Editorial: Decommissioning solar: A common sense measure that makes good business sense

The explosion of solar arrays in Vermont, in particular Addison County, has spawned the twinkling of what could be the downside of any boom-bust cycle.
The upside of solar power is its sustainability and near-zero admissions into the atmosphere. In that manner, it is a fuel source to be developed and exploited.
The downside of its rapid deployment, however, is in the rush to cite the projects (sometimes in places that are less than ideal) as well as lax rules that govern the life cycle of any energy project.
The projected life cycle of a typical solar tracker is estimated to be 20-25 years. That’s a generation, and a lot can happen with technology and the viability of existing energy businesses within that 25-year span. It is also an industry that is going through rapid change and evolution. Consolidations and mergers are likely to be part of the scene as the industry matures.
Because of that uncertainty, providing for a decommissioning plan for any solar installment that is outside the private home makes good common sense. The goal would be to protect any community from having to shoulder a future financial burden if, for instance, a solar company goes belly up and leaves a few acres of unproductive solar units rusting in the field.
Currently, decommissioning plans apply to the largest of the solar arrays being built in the state, but it is not the case for the hundreds of smaller solar arrays springing up throughout our communities.
Specifically, current state law mandates that any power plant that produces more than 1 megawatt of electricity is required to create a decommissioning fund, but any solar cite that produces less than 1 megawatt is not beholden to a decommissioning plan.
Of the six solar projects that were issued Certificates for Public Good by the PSB in New Haven so far this year, none have required a decommissioning plan. In fact, of the 100s of solar projects approved throughout the state so far this year, only 9 projects in the state have exceeded 1 megawatts. Of those 9, two were in Addison County and both the Middlebury and Bridport solar farms (see story page 3A) have filed decommissioning plans — the latter setting aside about $110,000, to meet its end-of-life-cycle obligations.
This is not a huge deal. Rather, it’s finetuning legislation introduced two years ago with a simple amendment that would require some obligation on the part of the solar poject manager to return the site to its original state once the solar array or solar farm is no longer operating. That just ought to be part of the language in any solar project. It does not have to mandate setting aside of funds in a specific manner (as it does with the larger megawatt projects), but it should imply that enough funds should be set aside by the end of the project’s lifetime to cover any decommissioning costs.
Duane Peterson, co-founder of Waterbury solar firm SunCommon, said that even though the Public Service Board does not mandate a decommissioning fund for small projects, SunCommon promises to do so. He says most of his community solar fars are only about an acre, and that land can be returned to its original state for about $10,000.
That puts the issue in perspective. There is no need for onerous legislation that could be a burden on solar projects, but neither is there any reason not to include such language in the initial application and certificate for public good. It ensures the corporations do right by the communities, and it protects taxpayers from having to deal with errant projects along the way. That’s just good business.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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