Creation care: One Indiana congregation’s fight for energy equality

Dispute over net metering puts church, utility company at odds
May 20, 2019


INDIANAPOLIS For more than 20 years, the Englewood Christian Church on Indianapolis’ Near East Side has crusaded to provide Englewood residents with safe, affordable housing.

The mission has intensified as gentrification creeps into the neighborhood, threatening to push long-time locals, many of them people of color with low incomes, to even poorer areas with even fewer resources.

For evangelical pastor Mike Bowling, this gentrification is more than a matter of economics or social inequity. It’s an environmental justice issue that speaks to the heart of his church’s mission as a curator of the earth and its people, particularly in light of an ongoing tussle with a utility company over a recent solar power venture.

Bowling calls the mission “creation care.”

“We know polar ice caps are melting and oceans are rising, and we are concerned, but those are distant,” he said. “What we do know is that there is a disparity in quality of life for people in this particular neighborhood, and we also know this neighborhood is changing.”

Bowling’s congregation has found a way to address both sustainability and gentrification in the community through green housing initiatives. Bowling was a founding member and former director of the Englewood Community Development Corp (ECDC), which, has bought and built housing that Bowling hopes will help keep the locals local, despite rising costs triggered by an influx of more upscale properties.

Oxford Place Senior Apartments photo courtesy of Englewood Community Development Corporation

Among these projects is a 30-unit apartment building with 500 solar panels, geothermal heating, solar-heated siding and rain gardens. Oxford Place Senior Apartments sits on the site of a former commercial laundry facility. It cost $2 million to clean the site and make it safe for residential living — another effort to make the neighborhood more desirable for longtime residents, including low-income seniors.

Oxford Place claims to be the first net-zero development in Indiana, meaning it’s producing all the power it needs to be self-sufficient. Through a process called net metering, it’s selling its excess power back to Indianapolis Power and Light.

But there’s a catch.

IPL and other utilities do not allow multifamily buildings such as Oxford Place simply to use the energy they produce from solar panels. Instead, those buildings must sell the power to the utility company for the company’s lower wholesale rate, and then buy it back at the higher retail rate.

Owners of individual homes, on the other hand, receive the retail rate for the power they generate.

IPL argues the multifamily building rate complies with the state statute that governs electric metering for apartment complexes.

"This would have been an opportunity to provide low-income seniors a real break," said Mike Bowling

But the statute doesn’t mention solar power, and Bowling says IPL is taking advantage of the multifamily buildings that produce solar energy by applying the electric metering statute to them.

The two sides are at a standstill, and the development corporation has refused to sign an agreement locking the apartments into the wholesale rate.

“This would have been an opportunity to provide low-income seniors a real break — people who could really use a break,” Bowling said. “But it’s unresolved. We still refuse to take pennies on the dollar, and they refuse to net meter.”

A once-expendable neighborhood

In 2015, President Barack Obama named the Near East Side of Indianapolis a “Promise Zone” — a high-poverty area eligible for federal and state grants to help achieve economic goals.

The Englewood Community Development Corp. has been the lead implementation partner for what’s known as the IndyEast Promise Zone.

Bowling said the designation has meant “millions and millions of dollars invested in this neighborhood that was once upon a time seen as just a trash heap, expendable.”

The church, ECDC and other partners have approached the community’s salvation by looking at resources and opportunities rather than needs and problems.

To date, the IndyEast Promise Zone has brought in more than $120 million in awards, including funding for Oxford Place.

photo courtesy of Englewood Community Development Corporation

Seeing an opportunity to combine both low-income housing options and renewable energy, ECDC applied for low-income housing tax credits through the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. The tax credits supported permanent subsidized housing for people coming out of homelessness or dealing with mental health or physical challenges, as well as solar panels and other green initiatives at Oxford Place.

Such projects keep low-income residents in better health and help keep them out of emergency health care and out of the justice system, Bowling said.

This spring, nine residents are moving into the Parker Place Senior Apartments, a new 39-unit building connected to the Oxford Apartments. That makes 69 units of affordable housing for seniors, including eight seniors coming out of homelessness, Bowling said.

