RALEIGH — If all the solar panels from industrial-scale electric plants in North Carolina were laid end to end, they would stretch from Raleigh to San Francisco and back nearly four times. Yet the state has no plan to handle the 475,000 tons of panels once they wear out and become waste.
Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, a primary sponsor of Senate Bill 568, told the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources Wednesday, June 12, the bill would require solar facility owners and operators to decommission obsolete installations in a responsible manner. The committee debated the bill but took no vote.
The need for commercial solar facility decommissioning has gained attention since 2015, when Carolina Journal first wrote about the lack of state regulations.
“This bill creates a stakeholder process to study appropriate, protective, but not overly onerous rules of the road — regulations — for the proper disposal of solar panels,” Newton said. Wind turbines and solar storage batteries also would fall under the bill’s environmental protection mandates. The Amazon Wind Farm near Elizabeth City would be exempt.
N.C. Department of Environmental Quality experts would develop the regulations by July 2021 working with renewable stakeholders, he said. Acting now will give businesses certainty, protect the environment, and avoid a nasty surprise years down the road when massive removal becomes necessary.
Owners and operators would have to restore the land to its previous use within two years of shutdown. Critics have warned solar panels could contaminate farmland and surface water.
Operators would have to pay a $10,000 annual registration fee, and provide financial assurances the panels and related equipment would be recycled, repurposed, or properly disposed.
Decommissioning would create renewable industry jobs because more recycling centers would be needed to handle solar refuse, Newton said. Now there are only three such facilities in North Carolina and one in South Carolina.
North Carolina has 1.5 million cubic yards of installed solar equipment, and the bill would prohibit dumping it in landfills.
Newton said solar panels contain cadmium, lead, and heavy earth materials. They might also contain PFOS — synthetic, nonstick chemicals that pose human health and environmental risks. Those compounds gained public notoriety from concerns over GenX, which replaced them, and is used to make some solar panels.
Some senators pushed back on the bill.
“It’s almost an anti-business bill,” said Sen. Harper Peterson, D-New Hanover. He questioned whether solar panels contain toxic components, and if DEQ has sufficient staff and resources to develop and enforce new regulations. DEQ lobbyist Joy Hicks said the bill would require resources and more staff. The agency hopes to have a request ready for next year’s short legislative session.
Peterson raised the possibility Duke Energy would pass costs of posting cleanup bonds to ratepayers. The utility owns 40 solar facilities.
He advocated a go-slow approach, saying data and facts are needed, not assumptions.
Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, said Republicans appeared to be picking on the renewable energy industry. Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, questioned whether the measure is overreacting to older models of solar panels. He suggested newer panels might not contain toxic elements.
Alex Miller, a lobbyist with the N.C. Clean Energy Business Alliance, a trade association, said solar panels pose no threat. He warned interest and investment in renewable energy would decline if the General Assembly enacts a law signaling the solar industry is harmful to public health, a threat to the environment, and faces an undetermined future cost.
Donald van der Vaart, John Locke Foundation senior fellow who studies environment and energy issues and is a former DEQ secretary, countered that solar energy “is a low-risk but a high-volume potential source of pollution.”
The European Union has a fee-supported solar recycling effort in place that works, he said, but recycling is expensive. Newer model solar panels contain fewer precious metals, and would be less valuable than older ones.