indianapolis metro area: Toxic emissions of mercury, carbon and sulfur dioxides, and nitrogen oxides from the plant have been taking a heavy toll on residents’ health and safety, as well as on air, land and water quality, since its first generating unit came online in 1958.
The plant, Perras told 3p, has been degrading the environment and badly affecting the health of Indianapolis residents for a long time, “But the community hadn’t put it all together. When they did, it made a big difference and enabled us to bring about change.”
The cost to the average utility customer of IPL’s decision to stop burning coal at the Harding Street power plant: $1 a month. “That’s less than the cost of continuing to burn coal for 20 more years at the Harding Street coal-fired power plant on the Southside,” Perras wrote in her IndyStar op-ed.
IPL officials highlighted that switching from coal to natural gas at the plant would reduce its dependence on coal from 79 percent in 2007 to 44 percent by 2017, IndyStar reported. The company said the decision was made in order to comply with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations and would result in an increase in customer utility bills of about $12 per year.
Galvanizing grassroots support
Rebuffed by IPL and government officials since 2012, residents — along with students, faculty and staff from Indianapolis universities — joined with civic and religious leaders, Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light and the local chapter of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, in April. Together, the stakeholders combined resources and intensified their lobbying efforts by forming Power Indy Forward, Perras recounted.
Less than six months later, while awaiting a decision on Adamson’s resolution, the coalition learned it had accomplished one of its main goals — far earlier than expected.
“IPL’s announcement that it will stop burning coal at the Harding plant and switch to natural gas by 2016 came four years earlier than we asked, and at a cost of only $1 per month for the average ratepayer,” Perras noted.
“They said citizen pressure had nothing to do with it, that is was an economic decision brought on by regulatory requirements.” More specifically, IPL was referring to a new regulatory requirement that the utility obtain new wastewater permits, limit wastewater discharges and invest in a wastewater treatment facility. “They concluded it would cost less to switch to natural gas,” she said.
Perras begs to differ. “The grassroots movement made a big impact. We delivered over 1,000 letters to the council that included the names of residents in their districts.” Then there were the thousands of phone calls made to Indianapolis council members, as well as numerous one-on-one visits. It seems grassroots U.S. democracy isn’t dead after all.
*Image credits: Power Indy Forward; 2) Arena