Take a deep breath. Despite proposed new EPA regulations, and despite the fears of business and political leaders and the hopes of environmentalists, coal-fired power plants almost certainly will not disappear in Indiana or elsewhere any time soon.
Here’s why: In a nation as energy dependent as the United States, 68 percent of electricity still is generated by burning fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
And the fossil fuel most often used to keep the lights on in factories, homes and businesses is coal. It’s the source of 37 percent of the nation’s electricity; wind and solar, in contrast, account for less than 4 percent combined.
The advent of fracking, used to unlock natural gas deposits, has put a dent in coal’s dominance in recent years and now is the source of 30 percent of electricity production. But, energy analysts argue, the frequent use of gas to heat homes and other buildings in the winter limits its feasibility as the dominant source for electricity.
Aggressive steps toward better energy efficiency can help, and should be encouraged, but as the economy and population grow, the need to produce more electricity will remain. Nuclear energy, for a variety of economic and environmental reasons, is a non-starter. And while wind and solar generation are growing, they’re likely to remain relatively minor pieces of the overall energy picture for many years to come.
All of which means that while King Coal’s reign is being challenged, it still hasn’t been dethroned.
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So, can Indiana keep on digging and burning without concern, despite the EPA’s most recent move against the use of coal? Not at all.
For starters, there’s good reason to believe that Indiana’s current energy mix is tilted too far in favor of coal.
West Virginia (95 percent), Kentucky (90 percent) and Wyoming (85 percent) are the only states that are more dependent than Indiana (84 percent) on burning coal to generate electricity.
Neighboring states such as Illinois, Michigan and Ohio — which, like Indiana, are manufacturing hubs — rely significantly less on coal to power their industries and homes.
So diversification of energy sources can be accomplished, even in the industrial Midwest. That’s important to note because Indiana’s heavy reliance on coal may well hurt the state’s economy as the cost of coal-generated electricity rises and gives states with a better mix of energy sources a competitive advantage.
In addition, there are important health and environmental reasons to move away from such a heavy dependence on coal. Indiana’s air quality, while substantially better than in the past, remains among the worst in the nation. Mercury, a byproduct of burning coal, pollutes many of the state’s waterways. And a strong majority of scientists are pushing for reductions in CO2 emissions in order to slow climate change.
It was economic concerns this past week that prompted Gov. Mike Pence and other state leaders to raise strong objections to the EPA’s proposal to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent in the next 16 years.
But while federal government’s time frame may well be too aggressive to avoid inflicting severe hardships on ratepayers, Pence and others need to accept that the national trend away from coal is real and likely irreversible. Indiana can’t afford to get left behind in that transition.
That means making a strong push for heightened energy efficiency, a move Pence said his team embraces. The smart use of solar and wind, and continued advancement in the technology needed to develop both, should get a fresh look. And a systematic shift from coal to more reliance on natural gas needs to be a priority.
It’s not a question of abandoning coal. It likely will remain an important energy source for many years. Yet, for multiple environmental and economic reasons, there’s a need to wean the state from an over-reliance on an energy source that offers strong benefits but also poses deep risks.