Down to the Nitty Gritty on Solar Farm Development

by James A. Bacon

If Virginians want more renewable energy, they need to solve a number of practical problems. One of those is how to decommission old solar panels and wind turbines. When their useful lives have expired, we can’t just let these devices litter the landscape and collect rust. In particular the question of what happens to old solar panels, which contain high levels of heavy metals like cadmium, is one that has concerned many residents of rural counties where solar farms have been proposed.

SolUnesco, a Reston-based developer of solar farms, has given considerable thought to how to plan for the end of utility-scale solar projects. As Lea Maamari and Melody S. Gee write in a company blog post, “finding a good balance of shared benefits, costs, and risks is in the best interest of all stakeholders.”

This year the General Assembly enacted a law that essentially requires localities to enter into written agreements with solar-farm developers to create a Decommissioning Plan and requires developers to post financial security to provide sufficient funds for the decommissioning operation. The law leaves it up to the counties and developers to determine the specific conditions of the plans. SolUnesco’s research has found significant variations in how decommissioning is handled around the state.

Here is how the company describes its vision for the final step in the solar-farm life cycle: 

SolUnesco advocates for creating an environment whereby the land in returned in as-good or better conditionSolUnesco will recommend planting wild grasses and fescue and leaving roads intact for owners’ future use. Having removed farmland from production for thirty or more yearsupon reclamation, the solar project will return it to agricultural uses richer and healthier than before. 

A key issue in decommissioning plans is ascertaining the salvage value of the solar equipment. Due to the difficulty in predicting scrap prices 30 or 40 years in the future, local governments tend to want to eliminate salvage value from the calculation. SulUnesco advocates what it calls “a balanced approach of risk mitigation and calculated discounts.”

Consider a general example: if a project decommission is estimated to cost $10 million with a salvage value of $8 million, the difference of $2 million would be posted as security by the developer. This way, neither party is taking on all the risk or financial burden.

Another issue is what kind of financial instrument to use — performance bonds, parent guarantees, letters of credit, or certified funds? Rather than requiring the solar developer to account for the full financial security up front, SolUnesco recommends a tiered security approach that would phase in financial assurances over ten years, reducing the up-front burden to the developer but providing guarantees to the locality as the solar farm ages.

Write Maamari and Gee: “As we move forward into future projects, we believe it is possible for all stakeholders to balance and share the rewards, costs, and risks of developing utility-scale solar.”

SolUnesco’s proposals sound reasonable, but perhaps they can be improved upon. One way or another, if Virginians want solar to be a larger component of their energy future, these are the kinds of nitty-gritty problems they have to solve.

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12 responses to “Down to the Nitty Gritty on Solar Farm Development

  1. You raise good points about things that must be done. However, we are being forced to accept natural gas pipelines for which there are no plans – and the companies have specifically refused to make any – to remove it when it is no longer used. There are no funds set aside to make sure landowners are compensated if a major accident occurs, etc. We expect the LLC would just go bankrupt and we’d be left with nothing. There are other issues around fossil fuels that are ignored. Why would we stop a renewable source by demanding such things when we refuse to address them for fossil fuels? Willing to demand the same for all energy sources?

  2. I like the thinking, Mr. Bacon. I just wish this kind of thinking had been around when they started damming up the James River in the early 1800’s. There are still seven of them trashing up the river between Lynchburg and Big Island. Hopefully, your shedding light on the potential issues will eliminate a bunch of solar junk in some random Virginia field 150 years from now.

    • Excellent comment. I doubt there is any practical and financially sound solution, given that the value of solar and wind tower junk and its contaminated waste is likely a good deal less than zero, given removal and clean up costs. Indeed, it’s more akin to cleaning up a super-fund site, highly expensive, plus operation time to obsolescence is now often proving shorter than all projections.

  3. Yes, how many other things like gas power plants – have to have a “decommissioning plan” to return the site to it’s former use?

    This is just simply a double-standard being imposed on one kind of land-use that is not imposed on other land-uses and why?

    Are we going to return North Anna to it’s former agricultural use when it is decommissioned? How about all those coal plants that are closing?

    Cadmium – no – it’s cadmium telleride – and totally stable – in it’s other uses besides solar.

    Finally, I don’t understand once solar is installed on a site why it would not stay there and as panels wear out – are replaced by even more modern and efficient panels? Why decomission the site at all?

    Solar is NOT “replacing” farm land. In many cases, the land is no longer in use even as farm land… it’s vacant land.

    It’s like the Luddites and NIMBYs are running amok………

  4. it’s funny as heck – how many of these have been return to their former use:

    Are we requiring that they be “decommissioned” and returned to their former land use? Nope.

