Commentary: Solar power’s halfway conversation

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com

 INDIANAPOLIS – He uses the same word again and again.

Subsidy.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

Mark Maassel of the Indiana Energy Association relies on that word as if it were a form of punctuation. Maassel, Jesse Kharbanda of the Hoosier Environmental Council and I talk over the air about the solar energy bill that has moved through the Indiana General Assembly and awaits Gov. Eric Holcomb’s yea or nay.

On the surface, Senate Bill 309 doesn’t seem that significant. It would reduce the reimbursement rate rooftop solar power users receive for the extra energy they capture from 11 cents per kilowatt-hour to three cents, plus a 25 percent premium.

Given that there aren’t that many solar power users in Indiana yet, the dollar figures involved in this battle aren’t great – certainly not great enough now to justify the all-out lobbying campaign the utilities have waged to get the bill through.

But the issue is larger than that.

Maassel, speaking for the utilities, keeps arguing that the current system requires other rate payers to “subsidize” other Hoosiers’ investments in solar power. He returns to that point again and again, as if he were tethered to it.

Kharbanda responds by arguing for the environment benefits of solar power and saying that solar still is a “fledgling” industry that must be nurtured.

Maassell likely gets the better of the argument.

There are reasons most communications experts argue that repetition of a concise point is the essence of mass persuasion.

Kharbanda is trying advance a thesis.

Maassel just wants to hammer home a memorable phrase.

In doing so, he wants to make it clear that developing a solar power structure in this state comes at a cost – a subsidy.

Establishing a cost for something often ends the argument these days in this state and country.

And that shows how debased and irrational our public policy discussions have become.

There was a time that we Hoosiers and we Americans thought of public investment – aka, subsidies – as just that.

Investments.

And we judged their value by the return we received from them.

Subsidies, for example, made possible the growth of the utilities Maassel represents by making it possible to extend power into rural and poor parts of America. That investment improved not just the quality of life of millions of Americans but also their productivity, which in turn made better lives better for almost all Americans.

At present, our state lawmakers are pondering how to pay for maintaining and improving Indiana’s roads and bridges. The money we spend on doing that will be a huge subsidy for the auto industry. Without an intricate system of paved and well-maintained roads, an automobile becomes far less useful.

And an entire huge sector of our economy would be much, much smaller than it now is.

And that, in turn, would mean that many, many Hoosiers and Americans wouldn’t have the jobs and standards of living that they do.

Is there a cost to fostering solar power in Indiana?

You bet.

But everything in life has a cost. Establishing the fundamental truth that there is no such thing as a free lunch shouldn’t end the discussion.

Instead, we should think about what Indiana and America would look like if we hadn’t invested in – subsidized – other developing industries.

What would life be like in farm country if we hadn’t subsidized extending electricity to places where the population density didn’t make business sense at the time?

How far behind the rest of the world would we be if we hadn’t subsidized one of the best systems of roads and bridges humanity has seen? And how many families would not have been able to build good lives by producing automobiles if we hadn’t subsidized the growth of that vital industry?

Yes, it’s going to cost us something to develop solar power in Indiana.

A subsidy, in fact.

That’s half the conversation.

Let’s have the other half.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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