Bill to ease approval of wind, solar farms flops, but debate rages on

Wildcat Wind Farm in Tipton County. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

A strong coalition of renewable energy developers, major businesses and manufacturers could not muster enough support in the Indiana Senate Tuesday to pass a bill that would have shifted some local control over the siting of wind and solar farms to the state.

The Senate’s less comprehensive version of House Bill 1381 technically died after it wasn’t even called for a vote by Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, following a Republican caucus meeting.

“There wasn’t enough support to pass the bill,” Messmer said. “There’s no sense talking about a bill that’s not going anywhere.”

Still, some elements of the bill could potentially re-emerge in the waning days of this year’s regular legislative session, set to adjourn as early as next Wednesday.

The bill, hotly debated throughout the session, would have created some statewide regulations for wind and solar projects and provided some financial incentives from developers for counties that choose to give a green light to such projects.

Messmer

But tough opposition from representatives of local governments, as well as grassroots citizen groups, kept pushing the local control alarm that ultimately may have led to the bill’s demise.

Messmer developed a 47-page amendment to the bill during Senate committee action to try to appease the opponents and preserve some local say over the projects.

“It was a local control issue for me,” said Sen. Jean Leising, an Oldenburg Republican who opposed the measure. She said everyone in her southeastern Indiana district who contacted her objected to the bill. “It was an easy decision for me.”

Kyle Barlow, who helped lead a group of Shelby County opponents, said the issue was losing home rule – the ability for local officials to decide how and where these projects are sited. His group worked with the statewide Hoosiers for Home Rule organization to help defeat the bill.

“We had a lot of people making a lot of phone calls, especially over the last few weeks, statewide to senators and representatives,” he said.

Barlow stressed that his group isn’t against renewable energy. But he said the projects, which sometimes encompass thousands of acres, need to be placed in areas that are proper distances from people’s homes and meet the necessary local standards.

During Messmer’s short remarks on the Senate floor before he declined to bring the bill for a vote, he described the measure as an attempt to get some uniform siting standards adopted in the state.

Barlow

He recognized the main opposition came from proponents for local control. But Messmer, obviously disappointed in the outcome, said his attempts to reach some common ground were like bargaining with schizophrenic hostage negotiators who changed their demands.

In February, the House passed a more aggressive version of the bill by a 58-38 vote, with support from both Republicans and Democrats. The measure proposed state standards, except in counties with existing wind and solar ordinances passed by July 1, 2021. Since that version of the bill passed the House, it can be inserted into another related bill during a conference committee before the session ends.

It’s not clear if House author, Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, will attempt to do that. He couldn’t immediately be reached for comment after Tuesday’s session. But there’s little doubt that the debate over who should control the development of wind and solar farms will rage on amid growing demand for renewable energy.

Environmental, energy and business groups who lobbied for the Senate bill – and even preferred the House version — were fairly optimistic going into Tuesday’s session that the Senate version would be approved.

Late Tuesday, they were disappointed, although some had mixed feelings.

CLICK HERE for a larger image.

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the group has been a long-time, vocal advocate for renewable energy policy, including a state renewable electricity standard. He added the council is generally supportive of HB 1381 because aspects of solar and wind farm design can be standardized by the state provided they are based on the best science.

But he recognized the council could not proactively support HB 1381 because, for all practical purposes, it strips local governments of the ability to specify the type of land they want to see as solar farms in their communities.

“That’s a big deal because the solar farm footprint in Indiana would be on par with the size of a state park system and how 1,000-plus acre solar farms are designed has ramifications on soil and water conservation, storm water management, wildlife habitat, fruit and vegetable growers and the beauty of the rural landscape,” he said.

In an interview before the bill collapsed in the Senate, Soliday said he pushed for the measure because a clear market exists for renewable energy. He noted the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana Industrial Energy Consumers Inc., 20 of the state’s largest manufacturers, support the bill.

“Many, many businesses want renewable energy, particularly those who do business in Europe,” Soliday added. “We can either pay a lot of money for transmission costs or we can produce it and get in the business here.”

