INDIANAPOLIS — A bill clearing the path for renewable energy in Indiana at the request of the businesses community has split both major parties and pitted local counties against the bill’s erosion of “home rule.”
The bill sets standards for siting solar and wind farms but allows counties to permit and review the process. However, if a county denies a company that meets these standards, a company can appeal to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, the author of House Bill 1381, said that the bill would eliminate the patchwork regulations for wind and solar that varied from county to county — though only 40 or so counties produced enough wind to be viable.
“Almost every large corporation in the state is saying they want renewable,” Soliday said when introduction the bill for the first time. “There is demand and there are businesses deciding not to come to Indiana because we don’t have renewable energy.”
At least 32 of those 40 counties, mostly in northern Indiana, have banned developments, affecting the rest of the state’s ability to produce wind energy, Soliday said, and contributed to why the state has to buy up to 80% of its electricity from other states on some days. At least two large companies have lost millions trying to establish wind farms just for counties to vote down their proposals.
“We know there’s a market. We know it affects jobs and people coming to our state and people staying in our state,” Soliday said.
COVID-19 policies and time management curbed the amount of testimony lawmakers could hear on the bill and roughly one hour of testimony was split over two days, Feb. 3 and Feb. 10. Several who testified had to drive down twice, including Betsy Mills of Henry County, and had their testimony limited to just two minutes.
Mills, who serves at-large on the Henry County Council, said she supported responsible green energy but still recognized that the bill infringed on the rights of local government.
“Why does this bill prioritize the needs of industry and not the voice of the people?” Mills said on Feb. 10. “Wouldn’t logic dictate that if we want to encourage more renewables, the state should work with the 60 counties that might actually want them rather than push renewables on the 32 that might not?”
Henry County Council President Susan Huhn said she and other ran in opposition to wind energy and had made their opinions clear.
“This bill suggests that the state would dictate what companies counties are forced to do business with; what companies counties are forced to be partners with and how and where counties pursue their economic growth,” Huhn said on Feb. 3. “Forcing open a door to wind energy that local governments have so clearly closed would strip local government of its intended powers in an unacceptable way.”
Over the course of the two meetings, more than two dozen people signed up to testify in nearly an even split between supporters and opponents.
Primarily, the bill got support from businesses and some of Indiana’s largest employers, who want to purchase renewable energy but are limited in Indiana.
Greg Ellis, the vice president of Energy and Environment with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, testified in support of the bill, representing many of Indiana’s biggest businesses. He talked about an unnamed company that lost millions on a project in Montgomery County after commissioners didn’t approve a project investment.
“It was going to be a utility grade project so it had more than local impacts — it had statewide impacts on energy reliability and rates,” Ellis said. “Those renewable companies have told us they’re going to stop investing in Indiana because there isn’t regulatory certainty.”
Yet another company discussed its lost investments in Indiana.
Will Eberle, the director of government relations and external affairs for RWE Renewables, said his company had just one wind farm in Madison County and Tipton County but had lost almost a billion dollars in infrastructure investments elsewhere in the state.
“Since its inception (it) has paid landowners and farmers in the county more than $16 million in royalty payments as well as more than $5.6 million to the two governments,” Eberle said. “However, in the last year alone we’ve had to cancel $600 million worth of that land investment … and are on the verge of canceling another $300 million of planned investment in Clinton County.”
Bill moves steadily through the House
The bill sailed through the Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications committee, which Soliday chairs, with just one ‘no’ vote from Rep. Ethan Manning, R-Denver.
Co-author Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, offered two amendments to the technical aspects of the bills, such as siting requirements and buffer zones, on the committee and House floor. Both passed easily.
Soliday introduced House Bill 1381 as part of his overall examination of Indiana’s energy policies through the 21st Century Energy Task Force. His bill the previous session, which would slow the closing of coal-fired power plants, was criticized for being a “coal bailout.”
Soliday insists that both bills are part of an effort to ease Indiana’s transition to different energy sources, such as wind or solar.
“Last year I was coal’s best friend and I was a villain. This year I’m renewables best friend and I’m a villain,” Soliday said after the bill passed out of committee on Feb. 10. “(We’re) trying to find an energy policy that’s right for Hoosiers.”
On the House floor, representatives filed 15 amendments to the bill, but only called four to the floor for a vote. Only Negele’s amendment, approved by Soliday, passed.
The bill passed in the House on Feb. 17 by a slim majority, 58 to 38, splitting both Republicans and Democrats.
Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, whose district includes part of the RWE Renewables’ wind farm, was one of five from the minority party to vote against the bill.
“Large, visible projects like this … local decisions are the best decisions,” Austin said. “We trust them to do just about everything else. But that doesn’t mean I’m against renewables.”
Manning, the only committee remember to vote against the bill, said he listened to constituents who shared concerns about the bill. He joined 33 other Republicans against the bill.
“We are working on a lot of important policies at the Statehouse to help Hoosiers, from protecting jobs to supporting our schools, and I will continue focusing on policy proposals that will have a positive impact on our community,” Manning said.
Soliday emphasized that he believed in local control but also believed local control had its limits. As coal-fired plants close, counties can lose significant parts of their revenue and threaten the state’s entire electrical grid, underlining the need to diversify with natural gas, wind and solar.
“We’ll encourage renewables because they’re here and there’s a demand for them. But we will not compromise reliability and we will not compromise affordability to get there,” Soliday said. “There’s a transition that we’re trying to make as smooth as possible.”