Under the Dome

Solar panel pollution like coal ash?

UPDATED Did a top state environmental official actually compare the potential threat of pollution from coal ash to that posed by solar panels?

Not exactly. Tom Reeder, an assistant secretary in the state Department of Environmental Quality says he didn’t mean it the way it sounds.

On Wednesday, Reeder gave the state Environmental Review Commission, which is comprised of legislators, a report on solar panels, including what might happen to them after they have run their approximate 25-year lifespan. The legislators had asked for the report.

Reeder reported the solar industry is growing fast in North Carolina, and that there is more than 250 million pounds of the panels currently in the state. The panels have toxic components and current recycling ability is limited, he said. There is currently no uniform, mandated process in place for the safe decommissioning of the panels.

Solar panels also infringe on farmland and wildlife habitat, he said.

“I’m concerned what’s going to happen to these 250 million pounds?” Reeder said. “To me it’s similar to coal ash.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Hendersonville, said he was surprised to hear that, considering the commission had just heard a presentation about the benefits of solar energy.

“I’m absolutely befuddled by the comparison of this issue by the assistant secretary to the coal ash situation,” McGrady said. “... It’s really amazing to me, particularly in light of the state’s failure to act on the coal ash issue over a period of years.”

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican from Autryville, and Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro, also said they were startled the comparison.

Reeder said he was referring to the fact that coal ash was left unregulated for decades and, like coal ash, little is known about the potential threat posed by the material in solar panels. If left unattended, unknown risks in dealing with out-of-operation solar panels will pose a looming threat.

“At the end of the day the state will have to be responsible if this is a mess, I’m sure of that,” Reeder said.

Update: Maggie Clark with the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, also spoke at the meeting, said state regulators don’t know if the solar panels are toxic or not. She said standard decommissioning practices are in place that require the systems be removed at the end of their lease term. Some local governments are already regulating them, she said.