This page was updated on April 24, 2021.
I.) A LONG HISTORY OF COMMITMENT TO RENEWABLES AND NATURAL RESOURCE PROTECTION
HEC has been a long-time, vocal advocate for renewable energy, whether that has been in conferences, workshops, forums, testimony in the Indiana legislature, or comments to the press (e.g., see this WTHR report from 2008, one of countless examples of speaking up for strong renewables policy since the late 2000s), including for the enactment of a renewable electricity standard, the extension of the PTC/ITC, and the establishment of carbon pricing. Furthermore, throughout the thirty-seven year history of HEC, we have been a strong supporter of local control for environmental-related decisions such that locals can enact stronger protections than the state or country. Protecting land and water (through good policy and practice) is part of our organizational DNA.
II.) THE LAND FOOTPRINT OF THE EMERGING INDIANA SOLAR INDUSTRY
Over the course of the 2020s, Indiana is expected to install 8,500 Megawatts (MWs) of solar energy. With a MW of solar energy requiring anywhere from 5 to 10 acres of land, that means that Indiana’s solar farms could have a land footprint the size of Indiana’s state parks.
These farms, which will generate new tax revenues for struggling rural counties and create carbon-free, air pollution-free electricity, use a lot of land.
HEC, other Indiana groups, and regional organizations have been publicly advocating since early 2020 that such farms be pollinator friendly, for the sake of our wildlife, soil and water conservation, reduced stormwater runoff, and beauty. Such landscapes also create greater community support for solar farms, which can be 1,000+ acres in size. Learn more about HEC’s efforts to advance environmental-friendly solar farms.
Such environmentally sustainable approaches to the land underneath solar panels can be cost-competitive, taking into account both start-up and operating costs, with conventional/default perennial grass approaches to the land — with smart seed mix design.
III.) HB 1381: THE ESSENCE OF THE BILL, AND PUTTING HEC’S POSITION IN PERSPECTIVE
HB 1381 is a 52-page bill that would enact statewide standards for most aspects of large solar and wind farm siting and design. HEC is generally supportive of HB 1381 because there are aspects of solar and wind farm design that can be standardized by the state provided that they are based on the very best science; they are relatively independent of geography and population density; that general support for HB 1381 was conveyed in our comments to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette and the Indianapolis Business Journal.
However, the bill does include a section with regard to the land under solar farms – Section 14 of the proposed Chapter 42 of the bill. We communicated our special focus on this particular section of the bill to the bill author on January 21, 2021, and to a key representative of the renewable energy industry on February 4, 2021 and additionally on February 8, 2021. We did so prior to fielding any media inquiries about HB 1381. At no time in our conversations with lawmakers, stakeholders, our members, or the media did we express opposition to the bill as a whole. Please see Section VI. below for a full list of our comments to the media about HB 1381.
IV.) OUR VERY SPECIFIC FOCUS AND OUR POSITION
Section 14, as passed out of the Indiana Senate Utilities Committee and the Indiana Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee, does enable counties to continue to establish local standards for the habitat and water quality benefits that can be incorporated into these solar farms, however it allows private property owners (who are leasing their land to solar farms) the ability to veto a county’s decision. We oppose that specific “landowner veto” language in Chapter 42, Section 14 of the bill, for two core reasons: First, it goes against long-standing precedent and legal standards. Local governments have long-established county-wide community authority to protect local resources and to take into account specific geographic attributes of their area, rather than allowing individual landowners and developers to control public decisions on local resources. Second, we worry that large solar developers will, through a carrot or stick approach, cause landowners to delegate their rights over the groundcover decision to the developers, who may pursue an approach towards the land underneath the solar panels that is much less protective of the local environment than what the county would pursue. Please note that twelve counties in Indiana have already identified environmentally sustainable groundcover/pollinator-friendly requirements as an important local benefit.
We have to get the land-related language right in HB 1381 and delete the “landowner veto” (i.e., page 22, line 29), so that communities can maximize the benefit of a solar farm landscape for the good of controlling stormwater, preserving precious soil and water resources, drawing in pollinators like birds and bees, and preserving the beauty of rural Indiana.
