By Michael Mariotte

No, this isn’t Indiana. Yet. Some state legislators want to make sure this type of thing never comes to their state. It’s hard holding back the future.

Indiana is, perhaps aside from Utah and Oklahoma, about as red as red states come. It’s never been exactly a leader in forward-looking energy policy, although it did manage to avoid the deregulation fervor of the late 1990s-early 2000s, probably to its citizens’ benefit. But it’s also where I was born and some family still live, so I can’t give up on it entirely.

And, actually, there is a surprisingly long tradition of progressivism in Indiana as well. The northwest part of the state is (or at least was) steel country and union turf after all. It’s a non-nuclear state, though it wasn’t supposed to be. Two nuclear projects, Bailly in the north and Marble Hill in the south, were started in the 1970s. Both collapsed after construction had begun (in Marble Hill’s case, a lot of construction), in part due to the ferocity of opposition from the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana.

But it probably isn’t surprising that the state legislature is poised to consider some serious anti-solar legislation. In this case, it’s a bill, HB 1320, introduced by Rep. Eric Koch, a Republican who apparently is related to the Koch Brothers only by ideology. What’s perhaps most annoying about his bill, and his approach to passing it, is that he’s trying to label it a pro-solar bill.

It isn’t.

Indiana, like most states, currently has a net metering law that allows people with rooftop solar systems to sell their excess power back to the utility at retail rates. Solar is not yet very big in Indiana; only about 600 customers use net metering. But those 600 customers include at least seven churches. And, like everywhere else, rooftop solar is expected to grow, stratospherically, in Indiana in coming years.

Koch’s bill would change the net metering law so that people selling excess solar power back to the grid would receive only the avoided cost of producing electricity–a much lower amount.

And, in their best 1984-style framing, Koch and the Indiana Energy Association (which represents Indiana’s utilities) are trying to make the bill sound consumer friendly:

Koch and Mark Maassel, president of the Indiana Energy Association, say the current net metering hurts customers who don’t have solar panels of their own. And, if small-scale solar expands as expected, they say it will shift a growing share of the utilities’ fixed costs for generation, transmission and distribution onto traditional customers.

They also told me the bill would make solar more accessible to residential customers by setting leasing guidelines for those who cannot afford to purchase a system. It also would establish “right to know” standards for those leases so consumers don’t get surprised by costs or conditions tucked deep in a contract’s fine print, Koch explained.

“The goal is to promote (small-scale solar) in a way that is responsible and with a regulatory structure going forward that allows consumers to invest with confidence and to be protected,” he told me Friday.

Kerwin Olson of Citizens Action Coalition sees the bill differently: “We reject the very starting point of the conversation,” Olson said. “This is a war on solar because of the dramatic decrease in costs and the explosion (of small systems) across the U.S.”

Olson told Utility Dive that

“Indiana is as red as you can get, Democrats are completely irrelevant.” The Senate is 40-to-10 in favor of Republicans, and the House is 71-to-29, Republican. Olson’s hope is to create an alliance between the Democratic minority, and free-market minded Republicans to oppose the bill.

But Citizens Action, those churches, and people across the state who want solar power may be getting some powerful new allies–powerful particularly in Indiana: the Green Tea Coalition already active in Georgia and Florida.

As Utility Dive reported Friday,

“This is an attack on solar and on freedom of choice going on nationwide,” said Atlanta Tea Party Patriots Co-Chair Debbie Dooley. She has been talking to Olson and others about engaging in Indiana.

Dooley, one of 22 founders of the national Tea Party movement, sits on the Board of Directors of the Tea Party Patriots and is the leader of the Green Tea Coalition. An alliance of environmentalists and free-market advocates, the coalition was initially formed in Georgia to protect access to solar. More recently, it has been active on behalf of solar in Florida.

“I am talking to some people about going to Indiana and calling the utilities out for trying to stop competition,” Dooley said. “Choice is free market and a lot of Republicans support the free market except when it comes to government-created utility monopolies that make a guaranteed profit off of building new power plants.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Koch brothers-funded groups are behind utility-led efforts to block solar and “stop competition and protect their profit margins,” Dooley believes.

“The reason I like solar is the average person can’t go out and build a new power plant but the average person can put solar panels on their roof,” Dooley said. She is not protecting solar as much as she is protecting the right to choose solar. “At some point, we are going to have to look at the structure of the monopoly utilities,” Dooley said.

“I have a message for Republicans,” Dooley told Utility Dive. “If you are protecting monopolies, you are violating free market principles. In Indiana, elected officials who are trying to take away incentives for solar apparently don’t mind giving incentives to big corporations. They just don’t want individuals to have them.”

There is an energy revolution going on, she said. “For years, conservatives have been brainwashed into believing solar is bad. In the states where I am active, we don’t hesitate to call out those politicians and now a different message is being delivered. I look forward to coming to Indiana and delivering this message.”

As we noted just 10 days ago, Americans want solar, and 80% of us want a lot of it. And that’s true both in blue states and the reddest of the red states. Like my birth state of Indiana. And that’s a good sign for the future.

Michael Mariotte

January 26, 2015


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Filed under: energy future, Renewables Tagged: Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, Green Tea coalition, Indiana, solar power

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