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How should N.H. deal with the expiration of solar panels?

Annie Ropeik

Experts estimate that solar panels generally have a lifespan of 20 to 35 years. But what happens when they need to retire?

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A bill introduced for the upcoming legislative session by Rep. Fred Plett, a Republican from Goffstown on the House’s Science, Technology and Energy committee, proposes a plan to require solar manufacturers to be responsible for the end of their product’s useful life.

HB-1459 would have the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services develop guidance for a program to recycle solar panels.

It would require solar panel manufacturers selling solar panels in New Hampshire to submit plans for stewarding their panels through their expiration, with a goal to recycle or reuse photovoltaic modules at a rate of 85%.

Manufacturers would need to show how they would finance those plans, and could face fees of up to $10,000 for not submitting a stewardship plan. New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services would be able to collect a fee from manufacturers to fund the plan’s guidance, review, and approval process.

Plett’s effort resembles a bipartisan bill passed in Washington in 2017. Though some language regarding the stewardship program is almost identical between the two bills, the Washington bill was a broader effort to promote local renewable energy.

Rep. Plett said it was important to consider the problems that solar panels may pose at the end of their lives as solar becomes a bigger industry in New Hampshire.

Though the problem isn’t on the horizon right now, he says he’s worried that in as short as 20 years the state will see lots of solar panels being taken apart.

“And I just want to make certain that all of the precious stuff in there is recycled,” he said.

Dan Weeks, a vice president at renewable energy company ReVision Energy, says because the solar industry is so young in New Hampshire, and there are so few solar arrays, the state is “decades away” from having a significant amount of decommissioned solar panels.

And, he says, putting the kinds of requirements HB-1459 proposes on solar manufacturers now could have a harmful effect on the availability and cost of solar panels, stifling a nascent industry in the state.

Given Rep. Plett’s background on energy policy, including introducing HB 225last session, which Weeks says would have undercut net metering, Weeks said he was skeptical about the intentions of the new solar recycling bill.

“I kind of question if he’s looking to solve a problem or put more hurdles in the way of the industry,” he said.

But, Weeks said, it is important to look at the long-term impacts of solar.

Recycling solar panels may be more complicated than recycling a can, said Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association.

Some current trial projects for recycling solar panels find it can cost more to dismantle and separate all their components than what is being conserved in resources. And reuse could be an important alternative, she said.

“We want to make sure that the incentives are in place to encourage reuse of solar panels instead of going straight to recycling them,” Bissonnette said.

Weeks said a coordinated national effort, with guidance from organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, could help create a robust recycling program for solar panels.

“It's got to be done in a thoughtful and coordinated way that isn't going to stifle solar in one given state and not address the larger challenge of responsible solar panel recycling nationwide,” he said.

Plett said the possible higher prices of solar panels if manufacturers were required to finance a recycling program in the state would reflect the true cost of the panels.

“And to the extent that discourages: oh well,” he said. “No product should get away without reflecting all of its externalities. And I know people will argue that fossil fuels have a lot of externalities that aren't captured either. But I can only worry about one thing at a time.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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