Photograph by Steven Higgs
Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda says Indiana leaders' failure to embrace renewable energy is economically and environmentally short-sighted. The state has a nascent renewable-energy economy that benefits the entire state, not just a few counties in coal country.
Jesse Kharbanda's experience with "very, very bad resource management" while doing college field work in India proved to be apt training for environmental activism in a third-world state like Indiana. Few places exist in the industrialized world where educated people mismanage their resources more flagrantly than in the Hoosier state. West Virginia, perhaps.
Energy is the prime example. As they did once again during the 2009 General Assembly, Hoosier "leaders" simply refuse to embrace the role that truly renewable energy sources can play in the Indiana economy and in cleaning up its toxic environment.
Kharbanda, the Hoosier Environmental Council's (HEC) executive director, said it's a problem of priorities: "We get about 95 to 97 percent of our electricity from coal. ... The presumption on the part of key people -- key, powerful, elected officials -- is that we are a coal state, and that's all we are."
Read Part 1 of The Bloomington Alternative’s conversation with Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda: HEC's Kharbanda sees hope, despite setbacks.
The last-minute legislative death this year of a Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) that would have required state utilities to provide 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources is one example of the state's misplaced energy priorities. In addition to the polluted air, contaminated water and climate change that burning coal contributes to, the failure to encourage clean energy has economic implications, as well.
Indiana already has a genuine and diverse renewable energy economy, Kharbanda said. "Right now it's legitimately there in the realm of wind power and, to a lesser extent, biomass, and will be one day in the realm of solar. So, Hoosiers have got to be thinking more broadly, and it's very much in their economic interest if they do."
One point that gets obscured in public and legislative debates, he said, is that the state's reliance on coal economically impacts only a few counties in the southwest portion of the state. Renewable power benefits counties statewide.
"It's really a smarter, broad-based economic development strategy if we begin to proactively diversify now," he said.
Another prime example of Hoosier decision-makers' blind commitment to King Coal's agenda is Duke Energy's proposed coal gasification plant in Edwardsport, a tiny Knox County town on the White River.
In November 2007, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission approved Duke plans for a 630 megawatt Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle power plant. It would replace two coal-fired power plants built in the 1950s.
A Duke fact sheet says the plant will use "a coal gasification system to convert coal into a synthesis gas (syngas) and produce steam. The hot syngas is processed to remove sulfur compounds, mercury and particulate matter before it is used to fuel a combustion turbine generator, which produces electricity."
While Duke estimates the Edwardsport plant's cost at $2.3 billion, the Citizens Action Coalition (CAC) puts it at $4.2 billion to $5 billion. And, CAC says, the cost will be borne by Indiana utility ratepayers, since Wall Street will not finance such "clean-coal" projects.
CO2 is a byproduct of burning coal and is a major contributor to global climate change.
The plant also has the "potential for carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and sequestration in the future," Duke says.
CAC, Valley Watch, Save the Valley and the Sierra Club sued to stop the plant but lost their case at the trial and appeals court levels. HEC, Kharbanda said, is opposed to Edwardsport because it is "not convincingly the least-cost approach to dealing with future energy-supply needs and dealing with Indiana's enormous carbon footprint."
Kharbanda said his understanding is that the state has approved Edwardsport's construction and air permits and that federal funding could help finance the carbon sequestration aspect of the plan.
"It's really a smarter, broad-based economic development strategy if we begin to proactively diversify now."- Jesse Kharbanda, HEC executive director
The advisability of capturing CO2 from power plants and preventing its release into the atmosphere is an open question, he said. "Ultimately, environmental advocates have to assess if we can technically and economically achieve the consensus 80-percent-CO2-cut-by-2050 goal without any major reliance on advanced coal technologies, as used at Edwardsport."
Kharbanda said he's heard of two CO2 sequestration plans for Edwardsport.
"What I have heard as a likely approach in the short run is to use it in the enhanced oil recovery process," he said, "to pipe it down to areas in Illinois and further south where it's used to revive aging oil wells."
Enhanced oil recovery has been around for several years and appears to be a credible technology, Kharbanda said.
But the technology that the coal industry sees resurrecting itself in a low-carbon world is geological sequestration, he said, which involves injecting liquidized CO2 into brine or saline caverns a thousand-plus feet underground.
And the thought at Edwardsport is that the revenue derived from enhanced oil recovery would finance geological sequestration, either at Edwardsport or somewhere offsite.
Kharbanda said he knows that some in the environmental community have deep reservations and skepticisms about geological sequestration. But HEC has not taken a formal position on it.
"I just think that there hasn't been enough scientific study to really lead an organization like ours to take a decisive position on geological sequestration," he said.
Despite Indiana's history of bowing to the coal industry, Kharbanda is encouraged by the blossoming awareness nationally of the fragile state of the environment and the role coal plays in it.
"I think best measure of that is the degree to which the public has taken the issue of global warming seriously," he said.
Kharbanda acknowledges that an alarming percentage of Americans still do not believe that global warming is attributable to man's activities or is even happening. "But I think a sizeable percentage of Americans care about the issue, and I think that's an indicator of something broader," he said.
As an example, he pointed to the television ads that some national groups are running exposing "clean coal" as an oxymoron.
"I think that the environmental advocate community has come to realize the power of really savvy and compelling advertising, and they're deploying those tools for a good cause," he said. "And some of those commercials that critique coal gasification are pretty outstanding."
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.