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Column: Gasified-coal facility a boon

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In late October, Duke Energy’s new Edwardsport power plant near Vincennes successfully produced its first electricity from gasified coal. It was an important milestone for the company as well as Indiana, which depends on coal to fuel the vast majority of our state’s electricity. By mid-2013, startup and testing will be complete, and Indiana will be supplied with power from one of the world’s cleanest coal-fueled power plants.

So why turn coal into gas before burning it to generate power?

New clean air rules

It’s harder for traditional coal-burning technology to measure up to new, far-reaching federal environmental rules and that’s changing the way we produce power. The Edwardsport plant uses advanced technology to convert coal to a gas, strip out many of the pollutants, and then burn that cleaner gas to produce electricity.

It will produce 10 times the amount of electricity as the plant it replaces, yet with significantly lower emissions.

Around-the-clock power

Utilities use a mix of different power plants, including heavy-duty “base load” generating stations designed to operate around the clock. The average age of those units in our system is 45 years. In fact, we are retiring some of those units due to new environmental rules.

Edwardsport is a base load plant that will help fill the gap left by those retirements.

An abundant local resource: coal

Indiana hasn’t built a new coal-fired plant in more than two decades, yet we have abundant coal reserves. Our state currently imports more than half of the coal it uses because Indiana coal typically has higher sulfur content and, without plant retrofits, it doesn’t meet environmental standards. Those are jobs and dollars going out of state to purchase a product that’s plentiful in our backyard.

We pursued Edwardsport, because the process of gasifying coal and stripping out the pollutants allows us to continue using an affordable and homegrown resource.

The Edwardsport project has had its challenges. A plant using this technology has never been built on this scale before, and the project’s scope and complexity drove costs up.

We provided regulators and other stakeholders with unprecedented access to project information. They examined the prudence of every decision made. We have resolved all issues through a settlement with the state’s key consumer groups, including the Indiana Utility Consumer Counselor and our major industrial customers.

If approved by state utility regulators, under the proposed settlement consumers will get a plant that serves them for decades at approximately 75 percent of the cost to build it.

It’s worth noting that our opponents are against coal plants of any type. Interestingly, in a poll they recently conducted, most Hoosiers surveyed said coal’s current share of Indiana’s electricity mix is “about right.” Those groups would prefer we rely on wind and solar power as well as energy efficiency measures.

Actually Duke Energy is heavily invested in those alternatives nationwide. Indiana has robust customer energy-efficiency programs that help us reduce overall power demands. We also purchase wind power to supplement our Indiana energy supplies. But while renewable energy is clean, it’s not always available. And while energy efficiency is important, it’s not enough to fulfill our power needs.

Our business is unusual in that we have to produce our product the instant it is needed. We don’t have the technical capacity yet for large-scale electric storage. We need base load plants to supply energy around the clock so that when our customers flip the switch, power is always there. Edwardsport will help fill that need and modernize an aging system while complying with ever-tightening environmental regulations.

Doug Esamann is president of Duke Energy Indiana.

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