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Environment and Outdoors

Although solar panels are multiplying, Maine towns start to halt their construction

Biden Renewables
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Solar panels stretch across 38 acres at the BNRG/Dirigo solar farm, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Oxford, Maine. President Joe Biden wants to change the way the U.S. uses energy by expanding renewables, but faces several challenges.

A handful of local governments in Maine have begun halting construction of solar panel arrays as the installations slowly become the norm in the state.

Some 3,185 installations are in place across Maine, according to the Solar Energies Industry Association. In Penobscot County, Versant Power has a raft of pending requests from developers to connect proposed solar projects to the grid. It’s an industry that one energy lawyer called “booming.”

But local governments have started to become concerned about the eventual costs of decommissioning the solar panels and a lack of policies in place governing that process.

Ellsworth is the latest municipality to temporarily ban solar panel arrays, citing concerns about overdevelopment. Dixmont voted to temporarily halt permitting for commercial installations earlier this month, after discovering that there was no policy in place for what to do when solar panel arrays reached the end of their useful lives. Augusta did so in August.

Because solar panels often change ownership several times during their lifetime, Dixmont officials said they were worried about the owner of the land left having to foot the bill for decommissioning them and not having the means to do so. In that case, they feared the town could be left with the bill.

Todd Griset, an energy attorney at the Maine firm Preti Flaherty, said panels degrade “a little every year” but most of his clients expect them to last for at least 20 or 25 years.

“I’ve seen some deals to go out as far as 40 years,” he said.

It’s difficult to determine exact numbers, but decommissioning solar panels can be an expensive enterprise if the owner chooses to take down the panels and return to more conventional ways of generating power, Griset said, pointing to construction and demolition costs.

“If you’re rolling up to go home, you have to take everything down and restore it the way it was before generally,” he said. Solar panels can be recycled, but it’s not done “on a large scale.”

One solar panel expert told the Brewer Planning Board earlier this month that panels have a guaranteed production of 25 years, after which they’re disposed of as general waste.

While other regions including Europe have “much stronger” recycling programs, plans for such receptacles are only “starting to pop up in the U.S.,” said Chad Allen, a development manager at Longroad Energy, which is building a rotating solar panel array in Brewer that is expected to go online sometime in 2023.

Europe set records this summer for generating the largest amount of solar energy ever.

There are 15 U.S. companies that directly recycle solar panels, most of which are based in the west and Midwest, according to ENF Solar. In the past 20 years, Maine’s solar industry has gone from “tiny” to “booming,” Griset said.

David Bright, a Dixmont selectman, said that the cost of transporting solar panels to a recycling plant factored into the town’s decision to vote for a temporary ban.

“Depending on how the panels are made, there’s all kinds of heavy metals and different things in there, so they may have to be treated as hazardous waste,” Bright said, which carries a higher financial burden.

On the other hand, switching out one old panel for a new one is a much easier task, Griset said, because the infrastructure and utility connection to the power grid can be reused.

Maine appears to be taking this into consideration as more panels connect to the grid.

In June, the state Legislature passed a law requiring developers to obtain approval from the Department of Environmental Protection for all projects that are 3 or more acres and show plans and funding for decommissioning panels.

The law went into effect Oct. 18, and applies to projects for which construction started or ownership changed after Oct. 1.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.