The Journal Gazette
Friday, January 26, 2018 1:00 am


A dim view

Bill to repair solar policy appears to be sidelined

The use of solar power as a clean and economical way to generate electricity is growing worldwide, with the United States and China leading the way. 

Indiana Senate Bill 309, enacted last year, cast a shadow over the solar industry's prospects in Indiana by cutting the reimbursement rates paid by electric utilities to their customers who generate excess power. Already this session, it appears a bill to correct some of the flaws in that misguided law will die without a hearing.

Homeowners, companies and institutions that were able to get a solar-generating system operating by the end of 2017 were grandfathered in for 30 years of higher long-term reimbursement rates. Pictured above, the million-watt, 3,500-solar-panel system at Reliable Production Machining and Welding in Kendallville became operational in December and thus qualified for 30 years of the reimbursement rate. The system, designed and installed by Renewable Energy Systems of Avilla, is expected to save Reliable $170,000 annually by generating 85 percent of its power. 

But new solar users for the next five years will be grandfathered in for 15 years, and the timetable will drop again after that.

Electric utilities, which say they favor alternative power but want to develop it at their speed, were behind SB 309. They argued higher solar reimbursement rates amounted to a “subsidy” other electric customers had to cover. Solar advocates argued their ability to produce electricity during peak-usage summer days only made the whole system stronger. Republican legislators ignored pleas from representatives of schools and churches, plus homeowners and even some members of their own party to reject the anti-solar measure.

It's not yet clear how costly SB 309 will be to Indiana on solar development and jobs as states with friendlier policies continue to surge forward. 

Renewable Energy Systems' owner, Eric Hesher, said Thursday business is still strong at his company, which serves northeast Indiana and nearby portions of Ohio and Michigan. He noted recently announced tariffs on foreign-made solar cells probably won't have to be passed on to customers. But reporting on solar projects at schools in Antwerp, Ohio, and Warsaw recently, The Journal Gazette's Ashley Sloboda noted that a recent national report showed Indiana 39th among the states in the percentage of schools using solar power.

Before the House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications Committee approved SB 309 last year, committee Chairman David Ober, R-Albion, promised disheartened opponents he would revisit the measure to correct any flaws.  This year, Ober introduced House Bill 1069, which would allow schools and other institutions that convert to solar power to be grandfathered in at the highest reimbursement rate for the next five years. Repealing this wrongheaded law would be the best solution, but Ober's bill was at least a step in the right direction and his efforts were applauded by several environmental groups at a hearing last week.

Unfortunately, the bill's prospects are dim. It has not been scheduled for a committee vote before next week's deadline for consideration of bills during this short session. 

“It looks like the bill is dead,” Kerwin Olson, executive director of Indiana's Citizen Action Coalition, said Thursday. “It's a shame.”

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