INDIANAPOLIS – Energy independence. It’s a phrase that might conjure images of a Madison County school corporation with a sparkling new solar array, or a field of bobbing oil derricks down in Posey County. However you envision it, energy independence is a notion that ought to appeal to Hoosiers in general and Republicans in particular.

Energy dependence, on the other hand, is the effect of SEA 309, the 2017 state law that phases out net metering of consumer-generated solar energy. This cynical law hampers one industry while passive aggressively buttressing another. 

Essentially ghostwritten by utility lobbyists, the law was shepherded by Sen. Brandt Hershman, who, soon after the law was passed, his industry credentials burnished, flew the coop to Washington to be a lobbyist himself.

The upshot: Install solar at your home or business after July 2022, and the utilities pay you less than half retail market rate for the energy you generate. You may even have to pay them. Southern Indiana utility giant Vectren has filed a request with the IURC to halt net metering even earlier, as soon as March 2021.

These threatening deadlines (and a federal tax credit that was set to expire until the latest COVID relief package extended it) have ironically stimulated Indiana’s solar economy in the short term. 

Solar providers can barely keep up with the surge in demand. Outfits like Solar United Neighbors of Indiana are marketing solar buyers clubs. And a new initiative called Carbon Neutral Indiana is enticing Hoosiers to analyze and offset their carbon footprints with investments in forest preservation and solar [Disclosure: the author is a member of both].

Although it was designed to keep the solar genie in the bottle, SEA 309 has forced the genie out.

Not everyone is okay with this finger on the scale. Almost as soon as Gov. Holcomb signed 309 into law, efforts to undo it began. And they will continue in the current session. Senator Ron Alting (R-Lafayette) voted against the bill in 2017. He’s carrying the baton to reverse it in the 2021 session with SB 249.

“More and more Hoosier homeowners, farmers, schools, local governments and businesses have been installing solar panels as a way to embrace clean energy and to reduce their overall energy costs,” he said in a prepared statement. “Senate Bill 249 is a commonsense proposal to extend Indiana’s current net metering system that allows Hoosier solar owners who participate in net metering to be credited for the excess energy they provide to the grid at the same rate as the energy they purchase from the utility company.”
 
Under current Indiana law, “retail market rate” net metering will begin to phase out next year. Sen. Alting’s SB 249 extends the eligibility period for new solar customers by two years and increases the capacity for utility companies to allow new net metering customers. 

State Sen. Shelli Yoder (D-Bloomington) is offering a similar antidote bill. Hers would extend net metering by five years and quintuple the size of the systems that are eligible for net metering.
 
State Sen. Alting points out that in 2019, there were approximately 3,600 solar jobs among 81 solar companies in Indiana. Solar is one of the fastest-growing job markets in the country, adding 51% more jobs from 2019 to 2020 alone. He adds: “I authored SB 249 because we should support Hoosiers who are seeking ways to reduce their energy costs….and to help encourage the growth of Indiana’s clean energy economy.” 

That’s the economy Indiana’s utilities ought to be participating in, with all the free market creativity they can muster.

During the 2017 effort to defeat 309, advocates at the Hoosier Environmental Council asked: “In a state that prizes freedom, why would Indiana lawmakers support a bill that would severely undermine the quest for schools, small businesses, homes and congregations to create their own pollution-free solar energy?”

The short answer: The utility lobby. The IndyStar reported that between 2015 and 2017, investor-owned utilities and the organization that represents them spent at least $109,000 entertaining Indiana General Assembly legislators, including Colts games, cigar bars, and steak dinners for members of the Senate and House committees focused on utility legislation.

The price of the industry’s fear-disguised-as-arrogance is crippled economic opportunity. Ultimately, the market will decide. With the cost of renewables continuing to plummet, and Hoosiers’ big appetite for energy independence, even utility industry lobbyists can’t stop the sun from shining. 

A consultant and grant writer, Laker is principal of Laker Verbal LLC. She is the former director of communications at the Indiana Forest Alliance and hosts a movie review show, Flick Fix, on WQRT 99.1 FM.