News: CJ Exclusives

Solar panel cleanup regs scrapped in Senate bill

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

Just days after warning of the need to regulate solar panel disposal, Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, scrapped his bill for a relaxed version.

Facing opposition from solar-friendly senators and the renewable energy lobby, Newton gave regulators until Jan. 1, 2022, to study environmental impacts and adopt final rules. The original bill set a September deadline for decommissioning and cleanup rules.

Newton amended Senate Bill 568 in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, June 19. The next day, he dumped S.B. 568 and rolled a modified version into House Bill 329. That bill passed the Senate agriculture committee unanimously and was sent to the Senate Rules Committee.

The latest version tells the Environmental Management Commission to set rules for dismantling and disposing spent utility-scale solar facilities, solar storage batteries, and wind turbines. The commission writes environmental rules for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

The new language ends the requirement to recycle all renewable energy items, and lifts an immediate ban on placing the materials in landfills. Renewable companies no longer would need to post bonds or other financial assurances to cover decommissioning costs. Instead, the study would determine whether financial guarantees are necessary.

“This is a significantly improved version, and something that the industry can get behind,” said Alex Miller, a lobbyist with N.C. Clean Energy Business Alliance. He said the new bill should answer lingering questions about solar safety.

DEQ lobbyist Joy Hicks said the department lacks the resources to conduct the study.

Newton said the General Assembly might need to appropriate money for three years to satisfy the bill’s requirements. The goal is to have the industry pay after that.

Hicks said renewable industry representatives, utility officials, recyclers, and landfill operators will join meetings to adopt rules on how to handle materials. As Carolina Journal first reported, North Carolina does not have any plan in place to safely dispose 85,000 acres of solar panels weighing an estimated 475,000 tons.

Under H.B. 329 the Environmental Management Commission would determine whether the renewable materials are hazardous or solid waste, and decide how to manage obsolete components. Economic and environmental costs and benefits would be calculated for reusing, recycling, refurbishing, and disposing of the items.

The study would determine the life cycle length of various solar, wind, and battery renewable components to figure how much space would be used if they are disposed of in landfills.

The House Agriculture Committee also is considering a solar decommissioning study. Language was inserted into Senate Bill 315, the N.C. Farm Act of 2019, for discussion only during a committee meeting June 19. A vote is expected when the committee meets Tuesday.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, has had a testy relationship with the solar industry. He attended the Senate Agriculture Committee meeting at which Newton presented his first version of S.B. 568.

“Some of the best farmland in Duplin County is now under solar panels, and the great tragedy looming is there is no definitive method of closure and disposal of those panels,” Dixon, a semi-retired farmer, told CJ in early June.

Dixon is concerned that farmland may not be usable for agriculture after solar facilities are shut down. The House version of the Farm Act would require periodic soil testing at solar sites.

He said he supports property rights issues.

“However, when I have to subsidize what they do on their property, I think it takes it out of the realm of property rights and it becomes another issue,” Dixon said.

Solar developers have received more than $1 billion in tax credits subsidized by taxpayers, a CJ analysis determined. Dixon said there is no guarantee taxpayers won’t be stuck with the bill to clean up the sites when they’re shut down.