Just as some Whitley County residents have made it clear they don’t want a wind farm in their area, Indiana lawmakers are making it clear they couldn’t care less about wind power.
Escalating costs and detrimental environmental effects of reliance on fossil fuels are impelling more states to adopt policies mandating increased use of renewable energy resources. But state legislation passed last week and some local opposition could be sending the message that future wind power investment is unwelcome in Indiana – despite the strong winds, dependable electricity infrastructure and abundant agricultural land that make wind energy a natural fit for the state.
“This shows the state isn’t putting out the welcome mat to renewable energy investment,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.
Senate Bill 251, authored by Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, sets the goal of getting 10 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025.
“It’s basically meaningless,” Kharbanda said. “It does nothing to tap into the economic development opportunities of renewables. If anything, it makes the terrain more difficult to traverse.”
Four out of the five utilities operating in Indiana are believed to have already met the majority of the law’s goals or will soon after already-planned energy projects are completed.
Indiana is one of just seven states with voluntary renewable energy standards (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency interchangeably refers to such state policies as Renewable Portfolio Standards). Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all have mandatory renewable energy standards. And most of the mandatory standards are more aggressive than Indiana’s measly voluntary goals.
“Those requirements have been a driver for wind development in the 29 states that have them,” said Brad Lystra of the American Wind Energy Association. He diplomatically describes Indiana’s new renewable energy standard as “a good first step in the right direction.”
A 2008 study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that 70 percent of the investment into renewable energy goes to states with mandatory requirements.
There are other significant problems with the new law. One of the most troubling is just what many state legislators are willing to consider a renewable energy source. Under SB 251, nuclear, methane and coal gasification are all considered renewable energy sources.
But coal – despite its relative abundance and accessibility in southern Indiana – is a fossil fuel and is not by any stretch of even the most impressive imagination a renewable resource, despite its abundant supply. About 95 percent of Indiana’s electricity currently comes from coal-fired power plants.
Another element of the bill that should cause apprehension for any true conservative is that it grants eminent domain authority for private companies to acquire land for carbon dioxide pipelines. Eminent domain is a power that should be limited – very limited – for governments to use only after proving the absolute necessity of taking private property.
Opponents to the legislation also think it unfairly allows utility companies to shift the costs of investing in energy projects onto ratepayers.
According to the American Wind Energy Association’s annual report released in April, Texas, California and Iowa are the top wind-power-generating states. The report ranks Indiana as 11th in the nation for wind-power production with more than 1,300 megawatts generated – enough to power more than 325,000 homes in a year.
“Indiana is uniquely situated with good wind resources, good transmission resources and open land. This has allowed Indiana to prosper despite the lack of a (mandatory) renewable energy standard,” said John Doster, project director of Wind Capital, a company considering building a wind farm in Whitley County. “It’s not going to hurt anything we are doing, but I don’t see it having a huge benefit for us because it has no teeth.”
Unfortunately, most of the wind power produced in Indiana goes to other states. And many experts think Indiana’s unfriendly renewable energy policies are the reason the state is losing attractive wind investment opportunities.
“Our internal forecasts show Indiana having a drop down in investment in wind over the next couple years when compared to the development we’ve seen over the last couple years,” Lystra said.
Ohio and Illinois have mandatory renewable energy standards that require 25 percent of the electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025. Horizon Wind Energy was working on a 100-megawatt wind farm in Randolph County but decided last year to delay the project. However, the Houston-based company recently began construction on a $1 billion wind farm across the state line from Fort Wayne in Paulding and Van Wert counties.
“We compete with Illinois and Ohio,” said Kelly Kepner, director of Benton County’s Economic Development Department. While Benton County is one of Indiana’s wind power success stories, Kepner worries that the weak policies will make it difficult for the industry’s continued growth.
Three companies with a total of 495 turbines operate in Benton County. According to Kepner, the revenue from wind power investment has allowed the county to pay off its debt, make a sizable contribution to the local school corporation and will lead to lower property taxes over the next two or three years. The revenue also allowed the county to make her job full time and has allowed her a full-time assistant.
“We didn’t feel the economic impact of the recession until a year later because of wind investment,” Kepner said.
Meanwhile, some counties – such as Whitley – are battling to develop wind energy ordinances that encourage wind farm development but protect property owners and preserve quality of life.
For months county leaders have worked on an ordinance but were met with angry resistance, much of it coming from Whitley County Concerned Citizens.
Douglas Adams, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, said part of the problem is having reliable information to make a good decision about how and where to build wind farms.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the information on Google you can’t believe,” said Adams, who is part of the team working on a 100 megawatt wind farm at the Purdue Energy Park. “I’m not suggesting their concerns are not valid concerns – in Whitley County or any other county – but we need valid information.”
The first draft of an ordinance was scrapped in November, and David Sewell, executive director of planning and building for Whitley County, said county leaders would start over.
About the same time Tuesday, as state leaders were voting on the renewable energy goals bill, the Whitley County Plan Commission was conducting a meeting where members decided to hire a consultant, Ground Rules Incorporated, to prepare a wind energy study. The commission also created a nine-person steering committee to make recommendations.
Three of the committee members will come from the concerned citizens’ group, three will be property owners with land lease agreements for the wind farm and three will be plan commission members.
Sewell thinks the process will take at least four months.
“Obviously we would have preferred a quicker turnaround time,” said Doster of Wind Capital. “But we want them to go through their due process and ensure the county does the right thing. We support the process.”
Whitley County should look at the wind ordinance developed by Benton County.
“We basically have been the source so that other counties don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Kepner said.
Not having local and state policies that encourage responsible investment in renewable energy industries means Indiana could be on the brink of missing out on future development.
A report from Indiana Businesses for a Clean Energy Economy showed that Indiana ranked second in the nation in potential for renewable energy manufacturing jobs. The same report estimated renewable energy investment could bring more than 40,000 green jobs to Indiana.
But the state’s renewable energy policy discourages rather than encourages private investment in renewable energy projects.
“There is a huge missed opportunity with this bill,” Kharbanda said.
Stacey Stumpf is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.
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