As the country decides how hard it wants to fight climate change, Midwestern states have become battlegrounds for the nation’s energy future.
Greenhouse gas-spewing fossil fuels have been the primary fuel source for electric generation in Indiana for decades, mainly in the form of coal, but climate-friendly renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are making serious inroads in the state.
Renewable energy systems supplied about 9% of the state’s total electricity net generation in 2020, more than doubling its share of the market in about a decade.
But progress has not been easy for solar and wind energy suppliers in Indiana and other parts of the Midwest as proposed projects have faced opposition from concerned local citizens and groups with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Industry representatives and consultants discussed strategies to address real local concerns and combat targeted misinformation during the American Clean Power 2021 Siting and Environmental Compliance Virtual Summit in July.
With more than a third of all Indiana counties restricting renewable energy projects with strict local ordinances, speakers said the Hoosier State was quickly becoming one of the most difficult parts of the country to get a renewable energy project approved.
“Over the years, we've definitely seen a rise in the effectiveness and prevalence of renewable energy opposition in the communities where we work. In particular, we've seen it get increasingly difficult for projects to receive the local permits that they need from local governments, and we've witnessed more and more counties and townships passing restrictive ordinances and flat-out moratoria on renewable energy development,” said Dahvi Wilson, vice president of public affairs for Apex Clean Energy.
TROUBLE AT THE “CROSSROADS”
Apex Clean Energy is one of many companies that has attempted to establish multi-million-dollar wind projects in the state, only to have county officials essentially kill the project through local ordinances.
In 2019, the company signed an agreement with one of Indiana’s largest utility companies, Northern Indiana Public Service Co., to provide 300 megawatts of power through a proposed 150-wind turbine farm called Roaming Bison Wind.
NIPSCO wanted the power to ease the transition away from coal-fired electrical generation, a move that would save ratepayers more than $4 billion over the next decade. The company announced in 2018 it would retire four coal-fired power units by 2028.
Apex Clean Energy planned to build Roaming Bison Wind on land leased from property owners in the northwest corner of Montgomery County, but local opposition to the project quickly grew.
Local residents joined groups to oppose the project, citing concerns about the wind farm’s effect on the community, turbine noise and potential health risks. The residents’ concerns convinced county commissioners to draw up a plan for the future of Montgomery County’s rural areas that specifically discouraged wind power system installation as a potential future land use in the county.
County commissioners adopted the plan and used it as justification to update the county’s zoning ordinance. Large wind turbines like those planned for the Roaming Bison Wind farm would be allowed only through a special exemption and only in areas zoned for industry. The update also included various other restrictions that would make the installation of commercial wind turbines nearly impossible.
Apex Clean Energy was unable to move forward with the project, despite approval from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. The company currently does not have any clean energy projects in Indiana.
“It's very difficult to save wind projects in Indiana. Most of the state has effectively banned wind in the state, so we've been really trying to figure out if there's another way. We see two pieces of the problem,” Wilson said. “One part is that there's a tremendous amount of control given to local governments in Indiana, so county governments have the authority to approve or deny a project. And then the other problem that partners with that is there's a lot of opposition in the state that's well networked and well supported. There's a sort of precedent of killing projects in the state that opponents can look to.”
Currently, 34 Indiana counties have some sort of ordinance that either restrict or ban wind and solar project construction.
THE SOURCES OF DISCONTENT
Experts at the panel said the ordinances are the result of local opposition from residents with real concerns and purposeful disinformation campaigns from the industry that stands to lose the most from a transition to renewable energy, the fossil fuel industry.
“Certainly, there’s what you call genuine ‘not in my backyard’ opposition from people who might prefer to use a parcel of land for fishing, hunting, a good view, et cetera, but there’s also a real proliferation of opposition to these projects through blogs, websites and, increasingly, on social media,” said Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute. “They’re picking up more disinformation that comes from a pretty familiar set of actors.”
Anderson said companies like fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil and coal producers Murray Energy and Peabody Energy fund front groups like the Institute for Energy Research, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, Heartland Institute and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The groups spread disinformation about climate science and renewable energy technologies like wind and solar that are used to support the claims and prey on the worries of local opposition groups.
“These attacks tend to go beyond simply making ludicrous statements about how much wind and solar will cost or things like that, that we often see coming from conservative politicians, and actually echoing some false statements about health impacts from like infrasound from wind turbines and toxicity leaking from solar panels that just aren't really supported by any kind of evidence,” Anderson said.
Groups opposing the Roaming Bison Wind project in Montgomery County echoed many of the same concerns Anderson said were part of concerted disinformation efforts.
