"I’m not here, despite what you might have read, to argue against solar power," Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, told the House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications Committee last week. To Hershman, his Senate Bill 309 is just an effort to ensure no one has to bear too much of a burden as utilities try to meet the needs of electricity customers in the years ahead. People who want to use solar or wind power to meet some of their electricity needs will be free to do that, Hershman contends. His bill would just ensure they don’t receive a subsidy at the expense of other power customers.
But as the hearing dragged on through the morning and half the afternoon, it became clear that a lot of people see Hershman’s bill as a utility-inspired attempt to stifle the growth of alternative energy in Indiana.
Environmentalists, consumer advocates, homeowners and solar installers lined up to urge the committee to reconsider the complex bill, which would set new limits on the state’s net-metering program.
Initiated 12 years ago, net metering allows those who produce solar or wind power to sell their excess electricity to their utility company and be reimbursed at retail rates. Utility companies contend this gives those who produce alternative energy an unfair advantage over other electric customers and ends up raising everyone’s rate. Opponents say SB 309 would stunt the growth of solar and wind power and discourage the growing alternative-energy industry from bringing jobs to the state.
The bill’s supporters call net-metering a "subsidy"; its opponents argue it is recognition of the value solar producers create by promoting clean energy, reducing wear and tear on the electric grid and strengthening the power system’s ability to handle peak demands or unforeseen problems.
Those who dismiss solar-power advocates as tree-hugging extremists may have been shocked when Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the 1964 presidential candidate and conservative icon, strode to the podium to rally the anti-SB 309 forces. Goldwater, a former Republican congressman whose square-jawed features are remarkably similar to his late father’s, framed the bill as a case of utility companies trying to stand in the way of history. "They fear competition," he told the committee. "They see the writing on the wall. There is an energy revolution going on."
Rep. David Ober, the Albion Republican who chairs the committee, did an excellent job of ensuring all points of view were heard during the marathon session, even cutting off a fellow legislator who picked an argument with a pro-solar witness late in the proceedings. During a distressingly unbalanced hearing on a similar bill two years ago, most pro-solar witnesses had been prevented from testifying.
Ober promised to see that suggestions for revising the measure would be considered. But the wisest course is for the legislature to take a pass on this sweeping effort to set complex policies and reimbursement rates for alternative energy production. Hershman and his allies say the bill will help everyone; opponents say it will destroy an emerging industry. But there is no consensus on this issue, and there should be no rush to resolve it. As at a previous hearing in a Senate committee, speaker after speaker implored lawmakers to ask the experts at the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to study the complex and far-reaching questions SB 309 so arbitrarily and hastily tries to answer.