Renewable energy, like wind and solar power, is on the rise in the U.S., spurring investment and a further expansion of renewable sites across the nation, including Indiana. But local opposition in pockets of the state threatens to derail renewable projects and future investments, potentially leaving the state out of a national renewable energy boom.
Lawmakers in the Indiana House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications Committee are trying to counter that opposition, passing a bill that establishes statewide baseline regulations for solar and wind energy production systems.
House Bill 1381 creates “default” standards limiting where solar and wind systems can be installed and under what conditions, as well as limits on shadow flicker, sound limits, landscape buffers and other nuisance factors that have led to the energy sources being banned or heavily regulated in more than a third of the state’s counties.
The bill takes away the power of local governments to establish regulations that are more restrictive than the proposed “default” standards.
Rep. Ed Soliday, the bill’s author, said the bill was not an environmental statement, but necessary to meet the state’s demand for renewable energy from sources here in Indiana.
“There is a significant market for renewable energy. The state of Indiana, on some days, is buying almost 80% of our electricity from out of state,” Soliday said at the committee hearing. “You’ll hear from our 22 largest manufacturers. They all want renewable energy, and they’re going to get it. They’re going to get it either by buying it from other folks and paying the transmission costs, or we’re going to generate some of it.”
Fossil fuels are still king in the U.S., making up about 80% of the total energy used in the U.S., but renewable energy demand is rising.
Solar energy consumption more than doubled between 2015 and 2018, and wind power increased by nearly 30% in that same time span.
Some former fossil fuel giants, like BP, project most energy in the world will come from renewable energy sources by the early 2040s. The company has bet its future on that projection, investing $12 billion in renewables by 2030.
Indiana is currently not positioned to take part in the renewable energy production boom. A vast majority of the energy the state produces is powered by coal and natural gas, fossil fuels that emit a huge amount of greenhouse gases.
Soliday said the state’s energy grid is not prepared to withstand increased renewable energy production.
“The grid can only take currently about 30% renewable. The state’s at about 7%. Once we get to 40%, the grid becomes unstable. We’re aware of that. We know it. We’re trying to find something that works for everyone,” he said.
Representatives from companies planning renewable energy projects in the state said they support the bill, which would allow the state to take a more active role in the permitting process for renewables.
“Indiana has, until now, left its renewable energy future up to a disjointed patchwork of local government regulation,” Will Eberle, director of government relations and external affairs for RWE Renewables testified to the committee. “We’ve already seen those regulations destroy more than $5.5 billion worth of investment across the state. Now, we’ve seen counties pass ordinances designed to stop solar as well as the wind that’s already been stopped. This leaves Indiana as a uniquely unfriendly place to do business for our industry.”
RWE Renewables recently canceled a $600 million project that would have produced 400 megawatts of power in Gibson and Posey Counties after a “small but loud group of opponents” convinced local officials to change zoning ordinances that would affect the project, like prohibiting turbines closer than two miles from towns, schools, hospitals and other buildings.
The ordinance was later repealed, but only after the company decided to pull the project.
Similar situations happened in Cass, Miami and other counties around the state. Some counties, like Tippecanoe County, adopted anti-wind ordinances preemptively.
Those ordinances are often supported by vocal anti-wind groups, some of which have ties to the fossil fuel industry.
One opponent of wind turbine installation, Jennifer Miller, testified about why she believed the legislation should not go forward.
“You’ve been led to believe that wind and solar are the panacea to our environmental problems. The sun and the air are free, right? Fact: the cost of producing energy from wind and solar is staggering, both in terms of what ratepayers will absorb and the cost to the environment,” she testified.
Opponents of renewable energy systems have a multitude of concerns about renewable energy projects, especially wind. While some, like the deadliness of wind turbines to birds or their carcinogenicity, are plain wrong, some of their environmental concerns have yet to be answered, like the ultimate fate of turbine blades and solar panels.
Local government representatives argued that the bill takes power away from local governments, which are be better positioned to listen to the needs of their constituents than state-level legislators.
“The [Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission] is not a substitute for the board of commissioners. They’re not an elected body. And the commissioners are, as you’ve heard in testimony, uniquely positioned to hear these issues and work through these economic development agreements and work through these issues at the local level,” said Jake German, an attorney representing the Indiana Association of County Commissioners.
Besides siting requirements, the bill also features a vegetation stipulation for commercial solar energy systems. Solar systems must include perennial vegetated ground cover under and around solar panels. The use of pollinator seed mixes in the ground cover is also suggested in the bill.
Environmental groups said this part of the bill could have a positive cumulative effect.
"Over the course of this decade, Indiana is poised to attract 8,500 MW in solar energy investment,” Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council told the Indiana Environmental Reporter. “That translates into at least 42,500 acres on which these solar farms will be built. What is grown underneath these solar farms matters a lot to Indiana in terms of soil & water conservation, pollination of nearby fruits and vegetables, stormwater control, creation of landscapes that beautify our rural areas, and attraction of songbirds, bees, and other pollinators (all of which have faced considerable declines in population over the last 50-60 years). We appreciate our ongoing engagement with key lawmakers involved in drafting HB 1381 to make sure that Indiana law continues to empower our communities to maximize the community-wide benefits that solar farms can provide.”
The bill now heads to the full House of Representatives for consideration.