Ft. Wayne Journal-Gazette: Doctor sees solar power’s future

Posted by Laura Arnold  /   March 22, 2015  /   Posted in 2015 Indiana General Assembly, Indiana Michigan Power Company (I&M), Net Metering, solar  /   No Comments

Dr. Andrew Katz and his wife Janet are building a house that will have solar panels. Dr. Katz says he likes the idea of not burning fossil fuels. 

March 22, 2015 1:03 AM

Doctor sees solar power's future

Home will have panels despite as-of-now dead bill

 by Rosa Salter Rodriguez,  The Journal Gazette

IndianaDG Editor's Note: Misspelling of names corrected. 

A few years ago, Fort Wayne gastroenterologist Dr. Andrew Katz and his wife, Janet, decided they wanted to build a house. But not just any house.

The couple, “children of the ’60s,” Dr. Katz says with a laugh, wanted one that would embody their thoughts about environmental and energy conservation. So, the Katzes decided to power the home with a solar array on the roof.

“We knew it was somewhat unusual in this part of the country, but we thought we could grow some of the products and practices in this area to make it easier for other people to do the same thing,” he says.

But now, some say, the ability for individuals to install their own solar power is under attack, even as installations come down in price and the fledgling industry starts to come of age.

Legislation has been introduced in several states, including a recent bill in Indiana, to make solar generation more costly for homeowners and other small users.

“The main thing it would have done is it would’ve killed rooftop solar for residential (installations),” Jeff Peterson, president of 360 Sun Solutions, says of H.B. 1320.

Introduced this year by Rep. Eric Allan Koch, R-Bedford, the proposal generated heated debate and protests, including a demonstration Feb. 28 in Fort Wayne at Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren, which recently won a grant to install solar power.

Laura Arnold, a longtime solar activist and former Fort Wayne resident who lobbies on behalf of small-scale solar for the Indiana Distributed Energy Alliance, says objections stemmed from two main provisions.

She says they would have charged people who opted for a solar installation monthly fees and lowered the amount that would be paid to those who generate enough electricity to sell some back to the utility.

Introduced in committee at the last minute and passed the next day, after much of the language was stripped and replaced, the bill was scheduled to come up for a vote on the House floor, Arnold says. But House Speaker Brian C. Bosma, R-Indianapolis, pulled the measure before its second reading, so there was no vote.

That makes the bill moot for now. “Right now, indications seem to be that there is not an appetite to find a home for this concept this session,” Arnold says.

But some say the issue is unlikely to go away because electric utilities want to change small-scale solar policy as they pursue plans to expand their own solar generation.

“Some of them are (worried) because the cost of solar has dropped dramatically,” affording utilities more competition from self-generation, Peterson says. The price of a rooftop system for an average home, he adds, has dropped about 35 percent over the last five years because of lower costs for solar panels.

“So far, it (solar generation) has been slow to catch on because we’ve enjoyed such low electricity costs in Indiana,” Peterson says, adding many of his company’s jobs have been in Michigan and Ohio as a result. “We really live in a state that has not been incentivized for solar.”

Koch did not return a call seeking comment on the bill’s future. Indiana Michigan Power, which supported the bill, cast the issue last week as one of fairness and efficiency in an email statement from Brian Bergsma, director of communications and state government affairs.

The current arrangement for solar users, negotiated when solar installations were more costly than they are today, means “a customer who generates their own power does not pay their fair share of the utility infrastructure needed to serve them,” Bergsma’s statement says.

That shifts the cost to other users and amounts to a “subsidy” for small solar users, the statement says. Peterson and Arnold dispute the subsidy argument, saying both solar and conventional users already pay to be connected to the grid inasmuch as few home installations are totally self-sufficient.

The I&M statement adds that Indiana Michigan Power plans to add substantially to its ability to generate electricity by means of solar power as it pursues clean-energy generation capacity.

The utility recently got the go-ahead to build five large solar-generating plants in Indiana, Michigan and an undetermined site at a cost of $38 million. Together, the plants would generate about 16 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power 2,000 homes.

“These utility-scale solar facilities will be more efficient than rooftop solar and will enable I&M to gain valuable knowledge in operating solar generation and delivering solar energy to the electric grid, positioning the company to add more solar generation in the future,” Bergsma’s statement says.

The utility also plans to add an opportunity for electricity users to “show support” for utility-scale solar through Solar Energy Certificates, with details to be announced later this year, the statement says.

Peterson, who agrees that some aspects of small-solar policy may need tweaking, says he finds it ironic that the utility wants to generate more solar power but apparently opposes others’ attempts to do so.

Better economics, he says, have led to increased demand and what he calls “an explosion” in solar contractors in Indiana in recent years, saying they went from three or four to about 15 today.

A system for a 1,500-square-foot house now costs about $10,000 to $15,000, and that cost is offset by a 30 percent federal tax credit, Peterson says, adding he wants to see legislative support of continued consumer choice.

Meanwhile, Katz, who in the last few weeks has had contractors at his under-construction home installing energy-conserving low-voltage LED lighting to help make solar power economically feasible, says H.B. 1320 and uncertainty about solar’s future have not deterred his plans.

“Maybe I’ve romanticized it, but I like the idea that you generate what you use, and … I like the idea that I’m doing it without burning fossil fuels,” the 55-year-old says. “We’re still going to do solar.”

rsalter@jg.net

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