FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – The use of solar panels and energy has increased dramatically over the last decade. Experts say there was a 54 percent increase in solar energy just last year. As the demand for alternative energy continues to grow, so do the regulations.  It’s something churches, businesses, and homeowners are working to change.Solar energy supporters in our community are urging lawmakers to protect energy freedom. To bring attention to the issue, they held a rally Saturday morning to better explain what energy choice means in Fort Wayne and across the state. The rally was originally planned to oppose House Bill 1320

“That bill would change the way that persons who have rooftop solar whether businesses or churches or individuals would be reimbursed or credited for the excess energy they send out into the grid. It would also allow the utility companies to asses arbitrary fees,” Flory said.

“A lot of people think the grid is just the wires and the towers and the people maintaining those, but the utilities want to say that all their power plants are also part of the grid,” Associate Professor of Engineering at Indiana Tech John Renie said.

The bill also would’ve allowed homeowners and businesses to lease solar panels, which currently isn’t allowed in Indiana. That’s where a third party can come in and put panels on your roof and lease the energy. While the bill is no longer in consideration, solar energy supporters worry similar wording could come up in future legislation.

“It puts a great degree of economic uncertainty into anybody’s plans who would want to use rooftop solar,” Flory said.

43 states, including Indiana, allow net metering. That means consumers that use solar panels can sell back any energy they produce and don’t use.

“Typically, in a net metering operation, only 20-40% is sold back. Most of that is retained within that consumer and that consumer’s home,” Renie said.

Consumers receive the money at retail cost. That means people using solar energy will get back the same amount they’re paying per kilowatt hour. For example, if you pay 10 cents a kilowatt hour, you will get 10 cents back when you sell.

“The way that the current policy holds is very easy to understand. You have your electrical meter, and the meter moves forward when you use energy and it would move backwards if you send energy back to the grid.”

Supporters of solar energy say utility companies are trying to decrease the money consumers would get back.

“It seems like this is being thought through from the utility company perspective, but has not necessarily been thought through from a holistic perspective, of how it would impact and benefit or not benefit the totality of people in this state,” Flory said.

Three Fort Wayne churches are currently looking into solar panels to power their buildings- Beacon Heights Church, Plymouth Congregational Church, and Turner Chapel AME.  Beacon Heights Church has already applied and received a grant to do just that. The church plans to put their solar panels up on its south roof. It’s a project that would’ve cost about $45,000 originally. Thanks to grant money, the church will only pay half of that now.

“It decreases the payback time for us in terms of the amount of energy that we would save per year from a business perspective from about 18-20 years to only 8 or 9 years,” Flory said.

Pastor Flory also said the money saved by using solar panels would provide more funding for church ministries.

“It enables us to tread more lightly on this planet. There’s numerous scriptures in the Bible that speak very clearly about being good stewards of God’s creation, so for us, from a faith perspective, it’s a no brainer,” Flory said.

Renie thinks there is a bright future for solar power as long as regulations allow for homeowners to still get credit back from excess energy. He said it’s slowly gaining in popularity in the Hoosier sate, but only five percent of the solar added to Indiana last year was residential. There are currently less than 600 houses that are net metered in the state. Renie said that equals out to about seven megawatz or three wind turbines.

“Most of the solar energy projects in Indiana and elsewhere are the utility companies putting it in themselves. I think that in order for the residential customers to get a good deal and be incentivized to put this on their house, they need that payment back for their extra electricity because it’s still a high-cost operation. I think as long as they keep this net metering to the retail rate, I think it’s fair and I think it will be an incentive. I think people will still put systems like this on the roof,” Renie said.

NewsChannel 15 reached out to Indiana Michigan Power regarding the bill and possible future legislation. Brian Bergsma, Director of Communications and Government Affairs for Indiana Michigan Power, issued the following statement:“I&M continues to believe strongly in the premise behind Indiana House Bill 1320 — fairness among all customers as it relates to generation of electricity by distributed or self-generation.  We believe HB 1320 would have removed subsidies paid by all customers of I&M to self-generators while still promoting self-generation among our customers. The bill would not have restricted rooftop solar. In fact, the proposal would have allowed the leasing of rooftop solar systems and provided consumer protection measures.I&M will continue to work with all of our customers, those who choose to self-generate and those who do not, to ensure as fair a process for everyone within the current regulatory framework. I&M is a leader among utilities in its use of renewable energy through several cost effective utility-scale resources serving our customers –  450 MW of wind generation and 22MW of hydro generation are currently in service and an additional 16 MW of solar generation was recently approved by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.” 

NewsChannel 15 also tried to contact the bill’s author, Representative Eric Koch, but he was unavailable for comment.