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How solar decommissioning plans can protect rural communities

A well-rounded decommissioning plan between developers and local governments can ensure that solar's presence in those communities remains positive.
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The solar industry's meteoric rise over the past decade can be linked, in part, to falling equipment prices and cheap, available land, often in rural places.

Solar development often has benefited rural places with clean energy, jobs, and tax revenue. 

But those towns and villages also must prepare for the end of a solar farm's productive life, anywhere from 25-30 years after commissioning. 

The Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) argues a well-rounded decommissioning plan between developers and local governments can ensure that solar's presence in those communities remains positive. 

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Make a plan

CFRA published a resource guide for decommissioning solar energy systems. The organization offered six recommendations to counties:

  1. Require project developers to submit a decommissioning plan that defines the obligations of the project developer to remove the solar array and restore the land when the project is retired.
  2. Require the project developer to notify the county of its intent to stop using the facility once it has been determined the system will be fully retired. This notification should serve as the trigger for decommissioning to begin. Both the manner of notification and the deadline for decommissioning to occur once notification is given should be defined within the original decommissioning plan.
  3. Ensure that decommissioning plans include expected timelines for completion of tasks. 
  4. Include a provision that the project owner is responsible for the costs of decommissioning, ensuring the county and landowners do not bear these costs.
  5. Work with developers to ensure decommissioning cost estimates are made by a third-party professional who can provide a location and project-specific cost estimate, and plan for these cost estimates to be reviewed every 5 to 10 years to accommodate changes.
  6. Encourage recycling or repurposing of solar components rather than disposal in landfills.

The vast majority of solar farms in the U.S. are more than a decade away from their decommissioning dates, so associated costs remain estimates at best. 

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) estimates decommissioning costs of around $30,000 per megawatt in present-day costs. Costs will vary depending on the decommissioning strategy.

The decommissioning of a 2 MW solar system, for example, cost a total of $60,200, according to NYSERDA, and is broken down in the chart. 

Source: Center for Rural Affairs/NYSERDA

States looking to require decommissioning plans from developers can use financial mechanisms to distribute associated costs over the life of the project, instead of during development. 

CFRA noted that a Nebraska statute, for example, requires suppliers to post a security bond or other instrument within 10 years of a commercial operation securing the costs of decommissioning the facility.

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