Walker submits an invoice for a study on the disposal of solar panels

For the second year in a row, a Bartholomew County lawmaker is asking the state to fund a study into the decommissioning and disposal of solar panels.

Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, says Senate Bill 33 requires the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) to conduct a joint study. If the senator’s bill is approved, the two agencies have until November 1 to submit the report.

“I just get the impression that there isn’t a robust aftermarket in the industry for processing used solar equipment,” Walker said. “As solar panels become more popular, I just want to understand that there are alternatives to disposing of spent solar panels and related equipment in landfill.”

Walker says his request is essentially the same as last year’s SB 403, adding that there are still a number of concerns that need to be addressed.

“If you look at some of the projections of how much material is going into the panels, it could be a significant amount of electrical and industrial waste by the time they reach their useful life,” Walker said.

Last year’s SB403, which was immediately sent to the Environmental Affairs Committee, was never taken to the Senate for a full vote. This year’s SB 33 is expected to be sent to the Senate Utilities Committee. Walker is not assigned to this committee.

Walker said he’s not opposed to solar power, adding that he expects the use of solar arrays and individual solar panels for homes will increase as the industry becomes more efficient and productive.

The reason for requesting the study is to avoid repeating a previous experience when Walker learned that underground gasoline storage tanks can become significant environmental hazards, he said.

Perhaps the most memorable example in south-central Indiana is the well-publicized collapse of the Kiel Bros. Oil Co. in 2004, which left taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars to clean up. Federal investigators said more than 85 contaminated sites in three states needed remediation, including underground tanks that leaked toxic chemicals into the ground, streams and wells.

But many more companies across the country are facing identical problems. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, cleaning of 568,981 tanks has been initiated nationwide, while repairs to 509,091 tanks have been completed.

“There was no foresight as to how these (underground gas tanks) hazards would be addressed,” Walker said. “I want an estimate of how we can anticipate when solar arrays will reach their lifetime and be proactive about it.”

To fund cleaning of the storage tanks, Indiana began charging a fee for the fuel in them, Walker said.

When asked if solar panel customers could be charged similar fees upon installation, Walker said he wasn’t sure at this time.

“There’s potential for that,” Walker said. “It will be whatever the study finds out.”

Walker also requests that the study include best practices for disposal or recycling of solar panels and associated components.

It’s too early to tell if SB33 will get stronger support than it did last year, Walker said. Both the House and Senate could deal with more immediate issues that will result in the bill being pushed back, Walker said.

“That often happens when you try to look 20 years into the future,” lawmakers said. “Potential demise is decades away, and generating interest is difficult. It’s also a budget meeting, so we’re going to have plenty of distractions.”