INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -
Indiana’s energy utilities want state lawmakers to pass a law that critics
say would muscle out smaller companies from the emerging solar energy
provides only about 1 percent of the country’s energy, but the industry is
growing rapidly, with figures showing it employed 208,859 workers in 2015.
That amounts to a 125 percent increase since 2010, according to the U.S.
Department of Energy.
But much of the
growth has come from homeowners or businesses taking advantage of its
bill-lowering potential. That could eventually eat away at the business of
the big utilities - in Indiana they are Duke Energy, Vectren and Indiana
Michigan Power - which have a powerful voice and donate handsomely to the
political campaigns of lawmakers.
Indiana legislators started debate on a proposed law that in five years
would eliminate much of the financial benefit Indiana homeowners, businesses
and even some churches reap harvesting the sun’s rays. It would tilt the
market in favor of the utilities, critics said.
Sen. Brandt Hershman’s bill would overhaul a practice called “net metering,”
which allows solar panel owners to feed excess energy into the power grid in
exchange for a credit on their bill.
would lock in a substantially lower rate of reimbursement than what is
currently guaranteed - a move that solar advocates say would make it
difficult to break even during the useful life of a solar panel.
“I have nothing
against solar. I’m simply trying to reset the marketplace,” said Hershman,
who says solar panel owners are reimbursed at too-generous of a rate. “In
hard-dollar terms, there is a significant subsidy going on.”
But the measure
comes as investor-owned utilities across the U.S. are also looking to take
advantage of the plunging costs of sun-generated power and carve out a share
of the market for themselves. And critics say the bill amounts to an effort
by the utilities to muscle out the small companies, potentially threatening
the 1,500 jobs the Solar Foundation estimated in 2015 that the industry had
created in Indiana alone.
promoting an alternative to installing home solar panels called “community
solar,” a model that involves customers agreeing to buy or lease solar
panels from the utilities on large panel farms.
solar if they can control those assets,” said Ryan Zaricki, who owns Whole
Sun Designs, a solar panel installation company headquartered in Evansville.
Zaricki, who employs five workers during busy months, said that if the bill
passes “it means that, in the long term, I won’t have a business.”
Duke Energy Corp.,
the largest electricity company in the United States, this year plans to
launch a “community solar” program in South Carolina and seek regulatory
permission to do the same in North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Ohio, as
well as Indiana, utility vice president Melisa Johns said.
Indiana is not the
first state to take up an overhaul of the solar industry. Michigan, Illinois
and Iowa have adopted policies that would phase out net metering at a
gentler pace, according to advocates. In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage
last year vetoed a bill that would have overhauled the state’s approach.
Montana is also considering a range of bills that would alter its policy,
according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Utilities say the
current Indiana system of compensation is unfair because it requires them to
pay solar panel owners for power at retail cost - which is more than it
would cost them to produce the same amount of energy. They also stress that
they own the infrastructure solar panel owners rely on to feed their excess
power onto the grid and should be compensated for it.
“The simple logic
for us is if you’re using it, you should pay for it,” said Mark Maassel,
president of the Indiana Energy Association, which represents the state’s
largest power utilities.
Jeffrey R. S.
Brownson, a solar expert and engineering professor at Penn State University,
says he has not seen data that suggests the small amount of solar energy
generated in the U.S. is unduly taxing on the power grid.
“This is very
reactionary,” he said of Hershman’s bill. “It’s definitely going to stymie
innovation and slow down job growth.”
In Indiana, it’s
just the latest measure pushed by Republicans, who dominate the Statehouse,
which would corner a market, or benefit longtime political allies and
A bill last week
that would have effectively blocked electric car maker Tesla from selling in
Indiana was overhauled after an outpouring of opposition. And last year
lawmakers passed vaping industry regulations that created a monopoly for one
security firm that became the sole gatekeeper of who could manufacture the
nicotine-laced liquid consumed through vaping. GOP leaders pledged to “fix”
the law this year after the FBI launched a probe.
Over the past three
years Duke energy and its affiliated political committees have funneled
$76,000 to state Senate members of both parties.
collected $9,000 from the company since 2010, according to state campaign
The utilities also
donated more than $1 million to the Indiana Economic Development
Corporation, which helped finance trade missions former Gov. Mike Pence led
to Canada, Germany, London, Israel and China in 2014 and 2015, according to
records obtained through a public records request. The IEDC is a
quasi-governmental state that regularly uses private donations to fund trips
VIP trips for state officials.