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Renewable energy bill pits locals against state; House Bill 1381 detrimental to home rule, critics say

A bill clearing the path for renewables in Indiana at the request of the businesses community has split both major parties and drawn opposition from many of the state’s counties.

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, impacting the rest of the state’s ability to produce wind energy and contributed to why the state has to buy up to 80% of its electricity from other states on some days, Soliday said. At least two large companies have lost millions trying to establish wind farms just for counties to vote down their proposals.

Vigo County is among the counties who have passed resolutions opposing the bill.

“Our association encouraged all county commissioners to support this resolution (against HB 1381), because if it does pass, it removes control from the county,” Commissioner Brendan Kearns said at last week. “It is not about solar and wind, but Indianapolis taking more away from our own home. I feel we need to be the voice of Vigo County rather than somebody in Indianapolis that doesn’t care about us.”

“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, over 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.”

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.”