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After local pushback, bill on wind, solar standards takes a ‘180 degree turn’

A bill that would have overridden local ordinances that restrict or prohibit wind power in Indiana has taken a “180 degree turn” after pushback from local officials.

HB 1381 would establish statewide standards for how close wind and solar projects can be to other properties. But a new amendment would allow county and local governments to maintain restrictive ordinances, while also offering a hefty incentive for abandoning them.

The bill was amended in the Senate Utilities hearing Thursday morning to include the option for counties to adopt “renewable energy districts.” Essentially, these districts would provide a space for governments to approve wind projects – if a group of property owners want the turbines on their land – while maintaining local control over their siting.

The key is that the bill no longer requires localities to change their standards or approve projects as the previous iteration did. Instead, it dangles a carrot for them to do so.

The amended bill establishes a one-time funding source for these local governments that could bring in as much as $3,000 per megawatt capacity of the wind project. One wind turbine alone has a capacity of 2.5 to 3 megawatts, meaning a wind project of multiple acres and dozens of turbines could bring in a significant boost to a local economy, legislators say.

This funding is an important bridge between lawmakers and local officials who have been concerned about wind projects’ impacts on nearby property values, said Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, who authored the 47-page amendment.

“It allows some dollars to come in to help compensate the neighbors of those projects,” he said in the hearing. “We felt that was key.”

The flexibility that this amendment puts back in the hands of local governments has some who previously opposed the bill now on board.

Ryan Hoff with the Association of Indiana Counties said he came into the meeting ready to tell committee members why local control is so important, but said he feels it has been restored to the equation.

He acknowledges that he needs to give the amendment a more thorough read, but “at first read … we feel that it addresses most if not all of those concerns,” Hoff said. “The concept of incentivizing local participation rather than removal of local control is one that we feel like we can get behind.”

More specifically, the amended bill:

While the amendment has earned the sign-off of some, others begrudgingly accepted the amendment, worried that the bill would move forward with or without it.

Susan Huhn, council president in Henry County, where wind projects have been the subject of heated debate and are restricted by county ordinances, said she still opposes HB 1381, although she supports the amendment if the bill must pass.

“I am still in opposition to the state stepping into local government this way,” Huhn said. “I did speak in favor of this amendment, as it protects the hard work of our county, but it’s still a sad day because it sets a dangerous precedent.”

Lawmakers say getting counties on board with this bill and letting renewable companies know Indiana is open for business is critical to keeping Indiana competitive as coal plants retire and federal pressure for renewables increases, according to proponents.

Without that, Indiana, its counties and individual landowners are losing out on serious investments that renewable companies are taking to other states.

“We want to be looking farther into the future, looking at the transition that’s coming from coal fuels to renewable assets,” Messmer said. “And we want to set the parameters that will help in the long run.”

As one lawmaker described it, it’s about Indiana controlling its own destiny.

Is Indiana “closed for business” to renewables?

Lawmakers advocating for HB 1381 say piecemeal siting standards from counties across the state are blocking Indiana from gaining millions of dollars in potential income from wind and solar farms.

Thirty four Indiana counties, including Hamilton and Hendricks Counties, have ordinances restricting or blocking renewable projects. Pro-renewable groups have pointed out that while other states may also have some inconsistencies in standards, Indiana stands out. Energy companies, burned by some instances in which they’ve invested substantial efforts and funds in projects just to be blocked at the county level at the 11th hour, could become reluctant to come to Indiana.

The majority of counties with wind ordinances are in rural areas, but some of these battles have played out just outside of Indianapolis. In Hamilton County, ordinances have been passed to restrict the height of turbines to 300 feet tall to lessen the impact of shadows and appearance. Hendricks County, too, has restrictive ordinances.

But solar and wind projects can bring a much-needed boost in the tax base of some rural counties, providing several millions in property taxes to local governments. It can also provide struggling farmers an income source, if they choose to lease their property for development.

