In an industry where renewable energy is rapidly developing and expanding at a mind-numbing rate, the main conversation tends to be focused on technology implementation. How do we get more projects on the ground? Where do we get the funding? How do we meet clean energy and emissions goals? What may be less discussed, however, is concrete plans, processes, and regulations for what happens when projects reach end-of-life.
Let's talk solar. Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels have a 20- to 30-year useful life. While a panel may still function after that time, its productivity and energy output will decrease below levels anticipated by the manufacturer, it will have to be decommissioned and removed from the project site. As some early-installed solar projects are nearing this stage in the coming years, discussions and policies should start to establish standards for where end-of-life materials end up and how decommissioned solar sites are managed, as well as clear guidelines around disposal, accountability, and cost.
Decommissioning Planning for Developers
From early in the development process, developers have to contend with land use issues. Siting considerations must not only include obvious factors like panel production and interconnection, but also the down-the-road concepts like materials-handling, transportation, and waste disposal. However, it can be difficult to specify exactly what developers must manage in the decommissioning process, as much of it is still uncharted territory. Renewable energy developers may encounter legal challenges, for example, when determining who is contractually liable for decommissioning procedures and costs.
Notably, solar recycling companies are scarce, as this is still a new and evolving focus in the industry. Panel disposal is difficult in typical solid waste facilities, and recycling is better for the environment. In fact, some experts estimate that recycling could recover $15 billion of first-generation solar raw material value by 2050. In order to accommodate the impending influx of solar recycling needs, new companies may emerge and relevant recycling facilities will have to be constructed.
Current Guidelines and State Action
The new federal clean energy funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has resulted in a strong push to set decommissioning standards within the industry. A clean energy agenda benefits from solar end-of-life planning and a complete solar regulatory environment; historically, decommissioning concerns or prohibitive legislation raised by solar skeptics have resulted in delays in solar progress.
Currently, guidelines and regulations for solar end-of-life are lacking at the federal level. It is currently governed by the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which uses generalized testing to determine if a material is a solid or hazardous waste. Though panels typically only host trace amounts of hazardous substances, testing is important. Currently, however, there are no best practices to test PV models specifically.
At the state level, some governments have taken preliminary steps toward decommissioning guidance and regulation. As one example, North Carolina completed a study to guide solar decommissioning rulemaking in 2021. The report discussed financial assurances for solar panel projects and led to the decommissioning plan released this year. Using this planning, the North Carolina General Assembly will vote on decommissioning legislation next year. Recommendations from the plan include:
South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control has also established a directive to develop end-of-life regulations and guidance. The state's 2021-2022 General Appropriations Bill required a stakeholder-driven solar decommissioning group, which released a final report in June 2022 mandating a new solar decommissioning program. The report recommended establishing a hazardous waste characterization for PV modules. This would be determined via the federal RCRA testing or other, more specific testing methods. It also suggested creating a waste hierarchy to manage PV modules, assessing PV impact on landfills, continuing recycling development, and creating specific decommissioning requirements and financial assurances.
Though a close neighbor to the Carolinas, Virginia has struggled to establish decommissioning guidance. Despite this, reports show localized interest in understanding and participating in decommissioning processes. As solar development accelerates, it is essential for states with high solar capacity to plan ahead by initiating studies and following in the steps of the Carolinas.
Discrepancies between states may confuse developers when targeting new projects. Though under-regulated areas can appeal for rapid expansion, states with better guidelines will facilitate a smoother development process.
The Future of Decommissioning
Setting state and national decommissioning guidelines is imperative for continued clean energy growth. Where relevant state or federal regulations face barriers, experts must figure out how to formulate new guidelines for permitting, environmental review, and other critical steps.
At Leyline, solar projects make up a significant portion of our portfolio. We have a vested interest in understanding long-term solar planning and costs. We encourage more decommissioning progress across the nation and look forward to engaging more as specific governance emerges.
Stay tuned: Later this month, we will share an interview with top experts in the solar industry to hear their takes on solar decommissioning standards, resources, and risks.