A pair of bills laying the groundwork for the future of renewable energy in Indiana are advancing in the state Legislature, but environmental advocacy groups say the bills could use some improvements.
The Indiana House of Representatives passed HB 1381, heavily amended by Rep. Sharon Negele, by a vote of 58 to 38. The bill establishes “default” siting standards for wind and solar energy projects and essentially prevents local governments from banning the construction of renewable energy sources.
If the bill becomes law, local governments would be able to set restrictions on wind and solar projects at the local level, but those restrictions would not be able to be more restrictive than those delineated in HB 1381.
“Number one, what it does is set statewide standards in a number of areas for windmills, everything from height restriction, shadow flicker limitations, signal interference, sound level limitations and so forth,” said Soliday before the House vote. “So, we’ve tried to make this as friendly as possible and share responsibility with the locals.”
The bill also gives companies denied local applications the chance to appeal the decision to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
Soliday said the bill was written as a response to “aggressive folks” who traveled around the state protesting wind projects. So far, dozens of counties have banned wind energy installations and others have set local restrictions that served to discourage billions of dollars in wind power investment.
Rep. Heath VanNatter, a former vice chairman of the House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications Committee, represents portions of Cass and Clinton Counties, two counties that have enacted anti-wind legislation. He said he opposes the bill because it goes against the will of his constituents.
“My constituents elected people at the local level that will represent their views, and now we’re being told that that’s no longer the case and we are going to have statewide standards. It’s not a one-size fits all problem. What works in Benton County, where there’s less than 10,000 people, doesn’t work in Clinton County, where there’s over 30,000 people,” he argued.
Soliday said the anti-renewable protestors are now also targeting solar projects, potentially positioning the state to miss out on a renewable energy boom being seen in other parts of the country.
“This is not the Green New Deal, and you won’t see that coming from me, no matter what you see on the internet,” Soliday said. “The Green New Deal sets renewable requirements. We’re not doing that. All we’re saying is there is a market for renewable energy, and we’re going to be in that market rather than buy it from someone else.”
The Hoosier Environmental Council, one of the state’s leading environmental education and advocacy groups, said it supports efforts to bring renewable energy to Indiana and is willing to work with lawmakers to improve the bill to maximize its environmental potential.
“One of the most critical aspects of HB 1381 has to do with the land underneath these farms. By the end of the 2020s, it's possible that the overall land footprint of Indiana's solar farms could be the scale of Indiana's state parks,” Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council told the Indiana Environmental Reporter. “Getting the language right with regard to this enormous amount of acreage is so important. We look forward to staying in dialogue with the co-authors of this bill and key stakeholders so that this critical language in this bill helps truly preserve local government control and creates the maximum possible benefits of solar energy to rural communities, including stormwater control, soil and water conservation, and habitat protection, including for pollinators, who have suffered astonishing declines over the last several decades.”.
Another bill setting the regulatory foundation for renewable energy in Indiana is HB 1348, which passed the House by a vote of 85 to 3.
The bill sets the standard for the assessment of utility grade solar projects for tax collection purposes. The bill directs local governments to annually determine and release a solar land base rate that will act as the cap for taxation for the piece of property used for solar projects.
The recently passed bills follow another piece of legislation authored by Soliday, House Bill 1520, that seeks to ensure renewable energy projects in the state provide the same reliable energy as older fossil fuel-generated electricity.
HB 1520 would make renewable energy providers meet the same requirements as fossil fuel generators, such as proving they would be able to meet energy demands in peak summer and winter months, meet resource reliability requirements of local and regional transmission organizations and provide multi-year plans for power generation.
All three bills will now head to the Indiana Senate for consideration.