ECDC is also the lead agent, with the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, on transforming the former P.R. Mallory dry cell battery factory into two schools — the Purdue Polytechnic High School and Paramount School of Excellence – that together could be home to 1,000 students, and 110 full time jobs. The schools are expected to be finished by 2020.

Rendering provided by Blackline of what the P.R. Mallory campus could look like

A building adjacent to the Mallory project, referred to as the “Bunker building,” will house Farm 360 a hydroponic growing operation that will grow salad greens in partnership with a Dutch sustainable food company.

The $38 million Mallory and Bunker projects are financed through loans and state and federal tax credits. The ECDC has many more projects planned for the Near East Side, including possibly bringing wi-fi to the neighborhood and putting solar panels on Parker Place.

Bowling said there are empty buildings all over the city that can be repurposed to provide environmental, economic and community benefits.
The $38 million Mallory and Bunker projects are financed through loans and state and federal tax credits. The ECDC has many more projects planned for the Near East Side, including possibly bringing wi-fi to the neighborhood and putting solar panels on Parker Place.

Bowling said there are empty buildings all over the city that can be repurposed to provide environmental, economic and community benefits.

"Just a little bit of help makes our money go just a little bit farther, maybe we can do a little bit more," said Mike Bowling

And every little bit of money toward such initiatives helps.

Bowling’s own church took advantage of state incentive plans and grants to put solar panels on the roof. The panels provide 25% of the church’s power.

“We do early childhood education for about 200 kids and provide a lot of scholarships for low-income families,” Bowling said. “You know that 25% from solar, just a little bit of help makes our money go just a little bit farther, maybe we can do a little bit more.”

And at Oxford Place, Bowling said the retail rate of net metering would mean residents wouldn’t have to pay a utility bill at all, only their rent.

Denise Abdul-Rahman, environmental climate justice chair for the Indiana NAACP, agrees that net metering for Oxford Place and similar projects is the right thing to do.

Denise Abdule-Rahman, environmental climate justice chair for the Indiana NAACP, is working on an initiative called the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Solar Project and believes clean energy is a right for everyone.

“I think it’s good corporate social responsibility,” she said, noting that IPL services a large number of low-income customers. “Even if those members in that senior citizen housing are not paying the utility bills and the landlord or owners are, those extra credits and funds can help the CDC to do more favorable work within the community.”

“Communities are highly vulnerable to climate if they’re not resourced, given good education, good health that makes them environmentally more just,” she added.

Net metering: an unfair practice?

Net metering first began in Massachusetts in 1979 as a way to compensate customers for their investment in renewable energy. Utility companies pay for excess solar power based on the “net” difference between what the solar panels generate and what is used. Through selling their excess solar power back to the grid, customers can lower their bills or possibly receive no electric bill at all.

At first, utility companies favored the practice because it allowed them to capitalize on the growth of rooftop solar energy. However, as rooftop solar panels grew in popularity, utilities began arguing that net metering is a subsidy. Now, many are seeking to lower the price they pay for surplus energy.

About 1% of Indiana’s power is solar generated, with ambitious plans by national utility company NiSource and other utilities to increase that percentage extensively in the next few years.

1% of Indiana's power is solar generated

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission adopted its first net metering policy in 2005 and revised it in 2011. IURC spokesperson Stephanie Hodgin said the policy is available to all customer classes with energy production facilities with a maximum capacity of 1 megawatt or less.

Fred Mills, head of external relations for Indianapolis Power and Light, said the current retail rate is 2.78 cents per KWH for power provided during on-peak and 2.47 cents per KWH for power provided off peak.

Currently, the Englewood Community Development Corp. is receiving 2.66 cents per KWH. It’s trying to reach an agreement with IPL for the 2016 residential retail rate, when the apartments were built, at 10 cents per KWH, or to be able to use the power the building generates.

“We would be happy with the wholesale rate if we were able to use the energy the building produces,” said Joe Bowling, codirector of ECDC and Mike Bowling’s son. “It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s like planting tomatoes in the backyard and being told you can’t eat them. You can only take them to the grocery store to sell them for a $1 and then buy them back for $4 if you would like to eat them.”

Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission rules say buildings with more than four units don’t qualify for net metering. Oxford Place has 30 units.

“The Indiana rules were adopted many years ago to put Indiana in compliance with the Federal law known as the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1976,” Mills said. “In other words, each apartment is generally required to have an electric meter and an electric bill.”

During the past few years, legislators have tried more than once to get rid of net metering. A 2015 bill argued that net metering was unfair to low-income people and people of color because those residents in effect are subsidizing higher-income people who can afford the initial cost of rooftop solar.

Abdul-Rahman said the NAACP fought the bill, saying net metering was fair to their community.

“In fact, we felt that we would be the emerging market, and we were hoping that the more people to get solar, the lower the prices would be,” she said.

"In fact, we felt that we would be the emerging market," said Abdul-Rahman

The bill failed.

But in 2017, the Indiana General Assembly finally passed a bill that would end the state’s net metering program by 2027. This new law would replace net metering with a system requiring customers to sell all the solar power they generate back to the utility at the wholesale price and buy it back at the retail price.

State Sen. Jim Merritt, who is chair of the Senate Utilities Committee, and currently running for mayor of Indianapolis, sponsored the bill. According to Citizens Action Coalition, Merritt has received $184,500 in campaign contributions from the energy and natural resources sector since 2006.

“I guess they changed the narrative a little bit on that bill, and we ended up losing,” Abdul-Rahman said.

Bowling says power companies are interested only in the bottom line, rather than in renewable energy.

Mills said IPL does offer a Green Power Program available to all IPL customers, and it is currently working on two programs to assist lower-income customers.

“The Green Power program allows customers to purchase the environmental attributes of renewable energy projects (Renewable Energy Certificates or RECs),” Mills said. “This rate is offered at a modest premium to IPL’s retail rates.”

A community of neighbors, not consumers

The NAACP continues to push for access to solar energy and fair compensation for excess power for all people.

“We center a lot of our work kind of around a concept of energy justice or energy democracy that says that people have the right to their own self determination and that energy should be a human right,” Abdul-Rahman said. “No one should ever have to live without having access to energy.”

Bowling said the new bill wouldn’t make Oxford Place’s situation worse; it would just give them a higher mountain to climb.

One option for Oxford Place would be to go off the grid and cut ties with IPL. With the advances in microgrids and cost reduction in generators, that’s a possibility.

“We have enough mass where it might be cost effective to do that at some point in time, but again, that’s great for the people who we serve but what does that mean for the rest of the community?” Bowling said. “If everyone goes off grid, then the weight of maintaining the grid and the cost of that falls on the back of those who can’t afford to go off grid. As a church, we continue to think about those issues because we care very much for our low-income neighbors.”

"At the very least, we can always care more for our neighbors than we do for ourselves," said Mike Bowling

Abdul-Rahman is working on an initiative called the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Solar Project. Her vision for the project includes training community members on how to install solar panels, as well as giving the community a source of clean energy. A fair-market value for net metering multi-unit buildings would help communities of color who are negatively affected by energy policy.

The IURC says Indiana has a high number of disconnect notices, and an NAACP report, Lights Out in the Cold, shows African Americans and low-income communities of color are disproportionately affected, most likely because they live in old, inefficient housing stock.

Bowling says his church is excited about the projects in the works for the Englewood neighborhood. He wants to keep the community as diverse as possible.

“It’s a neighborhood that is pretty stubborn in telling its own story and not letting others define it,” he said. “It’s a neighborhood that welcomes new people not as new consumers but as new neighbors. At the very least, we can always care more for our neighbors than we do for ourselves. That’s the goal.”

Creation care: One Indiana congregation’s fight for energy equality


The Englewood Community Development Corp is currently in a dispute with Indianapolis Power and Light over the net-metering rate of their low-income senior apartment building. Both sides are at a standstill, but ECDC is hopefully IPL will either raise their current wholesale rate to the full retail rate or allow them to use the power the building produces. Each of these options would help the residents of the buildings and also other projects in the Englewood community.