Wind Energy Is a Big Business in Indiana, Leading to Awkward Alliances

Hotly debated legislation would open the state to renewable energy projects, trumping local restrictions.

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A farmer feeds cows in front of wind turbines that stand at the Amazon Wind Farm Fowler Ridge in Fowler, Indiana on Aug. 3, 2016. Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A farmer feeds cows in front of wind turbines that stand at the Amazon Wind Farm Fowler Ridge in Fowler, Indiana on Aug. 3, 2016. Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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A debate over renewable energy in Indiana is scrambling some of the usual politics of energy and the environment.

The wind industry is working with leaders in the Republican-run state government to pass statewide rules for where wind and solar systems can be built, which would allow for more development by replacing the often-restrictive rules now set at the county level.

Understandably, county leaders don’t like that.

Environmental and consumer groups are torn about this proposed legislation. They want to favor renewable energy but also to support local control of energy decisions. And they want any new rules to allow for environmental protection of wind and solar sites more than the bill does.

“This is a tough one,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, an Indianapolis-based consumer advocacy group. He said there isn’t a clear right side, “so we’re sitting this out.”

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The wind industry’s ability to marshal forces in Indiana shows how renewable energy has become a big business that can wield influence across the political spectrum. While the industry has gained clout, the expansion of wind energy also has emboldened critics in Indiana and other states, who say turbines are cluttering rural landscapes.

Opposition to wind farms and solar arrays has helped to inspire legislation in Kansas and Ohio that would severely limit the ability to develop new renewable projects, but it’s not clear whether either bill has a chance of becoming law. Those two proposals, along with the one in Indiana, show that there is a debate taking place across the Midwest and Great Plains states about how to respond to the growth in renewable energy.

The Indiana Senate is considering House Bill 1381, which would impose statewide rules that set the minimum distances that wind and solar projects must be from nearby buildings and property lines, in a way that is less restrictive than regulations in many counties. The bill passed the Indiana House in February in a 58-38 vote, with a mix of Republicans and Democrats on both sides, in a chamber where Republicans hold a 71-29 majority.

It is not clear whether the bill has enough support to pass in the state Senate before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn at the end of April.

Indiana Wind Energy

The statewide rules would supersede local ones, including in the more than 30 of Indiana’s 92 counties that have adopted ordinances that ban or severely limit wind farms. Supporters of the bill say Indiana is unusual in having such a large share of counties with local restrictions.

County governments are leading the opposition to the bill. County leaders, many of whom are Republicans, are up against a unified front of the state’s top Republican officeholders, along with business groups like the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Wind energy developers and their trade association have the advantage of working with a well-connected lobbyist, Tony Samuel, who was vice chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in Indiana.

In this debate, allegiance to the idea of local control is running up against the state’s desire to attract large investments, said Russell Hillberry, a Purdue University agricultural economist. Environmental issues are way down on the list of concerns.

“This is a business decision,” he said. “Wind energy is viable as an electricity source and there are big financial backers of wind energy that are not necessarily concerned with whether it helps save the planet. They can make money doing this.”

Is It in the Public Interest?

More than half of Indiana’s wind energy generation is in two neighboring rural counties with strong winds.

Benton and White counties have been transformed by wind energy, with a bonanza of tax revenue. The wind farms have become a landmark for drivers along I-65 between Indianapolis and Chicago, with wind turbines extending to the horizon in almost all directions.

Only four other Indiana counties in the state have wind farms, which means that most of the opposition to the industry is coming from places that haven’t had development.

Some opponents of the bill talk about “Big Wind,” the same way people talk about “Big Oil,” underscoring the wind industry’s emergence as a major player in Indiana and elsewhere.

The American Clean Power Association, a trade group formerly known as the American Wind Energy Association, has done much of the work to organize support.

The bill is a “thoughtful, productive way to open Indiana back up for business and do it in partnership with the state and local communities, rather than it being a local decision entirely,” said Jeff Danielson, central states director for the association. He noted that local governments would retain some authority by being able to reject projects that don’t meet the standards set in the bill.

For environmental activists, it’s often a bad thing when the state overrules local actions. Fossil fuel companies have shown how to use political power at the state level to make sure that local ordinances and ballot measures don’t get in the way of fracking or the use of natural gas in buildings.

But Danielson, a former Iowa state lawmaker, said the differences in regulations for different energy sources are so complicated that it’s difficult to make any meaningful comparison. He said the issue in Indiana is a simpler question of whether the expansion of renewable energy is in the public interest.

