Officials in nearly two-thirds of Indiana’s 92 counties are opposing a bill that they claim preempts local control for the location of wind and commercial solar projects.
The proposal is HB 1381, authored by State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, who chairs the House Utilities Energy and Telecommunications Committee.
The bill essentially sets state zoning and regulatory standards for commercial wind and solar installations, as well as for the siting of these renewable energy sources. While the measure allows local units of government to come up with more lenient standards, city and counties cannot pass regulations that are more stringent than those established by the state.
One of the co-sponsors of the legislation is Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, who serves as chairman of the Senate Utilities Committee. Koch represents District 44, which includes parts of five townships in Bartholomew County, three townships in southern Monroe County, a large section of western Jackson County, and essentially all of Lawrence and Brown counties
Koch said it’s important to understand that the bill reflects recommendations developed after a two-year study by the 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force. Created through the Indiana Office of Energy Development in 2019, the task force was formed to explore the impact that fuel transitions and emerging technologies might have on the state’s electric system.
The task force felt that Indiana, as a state,”was making energy policy very much on an ad hoc and reactive basis, rather than through a coherent policy,” Koch said.
Soliday’s bill passed the House last month by a 58 to 38 vote. On March 11, it was sent on to the Senate Committee on Utilities.
Both the Association of Indiana Counties and the Indiana Association of County Commissioners have come out strongly against the measure.
Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, said that after he discussed the proposal with commissioner Carl Lienhoop on Thursday, he has joined the three Bartholomew County commissioners in opposing the bill.
The Bartholomew County commissioners are scheduled to consider a resolution Monday for “expressing support for local control of land use decisions” during the panel’s 10 a.m. meeting.
Soliday’s bill has generated enough opposition from around the state that it warrants a public dialogue before the Senate considers passage, Walker said.
A number of opponents say that if HB 1381 is approved without changes, wind and solar companies will be able to install projects that may conflict with future economic development projects, planned residential development or even road expansions.
“I never believed the zoning board should be in Indianapolis,” Walker said. “I’ve always believed it should be where community leaders and neighbors understand the interests of the local landscape.”
Local resident Matt Carothers said residents have always strived to maintain input into the geographic footprint of their county. However, the Columbus resident says he feels this bill could erase many of those efforts.
Other concerns include the impact a solar panel field might have on neighboring property values, as well as a potential ‘not in my back yard’ (NIMBY) syndrome, Walker and Carothers said.
But Carothers, who says he supports renewable power sources, says he’s most frustrated by the lack of public dialogue on the topic.
“It seems (bill supporters) are trying to do something that greatly matters quietly without public debate,” Carothers said. “Every person in Bartholomew County should be aware of this.”
Carothers asked solar power company representatives if they would be willing to engage in a public discussion on the best locations for solar panels. For example, he suggested former landfill sites or property adjacent to industrial parks as potentially good locations.
“They told me they didn’t want to have the discussion because that brings out opposition,” Carothers said.
Walker said he doesn’t see why the bill is needed. There are plenty of commercial wind and solar installations that have successfully dealt or are currently dealing with local setbacks, zoning and regulations, the senator said.
“I can’t say this is something that is impeding investment in the industry,” Walker said.
Another concern expressed is that commercial wind and solar power providers are subsidized industries existing in an unregulated marketplace, the Columbus lawmaker said.
“They don’t have the same obligations that publicly-traded utilities have to maintain the grid and ensure the power is supplied all the time,” Walker said.
Currently, wind and solar companies have all the decision-making as to whether they will or won’t put renewable energy on the grid, so the these commercial sellers should bargain with local landowners, local zoning and other local officials to determine what is the best fit for a specific area, according to Walker.
There is also a requirement that any appeal filed at the state level is required to have 25 persons, as well as an attorney, to represent them.
“I don’t see that in any other local issue or commercial enterprise that may want to develop, especially in the county, where it is going to impact the neighbors,” Walker said. “It keeps people from going to a county commissioner’s meeting or local zoning meeting and airing their concerns publicly. I think that sets a bad precedent.”
However, it is possible that the Indiana Senate might add amendments that give back counties some element of control, as well as eliminate more of the bill’s more controversial provisions, Walker said.