North Carolina has the second-highest solar photovoltaic (the process in which sunlight is converted into electricity) capacity in the United States at 4,308 MW, behind only California who produces 21,074 MW. North Carolina solar projects produce enough electricity to power 660,000 homes according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The bulk of the power comes from utility-scale solar projects. Most of these projects were built in the past five years and are not expected to be decommissioned until 2040 or later. Most to all solar modules are considered “non-hazardous” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
So why has North Carolina responded to decommissioning concerns related to solar farms so quickly, when there has been no effort to regulate the decommissioning process used in other commercial projects? Buildings that serve no use to communities have become eye sores, hot beds for crime, devalue neighborhoods, and wreak havoc on local ecosystems. The solar industry strives to refurbish or recycle solar panels, primarily for economic reasons. Solar panels contain more than 80% glass and aluminum, which are two readily recyclable components. The panels are also made up of silver, copper and semiconductors. These materials are all reusable and the value exceeds the cost of removal. This makes decommissioning process rewarding for utility-scale solar project owners.
Senate bill 568 passed on April 4, 2019 lays out the requirements for decommissioning of utility-scale solar projects. Owners or operators of utility-scale solar projects are responsible for the proper decommissioning of a project. Proper decommissioning includes returning the property to conditions prior to the commencement of the project, disconnecting the solar project from the power grid, removal of all equipment and recycle all components capable of being recycled, and removal of all electrical interconnection and distribution cables, energy storage batteries and platforms.
What does “Utility-scale solar projects” include? These Utility-scale solar projects include systems like ground-mounted photovoltaic (PV), concentrating photovoltaic (CPV), and concentrating solar power (CSP). Other systems used on utility-scale solar projects include solar arrays, accessory buildings, transmission facilities, and any other infrastructures necessary to operate solar projects. Recycling requirements include either the owner or operator properly recycling each PV module and all other recyclable products, and documenting the recyling. These guidelines do not apply to facilities owned by retail electric customers whose energy consumption, through renewable energy, is used to offset their own electrical energy consumption.
On July 31, 2019 North Carolina signed into law 2019 N.C. Sess. Laws 132. Which was directed towards the State’s Environmental Management Commission to govern the decommissioning, dismantling, and recycling of utility scale solar projects, and wind energy facilities. The Environmental Management Commission will manage the reuse, refurbishment, disposal, and recycling of equipment used in utility-scale solar projects.
The questioned to be answered is why does that solar industry have tightly regulated decommissioning guidelines while other industries have little to none? While the guidelines set forth are a step in the right direction to protecting the environment from decommissioned sights, more needs to be done outside the renewable energy industry. Putting in place guidelines for commercial decommissioned sights will improve property value and get rid of the eye sores caused by the decay of unused buildings.