Jobs and clear lungs 

Sustainable energy plan could create both

Sustainable energy plan could create both

My best friend’s daughter was born Jan. 21, 2001, the day George W. Bush was inaugurated for his first term. Little Emily has had respiratory problems since that day. Her mom gives her breathing treatments with a mask straight out of a sci-fi film.
Grant Smith, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition

Kids like Emily are one reason that Indiana needs to diversify its energy portfolio. Right now, coal accounts for 96 percent of the fuel Indiana uses to power factories, homes and businesses. With all those particulate emissions to clog our air and lungs, no wonder Indiana is the third most polluted state in the nation. Grant Smith, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, is ready to change that equation with a new entity called the Indiana Sustainable Energy Institute.

The idea of ISEI is to wean Indiana off its de facto dependence on coal, gas and oil, and invest in cleaner technologies. “More sustainable energy means pollution prevention and job creation, all tied to a higher quality of life,” Smith says. “Quality of life is missing from the dialogue about Indiana’s energy policy.”

So is a spirit of innovation. “We have a lot of expertise in developing power electronics here in Indiana,” Smith says. “We should harness that knowledge to develop new energy technologies.”

For example, Indiana industrial facilities could invest in systems that use the heat they produce to generate a portion of their power, increasing efficiency and reducing emissions. Solar and wind are other areas that warrant investment. A report called “Job Jolt: Repowering the Midwest” says that embracing clean energy could result in 22,000 net jobs for Indiana.

Meanwhile, Indiana continues its investment in 19th century coal-burning technologies while public health plummets. According to Smith, the expense of running old power plants or building new ones sucks money out of the economy and benefits only the coal industry. Coal may be cheap and plentiful in Indiana, but “the true cost of coal is in health premiums … We spend $170 billion nationwide on pollution-related health care,” Smith says.

While some power plants have retrofitted old facilities with more efficient technologies, “Digging up coal will never be a value-added activity,” Smith says.

If approved by Indiana lawmakers and Gov. Mitch Daniels, the Indiana Sustainable Energy Institute will offer financial incentives to companies who phase in efficient technologies, from Energy Star appliances to more efficient motors or halogen bulbs. Funded by ratepayers and managed by a governor-appointed stakeholder board, ISEI will benefit ratepayers with lower utility rates and a cleaner environment, potentially boosting the state’s economy by $2 billion. Eighteen states have similar sustainable energy incentive programs.

Predictably, the deeply entrenched coal industry lobby has a stake in preventing the Indiana Sustainable Energy Institute, and is kowtowing legislators in the Statehouse halls. As Smith sees it, “There are 2,000 people in the coal industry. In the manufacturing sector, 500,000 stand to gain from sustainable energy efforts. Who’s more important there?” Not to mention Hoosier health and quality of life. “What we’re talking about is diversifying and decentralizing Indiana’s energy production.”

Smith is building a coalition to gain support for ISEI, including manufacturers of products like geothermal heating systems, electrical workers unions and energy service companies. One supporter is Jeff Metcalf, manager of business development for Ameresco, an energy service company that helps clients like schools and county governments make their buildings more energy efficient.

Metcalf has been talking to the new administration. “They are concerned that there will be a need for new power plants,” he says. “On the contrary, we are convinced that investment in energy efficiency has a much greater return than investment in new supply. If we add new power plants, there will be continued concerns about environmental quality.”

While many environmentalists are nervous about how Gov. Daniels’ pro-business mantra will worsen environmental quality, Smith and his allies are confident that the Indiana Sustainable Energy Institute is a win-win. “This is everything Mitch Daniels has talked about in terms of job creation. There’s no doubt that energy efficiency policies are a powerful tool for economic development and environmental improvement.”

All Indiana lawmakers need is the common sense to give it a shot, so Hoosiers like Emily can breathe.

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