“Will Indiana miss out on these business investments in clean energy going forward?” he asked.

The industry is fighting hard in Indiana because the state has strong wind and solar resources and an enviable location that makes it easy to deliver electricity to much of the eastern United States. Indiana ranks 12th in the country in installed wind energy capacity, with 2,940 megawatts, and 20th in utility-scale solar power, with 279 megawatts, according to the Energy Information Administration.

An Uncomfortable Spot for Environmentalists

The debate is notable for the low profile of environmental groups, even though the bill would ease the growth of renewable energy, which is a top issue for the groups.

The Hoosier Environmental Council is an exception. Jesse Kharbanda, the group’s executive director, has been widely quoted by news outlets saying that he supports renewable energy but cannot support this bill in its current form. His group opposes a provision in the bill that gives landowners a veto over whether a project on their land needs to comply with rules about ground cover underneath solar farms.

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Some Indiana counties have adopted rules that were designed to maintain or improve the soil quality around renewable energy projects, with practices that encourage birds and bees that are essential for pollinating plants. The state legislation has a provision that seeks to help pollinators, but the “landowner veto,” undermines this, Kharbanda has said.

Beyond that one provision, the bill as a whole makes some environmentalists uncomfortable, because they support local control.

Olsen, the leader of Citizens Action Coalition, said his group wants to support the expansion of renewable energy, but is also wary of an erosion of local control. Plus, he saw little room to make a difference in an already crowded debate, so his group hasn’t taken a side.

“This is being driven by a lot of people with a lot more power than us,” he said.

Local Objections

If the wind industry was to stay in just a few rural counties, there might not be much backlash elsewhere. But developers are looking to expand their footprint, partly because newer wind turbines can be productive even in places with moderate winds. In Indiana, this means looking beyond the prime real estate of Benton and White counties to many other parts of the state.

“Now you’re running into more populated areas,” said Hillberry of Purdue. “There are more local people to object.”

The official pushback against wind power has been almost exclusively in places with no wind farms, leading to hostile ordinances in more than 30 counties.

The local ordinances have succeeded in derailing plans by developers, as they did last year when RWE Renewables said it was canceling plans for a project in Gibson County in southwestern Indiana because the company’s plans were no longer feasible with new restrictions. The county government has since repealed the restrictions.

These kinds of local limits, if done in enough places, could alter the course of the country’s transition to clean energy and increase the cost of electricity for everyone, according to recent research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. One of the reasons for the increase in costs is that developers would need to spend more money on power lines to transport electricity if they can’t build projects close to population centers.

Some of the push against wind farms is coming from activists who promote unproven claims that wind turbines cause health and safety issues for neighboring residents, the kind of talk that helped inspire former President Donald Trump to repeat the false claim that noise from wind turbines causes cancer.

But the pushback against the Indiana legislation has not focused on health or safety. Instead, county leaders from across the political spectrum are saying the bill is bad because it removes local control, which they say is a foundational principle of Indiana government. About 60 counties have approved resolutions opposing the bill.

“Just like Indiana can make better decisions for itself than Washington, Henry County can make better decisions for itself than Indianapolis,” said Betsy Mills, a county leader in east-central Indiana, in an online message to constituents.

Mark Heirbrandt, a county leader in the Indianapolis suburbs, said renewable energy developers should focus on building support at the local level and demonstrating the benefits of their projects, rather than doing an end-run on current regulations.

“We are very much in favor of renewable energy, but we are not in favor of taking the control away on the local level,” he said.

‘This is Not the Green New Deal’

Indiana’s major business organizations are working alongside top Republicans to pass the bill.

The main sponsor is state Rep. Ed Soliday, a Republican, who has been a proponent of state rules that would slow the closing of coal-fired power plants. He also is the chairman of a state task force reviewing the future of energy generation in the state, and says statewide rules for wind and solar are in line with the recommendations of the task force, which wants to encourage energy production within Indiana’s borders.

Considering that no new coal or nuclear plants are being proposed in Indiana, the most likely sources of new electricity generation on a large scale are natural gas, wind and solar.

During the floor debate last month, Soliday hinted at some of the criticism he’s received about the bill from sources that include websites that oppose wind energy and say wind turbines are ugly and dangerous.

“This is not the Green New Deal, and you won’t see that coming from me, no matter what you’re seeing on the internet,” Soliday said.

His comments help to show that the pairing of the wind industry and legislative leaders is still awkward at times, while environmental groups watch in discomfort.

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