Midwest taps dueling strategies to supercharge renewables

By Jeffrey Tomich | 09/18/2023 07:18 AM EDT

Indiana and Illinois differ in many ways — including in how they’re trying to boost wind and solar energy.

Photo collage of wind turbines, a map of Illinois and Indiana and "Welcome to Illinois" and "Indiana State Line" highway signs

POLITICO illustration/Photos by iStock

Illinois and Indiana are separated by more than a state line, time zones and which political party dominates state government.

The Midwest neighbors have also taken opposite tacks to enable more renewable energy development.

Democratically controlled Illinois enacted a law in January that prohibits counties from blocking wind and solar farms. Laws signed the past two years in Republican-led Indiana seek to encourage, perhaps even incentivize, local governments to open themselves up for renewable energy projects.


The “carrot” and “stick” approaches are getting increased attention from industry, researchers and policymakers as the clock ticks to combat the worst consequences of climate change. And in another Great Lakes state, Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has pushed for a change in how wind and solar projects are permitted.

The reason? Models like Princeton University’s Net-Zero America project show that wind and solar capacity will need to rise at least fourfold to decarbonize the nation’s economy, perhaps much more. In about half of states, decisions on whether projects will go forward fall to counties or townships — making local governments across the country gatekeepers for enabling the transition away from fossil fuels.

While renewable development is welcomed in many places, vocal opposition exists in many others. Misinformation often swirls around these debates, and there are a growing number of restrictions and outright bans on large-scale solar and wind projects.

“The challenges are pretty consistent,” said Jeff Danielson, vice president of advocacy for the Clean Grid Alliance, a renewable energy trade group in the region. “In the Midwest states where we have local siting, there is an increasing number of ordinance restrictions, either outright bans or moratoriums without end.”

Danielson, a former Democratic state senator from Iowa, said the group worked with lawmakers and local leaders from Indiana and Illinois to “improve the business environments in both states,” he said.

“The policy approaches are different from Illinois to Indiana,” he said. “And why is that? Well, one is what’s politically viable.”

Brian Ross, a vice president at the Great Plains Institute, a St. Paul, Minn.-based nonprofit that works across the region to help accelerate clean energy deployment, said measuring the effect of the new siting policies isn’t easy.

“Indiana and Illinois are far outstripping other [Midwest] states in terms of the kind of renewable capacity that’s in the queue, which is a huge amount,” he said. “If we see a lot more projects coming online, is that a result of the legislation or just a result of a market exploding?”

Ross said Indiana’s law had broader political support in the GOP-led state, but it’s unclear whether it will lead to faster deployment of renewables. Meanwhile, Democrats’ political muscle moved the Illinois bill through the Legislature in the final days of a lame-duck session in early January with little debate. That could lead to legal headaches down the road.

Already, the Illinois Legislature has exempted 2,000 acres west of Chicago from being subject to the new law.

The area had seen $70 million of infrastructure investment to help attract industrial development, which “faced the serious threat of being undone,” state Sen. Win Stoller, a Republican, said in a statement when the exemption was passed.

The move raises the possibility that other counties will likewise seek exemptions from the new siting law.

Another risk is the potential for lawsuits.

“We could end up with a situation in Illinois where suddenly projects are approved much more rapidly, deployment is happening more quickly, which from a renewable deployment standpoint would obviously be a good thing,” Ross said. “But we don’t know that that’s going to be the case. And there’s still a lot of uncertainty around it.”

‘We needed to do it’

Wind turbines in a cornfield.
Wind turbines are seen in a cornfield outside Carlock, Ill. | David Mercer/AP Photo

Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, a strong supporter of the state’s new policy, acknowledged that her state’s new law will almost certainly draw legal challenges.

However, Walling said the change was necessary to help the state meet the ambitious goals set out in Illinois’ landmark Climate and Equitable Jobs Act of 2021. The law both expanded the state’s renewable energy standard to require Illinois to get at least half its power from wind and solar by 2040, and it set in motion a phaseout of fossil fuels for electric power.

“It’s definitely going to hasten the pace [of development],” Walling said. “We needed to do it.”

The state is already seeing results, she said.

In Sangamon County, Ill., near the state capital of Springfield, the Republican-controlled county board rejected a small solar farm in May on grounds that it would be an eyesore, take prime farmland out of production and hurt property values. But the board reversed its decision two months later after the new law took effect.

“They’ve taken away our options,” the Illinois Times quoted Annette Fulgenzi, a Republican board member, as saying this year about the Illinois Legislature.

In Piatt County, Ill., the county board voted down the 300-megawatt Goose Creek Wind Farm in May. The decision on the project proposed by Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy followed nearly a dozen public hearings, but with the understanding that the developer would likely return with a similar proposal when the new statewide siting standard took effect.

Apex did just that, proposing a 300-MW Prosperity wind project in the same area of the county.

Company representatives declined to comment on the new project beyond a press release that said they’ve “met or surpassed every standard laid out in Piatt County’s new wind ordinance.”

Across the county line in Indiana, counties can still restrict wind and solar projects if they choose.

