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Solar power advocates worry over new bill in Statehouse

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – If you do any driving around the state, you’ve probably seen wind farms. You may have also seen businesses or homes with solar panels.

Indiana is getting more electricity from both. The Indiana Energy Association (IEA), an organization of gas and electric utilities, says renewable energy production grew 30 percent from 2011 to 2013.

Some solar power advocates worry that their brand of power is in jeopardy by a bill in the Statehouse – House Bill 1320. It would change the way people are paid for extra solar power.

Ray Wilson told 24-Hour News 8 that proposal is “very complicated” and “looks like it’s been written by lawyers at the utility companies.”

Wilson has solar power at his home and, on a recent sunny afternoon, he showed 24-Hour News 8 the solar panels installed on his church near Butler University.

The church doesn’t often have extra electricity. Solar power tends to supply only about 20 percent of its needs. The church buys the rest the way any customer does. But, when the solar panels produce more power than the church needs, it sells the excess to the power company at full retail price.

To the utility companies, that’s the problem.

Mark Maassel, President of the IEA, told 24-Hour News 8 his business is “not unlike going into a department store.” Stores buy at wholesale and sell at retail. Maassel says utilities work the same way. They buy on wholesale power markets and move the energy through the grid. He says paying retail for someone’s solar power is three times more expensive than their usual policy.

Both sides raise questions of fairness.

Maassel said someone must pay the higher price of solar-generated power. So, the cost gets passed to utility customers who don’t have solar systems on their homes.

“The utilities have the opportunity to sell [the excess electricity] to the neighbors at ten cents a kilowatt hour. Doesn’t seem too fair, to pay the reduced rate to private providers,” Wilson said.

The utilities say they paid for the wires and poles and transformers that make up the power grid. So, the change in policy is justified. And, Maasel said, the change would not apply to Wilson and others who have already invested in solar power systems. Maassel said they will continue to be paid as stated in their current agreements.

The new policy, if passed, would apply to people who install solar panels in the future. Even that worries Ray Wilson.

“We’re right on the cusp,” he says, “where generating electricity with solar panels on rooftops or homes is really economical and if this bill goes through that’s going to pretty much chop it off at the legs.”