The roads in Henry County, Indiana, are dotted with signs protesting projects locals say will infringe on their rights and their quality of life: wind turbines.
The county is one of 34 around the state with ordinances to restrict how close wind and solar projects can be placed to homes, or prohibit their construction altogether. Residents in these counties fear the projects will tank property values as well as inconvenience the lives of those who live near them.
But as coal plants shut down and state energy needs increase, Indiana must expand renewable resources to fill the gap, experts say.
And county governments are standing in the way.
State lawmakers are pushing for a bill that would create consistent statewide standards for how close wind and solar projects can be located to other properties. This would overrule the county ordinances that have tried to stop them, including Hamilton and Hendricks counties, which have restrictive ordinances.
The state is missing out on millions of dollars in potential income, according to bill proponents, because piecemeal standards are stopping renewable companies from investing in Indiana. In some cases, companies have fronted hefty costs for wind projects just for county governments to block them from happening.
Indiana stands out in this way when it comes to wind and solar siting, experts say. Sean Brady, regional policy manager for renewable advocacy group the Clean Grid Alliance, said while some other states may also have inconsistent standards, it’s not to the extent you see in Indiana.
“Right now,” Brady said, “local government has said that Indiana is closed for business for renewables.”
Indiana’s House Bill 1381 is based on similar legislation in other states, but sets standards that would put projects farther away from homes than most other rules would, Brady said.
Even so, the bill has drawn adamant pushback from some local government officials, including Susan Huhn, a Henry County resident whose outspoken opposition to wind projects helped her earn the spot as county council president.
While opponents have made it clear they don’t want wind, or in some cases solar, in their communities, they’ve said this issue is less about renewable energy and more about local control.
“It sets a really dangerous precedent,” Huhn said. “It removes the importance of local government, which is supposed to control these things, as they’re close to their constituents and see what their needs are … This bill would be dangerous regardless of what was in it.”
Bill author Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the decisions of some counties are preventing the rest of the state from benefiting from renewables investment.
“I’m a strong proponent of local control, when it impacts only your locality,” he said during a recent Indiana University symposium discussing energy legislation. “But when your local control impacts your neighbor, it becomes a state issue.”
HB 1381 passed out of the House on Feb. 17, and now awaits committee assignment in the Senate.
‘It’s the biggest investment that you have’
Central to the debate surrounding wind turbines is the question of whether they hurt the property values of nearby homes.
Some studies indicate that they do, and could cut the value of a home by as much as 20% to 40%.
But environmental groups and some researchers push back, saying many of those studies are unreliable or have been challenged. A handful of academic studies analyzing sites near wind turbines around the country found no statistical significance in property loss due to the projects’ construction. They were more likely to be negatively affected by power lines or roads, one study found.
Although it’s not the rule, it’s not unheard of for property values to fall after a wind project moves in/ Some studies have found this to be the case in specific localities. And it’s natural for people to be afraid to take that chance, said Betsy Mills, Henry County resident and council member.
“I think of my family farm in northern Henry County and all the money and time my family’s put into it over 40 years,” Mills said. “To know that my neighbors who want wind turbines might be able to hurt my inheritance … that, to me, crushes me because it hurts the little guy.”
Huhn, who pushed back against a project that would have been built near her own home, was also afraid she would lose value on her home.
“That, for us, and most people, is devastating because it’s the biggest investment that you have,” Huhn said. “That was when I took my five kids at the time down to the courthouse and started learning how local government works.”
Mills and Huhn were both elected to the county council in part because of their stance on wind projects. It’s an issue that residents feel passionate about, Huhn said, not only because of property value concerns, but also because the turbines can create inconveniences like shadow flicker, a light effect that can cause headaches for those who live within the turbine’s shadow.
Mills also questions whether standards can be applied to every county in a “one size fits all approach.” What works for Marion County, she said, is likely not going to work on her home turf.
A lecturer at Pennsylvania State University, Mills said she resents the idea that the opposition to wind projects comes from a place of being anti-environment.
“I’m an educated young woman. I’m the faculty member for a major university. I’m pro-science. I’m pro-green energy when it makes sense. But it has to make sense,” she said. “This bill honestly is a love letter to the wind and solar industries and it makes our citizens the victims of that.”
In a committee hearing for the bill last month, Huhn testified that she and other rural county officials had been told by the state several years ago that wind was a local issue, making it that much more frustrating now to see the state intervening.
“Rural counties begged for help from state reps, because setbacks for wind turbines were too short,” she said in the hearing. “We were told emphatically that the state did not regulate local land issues.”
Residents from other counties, such as Whitley and Madison Counties, have also spoken in opposition of the bill. Hamilton County and Hendricks County also have restrictive ordinances, and Boone County has a moratorium on construction, said Caryl Auslander with the Indiana chapter of Advanced Energy Economy.
Opponents of HB 1381 acknowledge there’s a difference between the impacts wind turbines have on a neighboring property and the impacts of a solar project: Wind turbines stand hundreds of feet high, while solar panels are relatively unobstructive.
But farmers looking to lease their land to renewable companies often prefer wind power, because they would still have the option to farm the ground underneath turbines.
“If you put a wind turbine in a field, you can still farm most of that field,” said Ken Boswell, Pulaski County Council President. “The downside of solar is, if you take out 4,000 acres for a solar farm, that’s taken out of production.”
For agricultural counties with vast fields of undeveloped land, wind and solar could bring a much-needed source of income.
Pulaski County is currently evaluating a multi-thousand acre solar project that Boswell predicts will bring a big boost to the tax base. In their county, where the workforce is limited, it may be one of the few opportunities for growth available.
“When you are an agricultural county and you have a low population, that also means you don’t have the highest wage jobs in the state either, so your options for revenue streams are very limited,” Boswell said. “When alternative energy sources, wind and solar, go into an ag area, that helps boost the economy, the county, that will bring in revenue.”
