Indiana utility companies are accelerating their shift away from coal to produce energy, a trend that could spell the end to nearly all coal-fired power plants within the next two decades.

The state’s energy market is on a clear course, and coal is not in its longterm future. The formula is simple. Most other energy sources are renewable, more efficient, cheaper and do less damage to the environment.

While the movement away from coal is certain, Indiana’s legislative leaders are resisting the inevitable. Their reasons mostly reflect an effort to prop up the industry and save as many coal jobs as they can for as long as they can.

Indiana’s energy policy remains focused on slowing the move from coal to renewable sources such as wind, solar and natural gas. But clinging to that policy is unwise and wrong-headed.

The desire to protect the jobs and related economic benefits associated with coal mining is understandable and laudable. A number of communities in southwest Indiana have a rich history with coal. They have relied on the coal industry for the past 100-plus years and thrived as a result of the underground mineral’s capacity to cheaply fuel power plants and generate reliable electricity.

Even though the evolution away from coal cannot be stopped, the state doesn’t have to look upon its support and development of renewable energy as abandoning those communities. Lawmakers have made an effort to fund programs to assist communities hit hard by coal’s decline. That is a good strategy and should be sustained while the transition away from coal mining continues. The legislature should seek other ways to ease the distress of those areas that suffer the most. Mitigating the adverse economic impact of coal’s decline should not, however, include stifling innovation and slowing the growth of the renewable energy.

Legislation is sure to be introduced in the upcoming session of the General Assembly to address these energy issues. Whatever is proposed will be controversial and hotly debated. Even among Republicans, who have an iron grip on the legislature with super majorities in both the House and Senate, there will be harsh disagreements.

Among key issues is ensuring “reliability” of the electric grid. Pro-coal lawmakers are skeptical that renewable resources can meet consumer demand and will seek to reinforce coal’s place in the state’s energy structure. Others will insist renewable energy, with proper support from the state, can be more than capable of providing a reliable energy source for industrial, business and personal uses.

A legislative task force exploring Indiana’s energy future recently completed work. It submitted a public report which is vague and does not reveal the type of legislation that will eventually be proposed. How the battle over these issues develops will depend largely on what is contained in the legislation.

The wise approach will be to mitigate economic damage of the state’s retreat from coal while pushing aggressively to support and develop the use of renewables in the future. Indiana may never become a leader in the advancement of clean energy, but it should not allow itself to fall behind.
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