State Rep. Ethan Manning, R-Macy, listens at a meeting in the legislature-appointed 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force during a session in the Indiana House chambers. CNHI News Indiana photo by Scott L. Miley
State Rep. Ethan Manning, R-Macy, listens at a meeting in the legislature-appointed 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force during a session in the Indiana House chambers. CNHI News Indiana photo by Scott L. Miley
INDIANAPOLIS — Earlier this year, the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. electric utility giant received the state’s go-ahead to set up a 300-megawatt wind turbine farm as part of plans to phase-out coal-fueled facilities.

The state also approved NIPSCO’s plans to recover the costs of the project from its customers.

The Roaming Bison Wind turbine farm was planned for northern Montgomery County and was to be constructed by Apex Clean Energy Holding LLC. The project, estimated to have 107 wind turbines, would provide electricity for an estimated 80,000 homes.

But local residents formed an opposition group, No Wind Farm Montgomery County, that has not only stalled the project but pushed through stiffer county zoning requirements for wind farms.

The new parameters include guarantees on property values for local homes, the testing of well water before and after turbine construction, a limit of 32 decibels per turbine and a one-mile distance from town limits or schools.

Apex has not abandoned the project.

The conflict has led in part to the agenda of the 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force, a 15-member legislature-appointed panel that is to spend the next two years sorting through the state’s licensing of electric utilities.

The task force has already targeted state-local conflicts as a topic to address.

“Investors are not going to invest, they’re not going to come here if a local government can just blow it up. But it’s worthy of a discussion,” said state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, who co-chairs the task force.

The No Wind Farm opposition is aimed strictly at stopping the Apex Energy project.

“The state is utilizing a energy task force because they are tired of counties blowing up wind projects. Montgomery County ordinance for wind does just that,” wrote one of the No Wind Farms members, Jacob Outcelt, in a recent website post.

In an interview, Outcelt said the new zoning restrictions should discourage wind farm developers.

“I don’t know anybody in a rural community that’s not a farmer that wants a 600-foot wind turbine by their house,” Outcelt said.

EXPLORING THE PROCESS

In general, the five-member Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission has oversight for the business of Indiana utilities including rates and charges; it also regulates construction projects, among other duties.

Electric utilities, as sole providers in their service territories, are legal monopolies. Hoosiers cannot choose their electric service provider, Sarah Freeman, an IURC commissioner, noted.

The Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor represents ratepayer interests in cases that are before the state and federal regulatory commissions.

The IURC review process was generally praised by the utility industry in a task force session. But the overall process was inconsistent when local input runs counter to the state review, some told the panel.

“While the commission’s process for considering proposed new generation resources has been transparent and consistent, the lack of consistent rules and processes from county-to-county make the siting of renewable resources unpredictable and costly and sometimes prohibitive,” Indiana Energy Association President Mark Maassel said.

The Indiana Energy Association, which represents natural gas and electric utilities serving 4.2 million Hoosiers, asked the task force to evaluate the extent to which local governments can regulate energy projects which the state is already regulating, including wind and solar facilities.

In addition, while new technologies are being developed for utility-scale energy, their usefulness is limited due to the immense scale required by utilities, according to Brent Bennett, a policy analyst with energy researcher Life: Powered. That premise includes the fact that the cost of wind and solar is falling.

However, local groups such as No Wind Farms rely on county and municipal government to hear their concerns when they feel state officials aren’t listening.

“I think that the IURC failed greatly,” No Wind Farms members Tracy Slavens said. “It’s another state government entity that’s saying that portion’s not my problem, somebody else needs to deal with it.”

She added, “What’s the point of having a county government if they can’t make decisions.”

The IURC and OUCC recommended approval of the Roaming Bison wind farm project. So did the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana.

Chief opponents were the Indiana Coal Council trade association and Energy Ventures Analysis Inc., which evaluates market trends in coal production.

The Indiana Coal Council asked the task force to consider the economic impact of shuttering coal-fired plants.

The state’s current review typically looks at only the economic impact on employees where the plant is located.

“The impact is far greater than that,” Bruce Stevens, president of the Indiana Coal Council, said.

The average salary for a coal miner is about $90,000, he said.

One study of the closure of a NIPSCO coal-fired power station showed NIPSCO was the largest taxpayer in Jasper County, Stevens said. Taxes from the plant accounted for 16.5% of all county taxes, 73% of township taxes and 30% of school taxes, he said.

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