Rush to pass bill targeting solar farm clean-up plans criticized

Solar industry pushes back, says legislation is an unreasonable check on growth.

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Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter, & Matthew Burns, WRAL.com senior producer/politics editor
RALEIGH, N.C. — Large solar power facilities and wind farms would have to lay out end-of-life plans, and how they plan to pay for them, under legislation moving at the General Assembly.

Supporters said Senate Bill 568 would make North Carolina one of the first states in the nation to plan ahead on the recycling and disposal of solar panel components. But a number of senators are irritated about how the bill is being pushed through the process.

Bill sponsor Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, offered Thursday to make major revisions to the proposal if the solar industry agrees to certain stipulations, but some members of the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources committee wanted to see the new language in the bill before voting on it.

"I appreciate the verbal offer, but I learned a long time ago I want it in writing," said Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham.

Newton said the changes "just jelled with me" on Thursday morning, so bill drafters at the legislature haven't had time to craft a proposed committee substitute to the bill.

He suggested giving the industry two years to work with the state Department of Environmental Quality on a plan that includes the following provisions:

  • An immediate ban on disposing solar components in landfills, unless DEQ determines it won't pose a hazard
  • Recycling of solar panel components is promoted. "The sheer volume of waste cannot be absorbed," Newton said.
  • Solar farm operators must provide some financial assurance, whether through a bond or a letter of credit, that land will be restored once a solar farm ceases operations. "You cannot leave the taxpayer or farmer holding the bag at the end of the day," he said.
  • A manufacturers stewardship program is created to help homeowners dispose of old rooftop solar panels.

An industry representative said Thursday that he and others are willing to work with Newton on a compromise – one day after Chris Carmody, executive director for the North Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance, accused the senator of "imposing a whole lot of costs on an industry he doesn't like."

"Duke Energy does not profit from solar the way they do from nuclear and natural gas," Carmody said in a Wednesday committee hearing.

Newton, a former Duke executive, said he's trying to build a roadmap for the industry and avoid a "gotcha" 20 years from now when the heavy metals and other potential contaminants in solar panels have to be dealt with. Duke, he noted, was within the law for decades storing coal ash in unlined pits, but a pair of high-profile spills in Tennessee and North Carolina changed the game, potentially costing the utility billions to clean up ash ponds across the state.

"I've been accused of disliking this industry. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said Thursday. "It's out there, and we need a plan for dealing with solar and renewable energy waste."

Newton said most of the material in solar panels can be recycled, and the requirement should create green jobs. He said there are enough solar panels already installed in North Carolina to stretch to San Francisco nearly eight times.

He said he wants the new requirements to be effective at the least expense possible, but he wants protections for the state when hurricanes tear up arrays or if companies go bankrupt.

"Without these [rules] in place, we're going to have some Puerto Ricos," he said during the Wednesday hearing, showing pictures of a partially demolished solar facility in Puerto Rico and wondering aloud what chemicals might be leaching into the water table there.

The bill covers wind farms, too, but it exempts Amazon's facility in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, which is the state's only utility-scale wind farm.

When Woodard and other committee members suggested Thursday working through the weekend to get the revised bill together and vote on it early next week, Sen. Norm Sanderson, R-Pamlico, the committee chairman, insisted that the bill needed to be voted on immediately to keep it moving through the legislative process.

Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, criticized such "self-imposed timelines," noting the full Senate on Wednesday pushed through a three-year moratorium on wind farms in much of eastern North Carolina although work still needs to be done on the measure.

"What is this committee for? What are any committees for? Is this just a dog-and-pony show?" Steinburg asked. "This is not what government is all about."

The bill appeared to fail Thursday morning on a voice vote that reflected only half-hearted support, but Sanderson declared that it passed and quickly moved on to the next bill on the agenda. Senate rules prohibit a show of hands or other vote count on bills in committee.


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