After attempts to establish some statewide standards for renewable energy projects crashed and burned at the end of last year’s legislative session, lawmakers are at it again.
Senate Bill 411 would establish some guidelines for siting renewable energy projects and allow Indiana counties to become a solar or wind ready community. Those standards include setbacks from neighboring properties or fencing around projects. But this year’s bill – authored by Sens. Mark Messmer, Eric Koch and Lonnie Randolph – is marked by one key difference from last year’s: It’s voluntary.
Last year’s bill, House Bill 1381, would have made those standards mandatory for all counties, and garnered a lot of pushback from farmers and local officials concerned with home rule. It died late in the session and then-Senate sponsor Messmer said working on the bill and trying to address concerns of those opposed was akin to being “in a hostage negotiation.”
That’s why this year the legislature tried a different route: The carrot instead of a stick.
“If you had asked me at the end of last session if I would bring back a renewable siting bill this year, I would say ‘no way,’” Messmer, R-Jasper, said during a committee hearing on the bill. “But we worked with stakeholders and came back with a different approach.”
“This is a voluntary program and sets the stage for predictable renewable energy policy for the state,” he continued.
Predictability is desperately needed, according to those in support of the bill, to send the message that Indiana is open for business to renewables.
The bill – which passed the Senate on Feb. 1 and the House on Feb. 28 – has widespread support from the electric utilities, environmental organizations and business groups. It even has support of local government associations, which were among the key opponents last year.
Still, the bill has many rural residents up in arms and fighting against it.
Voluntary, not mandatory
The bill establishes a commercial renewable energy development center within the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Counties could then volunteer to participate in the program.
The center would certify those communities as being “commercial wind energy ready” or “commercial solar energy ready” if they adopted specific renewable-friendly siting standards that are laid out in the bill.
The key to this year’s bill is that it is entirely optional.
Counties that want to be open to and attract large scale renewable projects can volunteer to participate with the center. But those that want to keep wind and solar out can do that, too.
“This is voluntary,” Messmer said during the committee hearing. “Counties don’t have to adopt anything if they don’t want to and if they already have something, then that stands.”
That’s a big relief for the Association of Indiana Counties, which believes that planning and zoning authority should remain at the local level, including over renewable energy projects.
While the bill does include technical standards for such projects, the decision to adopt them remains with the locally elected officials. That’s why AIC supports SB 411 this year.
The Association “believes this year’s legislation is far better than last year’s HB 1381,” said Ryan Hoff, director of government relations with AIC, which strongly opposed last year’s bill. “Any one-size-fits-all approach to land use ignores the unique characteristics of each community.”
More than 30 counties across Indiana have ordinances that restrict wind and solar projects or prohibit their construction altogether. On several occasions, a renewable company would start its planning and engineering process, investing millions, and then the county passed an ordinance restricting such projects.
As the ground continued to shift under renewable energy companies’ feet, several said they were going to stop investing in Indiana.
That means the state could be missing out on millions of dollars in potential income, according to proponents of the bill. The renewable companies pay local property owners to lease the land, they pay local property taxes, and they pay to help improve infrastructure. They also create thousands of new jobs.
This bill aims to address the current uncertainty by making it clear which counties are ready for renewables and having some consistency across the standards for things like setbacks from other properties and noise considerations.
“We support more renewable energy projects in the state. It helps with jobs, investment, tax revenue and we want more of this,” said Caryl Auslander with Advanced Energy Economy. “SB 411 is a great first step in trying to make that process a reality.”
Financial incentive is out
The original version of the bill tried to further encourage counties to move in this direction, even those that might currently have a restrictive ordinance. It did that through a financial incentive.
After being certified by the IEDC’s renewable development center, communities would have been eligible to receive $1 per megawatt hour of energy produced for each project. This incentive was in addition to the taxes and other potential payments agreed to between the local community and the energy company.
It could have meant big dollars for counties.
The incentive, however, was taken out of the bill last week by the House Ways and Means Committee. That’s because it was unclear who was paying that incentive: the state or the developer.
With that ambiguity – and because this year’s legislative session does not deal with budget appropriations – the committee decided to remove the financial enticement altogether. Rather, the focus is on getting the statewide standards and setbacks in place for those counties that establish renewable energy districts.
The solar panels on William Harlow’s farm in Sharpsville, Indiana, will have native plants underneath it to provide habitat for bees and butterflies.
Hoff said that AIC supported the idea of an additional incentive for those localities that choose to adopt the standards, but “we recognize that the state budget cycle may not allow for that concept to move forward this year.”
The hope is to get back to the financial incentive next year.
Hoff recognizes that an incentive may have led more local officials to look at the potential of renewable energy projects. Some proponents worry that those counties may wait to volunteer for a year to see if the incentive is brought back during the next session.
Auslander said AEE considers incentives an important piece of the package to make renewable energy districts a more attractive option for counties.
As amended, “SB 411 is a small step forward, not a giant leap,” she said. “But we are happy to support this in moving the ball forward to create more renewable energy projects in the state.”
Beyond Advanced Energy Economy and the Association of Indiana Counties, other groups in support of the bill: the trade organization for Indiana’s electric utilities, the Hoosier Environmental Council, consumer-advocacy group Citizens Action Coalition, the state Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Manufacturer’s Association, Clean Grid Alliance and several renewable companies.
Those organizations all testified in favor of the bill during committee hearings. SB 411 also has seen broad support in its votes on the Senate and House floors.
Lingering concerns over local control
Despite the support and positive momentum, there are still those who are pushing back.
Several individuals have spoken during the hearings raising concerns about SB 411, carrying the torch from the previous session – when such opposition ultimately defeated HB 1381.
Jennifer Miller with Hoosiers for Reliable Energy, formerly Hoosiers for Home Rule, said that SB 411 “is a love letter to wind and solar industries and a blatant disregard for rural Hoosiers.” She felt the bill tilted the playing field toward renewables and away from neighboring property owners, she added.
Her resistance was echoed by Joan Null, a resident of Whitley County. Null said that “on behalf of thousands of rural Hoosiers,” she was asking committee members “to find your spine and vote against this bill.”
Messmer stressed during the hearing that SB 411 would not jeopardize or interfere with any local decisions.
The original version of last year’s bill would have overruled existing county ordinances, including those that prohibited renewables. But it made a 180 degree turn during the session to hand more authority back to local governments. It grandfathered in existing ordinances and said those without rules on the book either had to establish some within a few months or adopt those established by the state. Still, it was defeated.
That’s why SB 411 takes a completely different approach. The choice to pursue renewables remains at both the county and individual landowner level, Messmer said.
Hoff echoed that thought. He said public input at the local level is routinely part of any large scale development. “It will remain part of the local process,” he said, “so long as the standards remain optional.”
A few others have expressed they would like to see additional standards in SB 411 pertaining to ground cover under solar farms. Tim Maloney with the Hoosier Environmental Council said the group is supportive of renewables and incentives to promote them, but wants to maximize these acres with pollinator-friendly habitats or other environmentally sustainable uses.
House sponsor Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the bill is written to leave those decisions up to counties, farmers and the companies on what they want to do. He recognizes it is an important issue but doesn’t want it to stand in the way of the bill moving forward.
The bill now heads back to the Senate with amendments made during its time in the House. Senators will decide if they agree with those changes before SB 411 goes to Gov. Eric Holcomb to be signed into law.
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