  5. Solar panels are guaranteed by their manufacturers for an average of 25 years. While panels can last much longer, they can lose some of their efficiency after that time. As solar energy technology continues to innovate, opportunities for continued reuse or for appropriate recycling are likely to grow. The sites are not toxic and the infrastructure can be easily dismantled. Our organization’s two existing solar arrays, one on the ground and one roof mounted are efficiently, quietly, and cleanly generating a good portion of our energy needs every day. I have toured hazardous natural gas compression station and pipeline sites…these are clearly hazardous sites, especially when these installations are placed on or near homes or communities where the blast zone could destroy property, burn roads and homes, and threaten the life and safety of human and wildlife. A good question for fossil fuel installations, would be how safe those installations would be when they are abandoned. An article in 2016 about Dominion’s Leesburg Compressor Station noted, “Dominion created a stir in the county when it vented its Loudoun Compressor Station on Sept. 26. Natural gas, mixed with an odorant for detection, spread as far as 10 miles east and north of the station. The local police and fire departments received more than 100 emergency calls.” Would some of the hazardous vapor (methane mixed with volatile organic compounds) remain?

  6. Beware of spin and propaganda. Here in this arena, such spin and propaganda has been going on now constantly since the 1970s, the litany of hype, false promises, half truths, and outright lies.

    • Plus, when today’s far left politicians to get full control of these new “green programs” via the Fed. Government allied with control of the state and local governments, we’re toast.

    • Here is example of spin and propaganda that is found is yesterday’s false News Reporting that has been going on constantly now for fifty years in the American press, and false claims by self interested green energy backers, non-profits, for profits, and other agenda driven special interests:

      “L A Times “climate change facts” article conceals critical global energy & emissions data
      Guest Blogger / 2 hours ago September 13, 2019

      Guest essay by Larry Hamlin

      The article offers climate change straw man arguments that distract readers from much more relevant and important climate change alarmist flawed realities.
      The article tries to limit the climate change issues discussed by only addressing possible future roles for nuclear power, excuses trying to minimize the importance of China’s CO2 emissions growth and how “decarbonization” schemes in the U.S. will create jobs.

      While these issues may be legitimate in some academic context they are far removed from the realities facing climate change propagandists regarding the world’s overwhelming need to continue huge future increases in fossil fuel use (and resulting emissions) to meet the requirements driven by the globe’s developing nations economic growth objectives.

      This Times article completely ignores any discussion of global energy use actual data that demonstrates the “fact” that the world’s developing nations overwhelming dominate global energy use (and emissions) with fossil fuels providing 87.5% of these nations energy consumption in 2018.

      The Times article ignores energy data demonstrating the “fact” that the developing nations consumed nearly 60% of total global energy in 2018 accounting for nearly 2/3rds of all global emissions.

      The Times article ignores the “fact” that the world’s developing nations increased global CO2 emissions by 4.5 billion metric tons in the last decade that overwhelmed and exceeded the developed nations 1 billion metric ton reduction of CO2 during that period. That reduction was led by the U.S. which displaced coal fuel with low cost, more efficient and reliable natural gas.

      The Times article fails to discuss “facts” showing that the developing nations will further grow both their future energy use and emissions in the coming decades and by 2050 dominate world energy use and emissions by representing nearly 2/3rds and 70% of these global measures respectively.

      The Times article ignores “facts” showing that by year 2050 the developing nations will increase global CO2 emissions by 8.1 billion metric tons while the developed nations CO2 emissions remain little changed.

      The Times article ignores “facts” showing that none of the world’s developing nations have any present or future binding emission reduction commitments within the phony Paris Agreement making these nations signatory status of this agreement an embarrassment and signaling that the Agreement was purely politically contrived.

      The Times articles concealment of critical global energy and emissions “facts” demonstrates that the primary purpose of this article was to create a distracting smoke screen to hide the “facts” of the world’s present and future global energy use and emissions reality from view.” End Quote

      For Charts, Graphs, and more details see:

      • That would be Larry Hamlin, former chief of power production for Southern California Edison, correct?

        Obviously, HE has no ax to grind.

        • Don’t know for sure but it makes sense given that California’s environmental movement broke the state’s electric utility, and now is engaged in fleecing the state’s citizens out of $billions for gas, cars, electricity, or whatever other fool errand fad they now chase after.

  7. It’s my understanding that FERC requires and regulates pipeline decommissioning. Sometimes that involves complete or partial removal. Other times, the best regulatory solution is to leave the facility in place. Here is a link to some FERC accounting rules for decommissioning.

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