Members of No Wind Farm Montgomery County, a group that says its mission is to “oppose and expose” the risks associated with the “wind industrial complex,” and other local wind power opposition groups, expressed concerns about infrasound, low frequency sound that humans cannot hear, to commissioners during public hearings on the proposed wind projects.
The groups post stories from websites like National Wind Watch and other dedicated anti-wind sites with links to the fossil fuel industry.
National Wind Watch itself claims to have no links to the fossil fuel industry, but at least one of its executives was discovered to be a paid consultant for the Institute for Energy Research, one of many fossil fuel front groups that deal disinformation.
Direct links from fossil fuel money to front groups are rare, as the industry has worked to blur the relationship between the two.
In June, a senior ExxonMobil lobbyist inadvertently revealed that the company used third-party organizations to fight against legislative action on climate change and used “shadow groups” to maximize profits for the company.
“Did we aggressively fight against come of the science? Yes. Did we hide our science? Absolutely not. Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing, there’s nothing illegal about that,” Keith McCoy told Greenpeace UK members during a sting operation. “We were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders.”
ExxonMobil said it engages with trade organizations, think tanks and coalitions to promote “informed dialogue and sound public policy in areas pertinent to the Corporation’s interests” but also supports climate science.
Other funding sources for anti-renewable energy front groups include Koch Family Foundations, a group of charitable foundations associated with fossil fuel billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. David passed away in 2019, but the two have spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting conservative interests, including supporting climate change denial groups and groups that think up the arguments against clean energy sources.
“This should probably come as no surprise, because we've seen disinformation about everything including wearing masks and using vaccines to combat COVID from people seeking to get political advantages through that kind of disinformation,” Anderson said.
A FAILED FIX
Lobbyists from the renewable energy industry convinced state lawmakers to attempt to blunt the effective attacks on wind and solar system siting by introducing House Bill 1381, which would standardize siting requirements for both renewable energy systems across the state.
The bill’s main author, Rep. Ed Soliday, a stalwart supporter of energy reliability in the state, said the bill was necessary to allow Hoosiers into the renewable energy market.
“[Manufacturers] 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,” he said during meetings about the bill.
Representatives from renewable energy companies testified in favor of the bill, saying local ordinances have cost $5.5 billion in investment.
“This leaves Indiana as a uniquely unfriendly place to do business for our industry,” testified Will Eberle, director of government relations and external affairs for RWE Renewables, a company forced to cancel a $600 million project in Gibson and Posey Counties after local groups convinced county officials to change local zoning ordinances to keep wind projects out of the area.
The bill was excellent fodder for anti-wind groups and other groups who stood to profit from the defeat of standardized renewable energy siting, like real estate developers.
One of the main groups opposing the bill was a corporation named Hoosiers for Home Rule that was established Feb. 17, 2021, the same day the bill passed the House of Representatives.
Jennifer Miller, the group’s president, wrote an op-ed published in the Indianapolis Star, calling for the bill’s defeat because it would take away local communities’ right to “control their own quality of life.”
According to state records, Miller is linked to at least three multi-state real estate companies and also hired a lobbying firm that also represents Comcast, construction companies, school districts, city governments and the Allen County Board of Commissioners, have banned large wind systems since 2018.
HB 1381 died in committee when it reached the Senate. HB 1191 is now state law.
TALKING IT OUT
Despite the efforts to kill wind and solar energy projects in the state, Indiana ranks 12th in the nation for installed wind power generation.
Industry representatives said companies who decide to pursue renewable energy projects need to listen to the concerns local residents have before pushing on against a wave of opposition.
“Increasingly, it seems to be the case that simply providing information that we think is accurate is not sufficient to influence the understanding of renewables in those communities,” Wilson said. “People really seem to rely on messengers they trust, to understand which information to believe because they're often receiving competing information.”
Long-term relationships with communities will be crucial to defeating misinformation and addressing concerns local residents have about the projects.
“People need to feel that they have an influence over how we develop projects — over the context, the contours, the ways in which we will do things, that we are influenceable when it comes to making good decisions about where we're putting our power lines, for example,” said consultant Andrew Buchman. “They need to know we might even change our plans if we hear legitimate concerns that we can work around.”
Buchman, who has handled public affairs for oil and gas industry projects for more than 15 years, said companies need to learn as much about the community they are potentially going to disrupt as much as they do about the project.
“At the end of the day, no two communities are alike. We need to understand how they view their own character, and how our project fits in, how we can complement their vision of themselves and their future. Ultimately, we need to know the communities that we want to work in. And if we're able to do that, by all means, we can have success,” Buchman said.