Some Pulaski County residents spoke in HB 1381’s hearing in support of the bill, but Boswell acknowledges some residents oppose the incoming solar project. Currently, the proposal is being litigated.
Environmental groups such as the Hoosier Environmental Council are also joining the conversation about HB 1381, but not entirely on the grounds of promoting renewable energy: It’s about ensuring the land under incoming solar panels will be responsibly used.
Jesse Kharbanda, HEC’s executive director, said the group supports improving the climate for renewable energy investment in the state. But, he said, it’s also critical that that includes protecting wildlife and natural resources.
By the end of the decade, Kharbanda said the footprint of Indiana’s solar farms could be as much as 80,000 acres — slightly more than the acreage of the entire state park system.
That’s a huge opportunity, he said.
And it’s why the HEC is advocating for local control provisions that would allow local governments to rule what the ground cover under solar farms must be, whether it be pollinator-friendly habitats or other environmentally friendly ground cover. A dozen counties in Indiana have already enacted ordinances directed toward fostering sustainable landscapes on solar farms, he said.
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An amendment to the bill requires the landowner to maintain vegetated ground cover under solar panel projects and encourages the use of pollinator seed mixes.
“We’re very glad that Indiana is in the midst of this true pivot from a fossil fuel-dominated economy,” Kharbanda said. “But it’s also critical that we make sure that we are seeing our natural resources and wildlife be protected as we integrate this new energy resource in a big way in our state.”
Companies say no to Indiana
Part of the problem is that the ground keeps shifting under renewable companies’ feet, said Greg Ellis, vice president of energy and environmental policy at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
He recalls a company that was working on a wind project in Montgomery County. It had started its planning and engineering process, Ellis said, and began acquiring leases for the turbines. But as the project was moving along, the county also started the process for a new ordinance that would “restrict renewables considerably,” Ellis said, “to the point where it wasn’t economically feasible anymore.”
The ordinance passed and the company didn’t proceed with the project: “The result was they had lost the investment they’d put into that,” he said. To the tune of several million dollars.
Other renewable companies have faced similar problems with more than 30 Indiana counties restricting or prohibiting these projects. Ellis said these companies have told the Chamber that they are going to stop investing in Indiana because more local governments continue to pull the plug.
“They said, ‘we can’t do it,’” Ellis said, “which is not a good thing for Indiana.”
There is serious demand for these projects in Indiana, Auslander said.
As utilities across Indiana and the country transition away from coal and other fossil fuels, they are “looking to add significantly more wind and solar to their portfolios over the next 20 years” to generate that electricity — “not for environmental reasons, but to lower cost,” Auslander said. Utilities, along with manufacturers and industries, are also receiving significant demand from customers and corporate boardrooms to move toward clean energy.
“So we as a state want to be supportive,” Auslander said. “We want to make sure we are removing burdensome red tape to move toward a generation transition as seamlessly as possible.”
Without such statewide standards, Indiana will continue to rely on and buy electricity from other states that are more welcoming and receptive to renewables, Soliday said. He based his bill off of a law in Wisconsin.
Soliday said he wants to balance the concerns from localities, setting stricter setback requirements than usual and creating avenues for both communities and companies to appeal decisions. Still, he said it’s a question of where do one property owner’s rights end and their neighbors begin?
Kerwin Olson with the Citizens Action Coalition agrees. He said his consumer advocacy group would normally be a proponent of local control, but there are times when public interest comes into play.
“There are certain things where the state should weigh in. It’s too important of an issue to have a piecemeal approach,” Olson said. “And I don’t think there’s any question that the public interest for the state of Indiana is to invite these investments into our community and welcome the jobs and revenue.”
Millions of dollars at stake
There is a lot of money on the table, Auslander said: “The need has never been greater.”
According to a recent report from Advanced Energy Economy, Indiana would see more than 25,000 new jobs and $5 billion in new investment in the next five years if it met the demand for renewable energy in the state.
And Indiana has already seen significant benefits from the projects that have been located in the state, said Brady with the Clean Grid Alliance. The renewable companies pay land payments to local property owners to lease the land, they pay local property taxes, and they pay to help improve infrastructure, he said.
As an example, wind projects in Indiana have paid $20 million a year in land payments for leases and $15 million in tax revenue that goes to local governments to be used for schools and services.
“That’s significant money in rural areas that could be a big help to local governments,” Brady said, “now and especially going forward as we try to recover from the pandemic.”
Even outside these direct dollars, renewable projects and investment can bring additional economic benefits. It can help keep electricity prices low, Brady said, by replacing older, more expensive plants that are retiring with more cost-effective renewable generation.
Renewables also attract corporations to build and locate in Indiana. About a quarter of wind development in the U.S. in recent years has been driven by corporate investment and sustainability goals, Brady said.
Local Control in Legislature
Local control has long been a hot-button topic in Indiana, and that is no exception in this year’s legislative session.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle have regularly said that they are in favor of local control, but a handful of bills this year would remove the rights of local communities.
In addition to HB 1381, there is a bill that would prohibit local governments from banning natural gas in new construction. Another bill would prevent cities from being able to change their names. And the Indiana General Assembly voted to override Republican Gov. Holcomb’s veto of a 2020 bill that would prohibit Indianapolis from regulating relationships between tenants and landlords.
HB 1381 passed out of the House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications committee with almost unanimous support, but faced a little more resistance on the House floor. Several legislators proposed amendments that would have exempted their counties or areas in their district from the statewide standards. None of those efforts, however, were successful.
The bill passed out of the House by a vote of 58 to 38, with both Republicans and Democrats voting for and against the bill. It is now waiting for a committee assignment in the Senate.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah.
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