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AES to convert Petersburg coal plant to natural gas, announcement causes mixed reactions

A sign outside the Petersburg coal plant. It reads "IPL" on the left and "Petersburg Generating Station" on the right.
Alan Mbathi
IPB News
The Petersburg plant currently employs about 300 people and is one of the largest taxpayers in Pike County. It also emits the third most greenhouse gases of any facility in the state.

AES Indiana’s announcement to convert its Petersburg coal plant to natural gas is being met with mixed reactions. It's part of the utility's long-term plan to power AES customers with 13 percent natural gas and at least 78 percent wind, solar, and battery storage by 2042.

"We found that this model provided the most reliable and affordable outcomes for our customers. The great thing is that by using the current and existing infrastructure that already exists in Petersburg, that essentially is a cost savings for customers. There's already a pipeline integrated into the property," said Tanya Searcy, senior director of public relations for AES U.S. Utilities.

AES also hopes to train some of the current Petersburg coal plant employees to work at the natural gas plant — though the utility isn't sure how many might be able to make that transition yet.

Ashley Willis is the executive director of the Pike County Economic Development Corporation — which has been working to attract new businesses to the area in anticipation of the Petersburg plant closing. With the plant now expected to convert to natural gas, she said Pike County will lose fewer workers and less tax revenue for its schools and local governments.

“All in all, everyone is feeling good about that. There's still some uncertainty as it relates to how this is going to unfold in the future — but overall, I think everyone's feeling really positive," Willis said.

AES said its plan will reduce carbon emissions by about 68 percent from 2018 levels. But activists said the utility is “dragging its feet” in the transition to renewable energy — which is bad for the climate and for the air quality in southern Indiana.

The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the Indianapolis city-county council, and the City of Beech Grove all passed resolutions calling on the utility to replace the coal plant with renewable energy. AES also accepted a petition with more than 2,800 signatures asking them to do so.

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Wendy Bredhold is the senior campaign representative for Beyond Coal in Indiana and Kentucky.

“Replacing fossil fuels with more fossil fuels — and methane, which is a powerful climate-disrupting fossil fuel — is not the answer to our problem, to our serious problem that we're facing in terms of the climate crisis," she said.

Bredhold said she also questions whether fossil fuels are truly "reliable and affordable."

AES's Eagle Valley natural gas plant was offline for several months due to maintenance issues when employees tried to restart the plant after a planned outage. The Petersburg coal plant has also had several air and water violations in recent years.

Bredhold said the Sierra Club hasn't yet analyzed AES's claims that their plan is the most affordable route.

"But given the volatility of gas and how expensive gas is right now, it's very difficult to believe," she said.

Searcy with AES said the utility adjusts these long-term plans every three years.

Contact reporter Rebecca Thiele at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.