Furthermore, more beautiful, environmentally sound landscapes in and around solar farms builds community and broader public support for such farms. HEC looks forward to our continued dialogue with key lawmakers and stakeholders involved in the development of HB 1381.
Amending the bill to remove that veto helps get the bill closer to the optimal point/right balance between state-level standards and local-level standards — and getting closer to the optimum ultimately builds more political support for solar farms and for legislation such as HB 1381.
V.) WHAT GETS HEC TO SAY “YES” TO HB 1381 OR ANOTHER BILL THAT HB 1381 LANGUAGE GOES TO
If the deletion of the landowner veto had been adopted, HEC would have proactively supported HB 1381, on grounds that the considerable public interest benefits of renewables – for the climate, air quality, and the economy – take precedence over broad-based local control, a principle we have long supported.
VI.) MEDIA COVERAGE ON HB 1381 AND THE ISSUE OF LANDSCAPES ON SOLAR FARMS
The issue of landscapes underneath solar panels – in the context of HB 1381 – is getting rightful attention in the media with reports by the following media outlets, for which we include their references to HEC’s views. Note that HEC communicated our core concern about HB 1381 to both the bill author and a key negotiator for the renewable energy industry before any discussion of the bill with the media.
- Indiana Public Media (February 12, 2021)
The Hoosier Environmental Council is also concerned that the bill would override local ordinances that require pollinator habitats in or around solar farms. “What is grown underneath these solar farms matters a lot to Indiana in terms of soil and water conservation, pollination of nearby fruits and vegetables, stormwater control, creation of landscapes that beautify our rural areas, and attraction of songbirds, bees, and other pollinators (all of which have faced considerable declines in population over the last 50-60 years),” said Jesse Kharbanda, HEC executive director in an email statement. “We appreciate our ongoing engagement with key lawmakers involved in drafting HB 1381 to make sure that Indiana law continues to empower our communities to maximize the community-wide benefits that solar farms can provide.”
- Indiana Environmental Reporter (February 12, 2021), first article
“Over the course of this decade, Indiana is poised to attract 8,500 MW in solar energy investment,” Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council told the Indiana Environmental Reporter. “That translates into at least 42,500 acres on which these solar farms will be built. What is grown underneath these solar farms matters a lot to Indiana in terms of soil & water conservation, pollination of nearby fruits and vegetables, stormwater control, creation of landscapes that beautify our rural areas, and attraction of songbirds, bees, and other pollinators (all of which have faced considerable declines in population over the last 50-60 years). We appreciate our ongoing engagement with key lawmakers involved in drafting HB 1381 to make sure that Indiana law continues to empower our communities to maximize the community-wide benefits that solar farms can provide.”
- WBEZ Chicago (February 12, 2020)
Audio only. No transcript.
- PBS – Indiana (February 19, 2020)
Video only. No transcript.
- Indiana Environmental Reporter (February 19, 2021), second article
“One of the most critical aspects of HB 1381 has to do with the land underneath these farms. By the end of the 2020s, it’s possible that the overall land footprint of Indiana’s solar farms could be the scale of Indiana’s state parks,” Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council told the Indiana Environmental Reporter. “Getting the language right with regard to this enormous amount of acreage is so important. We look forward to staying in dialogue with the co-authors of this bill and key stakeholders so that this critical language in this bill helps truly preserve local government control and creates the maximum possible benefits of solar energy to rural communities, including stormwater control, soil and water conservation, and habitat protection, including for pollinators, who have suffered astonishing declines over the last several decades.”.
