By Mike Keen and Timothy Powers; Feb 14, 2017
Did you know Indiana has experienced impressive growth in solar power recently? Hoosiers are cutting their electric bills, adding jobs and breathing cleaner air thanks to solar. Unfortunately, this could be changed by Senate Bill 309, heard by the Senate Utilities Committee last Thursday. Under the bill, producers of renewable energy will not be credited fairly for the energy their panels produce.
Solar 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 to state and federal laws, 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. Studies show 80 percent of the country supports renewable growth. Indiana is home to 82 solar companies that install residential, commercial and utility-scale projects across the state and around nation.
The benefits to solar are numerous. These panels can cut their owner’s electricity bill by more than half while reducing environmental impact. St. Anthony de Padua Catholic school here in South Bend, which sports a solar array on its gym, saves money it would much rather spend on students’ education while practicing environmental stewardship strongly encouraged by Pope Francis. Other notable local solar examples include the Century Center, Montessori Academy and the Transpo headquarters.
A variety of federal and state incentives help reduce solar system costs in the state. One of the most critical of these is net metering, the law granting people producing renewable energy the right to receive a credit for their extra power they return to the grid. Indiana and 41 other states currently allow their citizens to net meter.
Unfortunately, SB 309 threatens to significantly undermine this incentive. This bill is bad for Hoosiers on numerous levels. Anyone with solar would be prohibited from using the power produced by their panels. Instead, by 2027, and in some cases earlier, people would have to return their solar power to the grid for as little as 25 percent of the retail value, and then pay for the full price of 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 is about so much more than the people with solar on their roofs. It is about modernizing Indiana’s power grid through distributed generation. Most states are doing this, including Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, all of which have recently overhauled their energy policy to support the rise in renewable energy.
A few states such as Nevada, which have passed bills similar to SB 309, have seen over a thousand solar jobs flee the state due to a subsequent downturn in the solar market.
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 policy makes 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, we encourage you to contact your state senator and later your state representatives about SB 309. 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 the principal founder at Thrive Michiana LLC and professor emeritus at Indiana University South Bend. Timothy Powers is a graduate student at the Center for a Sustainable Future at IU South Bend.