IndianaDG Editor's Note: I am sharing this Guest Editorial with IndianaDG Readers, however, I am also including corrections and clarifications. This will be noted in [red italics].
State now boasts over 1,600 high-paying solar jobs
By Mike Keen and Timothy Powers Guest columnists
Did you know Indiana has experienced a boon in solar power recently? The market is projected to enjoy incredible growth in the coming years. Unfortunately, this progress could be stopped by Senate Bill 309, heard by the
House [Senate] Utilities Committee on Thursday. New-era photovoltaic installations for cities, schools, companies, places of worship and homes currently total over 175 megawatts, or roughly 612.5 acres of sun-soaking crystalline silicon. That’s enough to power 18,000 homes! Barring a change in incentives, this output is expected to triple in the next five years, producing the same amount of power as a small coal-fired plant. Indiana, a state better known for its basketball and corn, now boasts over 1,600 high-paying solar jobs that cannot be outsourced.
Indiana’s emergence onto the solar scene reflects national trends, where solar jobs outpace the national job growth rate by a factor of 12. In 2016, 1 in every 50 new U.S. jobs came from solar. Indiana is home to 82 solar companies that install residential, commercial and utility-scale projects across the state and around nation.
The benefits of solar are numerous. These panels can cut their owner’s electricity bill by more than half while reducing environmental impact. Saint Anthony’s de Padua Catholic school in South Bend, which sports a solar array on its gym, practices environmental stewardship strongly encouraged by Pope Francis while saving money they would much rather spend on their student’s education. Kokomo recently turned on its 21-acre solar farm, installed on a toxic brownfield site where a steel plant once stood. [The Kokomo solar farm installed on the former Continental Steel brownfield site does not use net metering and will not be impacted by the net metering provisions of SB 309. This project has a long term purchase power agreement with Duke Energy. Indiana's current net metering rule only applies to customer owned solar and wind systems less than 1 MW.]
A variety of federal and state incentives help reduce solar system costs for Indiana. One of the most critical of these is net metering, the law granting anyone producing renewable energy (solar, wind, biofuel) the right to sell their extra power back to the grid at market rates. [The notion that solar customers sell their net excess electricity back to the grid is a common misnomer. Net metering customers receive a kWh for kWh CREDIT. When the solar customer's meter runs backwards they reduce the electricity they receive from their utility which is priced at the lowest price since most Indiana utilities still employ declining block rate structures where the more electricity a customer uses the less they pay per kWh.] Indiana and 41 other states currently allow their citizens to net meter.
Unfortunately, SB 309, threatens to significantly undermine this incentive. [Unfortunately, the notion that net metering is an incentive or a subsidy is another misnomer propagated by Indiana's electric utilities. There has been no Indiana net metering cost study using data from Indiana's electric utilities. There have been numerous cost studies doe in other states which instead indicate that net metering is a NET BENEFIT to all customers. See http://www.indianadg.net/solar-cost-benefit-studies/ and in particular a 2016 report by the Brookings Institute which summarizes the results of numerous state studies. See
] This bill is bad for Hoosiers on numerous levels. It directly affects anyone with solar by prohibiting them from using their own power produced by their panels. Instead, by 2027, and in some cases earlier, people would have to sell their solar power to the grid for as little as 25 percent of the retail value, and then pay a full price for all the power on their electricity bill.
Supporters of the bill claim this will make solar owners pay their fair share to support the costs of maintaining the grid. However, anyone who receives an electricity bill, no matter the size, will notice they already pay a transmission and distribution fee.
This about so much more than a few thousand people with solar on their roofs. [Please note that according to the most recent Report on net metering prepared by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) can be found at http://www.in.gov/iurc/files/2015_Net_Metering_Required_Reporting_Summary.pdf. This is the most current information on net metering for the investor owned electric utilities that would be impacted by SB 309 as it was amended 2/9/17. This report shows there were 866 net metering customers NOT a few thousand. The next IURC Net Metering report documenting net metering as of the end of 2016 should be available in March 2017.] It is about modernizing Indiana’s power grid through distributed generation. Most states are doing this, including Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, all of whom have recently overhauled their energy policy to support the rise in renewable energy. A few states such as Nevada, who have passed bills similar to SB 309, have seen over a thousand solar jobs flee the state.
[The action in Nevada on net metering was at the Nevada Public Utilities Commission (PUCN) and not the Nevada state legislature. Please see these two recent articles further explaining the NV PUC's reversal of their recent net metering decisions.
Nevada Regulators Restore Net Metering for Existing Solar Customers, Sept. 16, 2016; and
Nevada Regulators Restore Retail-Rate Net Metering in Sierra Pacific Territory, Dec. 22, 2016 "The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) has voted to restore favorable rates for residential solar customers in NV Energy’s Sierra Pacific Power Company’s service territory -- exactly one year after the commission passed a controversial fee increase that brought the state’s residential solar market to a halt."
It is not just solar this bill will hurt. Currently, 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies have pledged to make renewable energy a significant part, if not all, of their energy consumption by a certain date. General Motors plans to be 100 percent renewable by 2050, while Salesforce, with 800 employees in Indianapolis, has pledged to do the same. We will not attract more of these companies to Indiana if our energy laws make it unfeasible to meet their energy goals.
If you own solar, are interested in one day owning solar, or simply want to see fellow Hoosiers breathing cleaner air, I encourage you to contact your state [Senator and later your state] Representatives about SB 309. This is hardly a partisan issue; 80 percent of the country is in favor of renewable energy. In Indiana it is critical we retain net metering in its current form. Let’s be a leader in renewable energy, not a straggler.
Mike Keen is Professor Principal Thrive Michiana LLC and Emeritus at IU South Bend. Timothy Powers is a graduate student at the Center for a Sustainable Future at IU South Bend.