Kerwin Olson, outreach coordinator for the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana (CAC), has been beating the southern Indiana bushes lately hoping to inspire Hoosier consumers to become concerned and involved with an new opposition movement -- a movement composed of grassroots citizenry, advocacy groups and environmental organizations from across the state.

Olson asks citizen to oppose a new Duke Energy coal-gasification power plant and to help a growing movement of utility consumers fighting rate hikes.

Duke has petitioned the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) to build a new 630-megawatt coal-gasification plant. So the CAC, Sierra Club, Save the Valley and Valley Watch intervened to request that the proposal be denied.

As proposed, construction of the new Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle (or IGCC) power plant would be partially funded by utility rate hikes, and ratepayers would take on the risk for the project.

“Duke is asking regulators to approve recovering these costs from Indiana ratepayers without knowing what they will ultimately be," said CAC Executive Director Grant Smith. "Regulators should not grant Duke a blank check that shifts all of the risk involved with such an untested technology onto the backs of working families already struggling with high energy costs.”

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Olson described some of the work done and victories won by the CAC.

"We at the Citizens Action Coalition have dealt with a lot of utility issues, and served as a watchdog over rate cases before the IURC (Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission)," he said. "We've fought electric utility deregulation here in the state."

Olson sees connections between their current campaign work and past battles.

"The CAC was founded in the late 70s during the so-called energy crisis," he said. "Stopping the Marble Hill Nuclear power plant from being built down near Madison, Ind., the mid-80s was probably our biggest victory. It's a similar battle that we've got going right now with Duke Energy and their plans for a new coal-gasification power plant."

On Indiana's place on the list of global climate changers, Olson said, "Varying reports have us anywhere from fourth to sixth on the list of top U.S. producers of greenhouse gases. We are second in the nation in terms of per capita emissions, and we are emitting as much carbon as states with higher populations.

"That is in large part due to the fact that, in Indiana, we are close to 96 percent reliant on coal for electricity production. An average American gets around 50 percent of their electricity from coal. So we don't have a very diverse portfolio of power production here in the state."

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On coal as an emerging local energy resource, Olson warns about further pollution, contamination and coal exploration.

"Current mines in Indiana do not have adequate coal to supply this new plant, so new mines would have to be explored and opened," he said. "And I don't think that the folks in Southwest Indiana want their countryside to look like the Powder River Basin in Wyoming or the Appalachian Valley in Pennsylvania. It would be a rude awakening once they blast open any of those mines."

"I've also heard that the melon crop down in Southwest Indiana has been badly damaged due to acid rain caused by coal plant emissions," Olson said.

Olson said health threats are among the many reasons to care about the issue.

"Indianapolis is ninth in the nation as far as having the worst air quality," he said. "We're spending billions of dollars on health care directly relating to coal-fired generation in the state. Indiana residents are near the top of the list in terms of terminal lung cancer.

"And as far as the mercury contamination, there's not a single body of water here in our state where the EPA deems the fish population fit for human consumption, and the primary source of mercury in Indiana is coal-fired power plants," added Olson.

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Typically, the IURC is compelled to hold public hearings when matters of utility rates are involved. But this proposal had not been deemed a rate case, even though the petition for the construction of the plant includes a 13 percent to 16 percent rate increase. So the CAC decided to set up a public hearing in Bloomington for local residents to learn about and comment upon Duke's proposal for a new plant.

This town-hall meeting type event has been scheduled for Thursday, September 6 at 7 p.m. in the Monroe County Public Library Auditorium. But shortly after the CAC announced these upcoming forums in late July, the IURC announced a "Public Field Hearing" to be held Wednesday, August 29th in Bloomington City Council Chambers in the Showers Building.

Olson sees this coincidence as a pre-emptive reaction by the IURC.

"The field hearing the IURC is going to hold is clearly an attempt to circumvent the meeting we were organizing for Sept 6," he said. "It takes CAC, Sierra Club, Save the Valley and Valley Watch out of the proceeding because we are interveners, and therefore we cannot testify at the field hearing.

"It also affords the opportunity for Duke to line up their cabal with prepared statements in support of the plant. But if you are a Duke customer, you may testify in the hearing."

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Olson believes that CAC's campaign is already having important impacts.

"Vectren completely pulled out of the plant, so that is excellent," he said. "The IURC and local officials are obviously responding to our calls for public hearings on the rate hikes involved with a new Duke plant."

On the responsiveness of local politicians, Olson has had a mixed response. "On the State Government level, Matt Pierce is fully behind us," he said.

"This plant would increase carbon dioxide emissions 785 percent over the existing facility," Olson said. "Edwardsport is only about an hour away."

"So, I find it rather curious that I cannot garner the support of the Mayor or the City of Bloomington on this issue, when you have one of the most progressive cities in the state that has signed on to the Mayor's Climate Change Agreement. And yet they've been reluctant to respond to me and come out in opposition to this plant."

"Duke Energy, in their own testimony, have admitted that the IGCC carbon sequestration process is still some fifteen years or so away from commercialization. And the plant would be built without the equipment to sequester the carbon into the ground.

"We have a coal-gasification plant at Wabash River that they could use to do sequestration studies, so there's no need for the new plant to develop the technology. They are also saying they think they can remove 98 percent of nitric oxide and mercury, but Duke officials admitted in testimony that it is still only in theory."

Duke Energy has small scale methane and wind power operations, energy efficiency consultation programs and allows customers to invest in green power.

But Olson considers it little more than token, green-washing PR.

"It's about time they put their money where their mouth is in terms of being a leader in energy efficiency," he said. "Duke Energy, in the mid-90s, when they were PSI, were spending upwards of $40 million. Today that investment stands at less than 5 million.

"They are claiming a 4 percent increase in load demand by 2012, which I don't dispute, but that could be easily met through energy efficiency and renewable energy alternatives. We are also facing future carbon regulation. Taxation from the federal level is eminent and those costs are sure to be passed on as price hikes on utility bills."

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Olson and the CAC are also open advocates of renewable energy generation, particularly wind farms.

"A wind plant could be built with the same amount of money, without the fuel costs or emissions," he said. "Wind power is definitely cost competitive w/coal, less damaging to wildlife than other forms of energy generation.

"We could generate at least 40,00 megawatts of wind energy here in Indiana and we only consume about 22,00 megawatts of power on an annual basis. So wind energy is definitely a renewable source that we need to harness that would also benefit rural economies."

"Energy efficiency is the cheapest, easiest & fastest kilowatt that we can generate. It's 2 _ to 3 cents per kilowatt hour, versus coal gasification which is about seven to nine cents per kilowatt hour.", argues Olson.

Olson calls for a shift of subsidies from destructive technologies to green industry, "You have a monopoly utility company here that's going to receive some 455 million dollars in local, state & federal tax incentives. It would sure be nice to use that money for truly efficient technologies and sustainability initiatives."

Olson sees this as one boondoggle that can be stopped by not allowing it to be funded, "Wall Street is not financing these projects, so Duke has petitioned the IURC for a CWIP or Construction Work In Progress which forces Indiana ratepayers to assume the liability. And the only way that they can build this plant is if they get this CWIP."

Duke is also asking for one and a half percent return on that ratepayer investment. To learn more about the Citizens Action Coalition, a 501 (c) 4 Political Lobbying organization, their web site is www.citact.org.

Mylo Roze may be reached at greenthecity@yahoo.com.

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Citizens Action Coalition

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