President Joe Biden’s green energy agenda is expansive, with plans to spend over $2 trillion over the course of his first term in office. Democrats’ main talking point is that the United States needs to expand solar energy’s part within America’s energy mix as quickly as possible. However, there is little conversation around what is to be done when this infrastructure becomes obsolete after its 20-30 year useful life.
Local, state, and federal decommissioning standards currently in place for hydrocarbons should be extended to solar energy and other sources to mitigate risk of new environmental harms — and resulting taxpayer-funded remediation efforts — due to abandoned solar farms and insolvent solar producers.
Sustainability has become trendy, and many in corporate America are updating their business models to include product life-cycle (i.e., cradle to grave) sustainability practices. For example, initiatives such as Patagonia’s “Worn Wear” and Apple’s trade-in programs encourage their customers to recycle their products instead of throwing them away.
Unfortunately, while there are mandates on the oil and gas industry to decommission end-of-life equipment, many of these laws are not applicable to green energy sources, such as solar energy. This matters, particularly because of scale. Solar panels require 10 times the quantity of materials and 20 to 100 times the required land-use when compared to hydrocarbon equipment that produces equivalent energy output.
A recent study estimates a whopping 8 million tons of solar panels will be sent to landfills by 2030, ballooning to 80 million tons by 2050. Furthermore, by 2050 waste from end-of-life solar equipment will nearly double the current estimated annual plastic pollution or e-waste. With all the resources poised to be deployed by the Biden administration and Democrat-led House and Senate, a major focus should be on addressing planning for solar waste.
Federal, state, and local governments offer generous subsidies and tax breaks to encourage the development of solar farms, and the focus of alternative energy advocates has been on increasing the generation capacity of “green” energy to replace existing hydrocarbons. However, the conversations surrounding renewable energy and the resulting legislative priorities could sabotage all of the progress made toward that goal if they focus exclusively on power generation at the expense of responsible disposal.
Democrats must expand the scope of their green agenda to include implementing safeguards to ensure that these solar facilities are decommissioned and responsibly disposed of at the end of their lives. For example, the Texas Legislature in 2019 put forward House Bill 2845, which sought to require wind producers to provide financial assurances, such as a bond or a guarantee from the producer’s parent company, to back their promises of decommissioning facilities at the end of their life. This legislation should be reconsidered now as the legislature meets for the 87th Legislative Session. The regulatory framework for decommissioning assets already exists for oil and gas production, it only needs to be expanded to cover other energy production.
Further, all-energy-inclusive decommissioning standards will create and maintain a predictable regulatory environment for producers. Should governments kick the problem of end-of-life solar panels down the road, the cost to taxpayers will be enormous – studies generally show that the decommissioning of an average solar farm could reach a million dollars or more. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for solar producers’ negligence to clean up their waste.
Assets at the end of their life must be disposed of, meaning the equipment must be repurposed, recycled, or thrown into a landfill. While hydrocarbon equipment is readily recyclable, recycling of solar panels is not only difficult, it is expensive. Efforts must be made to improve the recycling of solar panels to prevent their accumulation in landfills and corresponding negative environmental impacts.
As suggested in a January 2021 EPA briefing paper, the Biden administration should instruct the EPA and Department of Energy to leverage their expertise and tools to further innovation in the disposal and remediation efforts of green energy equipment.