Solar Farms in Georgia: Why We Need to Start Thinking About the End

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal,Georgia
CitationVol. 39 No. 4
Publication year2023

Solar Farms in Georgia: Why We Need To Start Thinking About the End

Erica L. Welsh

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SOLAR FARMS IN GEORGIA: WHY WE NEED TO START THINKING ABOUT THE END


Erica L. Welsh*


Abstract

Despite the lack of a renewable energy mandate or a statewide carbon-cutting goal, Georgia's renewable energy development, particularly utility-scale solar installations, is expected to increase exponentially. In the rush to join this renewable energy development surge, utilities, solar developers, and local governments must prudently consider how to manage this growth wisely and prevent avoidable costs in preparing for the inevitable decommissioning of these solar installations. Although Georgia is one of the nation's leading states for solar power with its abundant land and sunshine, it lacks statewide policies addressing decommissioning concerns.

A statewide decommissioning policy that requires some form of decommissioning plan and financial assurance can protect developers from unanticipated litigation that could detrimentally affect solar development. This Note examines the potential challenges utilities, developers, and local governments may face at the decommissioning stage and proposes a statewide decommissioning policy that would protect Georgia's economy and communities with a predictable regulatory environment.

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CONTENTS

Introduction...............................................................................1133

I. Background...........................................................................1136

A. The Expansion of Solar Farms in Georgia......................1138
B. Development to Decommissioning..................................1139
C. Solar Decommissioning Policies.....................................1140

II. Analysis.................................................................................1142

A. The Dark Side of Clean Energy.......................................1143
1. The Panels: Recycling Shortcomings.........................1145
2. The Land: Hazardous Waste Risks............................1147
B. Decommissioning Bonds.................................................. 1149

III. Proposal...............................................................................1154

A. Existing Decommissioning Polices Across the United States ..........................................................................................1154
B. The European Union's Approach to Solar Decommissioning ..........................................................................................1158
C. The Solution: A Statewide Solar Decommissioning Law for Georgia ............................................................................ 1160

Conclusion..................................................................................1162

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Introduction

In the United States, a significant surge in renewable energy development is on the horizon.1 The catalyst is widely considered to be the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA), which President Biden signed into law on August 16, 2022.2 Biden's goal of cutting "greenhouse gas emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030 and to net zero by 2050" will require rapid expansion of clean energy infrastructure.3 To meet these goals, the U.S. needs to "quickly . . . replac[e] fossil fuel powered electricity generation with renewable sources of electricity like wind and solar."4 The IRA will have a particularly substantial impact on the expansion of the solar industry.5 Utility-scale solar development is essential for putting the U.S. on the fastest "path to a clean energy future."6

In some parts of the country, the move to renewables has already begun to accelerate.7 Goals of reducing carbon emissions led some

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states to implement their own renewable energy mandates.8 For example, "[i]n July 2021, the Oregon legislature increased the state [clean energy standard] to a 100% clean energy share of sales by 2040."9 Market forces drove new investment in other states.10 Although Georgia, like most states in the Southeast, has neither a renewable energy mandate nor a statewide carbon-cutting goal, it continues to expand its renewable energy development.11 Specifically, Georgia has increased its development of utility-scale solar installations—also known as solar farms—due to the abundance of sun and space, particularly in the more rural parts of the state.12 For example, Meta (formally known as Facebook) chose to build its new data center in Newton County, Georgia, in large part because of the "[a]ccess to renewable energy at a competitive price."13 Meta's move to Georgia created jobs, and other "like-minded companies" followed suit in search of similar opportunities for renewable resources.14 With Meta, the financial opportunity, rather than concern about climate

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change, is what persuaded the farmer to sell his land for the installation.15 Companies are looking for cleaner energy at an affordable price.16 The availability of solar resources at the right price suggests that the growth of utility-scale solar installations in Georgia is just getting started.

The combined forces of the IRA, state-level climate policies, and market forces portend a kind of renewable energy "gold rush."17 Companies, investors, and landowners are all interested in jumping on the bandwagon while they can.18 Who can blame them? But in this rush to join the frenzy, there are policy makers, commentators, and scholars who urge that we need to give prudent consideration to how communities can manage this growth wisely while smartly preparing for the inevitable obsolescence of hardware used to deploy the renewable energy facilities.19

Although utility-scale renewable energy sources like wind and solar have been around since the mid-2000s in some areas, most installations are still too new to need decommissioning.20 Right now, with the anticipated "rapid expansion" of renewable energy systems, the focus

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is on front-end issues such as "planning, permitting, and building of renewable energy sources like solar plants and wind farms."21 Although these front-end issues are important to address, back-end issues, such as decommissioning, can also be an important preliminary consideration.22 What happens when the solar installation reaches the end of its life? Planning for the end of a renewable energy facility can prove to be just as valuable as preparing for its development.23

Because decommissioning is inevitable, utilities, developers, and local governments need to think critically about the issues they may face when it is time to sunset a utility-scale solar array.24 This Note addresses the need for landowners and local governments to prepare for the challenges associated with decommissioning. Part I examines the expansion of solar farms in Georgia and the current state of solar decommissioning policies. Part II analyzes the potential challenges utility companies, solar developers, and local governments may face regarding the decommissioning of the utility-scale solar installations. Part III proposes a solution to address those decommissioning challenges and the potential importance of implementing statewide decommissioning policies.

I. Background

Renewable energy sources have been around for a long time.25 Individuals and communities have long harnessed the sun's power for light and energy.26 However, the technologies developed to channel

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the energy are more recent.27 Bell Labs, in 1954, pioneered the capacity to convert solar energy to electricity through the invention of solar panels.28 However, that invention "was mostly just a curiosity as it was too expensive to gain widespread use."29 Over time, solar panels became more efficient while their cost slowly decreased.30 Developers of utility-scale solar installations look for locations with abundant land and sunshine.31 One of the first solar farms in the U.S. was built on the Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo County, California, in 1983.32 In the last decade, the prices for solar panels have decreased while the demand for solar installations has increased.33 Georgia furnishes a particularly striking example of a jurisdiction where the deployment of renewable energy resources rapidly expanded as soon as it became economically and technologically feasible to do so.

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A. The Expansion of Solar Farms in Georgia

Despite the lack of regulation or incentives, "Georgia has become one of the nation's leading states for solar power."34 Georgia's focus remains on a "market-driven approach . . . , [particularly] leaning on low-cost utility-scale solar farms."35 The majority of the state's solar energy is harnessed by utility-scale facilities.36 Because of the available flat land and sunshine in Georgia, "solar [photovoltaic (PV)] is the state's fastest-growing source of renewable energy."37 Recently, clean energy advocates in Georgia celebrated the Georgia Public Service Commission's (PSC) approval of "a solar resource plan" that will increase Georgia Power's procurement of solar energy.38 In a press release from the summer of 2022, leaders in the industry announced a buildout and that "the PSC voted unanimously to create a collaborative Distributed Generation Working Group."39 This group, "composed of representatives from utilities, the solar industry, and PSC staff [] will develop recommendations for growing the distributed energy market in Georgia."40 President Biden's climate goals and the

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recently passed IRA will only add to the move towards solar development.41

B. Development to Decommissioning

Renewable electricity development must advance on a quick timeline to meet the Biden Administration's climate goals.42 Because one goal is to reach net zero by 2050, the obstacles facing projects at the initial development stage are the main topic of discussion.43 For example, in exchange for supporting the passage of the IRA, Senator Joe Manchin asked Democratic leaders in Congress...

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