When solar projects reach the end of their expected performance period, there are several management options. They include extending the performance period through reuse, refurbishment, or repowering of the facility or fully discontinuing operations and decommissioning the project. In this resource guide, the Center for Rural Affairs briefly expands upon these options as well as potential decommissioning plans, followed by suggestions for county governments once the decision to decommission a project has been made.

The world’s total annual electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) reached a record of 41.8 million metric tonnes in 2014. Annual global PV panel waste was 1,000 times less in the same year. Yet by 2050, the PV panel waste added annually could exceed 10% of the record global e-waste added in 2014. As the analysis contained in this report shows, the challenges and experiences with e-waste management can be turned into opportunities for PV panel waste management in the future. As the global PV market increases, so will the volume of decommissioned PV panels. At the end of 2016, cumulative global PV waste streams are expected to have reached 43,500-250,000 metric tonnes. This is 0.1%-0.6% of the cumulative mass of all installed panels (4 million metric tonnes). Meanwhile, PV waste streams are bound to only increase further. Given an average panel lifetime of 30 years, large amounts of annual waste are anticipated by the early 2030s. These are equivalent to 4% of installed PV panels in that year, with waste amounts by the 2050s (5.5-6 million tonnes) almost matching the mass contained in new installations (6.7 million tonnes). Growing PV panel waste presents a new environmental challenge, but also unprecedented opportunities to create value and pursue new economic avenues. These include recovery of raw material and the emergence of new solar PV end-of-life industries. Sectors like PV recycling will be essential in the world’s transition to a sustainable, economically viable and increasingly renewables-based energy future. To unlock the benefits of such industries, the institutional groundwork must be laid in time to meet the expected surge in panel waste.

Responsible and cost-effective dissolution of photovoltaic (PV) system hardware at the end of the performance period has emerged as an important business and environmental consideration. Alternatives include extending the performance period and existing contracts for power purchase, lease, and utility interconnect; refurbishing the plant by correcting any deficiencies; repowering the plant with new PV modules and inverters; or decommissioning the plant and removing all the hardware from the site. Often key decisions are made very early in the project development and might require decommissioning by some certain date after the end of a power purchase agreement. To “abandon in place” is not an alternative acceptable to landowners and regulators, so any financial prospectus should include costs associated with decommissioning, even if those costs are deferred by extending operations, refurbishment, or repowering. Decommissioning costs are driven by regulations regarding the handling and disposal of waste, with reuse and recycling of PV modules and other components preferred as a way to reduce both costs and environmental impact. Each alternative is discussed with order-of-magnitude costs, and recommendations are provided considering site-specific details of that situation, such as estimated costs to refurbish or repower, projected revenue from continued operations, and tax considerations. Decisions affecting alternatives at the end of the performance period for a PV plant are often limited by local regulations regarding permitting and land-use planning and state or federal regulations regarding handling and disposal of waste. Decisions regarding the final disposition of a system are often made much earlier—in the development of contracts, permits, and agreements regarding construction of the plant in the first place. Because a main driver of the PV market is concern about environmental sustainability, everyone in the PV industry—from PV module manufacturers, to project developers, to project owners and financiers, to designers and specifiers, to O&M providers—needs to ensure that liabilities such as hazardous materials are avoided and that the provisions made at the end of the performance period extract the most economic value and entail the least environmental impact as possible—or at least comply with all environmental regulations. In many cases, the site control, utility interconnection, and civil improvements such as access roads and stormwater drainage will have a high value and could justify repowering with new PV modules and inverters.

The North Caroline Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ or Department) and the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) found that solar panels are not expected to pose a significant environmental risk to the State while in operation. They also recommended that additional time was needed to further study the feasibility and advisability of establishing a statewide standard to ensure adequate financial resources are available for the decommissioning of utility-scale solar facilities, also referred to as financial assurance (FA). It was not deemed necessary at that time because the current fleet of solar facilities would not reach the end of their useful life for about 10 years. The Department recommended that a future study on FA involve stakeholders and participation from the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC), address salvage values and incentives to reuse, repower, or recycle end-of-life photovoltaic modules, and describe market forces necessary to drive the recommended end-of-life management options. North Carolina is one of the nation’s leaders for the number of solar facilities supplying power to the electricity grid. North Carolina currently has about 5,100 megawatts(MW) of grid-connected solar power. This power is supplied by more than 660 facilities that are greater than 1 MW in size. These facilities are located in 79 counties, and the land is generally leased to the solar developer by the landowner. Based on the last three years of data obtained from the Energy Information Administration, an average of approximately 50 facilities are expected to be added in North Carolina per year, providing an additional 500 MW to the grid per year in total. Facilities are expected to get larger in the future, with more facilities expected to be greater than 5 MW.

As local governments develop solar regulations and landowners negotiate land leases, it is important to understand the options for decommissioning solar panel systems and restoring project sites to their original status. The New York Solar Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) provide information for local governments and landowners on the decommissioning of large-scale solar panel systems through the topics of decommissioning plans and costs and financial and non-financial mechanisms in land-lease agreements.