The outlook should be sunny for Indiana companies such as Renewable Energy Systems, LLC. But that’s only if Indiana Senate Bill 309, a plan that will change the playing field for those who use solar power in their homes, churches and businesses, is killed or modified.
As the legislature prepares once again to wrestle with what to do about solar-power generation, it’s important to remember places like Renewable Energy, which has its financial office in Avilla.
Eric Hesher was the sole employee when he founded the solar-engineering company more than nine years ago to serve commercial and residential customers in northeast Indiana, southern Michigan and the near edge of Ohio. Today, Renewable Energy has five full-time employees and several part-timers and often works through subcontractors. Business is booming, with more than $2 million in sales last year.
"Every year is better than the last," Hesher said in an interview Tuesday. Early this year, the company’s operations are moving from a warehouse in Kendallville to one with twice the capacity in Avilla.
Hesher’s company isn’t alone. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Indiana has 72 companies involved in installing and servicing solar panels, employing 1,567 people.
Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the state could attract many more jobs if its long-term policies are tailored to encourage the use of solar power.
But as it’s now written, solar advocates say, SB 309 is aimed not at nurturing the fledgling industry but eviscerating it.
Like a bill that died in the Indiana House two years ago, SB 309 targets net metering, the system that allows customers to generate and use solar power and send the excess to the utility for credit at retail rates.
Under SB 309, though, customers who generate solar power would only be able to use it for their own homes or businesses until 2027. After that, they would have to sell it to the utility wholesale and buy it back at retail rates.
Supporters say the bill is needed because solar producers depend on the utilities for backup electricity and use utilities’ transmission lines to sell their excess power.
"At the end of the day, our customers are paying for that," said Brian Bergsma, director of corporate communications and governmental affairs for Indiana Michigan Power. "We support self-generation," Bergsma said in an interview Monday. But "self-generation must be done in a way that continues the reliability of the system for all customers."
Advocates argue that solar generation actually reduces transmission costs and wear and tear on utility electrical systems. And, of course, wider reliance on solar power reduces pollution and its associated health costs.
As the legislature takes up SB 309, it also should remember companies like Hesher’s. As written, the bill is "going to tie the hands of a lot of businesses and customers in future years," Hesher said. "Most states are promoting solar power. Why is Indiana doing what it is doing?"