Monday, July 22, 2013

Renewable energy complaint tests utilities' pull

Third-grade teacher Donya Bengert and her students learned a real-life lesson when they undertook a yearlong project to build a wind turbine in 2010 at their small southern Indiana school.

They raised $25,000 from business grants and penny-jar donations. They won governmental and school board approvals. But when they were ready to install the turbine, Vectren Energy charged a $12,000 fee for a new transformer it said was necessary to handle the additional energy load.

"I almost had a heart attack," Bengert told The Indianapolis Star ( ). "Oh my gosh, we spent almost a year raising all this money, we've got it all and we're ready to go.

"But Vectren didn't want to do it."

The project's installer, Brad Morton of Evansville-based Morton Solar & Wind, has filed a complaint with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. He alleges that Vectren has violated state code the past eight years to stop or slow a number of renewable energy projects on which he has worked.

Vectren disputes the allegations, saying the utility follows state regulations and works to ensure renewable projects are safely and reliability added to the electrical grid.

Renewable energy advocates and contractors are watching the case closely as they try to convince state policymakers and utilities that Indiana needs to further encourage cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels such as coal. They say the filing could have a wide effect on how much money utilities charge and how long they can take to process applications to fully connect solar and wind projects to the electrical grid.

Indiana ranks 39th lowest of the states in the percentage of renewable energy it generates. Only 3 percent of the power consumed in Indiana is from renewable energy, 9 percentage points behind the national average.

Kerwin Olson of Citizens Action Coalition, an advocacy group for energy policy and utility reform, said there is a clear resistance in Indiana to renewable energy.

"There are a lot of questions about the policy level at the Statehouse, at the regulatory commission and with utility business plans about whether they are really doing enough to enable renewable energy," Olson said.

Morton has been in the solar and wind power business since 2005. He has been butting heads, he says, with Vectren just as long.

He says Evansville-based Vectren, a gas and electric utility that serves more than 1.1 million customers in Indiana and Ohio, has impeded people from putting up solar and wind units. The complaint alleges the company failed to meet state deadlines on some projects, required unnecessary but expensive equipment upgrades on some projects, and in general, dragged its feet on projects beyond state deadlines.

He says Vectren is motivated to stall or stop the spread of renewable energy because projects cut into the utility's profit margins.

"Vectren thinks everyone will want to do this (install solar or wind power), and they are trying to keep it hidden, out of sight and out of mind," Morton said. "That's their game plan."

Vectren spokeswoman Chase Kelley disputes the utility has broken the law and denies allegations it has tried to protect profits.

Connecting renewable energy products to the grid, she said, is not as simple as "flipping a switch and turning it on." The company, she said, must do on-site visits and conduct studies to ensure the projects are safely and reliably connected to the power grid. The utilities move as fast, she said, as each customer's pace requires.


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