They could also be a boon for the state. A recent report indicates meeting renewable energy demand in Indiana would see an added 25,000 jobs and $5 billion in new investment in the next 10 years. Advocates also posit that replacing retiring coal plants with renewable energy projects will help to keep electricity prices low.

While this may be the case, county officials say, it won’t help families who lose home value or experience negative side effects of wind construction near their homes.

Some studies indicate that nearby wind turbines could slash property values of homes, but others assert that there’s no correlation between the two. Even so, it’s not something local government officials are willing to take a chance on, noting that for most people in rural counties, their home is the biggest investment they’ll ever make.

It’s part of the reason so many counties have passed ordinances restricting wind construction: It’s not about renewable energy, officials told IndyStar, it’s about protecting property rights.

And while some of these local officials remain in opposition to the bill, they said the amendment at least softened the blow.

For the renewable industry, it softened in a different way. While the bill no longer requires communities adopt statewide standards, “at the end of the day this amendment maintains the regulatory certainty that companies need in order to invest in Indiana communities,” said Caryl Auslander, representing Advanced Energy Economy.

She also said that the payments are a common practice that will allow the industry to support the well being and growth of the communities in which they operate.

Amendment convinces some, but others still concerned

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, ultimately voted against the bill as amended after several of her constituents from Shelby County spoke in opposition. She also challenged the notion that Indiana needs to expand renewable energy sources, pointing out that nearby states such as Ohio garner a smaller percentage of their energy from wind and solar energy.

To that point, Messmer said he anticipates seeing more push for renewable development from the federal government in coming years.

President Joe Biden has set a goal of reaching 100% renewable energy by 2035, and recently released a $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan with a focus on increasing investment in green energy.

It would be smart for Indiana to get ahead of this, Messmer said, regardless of what other states are doing.

Under the new version of the bill, if passed, counties would have a few months to enact their ordinances to be grandfathered in. After that time, any projects in counties without ordinances would go by the standards outlined in the bill. However, Huhn said that just a few months is not enough time – Henry County’s wind ordinances, for example, took a few years to hammer out.

“If this bill had been introduced a year ago,” she said, “we would not have had time to put our ordinance in place.”

Several residents from rural counties considering wind and solar projects spoke in Thursday’s hearing. Some of them remain opposed to HB 1381, lamenting the loss of farmland that the bill could cause. Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Syracuse, pointed out that it is each individual landowner’s decision on whether they want to lease their land for a solar or wind project.

The bill stays alive

And the question of what’s going to be on the ground beneath these renewable projects is still up in the air.

Environmental advocates such as the Hoosier Environmental Council would like to see an addition to the bill asserting that county governments could rule what the ground cover under new solar farms could be. The footprint of Indiana’s solar farms could reach as much as 80,000 acres by the end of the decade, predicted Hoosier Environmental Council executive director Jesse Kharbanda.

That’s more than the acreage of the state park system, which is why he wants to see measures in place to allow local governments to require eco-friendly ground cover, such as pollinator-friendly habitats. About a dozen counties have already enacted ordinances like these, he said.

“As the bill is currently written, just a few landowners (who lease their land to solar developers) could make decisions that have impact on dozens and dozens of landowners who live near a solar farm,” Kharbanda said in an emailed statement. “We would not want to see Indiana’s county commissioners go through all of the effort of creating locally tailored groundcover ordinance language only to have it vetoed.”

Lawmakers did not say whether they would address the issue of ground cover in future iterations of the bill.

Overall, said Messmer, the Senate sponsor of HB 1381, this bill will help to push forward wind and solar energy in Indiana. And that, he said, will become more essential in the coming years.

“We have to fill in the coming void. Coal plants are accelerating closure of their … facilities every year,” he said in the hearing. “What we have left to fill in the void, that we know is coming over the next few years, is wind and solar.”

HB 1381 passed out of the Senate Utilities committee on Thursday, April 1, and was referred to the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy committee for hearing.