The Indiana Senate Utilities Committee passed HB 1381 9-2 after hearing a significant amendment to the bill Thursday morning.
Authored by Representative Edward Soliday, the bill establishes statewide default standards for wind and solar systems.
When it arrived to the meeting, the bill also had a provision pertaining to home rule. In an instance where a local governing body denies a renewable energy project, that company can appeal to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC).
The bill initially gave the IURC the power to overturn what a local government ruled.
At the initial introduction of this bill to the 2021 Legislative Session, Henry County as well as about 30 others had already said ‘no’ to wind. This has caused millions in losses for the renewable energy companies looking to lease land in Indiana and inspired Soliday to draft the bill, he said at the beginning of the committee meeting.
Because of this home rule provision, Henry County joined nearly 60 other counties in signing a resolution opposing the bill.
Henry County Council President Susan Huhn testified against HB 1381 in February at its hearing in the House of Representatives.
“Bill 1381 is a very dangerous bill,” Huhn told the House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications (UTE) Committee during that Feb. 3 meeting. “It strips away the power of local government to regulate land use. Every Indiana county has a different population density – a different comprehensive plan – and a different vision for how we want to grow and develop our county. Home rule grants those rights to local government.
“This bill suggests that the state would dictate what companies counties are forced to do business with, what companies counties are forced to be community partners with, and how and where counties pursue economic growth,” Huhn had continued. “That is an absolutely outrageous overreach of state power.”
The Utility Committee seems to have heeded Huhn’s word. Senator Mark Messmer drafted what was referred to as Amendment Three, significantly changing the bill.
This amendment grandfathers in counties that have more restrictions on renewable energy systems than the standards in the bill, like Henry County’s current wind energy conversion systems (WECS) ordinance.
This amendment also reduces the noise limit a wind turbine can make to 50 db (it was higher in the original draft) and increases setbacks from municipalities and state parks to one mile.
But most notably, the amendment does away with mentions of home rule, and changed the appeals process – instead of appealing to the IURC, complaints would be filed with the local circuit courts. This was done in an effort to keep more local control.
The amendment also offers guidelines and incentives for counties to adopt a Renewable Energy District, or a physical location associated solar or wind project, according to the amended bill.
“It would allow a county that already has a more restrictive ordinance to adopt and work with the renewable companies to make sure the construction of a renewable energy district is functional,” Messmer said.
This will not be a requirement for counties to follow, however. It is completely optional; therefore, Messmer included an incentive to encourage counties to adopt the Renewable Energy District – a $3,000-per-megawatt upfront cost by the wind companies.
It’s because of these additions that Senator Jean Leising asked Messmer what is different between the amended bill and what’s currently in place.
“If we do nothing, tell me the difference between your new amended version and what is in current practice now?” she asked. “What reason would a county want to participate if it’s all nay?”
Messmer explained it would provide a set of guidelines for counties with no wind ordinances if they wanted to set one. It also provides a monetary incentive.
“There’s still a tool in place where they can proceed with a project within an renewable energy district, and then have a payment process for the neighbors of those projects that doesn’t occur today,” Messmer said.
Leising said she feared the developer would offset this initial cost in the lease contracts with the land owners. She voted against the bill.
Huhn’s comments on amended bill
Huhn spoke at Thursday’s Senate committee meeting, as well. She thanked Leising for listening to her constituents.
“I wanted Jean (Leising) to know that the amendments as they are presented are acceptable to the Henry County constituents,” Huhn said. “Henry County has done a lot of work to research what would be best for our county and it’s really important to us that we maintain those regulations. I really appreciate the grandfathering, so to speak, that’s been done.
“I do have some concerns though about this bill,” Huhn added. “Ideally this is a local control issue, and it is really already being done at a local level because the commissioners can create the ordinance and the Planning Commission can approve project by project, so that idea of a certain area where things can be done differently can be controlled by the Planning Commission. The county council has the ability to accept tax abatements and also to negotiate economic incentives, so this is a completely locally-managed issue.
“Creating additional legislation to do something – I know there’s energy to do something, but it can be done at a local level and it is,” she told the state lawmakers.