INDIANAPOLIS - A wind energy advocacy group says Indiana has the potential to be a national leader in the renewable energy sector, especially as utility companies transition more power generation away from coal and towards wind and solar.

"In 2019, we got a great signal from the utilities in Indiana that they were more interested in building clean energy and renewable energy into their resource plan, which was a wakeup call,” said Jeff Danielson, central states director for the American Wind Energy Association.

Last year, Northern Indiana Public Service Co., a subsidiary of Merrillville-based NiSource (NYSE: NI), announced plans for the construction of four wind farms in the state. The latest was an 80-turbine, 302-megawatt wind farm in White County.

In February 2019, NIPSCO unveiled its plans to be coal-free by 2028, replacing coal-fired generation with wind, solar and battery storage technology.

“I think for a lot of people that 20- or 30-year decision that they (utilities) are making, and especially that it looks like they're interested in wind energy and utility-scale solar really makes the future positive for Indiana consumers.”

Indiana currently ranks 12th in the number of wind turbines with 1,264. The massive turbines, located on utility-scale wind farms, mostly in west-central Indiana, generate 5% of the state’s energy needs. Coal-fired power generates 70% of Indiana’s electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

While the state is still reliant on coal, wind energy companies, like Texas-based EDP Renewables, see potential. It’s building the Meadow Lake Wind Farm in White, Jasper and Benton Counties. AWEA says it’s the fourth-largest wind project in the U.S. with 414 wind turbines.

NIPSCO has agreed to purchase power from EDP.

“It is a place where wind farms at a utility-scale work. There also has traditionally been a good business environment in Indiana. It's a cost decision. And there's a business case to be made for investing more in utility-scale wind,” said Danielson.

But the AWEA and other renewable energy advocates say Indiana could be outpaced by other states unless it does more to encourage commercial wind power.

“We're seeing right now in Indiana at the local level, a cluster of counties who have all but have effectively imposed bans on actually building that wind farm,” said Danielson. “You have all of those benefits and all that investment that is likely to occur, but for decisions at the local level that do not allow wind farms and other assets to be actually built.”

Last May, Tippecanoe County commissioners voted in favor of a zoning ordinance to ban wind turbines taller than 140 feet. Most industrial turbines are closer to 300 feet tall.

Danielson says there is an estimated $5.5 billion worth of additional wind energy investment that could occur in Indiana if barriers were removed.

“We believe that Indiana can be a crossroads for a clean energy economy as they make those decisions. We see that mainly as a business decision for them.”