News: CJ Exclusives

Lawmakers Warn of Solar Farm Cleanup Costs

Utilities Commission head admits 'decommissioning' has not been a focus

RALEIGH — State Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, warns North Carolina “may be on the way to [becoming] the next Superfund site” because it lacks a closure plan for hundreds of millions of tons of solar farm materials containing hazardous substances when the solar facilities wear out.

“I’m not an opponent of the actual aspects of solar energy,” Millis said, but he opposes mandated solar subsidies, and exempting solar installations from environmental disposal regulations others must follow.

There is a disposal fee capture embedded in the electronics industry for televisions, computers, and other electronic devices, he said. But solar investors, who enjoy a lucrative 35 percent tax credit for spending on their projects, have downplayed the role of decommissioning and cleanup in their advocacy.

Millis made his comments after listening to testimony from state regulators and solar industry enthusiasts at a Thursday hearing of the House Agriculture, and Natural and Economic Resources Appropriations Committee.

“Their comments were not conclusive that there is a uniform requirement by the industry,” or a state mandate requiring landowners to be fully informed about potential liability risks of leasing land for solar panels containing hazardous materials that “can’t be currently disposed of in a North Carolina landfill,” Millis said.

“On behalf of the taxpayers we can look at what happened in the past,” Millis said. Citing the shorthand reference for the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, he said, “Orphan landfills, coal ash basins … it appears as if we’re on the track here in North Carolina to be setting up for the next Superfund site [with costs placed on] the shoulders of the taxpayer.”

“I think we found out the answer to our question. We do not know what we are going to do with these panels,” said state Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, chairman of the committee. The Aug. 6 hearing took place days after a news story in Carolina Journal reported that North Carolina has no regulations for disposing of solar waste safely.

Dixon said the disposal uncertainty “is my concern, and I think the concern of this General Assembly.” He wants “concrete answers.”

Betsy McCorkle, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, said no state has a solar decommissioning regulation.

But, she said, more than 50 North Carolina stakeholders developed a template ordinance addressing permitting, setbacks, height limitations, aviation notifications, and decommissioning.

Since then the number of counties with a solar development ordinance rose from 18 to 57. However, McCorkle said, the measure is “a template rather than an enforceable rule … a suggestion” for local communities to adapt to their needs.

“Decommissioning is not something we have focused on,” Edward Finley Jr., chairman of the state Utilities Commission, told the committee, saying there is no state plan, and responding “I don’t know” to several questions about end-of-life disposal.

John Evans, chief deputy secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources who coordinates energy policy, said solar solid waste is “an issue we are becoming aware of” as solar projects boom, likely due to the tax credit.

When the state’s 2007 Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards law enacted the tax credit and mandated electric utilities to purchase increasing levels of renewable energy, it was assumed that 50 percent of that green power would originate from biomass, and the tax credits never would exceed $5 million.

Instead, Evans said, 90 percent of renewable power produced since the law passed has been solar, and $513 million in tax creditswere earned from 2010 to 2013 alone.

Evans acknowledged concerns about the disposal of 200 million pounds of solar panels — a volume expected “to go up three- to fourfold.” That doesn’t include other infrastructure materials on solar farms.

He said DENR officials “don’t have the data yet” on effects of herbicides sprayed on the solar farms to keep weeds and grass from obscuring the panels, or how to revegetate and return land to productive use once obsolete solar projects are removed.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management requires solar developers to post a bond on the front end of development, Evans said. Massachusetts has a bond opportunity for environmental decommissioning. “California actually treats the solar panels as hazardous waste.” And the European Union established a mandatory recycling program for solar components.

North Carolina has wind and natural gas decommissioning plans that could serve as a starting point for solar regulations, Evans said, and the state has had some success placing recycling fees on tires, paper goods, and electronics that could be extended to solar.

While North Carolina solar advocates have cited California’s and Europe’s extensive solar use as models for this state’s solar industry, they have reacted negatively to end-of-life cleanup controls those areas impose on solar panels.

At Thursday’s hearing, McCorkle warned against adopting California-style environmental standards because “we’d be adding substantial disposal costs” to North Carolina solar companies.

Millis said he understands that a solar developer has been telling landowners in Scotland County that if they sign a 20-year lease the company will donate the solar facility to them after that. He said he is worried what that landowner would do “with those dead solar panels that are draped across their property” when they are no longer viable.

Zoe Hanes, an attorney with FLS Energy in Asheville, said all of her company’s leases state “we are 100 percent responsible for safely decommissioning [installations]” and restoring land. She said that is a standard provision for most companies.

She cautioned against rushing into regulation.

“We’ve got a whole lot of time of these systems producing electricity before this becomes an issue,” Hanes said. Because most North Carolina solar panels are relatively new, there is no waste. “The market will respond when the waste is there.”

There was debate about the lifespan of a solar panel. Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, told Millis the 5-kilowatt solar array on his property has a 40-year warranty.

Dixon drew laughter from the committee by responding, “Well I had some 40-year shingles that wore out” before the warranty was up.

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.