'Net metering' bills advance at Statehouse

INDIANA - Legislation to require Indiana's investor-owned utilities to buy surplus power from businesses and municipalities that install wind turbines or solar panels is advancing in the General Assembly, and supporters predict it will be approved.

With interest in renewable energy growing nationwide, supporters say passing a so-called "net metering" bill would spark more solar, wind and other renewable power systems in Indiana.

State Rep. Ryan Dvorak, who's sponsoring a bill that passed the House, said Indiana is the only state with a statewide "net metering" rule that still prohibits commercial and industrial customers from selling excess power to investor-owned utilities.

"We're last in line there," said Dvorak, D-South Bend. "So we want to make it something that's actually useful for businesses and homeowners to be able to use and save money on."

Dvorak's bill passed the House recently, a day after a similar bill passed the Senate.

Both bills are now awaiting action in the other chamber.

Both bills would significantly expand Indiana's net-metering policy, under which customers who generate their own power are charged only for the net amount of power they actually use. Their meters roll backward when they send any excess power back onto the electric grid.

The state's current net-metering policy applies only to homeowners and K-12 schools and sets a limit of 10 kilowatts of power per customer.

Although they contain slightly different provisions, both Dvorak's bill and its Senate companion would expand the rules of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to include businesses and municipalities and significantly raise the net-metering energy limits.

Dvorak's bill would raise that limit to one megawatt — about the amount produced by a large wind turbine. The Senate bill would boost the amount to 100 kilowatts, or one-tenth the limit in the House bill.

Dvorak expects the question of what energy level to set to dominate debate over the bills.

State Sen. Sue Errington, who's co-sponsoring the Senate bill, said the measure will encourage more Hoosiers to become renewable energy producers and help them lower their utility bills.

Errington, D-Muncie, said passing broader net-metering legislation will also help move Indiana toward President Barack Obama's goal of boosting the nation's renewable energy production and creating more green jobs.

Dvorak and Rep. Win Moses, the House sponsor of the Senate version, both said they expect some net-metering bill to pass this session. Moses said lawmakers strongly support the idea of giving people more control over their costs.

"In today's economy every penny helps and people are looking for ways to help themselves," said Moses, D-Fort Wayne.

Ed Simcox, president of the Indiana Energy Association that represents the state's largest power companies, said the group supports the Senate bill and has testified in favor of it.

However, he predicted that passing an expanded net-metering bill would not spark a big increase in Indiana's renewable energy production.

"This is not going to result in a systemic change here as to how power is produced. The interest is not great. The interest level quite frankly among policymakers is greater than it is among the public," he said.

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said expanding net metering in Indiana is certain to boost investment in renewable systems by offering a way to help offset some of the cost of those systems.

"When you're being compensated in essence for what you're investing in, that's going to make the systems more financially compelling to more people," he said.

Kharbanda said that as the state adds more renewable energy systems it will help diversify the state's power sources, and — in the case of photovoltaic solar panels — help provide extra power during the peak periods of electric demand during summer heat waves.

Solar panels reach their maximum output during those same periods, he said.


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