Raleigh, N.C. — Solar industry members and advocates told a legislative panel Wednesday there's little need to worry about the safe removal of solar panels in the state's future.
Solar skeptics, both at the legislature and at free-market think tanks, have expressed concern recently about how the panels will be disposed of when their working life of around 25 years is done.
Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Secretary Tom Reeder echoed many of those concerns during his presentation on the issue to the Environmental Review Commission, noting that more environmental safeguards are required for large-screen televisions, composting operations and strip malls than for solar panels, which are proliferating as more solar farms come on line in North Carolina.
"There are 250 million pounds of these photovoltaic cells in North Carolina," Reeder told the commission, urging lawmakers to consider adding a bond requirement to solar farms for eventual decommissioning, as he says California and the federal Bureau of Land Management do.
"They do contain toxic materials," he warned. "There's no market for recycling these things."
Speaking of an 80-megawatt solar facility in Edgecombe County, which is the largest east of the Mississippi River, Reeder asked, "What if a hurricane or a tornado goes through there? Who's going to clean up that pig in a poke?
“To me, it’s very similar to the coal ash deal that we’ve got going on right now," he told the panel. "Until about 2013, nobody thought coal ash was a problem. I’d just like to get out ahead of this problem.”
"Would it be prudent or not prudent to just say, let’s stop until we know what we’re doing?" asked Sen. Ron Rabin, R-Harnett.
Reeder replied that he couldn't say that, but he added, “It’s better to be proactive than reactive.”
Both solar advocates and commission members were quick to push back.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, described Reeder's presentation as "a clarion call for regulation of solar panels," a description Reeder disputed.
"I’m absolutely befuddled by the comparison of this issue by the assistant secretary to the coal ash situation," McGrady said. "At no time I’m aware of did it ever have the value that these panels themselves have. It’s really amazing to me, particularly in light of the state’s failure to act on the coal ash issue over the years."
Maggie Clark with the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association said most solar leases place responsibility for equipment removal "explicitly" on the tenant and require the leased land to be restored to its former condition.
Asked what would happen if a solar company went bankrupt before a solar farm lease was up, Frank Marshall with FLS, a solar company in Asheville, said the investors and banks that financed the project would take it over.
"If, say, FLS Energy went out of business, this is still an extremely valuable asset that has a lot of recurring revenue," Marshall explained. "The solar farm is not going to stop operating because it’s too valuable."
Marshall also told lawmakers that, when a tornado hit a Strata solar farm in Tennessee, Strata cleaned it up and found a local recycler to take the panels.
Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, suggested that, if the semiconductor metals are valuable, perhaps solar companies should be required to recycle the panels to reclaim them.
Ricky Sinha, environmental director for Arizona-based First Solar, the world's largest solar business, said the company is in the process of scaling up its existing solar-panel recycling process for large facilities. While that capacity is still "a work in progress," he said, First Solar has already embraced it as part of its business model.
"We see a big future for this market – to make recycling a financially attractive alternative to disposal," Sinha told lawmakers.
Toxic or not?
Lawmakers also sparred with Reeder over whether the rare metals used in solar panel semiconductors pose an environmental threat.
Reeder said he was told by his staff that the metals include copper indium gallium selenide and cadmium telluride.
"These certainly aren’t materials we’d want to find in our environment,“ he said.
Hager agreed, telling the commission that cadmium telluride is "one of the six most toxic materials known to humans" and could degrade in an unlined landfill.
Sinha said that's unlikely, telling the panel that cadmium telluride is a "highly stable compound" that isn't water soluble or flammable and is inside two layers of glass as part of a film "thinner than a red blood cell."
"It’s really not accessible, and there’s very little of it," he said, adding that First Solar has worked with researchers and regulators worldwide to confirm its safety and that, at the end of their useful lives, the toxicity of the panels would fall within the standards for non-hazardous waste.
Reeder said there are differing types of panels in use around the state.
"I don’t know the level of toxicity in each of these solar panels, how much could leach out. We’ll certainly do some investigation into that," he said.
Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, called Reeder's repeated references to toxicity "alarmist," comparing him to "the little boy calling wolf all the time."
"At the end of the day, you really have no data to back up any of these concerns?" Jackson asked Reeder.
"Exactly. That’s my concern," Reeder replied. "Right now, today, we don’t know what the level of toxicity could be from these 250 million pounds of solar panels in North Carolina."
"At the end of the day, It might not be a problem at all. Is that an accurate statement?" Jackson persisted.
"I don’t consider what Mr. Reeder said crying wolf. I think it’s just a call for us to answer some questions," commented Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin.
"I think there may be solutions to this before we actually have the problem come up, and I just don’t want us to get too far," protested Sen. Jane Smith, D-Robeson. “I don’t know how we can solve anything when we don't even know if there’s a problem yet.”