Solar Power Grab

Indiana legislators may single-handedly (correction: with the help of electric utilities) wipe out a fast growing industry in the state. Senate Bill 309 (SB309) proposes to pull the rug out from under all of the schools, farms, churches, municipalities, businesses, and individuals who have erected solar panels. If the bill's proponents get their way, the small solar panel owners will not be reimbursed fairly for the excess energy they contribute to the power system. Only the utility company will effectively be able to monetize the sun's energy.

Let's be clear: the language of Senate Bill 309 - Distributed Generation is not. Even the summary is technical and confusing. Please don't let that veil of difficulty prevent you from thinking critically--press on. A key term to know is net metering. For me, net metering is the embodiment of how solar energy should be integrated into the power grid. Here's how it works.

Let's say you put up solar panels. You use that solar energy when you can, and buy electricity from the utility at retail rate when you cannot generate enough of your own. If your sun-powered system generates more than you consume, the utility buys that surplus from you at retail rate.

Currently that retail rate in Indiana is about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Owners of solar panels, right down to the mom and pop backyard installation, get a sufficient return on their investment (after 10-20 years) to do the right thing and put no carbon into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the utility sells and distributes the solar energy they purchased from you to your nearby neighbors, lessening the load on the utility's coal plant.

Why Locate Business Where You Can't Capture Solar?

SB309 proponents want to trash the system. The utility wants to buy back the solar energy at wholesale rate (about 3 cents per kWh, per the Indiana Energy Association, a utility lobbying group), a small fraction of the retail rate, and eliminate net metering altogether in 2022. Eventually that date arrives and the utility has squeezed out all of the "distributed generation", or independent solar energy producers.

This is bad for Indiana consumers and bad for Indiana business. Progressive companies and individuals who want to generate their own power with solar panels have no incentive to locate in Indiana. In response the growing solar industry dries up. For example, when net-metering was cut in Nevada, new residential solar installation permits plunged 92 percent in the first quarter of 2016.

The proposed SB309 legislation has gone through some modifications as it wends its way to a vote, but the premise is still faulty. Advocates claim net metering is subsidized by customers who do not have solar systems. Yet there is no proof, only corporate posturing. Before acting, legislators should ask the Indiana Utility Regulation Committee (IURC) to conduct a study to determine the real value of distributed generation.

Not surprisingly, per a Brookings Institution report the majority of such studies in other states have shown that the small solar-generating customers actually make net contributions to the utility system. A detailed report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concludes, "the effects of distributed solar on retail electricity prices will likely remain negligible for the foreseeable future." So far, an unbiased scientific review to determine fair compensation to solar panel owners has not happened in Indiana.

The utilities also claim the small solar providers scattered across the state are a burden on the grid. Yet even the utilities recognize the upsides to distributed generation. For example NIPSCO tells its electric customers, "We offer three program options aimed at promoting further renewable generation opportunities in northern Indiana and responding to customers’ interest in powering their homes and businesses with renewable energy. In addition to contributing to environmental sustainability, these programs help slow the need for NIPSCO to invest in additional power resources, as the demand for energy continues to rise."

No Option to Remain Silent

Please contact your Indiana state legislator to weigh in. Many newspaper editorials across the state have similarly expressed the dismay I feel. Solar energy captured by small users should remain a viable source of alternative energy in Indiana that benefits the common good. Stifling net-metering not only dissuades people from investing in clean solar energy, it crushes the growing industry of solar designers, installers, maintenance technicians, and other tax-paying supporters.

I was recently reminded by Noam Chomsky of my political responsibility: "Not one of us who has been trained to think critically and to write lucidly has the option to remain silent now." So I wrote my State Senator to express my opinion and to find out his. Ten days later I called a number listed on the Indiana General Assembly website and left a message (with a real person) inquiring about his stance on SB309. I'm awaiting a reply.

Here's what I wrote and sent February 14, 2017:

Dear Senator Zakas, As a voter in your district, I write to share my opinion with you about pending legislation. I believe SB309’s efforts to quash net-metering are detrimental to my interests as a consumer and to the energy profile in Indiana. As an educator I’ve been working to promote solar energy as a way to lessen our carbon footprint while staving off expansion of traditional electricity-generating plants. I embrace individual acts that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, such as the installation of solar panels or wind generators. Therefore, I see how SB309 would pull the rug out from community and citizen initiatives to advance the growth of the solar industry. For example, my parish is contemplating the installation of solar panels to demonstrate the contribution of solar energy to Hoosiers' well-being, but SB309 as written would dismiss the value of distributed generation to the grid. By eliminating net metering, SB309 arbitrarily takes away incentive to do the right thing. The proposed scheme in SB309 to phase out net metering, as I understand the bill, is untenable. Net metering benefits the utility system, contrary to the bill’s proponents’ claims. The electricity generated by small customers stays in the distribution system in the immediate vicinity and is not a burden on the grid—quite the contrary, small generation stays local. The utility purports to want America thriving on solar energy, but only solar energy it can monetize.

To discourage net metering is to discourage investment in Indiana. Solar panel owners pay for line services—they’re neither skirting the system at the expense of other consumers nor cheating the utility. It is both obvious and fair that, for the energy that solar panels return to the grid at peak demand, the solar energy providers should be fairly compensated. Senator Zakas, please do not align yourself with this legislation crafted only for the benefit of the utilities. You would be stifling not only Indiana businesses, schools, and individuals who embrace solar energy, but you would also be stifling the Hoosier initiative to do what’s best for our country and our well-being. Please make it so I and others are encouraged to stay and build in Indiana knowing we can invest in solar. Please feel free to contact me if you wish to discuss this in person. Sincerely, Chuck Bueter

When the Midday Sun Disappears

I believe if we want to thrive on alternative energy, then solar is part of the mix. To embrace solar energy, we need to be more informed about and comfortable with the sun. If the sun is going to power our future, then we'd best get outdoors and pay attention to it. Motivated to promote solar energy, I'm concentrating my outreach priorities on three items in 2017--the August 21 solar eclipse, personal solargraphs, and SB309.

On August 21, watch the moon glide in front of our almost-constant sun. For a fleeting moment, the midday sun disappears in plain sight. We don't cower nowadays during totality because of science.

In the interim, make and mount a solargraph to capture the path of the energy-effusing sun. Each arc of the sun's path on your solargraph reflects that respective day in your life, from solstice to solstice.

Lastly, voice opposition to SB309. If the law discourages solar investment in Indiana, the midday sun essentially has disappeared from our pool of sustainable resources.

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