North Carolina has no environmental rules for shutting down solar projects safely, state officials say, and may lack sufficient facilities to dispose of the glass, steel, industrial lubricants, and toxic elements after solar panels in the state’s expanding solar industry reach the end of their useful lives.
State Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, is alarmed at the lack of control over decommissioning solar arrays and solar farms. He also is concerned that solar developers might be duping unwitting landowners who lease their property for solar projects, saying some require property owners to cover the costs of disposal and land reclamation after the panels become ineffective.
Dixon has visited solar developments in his district, met with property owners leasing their land for the projects, and viewed some of their contracts.
He said in some lease agreements with schools, the company installs panels on the roof of a building, “and the arrangement is that the company … gets the tax credits,” and eventually ownership of the solar panels transfers to the county, Dixon said. With ownership comes decommissioning costs.
“There’s been some of that,” agreed James McLawhorn, director of the North Carolina Utilities Commission’s Electric Division. Some leases with private landowners “may be structured that way” as well. “I wouldn’t doubt it. But I know they’re not all structured that way.”
However, McLawhorn acknowledges, only the landowner and developer know the details of the leases. Solar developers are not required to share lease details with the Utilities Commission when applying for a certificate to build.
“I think the upfront enticement of such a large amount of [lease] money … the $850 an acre per year, with the company paying the property taxes, the company paying the penalty for coming out of present-use value on farmland, is awfully enticing to these folks out here who are in need of some income today,” Dixon said.
“The enormous amount of upfront money that they’re getting is distorting their judgment relative to 15, 20 years later” when the solar panels stop working efficiently and must be discarded, Dixon said.
“I haven’t seen anybody that can tell me who is ultimately responsible for cleaning up and disposing. That is problematic,” Dixon said.
“The danger that I foresee [is] that if a lot of these bad deals are made, and then we ask the government to bail out the people who made these bad deals, I have a problem with that,” Dixon said. He also worries if a solar company goes out of business, a landowner could get stuck with cleanup costs and may not be able to pay them.
“You’re right to raise the question about thinking about the [land] restoration of the sites, and the disposal of materials, and to the extent there are toxic materials, the handling of those, because some of the solar arrays have toxic materials in them,” said Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
At this point, Mills said, there is time to find disposal solutions before new generation, longer-life solar panels begin wearing out, and closure of solar farms becomes necessary.
Lord Christopher Monckton, chief policy advisor to the Science and Public Policy Institute and a former policy advisor to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, disagrees.
“Decommissioning is a big problem with all of these. It’s actually worse than for nuclear power stations, terawatt for terawatt hour,” Monckton said.
“The big problem they’ve got, of course, is that these panels degrade much faster than they knew, and after about 10 years you’ve already lost half the power, and after 15 years you might as well throw them away because they’re not useful for anything,” Monckton said.
Disposing solar panels poses its own problems, Monckton said. Some are made of a substance that contains, among other things, gallium arsenide, “which is a fairly strong poison,” he said. “So if you leave them in the environment, they degrade and get into the water table. So you actually have to be quite careful how you dispose of them. You basically have to store them.”
Like Dixon and McLawhorn, Monckton said property owners should make certain lease specify that the solar developer retains ownership and responsibility for decommissioning. Otherwise, Monckton said, “It’s a scam.”
Shutting down solar farms “warrants further study,” said Stephanie Hawco, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“Because there are no state laws or regulations that address decommissioning, there is no requirement for developers to submit a closure plan,” Hawco said. “DENR is discussing the closure issue, and will enforce any directives we receive from the state level.” The General Assembly has given none, she said.
Currently there is “some small-scale recycling of solar panels, generally through electronics recyclers who handle similar components,” Hawco said. It is unclear how cleanup on a much larger scale would be handled as greater amounts of solar equipment wear out.
The volume of solar waste is small relative to other electronic waste streams, said Dustin Mulvaney, assistant professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University. He has researched cradle-to-grave deficiencies in California’s solar industry, the nation’s largest.
“More and more solar is going to create more and more waste, and that’s definitely an issue” for North Carolina, Mulvaney said. Neither the federal government nor any state government has solar decommissioning regulations to handle the scrap.
There is “a landfill crisis issue” of declining space nationwide at municipally operated and privately owned facilities, Mulvaney said. That is why local governments are pushing for a solar recycling infrastructure to prevent that material from crowding their landfills.
Some solar panels contain metals such as tellurium and silver. Conventional solar panels use crystalline silicon, and many contain lead. A landfill would have to be lined to accept those, Mulvaney said.
Some photovoltaic solar panels contain valuable materials such as cadmium telluride that can be reclaimed, but “if you want to get the valuable materials out you’re going to be exposed to the toxic ones,” Mulvaney said.
Lawmakers, policymakers, and the solar industry should take a cue from the European Union, Mulvaney said. EU-wide directives regulate end-of-life management of all electronic materials, a classification that includes solar panels.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.