The county commissioners are asking state senators who represent the county to oppose a bill that would set statewide regulations for commercial renewable energy projects.
House Bill 1381 would take a matter that had been handled on a county-by-county basis and put it into the hands of the state legislature.
The bill passed the Indiana House of Representatives with a vote of 58-38 and was forwarded to the Indiana Senate on Feb. 18. As of Friday, the senate had not assigned the bill to a committee.
The bill sets minimum standards for commercial wind and solar energy projects that would apply to the whole state. The state would determine setbacks from neighboring properties, height limits, permissible levels of shadow flicker, signal inference, sound, and decommissioning standards.
The bill does not apply to personal wind turbines or solar panels that an individual landowner may wish to install for personal power generation.
There are currently no standards set for commercial renewable energy in Johnson County. However, county planning staff have begun looking into creating one because residents in rural areas are being solicited for participation in a commercial solar project, said David Hittle, planning director. No plans for a solar project have been submitted and solicitation efforts seem to be in the beginning stages, he said.
Under the bill as written, counties would not be able to set more stringent standards than the state but could set looser standards.
Planning and zoning activities are typically solely controlled by counties, towns and cities under Indiana home rule powers. The commissioners object to the state taking away local control of those standards.
To show their support for maintaining local control of land-use decisions and against the bill, the commissioners on Monday passed a resolution 2-0. Though Commissioner Ron West was absent for the vote, he signed the copy of the resolution and the letter from the commissioners to the county’s state senate delegation.
“The Board of Commissioners believes that decisions regarding wind and solar development are best made by the citizens living in the community, rather than by the wind and solar industry or state officials who live outside the community,” the resolution reads.
This would disenfranchise residents and force them to deal with “wind and solar projects under conditions dictated by others living out of the community.”
Commissioners from several other counties, including Elkhart, Vigo, Montgomery, Wayne, and Kosciusko, have passed similar resolutions.
In the house, local Reps. Michelle Davis (R-Whiteland), John Young (R-Franklin) and John Jacob (R-Indianapolis) broke with the Republican delegation to vote against the bill, while Rep. Chris May (R-Bedford) voted for it.
Senators Rodric Bray (R-Martinsville) and Greg Walker (R-Columbus) are not prepared to say “yes” or “no” to the bill just yet and will follow it closely, they said.
Both said they have reservations about taking away local government powers, but the idea of statewide regulations for commercial renewable energy has merit, considering a statewide regulation due to the benefits wind and solar could bring the state, they said.
There is precedent for regulating commercial renewable energy on the state-level, Walker said. Right now, about 22 other states are doing so, while the remaining states have a patchwork of regulations, he said.
The state has a patchwork of renewable energy regulations, ranging from loose to so tight development is not palatable. Under this legislation, local officials would no longer have the option to legislate renewable energy outside their county.
Taking away the option to say “no” would allow communities to realize benefits of commercial energy that residents may not have considered before, Bray said.
“On the other side, I am concerned about how many counties are saying ‘no’ to either wind or solar and walking away from a lot of investment dollars that give great diversification to farmers by allowing their land to generate revenue by something other than crops. That can be very useful in a year of floods, drought or just bad crop prices,” Bray said in a statement. “Counties would be walking away from potentially millions of dollars in the form of property taxes. Indiana would also then be put into the position of transporting wind energy from other states and ratepayers would experience higher rates.”
Though taking away home rule powers would be an unfortunate side-effect of statewide regulations, the idea is worth a conversation, Walker said. At a time when Indiana coal is waning, renewable energy would be a way for the state to produce more of its own energy, he said.
On the local level, neighbors to potential projects often oppose them because they don’t want to live next to a solar field or wind farm. If the state set the standard, the emotion would be taken out of creating rules for renewable energy, Walker said.
Walker likened a commercial renewable energy project to living next to a regional electric transmission line. Though nobody wants to live next to one, power lines have to go somewhere, he said.
“I would encourage every farmer and every neighbor to talk about it,” Walker said. “There is always a sense of they want it, but not in their backyard.”