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U.S. utility NiSource to delay coal plant shutdown due to solar market freeze

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May 4 (Reuters) - U.S. utility NiSource Inc on Wednesday said it would delay the shutdown of an Indiana coal plant by two years because a federal investigation into solar panel imports has stalled development of renewable energy facilities meant to replace it.

The revelation is a palpable sign that the Commerce Department's probe into tariff-dodging by Chinese panel producers represents a substantial threat to corporate and government efforts to address climate change by moving away from fossil fuels.

The remaining two units of NiSource's R.M. Schahfer coal plant in Jasper County, Indiana will retire by the end of 2025, rather than in 2023, company executives said during a quarterly earnings conference call with Wall Street analysts.

The units have been operating since the 1980s. The company retired two older units last year, part of a plan to shut down all of its coal facilities by 2028 and slash carbon emissions by 90% by 2030. Those goals have not changed, NiSource said.

Most of the solar and energy storage projects the company had been expecting to be completed this year and next have been delayed by six to 18 months, said Shawn Anderson, NiSource senior vice president and chief strategy and risk officer. NiSource has 10 solar projects in development that are intended to help replace the Schahfer plant's 877 megawatts of capacity.

A U.S. solar trade group has warned that solar installations for this year and next could be cut almost in half due to the threat of tariffs from four South Asian nations that make up 80% of U.S. supplies. The Commerce Department initiated the probe in March, and it will not be completed for months.

The projects' delay, NiSource said, will push back the timeline for the cost savings the company anticipated receiving from the shift to cheaper generation sources.

"Our focus has been to accelerate savings for our customers to benefit from the renewable transition," Anderson said. "And delays resulting from this investigation may ultimately delay the timing of when our customers could begin receiving these benefits, especially in the current energy cost inflationary environment."

Solar industry turmoil has also extended the life of a New Mexico coal plant this year. In February, PNM Resources Inc was granted a 3-month extension to the operating life of its San Juan coal plant because of pandemic-related solar supply chain disruptions. (Reporting by Nichola Groom Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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