Solar power hit in the solar plexus

Workers installing a roof-top solar panel array. (Photo: lalanta71, via Shutterstock)

On Jan. 1, California became the first state in the nation to require solar panels on all new homes up to three stories high. The unique mandate was approved last year by a state agency, the California Energy Commission.

Meanwhile, just down the street in Sacramento, another agency of the same state government, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, is intent on designating the same solar panels that will be used to comply with the solar-power requirement as “hazardous waste.”

Say what? Imagine the several million Californians who already live in solar-powered houses or work in commercial buildings with solar panels or collectors, finding out they have hundreds or thousands of pounds of hazardous waste affixed above their heads.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control has stepped in to undermine and complicate laudable existing state policy.

This is a classic case study in the left hand of government not knowing — or caring — what the right hand is doing, with different parts of the state bureaucracy working at clear, and harmful, cross-purposes.

California has long been a national leader in alternative energy, through its policies across administrations of both political parties encouraging energy efficiency, weening the state away from carbon-producing fossil fuels, and providing generous tax incentives for the installation of solar panels. One recent study showed eight of the 10 U.S. cities with the highest percentage of home solar panels are already in California.

But in its headlong attempt to designate seemingly everything in sight as hazardous waste, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, once again, has stepped in to undermine and complicate laudable existing state policy.

In related news, the same department is in the process of attempting to classify the plants that shred and recycle metal from millions of end-of-life vehicles and household appliances as – you guessed it — “hazardous waste facilities,” which they have never been considered during 50 years’ of operation.

Just like cars, refrigerators and washing machines, solar panels are devices that also have a limited life span and must be retired and replaced at some point.

If the Department of Toxic Substances is allowed to classify solar panels as hazardous waste, and metal-recycling plants as hazardous-waste treatment facilities, it will carry enormous consequences for not just the state’s ambitious clean-energy and recycling goals, but for individual consumers as well.

For example, the solar-power mandate on residences is estimated to add $8,000-to-$10,000 to the cost of a new home. This cost might be worth it if the roof-top solar array is considered a desirable feature that lowers utility costs. But what about when the house is up for sale, and the homeowner must disclose that those solar panels on the roof are, in fact, considered hazardous waste by the same state government that requires them?

The issue of end-of-life management also will pose a huge challenge for the state, because just like cars, refrigerators and washing machines, solar panels are devices that also have a limited life span and must be retired and replaced at some point. Where will homeowners dispose of solar panels that need to be replaced — and are designated as toxic by the state? California’s consumer-products recycling industry — cans, cups, bottles, cardboard — is already badly failing, with recycling centers closing one after the other, and trash piling up.

What happens when millions of defunct solar panels, now designated as hazardous waste, have to be disposed of? They can’t legally be deposited in landfills.  What are we going to do with them? Store them in massive government warehouses like the one at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?

The solar industry was already experiencing problems with tariffs and the disruption of their supply chain from Asia, and now it is also facing additional crippling market conditions as a result of the COVID-19 economic shutdown. This will slow installation to the point that it could result in the loss of the solar investment tax credit, an incentive that has underpinned the exponential growth in solar power.

The solar industry is suffering a lot of shocks that are coming together at the same time. It doesn’t need state government to exacerbate the situation.

California’s national leadership on environmental issues is to be applauded, but state government must get its act together and not allow one agency to operate in conflict with another, and permit one policy to undermine or flat-out contradict another.

If solar is a critical — and now required — part of the state’s quest for energy independence, let’s be practical and far-sighted enough to anticipate the consequences of designating solar panels as hazardous waste, and adding unnecessary and burdensome costs to their end-of-life management.

Ed’s Note: Jim Boyd is former vice chair of the California Energy Commission, and Winston Hickox is past secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

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