Indiana panel OKs bill that sets statewide standards on renewable energy projects

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A bill that would set statewide standards for large wind and solar projects in Indiana passed a House committee on Wednesday morning, following a passionate debate between renewable energy advocates and a group of residents and local officials who said the bill would take away local control.

The House Utilities Committee approved House Bill 1381 by a 12-1 vote. The measure would set standards on setbacks, heights and other facets of commercial projects across Indiana’s 92 counties, replacing an assortment of local regulations.

It could have large ramifications in Indiana, a state where wind and solar projects are booming as utilities and large companies demand renewable energy.

Since 2008, developers have installed more than 1,000 wind turbines across the state, chiefly on 16 large wind farms, that crank out more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity — enough to power more than 1 million homes.

Developers have zeroed in on the state, in part, because its flat terrain, especially in northern Indiana, leads to higher wind speeds. More than 1,000 megawatts of new wind capacity are under construction or in advanced development.

But some projects have run into setbacks in recent years, as some counties have restricted wind farms, saying they are too large and intrusive.

As a result, developers have clamored for state standards, saying they are tired of negotiating a hodgepodge of local laws before moving forward with projects, or seeing them canceled at the last minute, after huge upfront investments.

The bill’s supporters included the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Clean Grid Alliance, Hoosiers for Renewables, a group of large industrial manufacturers, and developers of renewable energy.

The state’s 22 largest manufacturers, including drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co. and manufacturer Allison Transmission, also support the bill, saying they want to buy more renewable energy.

“Renewable developers need your help to ensure a stable, predictable permitting and siting process to be able to invest and do business in Indiana,” said Beth Soholt, executive director of Clean Grid Alliance, a nonprofit based in Minnesota that represents renewable energy developers and advocates across the Midwest.

RWE Renewables, a Chicago-based subsidiary of global energy group RWE AG of Germany, has developed a wind farm in Madison and Tipton counties and said it is interested in developing additional wind, solar and battery-energy projects across the state.

But in the past year, the company said it has been forced to cancel more than $600 million worth of investment in Gibson and Posey counties and is on the verge of canceling another $300 million worth of investment in Clinton County after local residents and officials objected.

“Indiana has, up until now, left its renewable energy future up to a disjointed patchwork of local government regulation,” said Will Eberle, director of government relations with RWE Renewables.

But about a dozen landowners and officials, mostly from rural counties, testified against the bill, saying it would take away their ability to stop or restrict projects that could hurt property values and quality of life. Some said the large utility-scale projects are noisy or unsightly, and local officials are the best to decide the zoning and planning laws.

Russell Phillips of Fulton County pointed to a proposed project by British-based Renewable Energy Systems in 2017 that would have brought 133 wind turbine towers soaring 600 feet. After a huge outcry, Fulton County Commissioners blocked the plan.

“If there’s a buck to be made by the renewable energy companies, they’ll be on your doorstep in all 92 counties,” he said.

Denise Spooner, a real estate broker whose family had lived in Madison County for decades, said the county recently passed a moratorium on large-scale solar projects that could harm property values.

“If this bill passes, all the work will be done for nothing,” she said.

Betsy Mills, a Henry County Council member, said she is pro-science and not a “not in my backyard” (or NIMBY) development opponent. She said she said approves of wind projects where they make sense and don’t disrupt residential communities — decisions, she said that should be left at the local level.

“I’d like to disrupt this narrative that everybody in opposition to this bill is a NIMBY-minded, anti-science, climate change denier,” Mills said.

In 2018, Henry County rejected a proposal to build a wind farm, known as Big Blue Ribbon, after many residents objected, saying the farm was too close to homes.

State Rep. Ed Solidary, Republican from Valparaiso who sponsored the bill, said he tried to strike a balance between the rights of property owners and the growing demand for clean energy.

Indiana buys almost 80% of its electricity from out of state on some days, as utilities buy and sell electricity across the country, he said. Developers could generate more clean energy in Indiana if the state had uniform regulations, he said.

“The bill is really here, not because I am more or less green,” Soliday said. “We’re not going to debate global warming, because we will never convince anybody either way.”

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