News: Quick Takes

Senate committee backs bill setting up plan to retire spent solar panels

A Senate bill establishing a disposal plan for solar energy panels cleared its first hurdle.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources voted Thursday, June 13, to send Senate Bill 568 to the Finance Committee amid protests from some committee members. They said environmental protection regulations are premature.

Bill sponsor Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, said the measure would create a common sense, proactive approach for decommissioning industrial-scale solar plants. As the market for renewable energy continues to grow, dealing with obsolete solar panels and related equipment has become an growing concern.

The bill also deals with solar storage batteries, wind power, and rooftop solar.

North Carolina has millions of solar panels covering 85,000 acres. The panels would stretch 18,000 miles if placed end to end, Newton said, repeating points from Wednesday’s nonvoting committee meeting. The panels contain potentially toxic liquids and solids.

Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, said most solar facilities are no more than 10 years old, and could have a lifespan of up to 30 years or more. There is no need to rush creating regulations that could be a disincentive for business people to enter the solar marketplace, he said.

Sens. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, and Harper Peterson, D-New Hanover, called on Newton to delay voting on the bill to allow for more study.

Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, went a step further. He said it was a ruse to rush a vote on the bill under the pretense the legislative session is drawing to a close.

“I know for a fact we’re going to be here for another four or five weeks,” Steinburg said. “Is this a dog and pony show or are we here to look at these bills?”

He criticized Senate policy barring recorded committee votes. Voice votes don’t provide accountability because they don’t identify how a member voted. Committee chairmen can manipulate the process to get an outcome they want, he said.

Newton said lawmakers could hold committee meetings and debate the bill for years without taking action. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has the appropriate expertise to study the issue with stakeholder input, and S.B. 568 requires that, he said. Regulations would be due in June 2021.

He offered to draft a slimmed-down version of the bill if the renewable energy industry would agree to four elements. They were:

  • An immediate ban on placing solar panels and equipment in landfills to prevent potentially low-risk, toxic materials from contaminating the soil and groundwater. That could be adjusted depending on DEQ findings.
  • A plan to promote recycling of the solar materials after they reach the end of their useful life.
  • A least-cost financial assurance that a solar operator will return farmland to the level of agricultural condition it was in before the plant was installed.
  • A solar manufacturer stewardship program so consumers who install home solar systems on their rooftops won’t be stuck with the equipment when it is no longer useful.