Walker files bill seeking solar panel disposal study

Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus

For the second consecutive year, a Bartholomew County lawmaker is asking the state to pay for a study about the decommissioning and disposal of solar panels.

Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, says Senate Bill 33 calls for 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 will have a Nov. 1 deadline to submit the report.

“I just get the sense from the industry there is not a robust aftermarket for processing of used solar equipment,” Walker said. “So as solar equipment becomes more popular, I’d just like to understand there are alternatives viable to putting spent solar panels and related equipment into landfills.”

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

“If you start looking 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 when they complete their lifespan,” Walker said.

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

Walker said he does not oppose solar energy, adding he anticipates the use of solar fields and individual home solar panels will grow as the industry becomes more efficient and more prolific.

The reason for requesting the study is to avoid a repeat of an earlier experience, when Walker learned that underground gasoline storage tanks can became significant environmental hazards, he said.

Perhaps the most memorable example in south central Indiana is the widely publicized 2004 collapse of Kiel Bros. Oil Co., which left taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars for cleanup. More than 85 contaminated sites across three states had to be cleaned up, which included underground tanks that leaked toxic chemicals into soil, streams and wells, according to federal investigators.

But many more companies across the country have identical problems. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the cleanup of 568,981 tanks has been initiated nationwide, while repairs have been completed on 509,091 tanks.

“There was no forethought on how to address these (underground gas tank) hazards,” Walker said. “I want an estimate of how we can anticipate when solar arrays run their lifespan and deal with them proactively.”

To help fund cleanups of the storage tanks, Indiana began to assess a fee for the fuel that went into them, Walker said.

When asked if solar panel customers might be charged a similar fees at installation, Walker said he’s not sure at this time.

“There is a potential for that,” Walker said. “It will be whatever the study finds.”

Walker is also requesting that the study include best practices for the disposal or recycling of solar panels and related components.

It is too early to say whether SB33 will receive stronger support than it did last year, Walker said. Both the House and the Senate may become preoccupied with more immediate problems that will result in the bill being pushed back, Walker explained.

“That’s what often happens when you are trying to look 20 years down the road,” the lawmaker said. “The potential downfall is decades away, and its difficult to raise the level of interest. It’s also a budget session, so we’ll have plenty of distractions.”