INDIANAPOLIS -- About two weeks before Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a controversial bill removing what is seen as an incentive for installing solar energy systems, a group of college students gathered in a sunlit classroom at the University of Indianapolis.
In front of about 50 people, the students formally presented the results of their class assignment: devise an energy policy for the state of Indiana.
Their professor was Greg Ballard, former mayor of Indianapolis and a visiting fellow in civic leadership for the university.
“In September I told the students there is no plan, there is no policy. Indiana doesn’t have anything. There’s no guidance to go on,” Ballard said.
The 11 students divided research into topics, brainstormed and held a public forum in hopes of reflecting what people their age would like to see in Indiana's future. They sensed "fear" by state leaders to develop a plan.
"Fear -- of losing coal jobs, of investing in infrastructure, grant programs, subsidies, etc. It was important for us to outline a solution for the (would-be) displaced coal workers ," said Carly Nicholson, an Earth-Space Science major.
The 23-page “Indiana Advanced Energy Plan” does not include cost estimates but calls on state government to embrace cleaner fuels and recommends that Indiana commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
The students recommended that, in moving away from fossil fuels, the state develop initiatives to retrain works such as coal miners.
"We genuinely care about the welfare of the coal miner who has a wife, three kids and another one on the way," Nicholson said. "These individuals could be instrumental in the transition to renewable energy ... retraining (them) to work on maintenance of solar panels or wind turbines."
The student plan will be sent to Holcomb and legislators.
On Tuesday, the governor signed into law Senate Bill 309, which eliminates by 2047 one of the incentives, "net metering," for installing solar panel systems. The new law will reduce the compensation level for energy fed back into the grid by solar panel owners.
Currently, they receive the retail rate of about 10 cents per kilowatt hour. Under the new law, they will receive the wholesale rate of about 3 cents per kilowatt hour.
Moving forward, systems have to be installed by 2022 to receive the old net metering rate. In 2015, about 870 customers used net metering in the state; the number is reportedly near 1,000 now.
The governor received more than 4,000 phone calls and emails asking him to veto the plan. The effort was led by environmental groups, including the Hoosier Environmental Council.
Jesse Kharbanda, HEC executive director, would like to see state economists and experts, such as the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, use data to form policy. He said the policy should show that Indiana is pro-innovation and pro-entrepreneurship.
"That would be a critical element to an energy plan, that it takes its data from an objective resource like the utility regulatory commission," Kharbanda said.
Holcomb hasn’t discussed whether he'll seek to develop a comprehensive energy policy. But in signing the bill, Holcomb pointed to an approach that combines energy sources.
“I support solar as an important part of Indiana’s comprehensive energy mix. I understand the concerns some have expressed, but this legislation ensures that those who currently have interests in small solar operations will not be affected for decades,” Holcomb said in a statement.
In 2009, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission initiated a series of programs known as Energizing Indiana, which, according to one report, saved 11 million kilowatt hours and created 19,000 jobs.
Energizing Indiana had five components: home assessments, weatherization for low-income households, energy efficiency for schools, discounts for more efficient residential lighting and commercial and industrial rebates for efficiency investments.
In 2014, the Indiana General Assembly dismantled the plan. The legislative measure also prohibited the state from forcing utilities to meet efficiency goals. Then-Gov. Mike Pence neither signed nor vetoed the bill, thereby allowing it to take effect.
“Indiana does have a fairly complex and comprehensive energy policy. It’s embodied in state statute,” said Mark Maassel of the Indiana Energy Association, a coalition of investor-owned utilities.
“It’s very clear that utilities are required to provide reliable service, provide it 24 hours a day and provide it in a cost-effective fashion. To the extent that we want to play with any one of those parameters, we can,” he said.
While complimenting the University of Indianapolis students for their Indiana Advanced Energy Plan, Maassel expressed concerns about the prospect of the state relying too heavily on expensive renewable energy sources that might be unstable because of cloudiness or wind conditions.