For many early adopters of solar panels and wind turbines, the considerable expense of the technology was offset not only by generating one’s own energy, but potentially selling the excess back to the power company — not to mention pollution reduction.
So when the Senate began discussing a bill to change the economics of renewable energy — by lowering the prices that utilities pay small generators for their excess energy — senators found their town hall meetings back home filling to overflow, and concerned constituents began ringing their phones.
Subsequently, the bill that emerged from the Senate Utilities Committee on Thursday changed in ways meant to assuage the early adopters. Homeowners, small businesses, churches and others who already have installed solar panels or wind turbines would get the higher retail rate for their excess energy for another 30 years. New adopters who install such technology over the next five years would get the higher retail rate for the energy they sell back until 2032. And those who install the technology after 2022 would get a smaller incentive.
The changes were enough to move Senate Bill 309 out of committee by an 8-2 vote, with one Democrat joining the Republicans for passage. But the bill’s advance left the renewable energy crowd with a mixed bag: The early adopters will still be able to depend on the financial incentives that help the technology pay for itself, but over the long term, those incentives — which could bring new people into renewables — will diminish. That has some concerned that Indiana’s budding green movement could wither.
“I think it’s going to be a bad reflection on Indiana,” said Becky Wigginton, who has solar panels on her northwest-side home and is a member of a coalition of faith groups concerned about the environment. “It won’t be an incentive for business people to come here. It’s backward thinking for this day and age.”
The Hoosier Environmental Council said the bill won’t help Gov. Eric Holcomb’s goal — offered in his State of the State address — to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in Indiana. If SB 309 becomes law, said the council’s executive director Jesse Kharbanda, it “may well have long-term impacts in terms of deterring investment in solar energy by both homegrown entrepreneurs and those who may otherwise see Indiana as a promising investment destination for solar.”
The renewable energy forces had hoped to convince the committee to hold off on making changes until the issue could be studied, but they were unsuccessful.
The bill had support from the Indiana Energy Association, an association of the state’s electric and gas utilities, which has contended that the incentives for solar and wind energy — the higher retail rate utilities pay those who generate their own power — amounts to a subsidy other customers pay for.
The bill’s architect, Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, said the amount of money utilities pay for the excess energy — and at the higher retail rate — is growing to the point it will raise costs for residential and industrial power customers. “I want to promote alternative generation as it relates to competing in a market economy,” he said. “And it is rapidly becoming able to do so.”
SB 309 now moves to the full Senate.
Call IndyStar reporter Robert King at (317) 444-6089. Follow him on Twitter: @RbtKing.