(This piece was originally published on September 15, 2017 in the Courier-Journal.)

Move to make solar power less attractive results in short-term boost in sales as advocates find a new way to help people save more money on panels

There’s a run to the sun across Indiana with an important deadline approaching for a new law that tipped the balance of solar power toward big utilities.

From Jeffersonville to South Bend, hundreds of solar enthusiasts are putting thousands of solar panels on their roofs by the end of the year. That way, they can get the most out of Indiana’s so-called net-metering rules that determine how much money utilities must pay for any extra electricity their customers produce.

In Southern Indiana, a new Solarize the Sunny Side effort has been underway, playing on the nickname for Louisville’s neighbors to the north.

Organizers have held several public meetings and have gathered 10 letters of intent from customers who want to go solar. They are looking for as many as 14 other more to make a shared bid to get reduced prices in what could be called an informal buyers club.

“Many of us are doing this to offset our carbon emissions” out of concerns about climate change, said Rick Lovett, who has been holding public meetings with Trisha Tull, another Hoosier solar advocate. “But at this point, (solar) makes sense in terms of dollars and cents.”

Jeffersonville’s First Presbyterian Church, which recently added a second collection of solar panels, expects to reduce electricity bills by as much as $7,000 per year, said Tull, who is on the church’s green team. In a symbolic transition, the operating equipment for the system is in a basement room where a boiler once burned coal, a leading cause of heat-trapping gases.

Both Lovett and Tull warn of an earlier Oct. 19 paperwork submittal deadline for Duke Energy customers that also must be met. “It’s a shrinking opportunity,” he said.

Deadlines aside, Louisville advocates are closely watching how their counterparts in Indiana are successfully rallying potential new solar customers.

“The Solarize the Sunny Side model looks entirely doable,” said Wallace McMullen, chair of Solar Over Louisville, a project started by the Louisville Sustainability Council.

Businesses slammed

The Indiana rush for people to generate some or all of their electricity is straining a small but growing business sector. The state ranks 21st nationally for solar capacity, producing enough electricity to power 30,000 homes, according to the latest report from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

That compares to Kentucky’s ranking of 41st, with solar powering 2,177 homes, SEIA says.

“We are adding new teams and new labor, but the rush we are seeing in Indiana is outpacing the industry, completely, at the moment,” said Steve Rickets, co-owner and general manager of Solar Energy Solutions, which recently completed 40 residential installations in Bloomington. The company has offices in Louisville, Evansville, Cincinnati and Lexington.

Solarize Bloomington has been so successful that it’s overwhelmed a different contractor hired to do work there, so only about 10 percent of some 240 new jobs will meet the deadline, said Anne Hedin, who is active with Solar Indiana Renewable Energy Network, which she said launched the buyers’ club model last year.

Still, she said, those who install next year will get “a pretty good deal.”

Across Indiana, Rickets estimated that “hundreds and hundreds” of new systems have been installed in 2017, adding many thousands of new solar panels.

“We’ve received more than double the number of net metering requests so far in 2017 compared to 2016,” said Angeline Protogere, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy.

The impetus is that new net metering law, which was supported by utilities but opposed by solar power advocates. It cuts back over time the rate that investor-owned utilities pay their customers who install solar for their extra electricity.

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