Indiana’s bipartisan law passed in 2022 seeks to encourage counties to enable development by creating a program within the state Office of Energy Development to certify counties as wind and solar “ready,” meaning they have adopted clear standards for siting, building and operating renewable energy projects. Counties must commit to maintaining the standards and compatible zoning regulations for at least a decade.

In addition to certification, a law signed this spring by Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) would authorize incentive funding for counties that get certified. The funding cannot come from the state, however, and no revenue source has been identified.

“The purpose [of the certification process] really is to encourage local units of government to kind of set consistent standards and ordinances across the state,” said Ryan Hadley, executive director of Indiana’s Office of Energy Development. “That helps provide that regulatory certainty.

“This does not bypass any of the local permitting processes, or mandate local units of government doing anything additional that they don’t want to,” he said.

Compared to Illinois, the Indiana program has broader political backing. Legislation creating the voluntary renewable certification program was written by state Sens. Mark Messmer and Eric Koch, both Republicans.

The effort followed debate a year earlier when a bipartisan bill that would have created an Illinois-style statewide standard in Indiana met a furious backlash in the state Senate from counties that saw the measure as an attack on their right to self-govern.

While the voluntary renewable energy certification program that the General Assembly passed in March 2022 had broad support, the effectiveness of the policy in accelerating deployment of wind and solar projects is a big unknown.

A key reason is that financial incentives authorized in a subsequent law passed in April — $1 per megawatt-hour generated by renewable energy projects within participating counties — weren’t funded. And it’s unclear if they ever will be.

Hadley with the state Office of Energy Development said the application process for the voluntary certification program will open next month. In the meantime, the office is “on the lookout for federal opportunities” that could provide a revenue source, he said.

Danielson of the Clean Grid Alliance said it remains to be seen if the voluntary certification approach will move the needle and put Indiana on a trajectory to help utilities and large corporate energy users meet their carbon goals.

“If these intermediate steps don’t work,” he said, “Indiana will be back having a conversation about the counties that have either banned or restricted wind and solar.”

National implications

Solar panels are seen from the air on the approach to the Indianapolis International Airport.
Solar panels are seen from the air on the approach to the Indianapolis International Airport in 2018. | Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Caryl Auslander, who leads policy work in Indiana for Advanced Energy United, a clean energy group, was disappointed that Indiana lawmakers didn’t fund the renewable ready certification program. In fact, she said, the statute authorizing incentive funding for the program expressly prohibits the use of state funds.

Last month, Advanced Energy United released results of a statewide poll that the group ordered that showed Indiana residents largely support more renewables in the energy mix and rules to make projects easier to build.

In fact, two-thirds of respondents said they support required uniform standards for permitting clean energy projects and just 21 percent were opposed. And a majority indicated they would support using state funds for financial incentives to encourage counties to adopt consistent zoning rules.

The purpose of the poll was to confirm what the group suspected — that opposition to statewide permitting standards for wind and solar, however noisy, represented a minority view, Auslander said. It’s too soon to determine if there will be further legislation introduced to try to establish statewide standards or to provide funding for the existing program.

“We just wanted to do the homework,” she said. “We just wanted to see the data so that we could show to lawmakers, to legislative leaders, and to anybody that cares about this type of issue in the state that there’s larger support [for renewables] than it sounds like.”

As Illinois and Indiana work to implement new renewable siting laws, researchers are studying what the collective impact of local zoning regulations means for the ability of the country to meet climate goals.

A recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory study weighed the impact of thousands of local wind and solar energy zoning laws and ordinances across the country, concluding that the strictest setback standards — if applied nationally — would significantly limit wind and solar potential.

There was still enough available land to decarbonize the nation’s power grid, according to the NREL study. But, authors cautioned, the quality and cost of remaining wind and solar resources could prohibit development.

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University tracks local and state restrictions against, and opposition to, siting renewable energy. The center’s research has documented growing opposition to wind and solar projects.

Sarah Mills, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Michigan who studies renewable energy siting, agrees that contention around renewable energy permitting at the local level is increasing. But she said opposition is growing, in part, because “there’s more shots on goal.” The increase in the raw number of projects across the country also means, by definition, that they’re moving closer to populated areas.

Policymakers in Mills’ home state of Michigan are set to tackle the issue of renewable energy siting this fall.

On Aug. 31, Whitmer said renewable energy siting would be a priority issue for her administration, part of a broader clean energy and climate legislative package aimed at helping the state transition to 100 percent carbon-free power.

Unlike its Great Lakes neighbors, renewable energy permitting is done at the township level in Michigan. Like in Illinois and Indiana, there’s been strong resistance to projects — especially wind farms — in certain parts of the state.

The governor’s proposal would transfer the responsibility for renewable siting to the Michigan Public Service Commission, which already has oversight for permitting other power generation projects, such as natural gas plants.

The governor said during a policy speech that putting the PSC in charge would ensure that “local perspectives are reflected in the planning process while also allowing us to move faster on installation.”

Mills said the issue is much broader than just whether a community wants wind turbines or fields of solar panels, or where to put them. It’s about rural-urban dynamics; land use questions; equity; and how to balance local, state and national interests.

Many of the same dilemmas around siting wind and solar farms exist for other energy projects, from transmission lines to pipelines, she said.

“What we do now, I think, shapes conversations for being able to do all the other things that need to get sited in the future,” Mills said.