The push for more renewable energy Is likely to continue to clash with the opposition of some rural residents who want to preserve their farmland and bucolic vistas.

Throughout this year’s legislative session, the bill teeter-tottered without an easy path forward, but enough momentum kept it moving – until Tuesday.

The bill first alarmed local county officials, in particular, when the original version attempted to overrule county ordinances. Some other counties have not yet developed ordinances regulating wind and solar projects that are growing in popularity to replace ebbing coal-fired power plants.

A total of 34 counties around the state have ordinances that restrict wind and solar projects, or prohibit their construction altogether. Residents in these areas are concerned the projects, if too close to their homes, will decrease property values and create livability problems for those who are close to them.

As it was amended, the bill made some significant changes in the local control provisions. In the original House version, statewide standards would have been set for how close wind and solar projects can be to other properties and other regulations that would supplant local ordinances. The amendment allowed county and local governments to keep restrictive ordinances, if in place by July 1, but also offered a financial incentive for modifying them.

Counties would have had the option to adopt “renewable energy districts” called RED areas. These districts would have provided ways for governments to approve wind and solar projects — if a group of property owners want the projects on their land. These RED zone restrictions could not have been stricter than the state standards for wind and solar projects.

To provide a carrot for development, county and local governments would have received a one-time incentive from the development companies that would bring in as much as $3,000 per megawatt capacity of the projects.

Under the amended bill, all existing ordinances were grandfathered in as acceptable, but after July 1, 2021, counties and local governments would not have been allowed to change their ordinances to be more restrictive than state standards.

The inability to change local ordinances after July was particularly concerning to county officials, said Ryan Hoff of the Association of Indiana Counties. They worried that they wouldn’t be able to adjust to changing circumstances or stop a potential glut of wind and solar projects from swallowing up too much land.

Before Tuesday’s Senate session, Rep. Justin Moed, D-Indianapolis, a bill co-author, said the concerns raised by the bill’s opponents shouldn’t be characterized as a fear of losing local control but instead as a desire for “local dominance” by some rural county politicians.

He said their desires are preventing the state from making sure it has enough renewable energy sources and prohibiting private farmers and landowners from making their own decisions about whether to lease their land for wind and solar projects.

Moed and other supporters of the bill stress that the state is losing millions of dollars in potential income because a patchwork of local ordinances is discouraging renewable companies from investing in Indiana. In some cases, companies have paid large development costs for wind projects and then county governments blocked them from happening.

“There has been no question that there have renewable projects that been derailed or stopped by virtue of decisions made at local levels,” said Joseph Rompala, attorney with Lewis Kappes and legislative director for the Indiana Industrial Energy Consumers Inc., a trade organization of more than 20 of the state’s largest industrial manufacturers.  “That has restricted the availability and ability of Indiana public electric utilities to make investments in renewable resources and manage their transition to a more sustainable portfolios.”

Earlier this year, a representative of RWE Renewables, a Chicago-based subsidiary of global energy group RWE AG of Germany, said it has been forced to cancel more than $600 million worth of investment in Gibson and Posey counties after local residents and officials objected to the project.

It already has a wind farm in Madison and Tipton counties and would like to develop more.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

2 thoughts on “Bill to ease approval of wind, solar farms flops, but debate rages on

  1. I had to laugh at the outrage this sparked. All of these Indiana voters have been voting for pro-business Republicans and when the pro-business Republican legislators try to ease restrictions on wind and solar, OMG! The legislators just now realize bulldozing local regulations effects their rural constituents and suddenly there is outrage.

    No big deal if you take whacks at Indianapolis in the name of being “pro-business”, but now that might happen in the rural parts of the state!! Stop the train! Put on the brakes!

    1. Indeed, the irony is palpable. The GQP dominated General Assembly is fine meddling in the business of cities trying to improve the quality of life in their communities, but don’t dare to touch local issues in rural areas.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets in {{ count_down }} days.