- Midwest Energy News (February 19, 2021)
Kharbanda worries that landowners would essentially cede their veto power to solar developers doing projects on their land, and developers would be unwilling to invest in ideal ground cover options. The amendment also says that the local entity can only make ground cover requirements that are “economically feasible.” While pollinator-friendly native plants can turn utility-scale solar installations into environmental boons for an area, ground cover done poorly could lead to erosion, flooding, invasive plants or other problems, experts note. “It would not be at all surprising if the total acreage of solar farms in Indiana — by the end of this decade — is on par with the total acreage of state parks in Indiana,” Kharbanda said, noting that solar farms being discussed could cover 50,000 acres. “It’s so important that the community has a voice in these projects’ design because it has repercussions on the community at large, whether in terms of stormwater runoff, soil and water conservation, wildlife habitat. We want to see preservation of local control. No one knows the topography, water resources, drainage and stormwater patterns better than the different local entities and local governments.” Facilitating local control of issues like ground cover “is ultimately in the best interest of the long-term growth of solar in Indiana,” Kharbanda continued. “It’s critical solar farms are sited right and designed right so that the community at large can truly capture the maximum possible benefits.”
- Lakeshore Public Radio (March 1, 2021)
Audio only. No transcript.
- Fox 59 (March 2, 2021)
As for the Hoosier Environmental Council, Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda said, “HEC has been a long-standing supporter of renewable energy farms for many years, and is urging lawmakers to amend the bill to truly preserve local government control with regard to the land underneath Indiana solar farms for the sake of stormwater control, soil and water conservation, and habitat protection for pollinators.” The current bill allows a landowner to veto pollinator friendly requirements for solar farms.
- Indianapolis Star (March 10, 2021)
“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 large 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. An amendment to the bill, which requires maintenance of vegetated ground cover under solar panel projects and encourages the use of pollinator seed mixes, also includes a provision that would allow a landowner to opt out of that requirement if they do not agree to it. Kharbanda said the HEC would like to see counties retain control when it comes to ground cover, and does not support this provision of the amendment. Changing that language, he said, would allow counties to maximize the benefits of solar farms in terms of pollination, stormwater control and other aspects. “Furthermore,” he said, “making that change in HB 1381 would bring HEC — and likely other statewide natural resource-focused organizations — in support of the bill given the considerable economic, climate, and air quality benefits of a vibrant renewables sector in Indiana.”
- Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (March 18, 2021)
“The Hoosier Environmental Council generally supports the bill, but organization leaders say local government agencies can play a role in regulating some things, including the land on which solar farms might be built – something not addressed in the bill. Jesse Kharbanda, the council’s executive director, said Wednesday that would maximize solar power benefits as well as things such as stormwater control and soil and water conservation.”
- Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (March 18, 2021)
“The Hoosier Environmental Council generally supports the bill, but organization leaders say local government agencies can play a role in regulating some things, including the land on which solar farms might be built – something not addressed in the bill. Jesse Kharbanda, the council’s executive director, said Wednesday that would maximize solar power benefits as well as things such as stormwater control and soil and water conservation.
- Indianapolis Star (April 2, 2021)
“[The solar farm footprint will be] more than the acreage of the state park system, which is why [Kharbanda] wants to see measures in place to allow local governments to require eco-friendly ground cover, such as pollinator-friendly habitats. About a dozen counties have already enacted ordinances like these, he said. ‘As the bill is currently written, just a few landowners (who lease their land to solar developers) could make decisions that have impact on dozens and dozens of landowners who live near a solar farm,’ Kharbanda said in an emailed statement. ‘We would not want to see Indiana’s county commissioners go through all of the effort of creating locally tailored groundcover ordinance language only to have it vetoed.’ Lawmakers did not say whether they would address the issue of ground cover in future iterations of the bill.”
- Indianapolis Business Journal (April 14, 2021)
“Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the group has been a long-time, vocal advocate for renewable energy policy, including a state renewable electricity standard. He added the council is generally supportive of HB 1381 because aspects of solar and wind farm design can be standardized by the state provided they are based on the best science.
But he recognized the council could not proactively support HB 1381 because, for all practical purposes, it strips local governments of the ability to specify the type of land they want to see as solar farms in their communities.
‘That’s a big deal because the solar farm footprint in Indiana would be on par with the size of a state park system and how 1,000-plus acre solar farms are designed has ramifications on soil and water conservation, storm water management, wildlife habitat, fruit and vegetable growers and the beauty of the rural landscape,’ he said.”