NC recycling bill: savior or slayer of utility solar?

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One of the best times of the year, as far as political drama is concerned, is the end of the legislative year. Politicians work rapidly to make sure their favorite policies pass on time and their ambitious bills become laws.

One of these races is going on in North Carolina where, after nearly two months of languish, action is being taken on Senate Bill 568. SB 586, introduced by Duke-exec-turned-State Senator, Paul Newton (R), looks to require the “responsible” decommissioning of solar and wind projects once they cease operation and the recycling of all PV modules and batteries thereafter, banning those items and their components from landfills.

The bill specifically would require the owner or operator of a solar project to be entirely responsible for the deconstruction and recycling of a project, to be done within two years of the project’s decommissioning date. Within this requirement also comes the caveat that those owner/operators must also set aside a financial sum to “ensure that sufficient funds are available for decommissioning of the facility and reclamation of the property to its condition prior to commencement of activities on the site.” This applies even if the owner/operator goes out of business during the project’s lifetime, as the money is to be set aside during the project’s construction.

That issue has become particularly polarizing for the bill. Opponents call it an unfair cost administered to a source of energy Duke doesn’t particularly like. Duke has long shown a preference for nuclear and coal generation, which makes any additional pre-construction requirements, not to mention the $3,500 fee that comes just with filing of the financial assurance measure, seem like efforts to slow down project development to the point of them becoming unviable. While this bill only applies to utility-scale development, if this bill were to pass, it would mean every project just got a couple of weeks longer and at least $3,500 more expensive, with tens of thousands more coming, varying in price by project size.

However Newton has defended the bill with the argument that it’s a precautionary measure that will avoid problems arising out of the blue in a couple of decades, with the responsibility of solving those problems befalling the finder. He supplemented this with stories of the decades Duke spent storing ash underground in unlined pits. When these pits began to leak, it became an expensive cleanup effort. While it feels a bit of a stretch to directly compare aging solar modules to pits of coal ash, the sentiment that it’s better to be safe and prepared than caught with your pants around your ankles is a fair one. However, a sentiment being valid and the fair implementation of that sentiment into law do not necessarily correlate.

That’s what this bill feels like in a microcosm. The ideas laid out all appear to be in  good faith and reflect important measures. There should be plans in place for the retiring of a plant even decades before that retiring date to be sure it is done smoothly and effectively. Having funds in place to ensure the financial implementation of that plan fits logically as well. Most logical of all is the required recycling of PV modules and battery components, which just makes sense from a sustainability standpoint. As is issue with almost all legislation, it comes down to implementation. When good ideas are put in place in bad faith, they’re no longer such good ideas.