GenX concerns cloud possible expansion of solar facility
The state Utility Commission will weigh whether the GenX compound that has polluted the Cape Fear River Basin could contaminate the Wilkinson Solar Plant in the Terra Ceia community of Beaufort County.
Opponents of the 74-megawatt, industrial-scale solar generating plant have spent the past year raising concerns during N.C. Utility Commission hearings. It may be the first time GenX has been introduced into a solar regulatory proceeding in North Carolina.
Lawmakers and the governor are discussing the best ways to study and clean up GenX releases from Chemours’ Fayetteville manufacturing plant, which contaminated the Wilmington-area water supply. House and Senate Republicans introduced legislation May 17 authorizing Gov. Roy Cooper to close the plant if it doesn’t stop releasing the chemical.
But the possible presence of GenX and similar compounds in solar panels has added a new wrinkle to the debate. Environmental and conservation groups have pushed lawmakers to cut and clean up GenX emissions from chemical plants. Yet materials like GenX are used to increase strength and light transmission in film sheets that coat solar panels, and environmentalists want more solar facilities.
Wilkinson and environmental groups call the concerns overblown. They say solar panels used in North Carolina aren’t made with GenX or similar compounds. But a federal scientist who identified GenX pollutants in the Cape Fear basin recently said Chemours does use chemicals like GenX in the protective film coating solar panels, adding confusion to the dispute.
Wilkinson Solar opponents May 21 presented a proposed order to the commission asking it to halt expansion at the site. The order included a section suggesting GenX could leak into groundwater as the 288,120 solar panels age and degrade.
The Chicago-based solar developers submitted a counter order seeking the expansion, saying GenX isn’t in the equipment they plan to buy.
The Utility Commission has 30 days from May 21 to rule.
State regulators got involved in 2017 after Wilkinson relinquished about 200 acres of its site plan. It ended a legal battle with a Christian school that objected to the solar farm near its property and let developers secure a required state certificate of public convenience and necessity.
Soon after receiving the certificate, Wilkinson asked to add 165 acres in a different location.
“We’ve been fighting this for over a year,” said Kristina Beasley, whose relatives live next to the proposed addition.
“The concerns are real because we can see where it’s happening across the state,” Beasley said of GenX pollution. “I guess we feel like guinea pigs.”
DuPont — which in 2015 spun off Chemours as a separate company — conducted GenX tests on lab animals. Some tests concluded the animals developed cancer, tumors, and reproductive problems from exposure to the compound. DuPont claimed GenX poses no risk to people.
Baseline testing is needed at the Wilkinson site, Beasley and other witnesses told the Utility Commission. The tests could help identify GenX or other toxic chemicals and heavy metals infiltrating the soil and groundwater.
Beasley says environmentalists, regulators, and lawmakers avoid talking about GenX and similar chemicals used in solar panels because solar energy is popular. Even so, she said, those same groups clamor for action against Chemours.
Beasley says county officials haven’t shown interest in the possible link between the solar panels and water pollution because solar developers spend a lot in the community. She faults state officials for failing to research the safety of imported solar panels.
“At the state level I’ve been told that the governor himself is involved in solar facilities,” Beasley said.
Cooper and his brother Pell leased family land for a solar farm in Nash County. The governor insists he gave up his economic interest in the deal in 2014, but records to substantiate his claim are murky.
Beasley said some scholarly publications confirm GenX and similar materials are used in solar panel manufacturing, most of which occurs in China.
“It really is kind of hard to understand what it all is,” she acknowledged.
That was evident in technical comments Mark J. Strynar gave in a February interview with North State Journal. Strynar is an Environmental Protection Agency scientist whose research helped to identify Chemours’ GenX pollution.
The EPA compiled 39 records showing perfluorinated alkylated substances, commonly called PFAS, related to solar panels.
“It appears PFAS are included in solar panel production,” Strynar told the newspaper. GenX chemicals are classified as PFAS compounds.
Paul Thienpont, an executive with Wilkinson’s parent company Invenergy, testified to the contrary at an April 11 hearing. “Neither GenX nor PFAS are used in the production of any components that make up the solar panels planned for use for the project,” Thienpont said.
Thienpont testified panels planned for the solar electric plant passed EPA testing. The agency classified them as nonhazardous waste suitable for disposal in landfills. Under cross-examination, Thienpont said he didn’t realize, coal ash passed the same EPA test and was considered nonhazardous material. Duke Energy and the state Department of Environmental Quality continue battling over disposing coal ash at Duke facilities.
The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association issued a statement to Carolina Journal saying it “has seen no evidence that solar panels installed in our state contain any hazardous materials, and it’s very disappointing that anyone would spread such inaccurate claims.
“Regarding GenX in North Carolina, it’s a fact that Dupont does not use GenX or PFAS compound (see p. 14) in the production or processing of Tedlar® polyvinyl fluoride films, which are widely used in back sheets for solar panels,” the statement said. “Moreover, all energy technologies are highly-regulated and tested by federal agencies.”
The statement said clean, solar energy benefits communities and residents statewide, generating new property tax revenues to fund schools, roads, and public safety, especially in rural areas.