Community Comment:

Vectren dialogue begins to pay off

A couple of weeks ago, something highly unusual occurred at the Vectren annual shareholders meeting. Local environmentalist John Blair, president of Valley Watch, had truly kind words for the company's board members and Vectren's corporate CEO Niel Ellerbrook.

For many years, Blair has been quite critical of the health hazards resulting from the air pollution produced by Vectren and virtually all electrical power producers in the region. However, he apparently has been engaged in a very positive dialogue with the company's top management, and the conversations are apparently generating positive results.

During the question and comment session at the end of the shareholders meeting, Blair first commended the utility for installing stack scrubbers to reduce air emissions at the A.B. Brown coal-fired power station in nearby Posey County, before it being required by federal regulations.

Second, he praised Vectren for its recent commitment to purchase some 30 megawatts of wind power that will be generated by the Orion wind farm in Benton County, Ind. This is enough power, according to company sources, to power around 8,000 homes annually.

While Blair continues to urge Vectren to consider an equity position in wind generation somewhere close to its service area, the company has yet to make a substantial financial investment. He reminded shareholders that Indiana has the potential of some 40,000 megawatts of wind power production, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, while at the present time the state has only 54 megawatts of wind power production in the pipeline.

Next, Blair turned his attention to the recently announced withdrawal of Vectren's participation in the proposed Integrated Gas Combined Cycle coal-gas conversion plant proposed by Duke Energy in Edwardsport, Ind., before the permit approval by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission last year. He said he believes that this was a very "prudent and conservative position to take and will pay dividends well in the future to both the ratepayers and stockholders."

Next, he turned his attention to the proposed multibillion dollar Indiana Gasification LLC project a proposed facility to convert Illinois Basin coal into pipeline gas in which Vectren officials remain in negotiations. Regarding this proposed plant, Blair commented: "I think this is a decision, if it is executed, that will likely take this company and this community, at least down the tubes. It is such a high-risk investment, it is something that is relying completely on an untested and unproven technology that is somewhere out in the future."

While Blair made several other positive suggestions to board members and company officials regarding more energy-efficient Whirlpool refrigerators and the use of LED traffic control signals and street lighting throughout Evansville, a small group of extremely vocal environmental protesters outside chastised those attending the meeting.

The protesters many of whom were thought to be non-resident supporters of the radical Earth First environmental group, which is dedicated to blocking the construction of Interstate 69 were reported to be shouting derogatory remarks to those approaching the Vectren building, many of whom were senior citizens who have little control over the decisions made by Vectren board members or management.

While it has taken many years of persistent civic engagement amid the chronic personal attacks from those critical of environmental activism, it appears that a warming of relations and ongoing dialogue between Vectren management and the local environmental community are beginning to reap just rewards.

In Blair's words, recorded on the Valley Watch Web site: "I found the whole meeting to show, at least to some extent, a new energy future for Vectren."

.David Coker is a local free-lance writer and community activist..