Renewable energy advocates seek legislative daylight for more solar and wind farms
A bill designed to incentivize Indiana counties to permit solar and wind projects passed the Senate last week and is expected to be heard in the House later this month, but a key provision that would have allowed state dollars to fund the program was stripped from the legislation.
Senate Bill 390, authored by Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, would authorize the Office of Energy and Development to create a commercial solar and wind energy incentive fund. Under the bill’s original language, counties that agreed to adopt the state standards for solar and wind projects would receive $1 per megawatt hour of electricity generated by any new commercial solar project in their jurisdictions.
That would mean that a 1,000-acre solar farm would generate about $200,000 per year for a county.
The fund would have been overseen by the Indiana Economic Development Corp., allocating $20 million for the program over a two year-period. That provision was stripped from the bill—and oversight ceded to the energy development office—after two people testified against the legislation during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, arguing it took away local control.
Joan Noll, a Whitley County resident who spoke on her own behalf, said she was a member of Hoosiers for Reliable Energy, a statewide grassroots organization formerly known as Hoosiers for Home Rule.
“This bill would take our own Indiana taxpayer dollars and offer them back to us as a bribe,” Noll said. “This is the real world of what happens to rural communities when the solar and wind guys come to town.”
Kyle Barlow, a third-generation farmer and Shelby County Council member, said any incentive given to counties should come from developers.
“It’s their project, let them pay for it,” Barlow said.
Chris Kunkle, director of affairs for Apex Energy, a Virginia-based company that has commercialized more than $8 billion worth of wind, solar and other alternative energy projects, said that his company has been unable to penetrate the Indiana market due to restrictive local zoning laws.
“I think because Senate Bill 411 didn’t include a carrot nor a stick, these standards haven’t gotten as much traction as we’d hoped,” Kunkle said. “This incentive is additive to the myriad benefits these projects already deliver in terms of tax revenue, payments to Indiana landowners, local job creation, economic development agreements and road upgrades.”
Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, questioned whether developers shouldn’t be the ones offering incentives to counties.
“Why do we need to send $1 per megawatt hour of electricity generated back if there’s so many tax credits and benefits, particularly from the Inflation Reduction Act?” she asked Kunkle. “We’re spending state dollars to send back to the locals if they change their ordinances. Why should the state be investing in that? Why do we care?”
Kunkle said the local ordinances make it difficult for renewable energy companies to get wind or solar projects approved. Some counties ban them altogether.
Following the testimony at the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, committee chair Sen. Ryan Mishler decided to hold the bill. It was later amended to remove the state-funded incentive despite having the support of groups like AES Clean Energy, the Indiana Association of Counties, the Indiana Chamber, the Indiana Energy Association and the Indiana Manufacturers Association.
In the bill’s amended version, the incentive program can only be funded through federal grant dollars, which the energy development office would have to apply for.
Rep. Ed Soliday, a Republican from northwest Indiana who has agreed to sponsor the bill in the House, said the state will need to “get past this period of emotional populism” if it is entice more renewable energy companies to the state and reduce the reliance on fossil fuels.
“Right now, the arguments are not economic and they are not scientific. They’re basically preference: not in my backyard,” Soliday said.
Soliday, who chairs the House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications Committee, said he may call the bill for a hearing as soon as March 21.
Despite the state appropriation getting stripped from the bill, renewable energy advocates believe the legislation is a step in the right direction.
“Senate Bill 390 sends a positive market signal to those wanting to invest in our state,” said Lindsay Haake, an organizer with Citizens Action Coalition, a ratepayer advocacy organization that supports the bill. “The utility sector is moving to renewables—we can build them here or we can send our dollars to Illinois and Iowa.”
A study from Purdue University found that 38 counties don’t have ordinances in place for solar energy projects. Of the 54 that do have zoning laws, many are too restrictive and more than a dozen ban solar and wind projects altogether. None of them adopted the state standards.
The study was commissioned following last year’s passage of Senate Bill 411, which offered state grants to counties that adopted the state standards. A key part of the original bill was a state incentive program for communities that chose to adopt them, but the House Ways and Means Committee stripped that component from the legislation.
That bill was the successor to a failed 2021 bill, authored by Rep. Soliday, that attempted to mandate statewide standards for such project. It passed the House but was defeated in the Senate.
Demand for clean energy
The Indiana Economic Development Corp. has said that nearly all companies looking to move or expand in Indiana want to use clean energy to power their projects, and Gov. Eric Holcomb has touted the state’s green energy investments in trips overseas, hoping to lure foreign nations to invest here.
Since 2008, developers have built more than 1,000 wind turbines across the state, mostly on 16 large wind farms, that produce more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity—enough to power more than 1 million homes.
Isreali-based Doral Renewables LLC recently broke ground on the second phase of a $1.5 billion solar farm in northwest Indiana dubbed Mammoth Solar. The company is developing 13,000 acres in Pulaski and Starke counties, making it the largest solar farm in the country. That project faces intense opposition from some local groups.
Indiana still relies on coal for almost half its electricity needs and ranks first in the Midwest in carbon emissions per capita, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
A recent analysis from The Guardian found that central Indiana and northwest Indiana rank are the fifth and fourth worst places to live in the U.S. for air pollution, respectively.