May 11, 2016. North Carolina’s General Assembly has been engaged in an internal battle over state renewable energy policy since 2013. That year, Republican legislators first introduced a bill to repeal the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard; the REPS law requires electric utilities to gradually increase the amount of power generated from renewable sources such as wind, solar and waste combustion. (For more on the REPS issue, see earlier posts here and here.) The 2013 REPS repeal bill failed; similar bills to repeal or significantly limit the REPS requirement have been introduced every year since without success. Opponents of renewable energy subsidies did succeed in eliminating a state tax credit for renewable energy projects effective December 31, 2015.
In the just-convened 2016 legislative session, opposition to renewable energy has taken a new form — a bill to put significant regulatory constraints on development of renewable energy projects. Senate Bill 843 (Renewable Energy Property Protection) expands an existing wind energy permitting law to cover other types of renewable energy facilities and adds new permitting requirements and regulatory standards. Key provisions in Senate Bill 843:
Scope. The bill applies to most renewable energy facilities other than hydroelectric plants, including solar, wind and waste-to-energy combustion projects. The proposed permitting standards do not apply to solar panels installed on single-family homes or to “biomass resources”. Since the bill only excludes solar installations on single-family homes, the new permitting standards presumably apply to solar panels installed on commercial and institutional buildings (such as schools and churches) as well as utility-scale solar projects. It isn’t clear what the exclusion for “biomass resources” means; the term could be applied to plant-based fuels as well as combustion of animal waste.
Additional steps in the permitting process. Those steps include: 1. a pre-application meeting with state regulators at least 120 days before submission of the permit application; 2. submission of pre-application project information 45 days before the meeting; and 3. notice of the pre-application meeting to federal regulatory agencies (such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) and to “any other party [DEQ] deems relevant”. The bill also expands an existing wind energy permitting requirement for a “scoping” meeting 60 days before application to all renewable energy projects — even though the new pre-application meeting and the scoping meeting seem to involve the same participants and much of the same information. See G.S. 143-215.118.
Addition of new standards for denial of renewable energy permits. The existing law setting standards for issuing or denying wind energy projects would be amended to cover all renewable energy projects and to add two new grounds for permit denial. The new permit denial standards:
♦ Operation of the facility would cause ambient noise levels to exceed 35 decibels at the property line.
♦ The applicant failed to meet new financial assurance requirements for decommissioning the facility.
See the existing text of G.S. 143-215.120 for the existing permit denial standards.
Setback and buffer requirements for wind and other renewable energy facilities. All wind and other renewable energy facilities would have to be sited 1 1/2 miles from the property line of an adjacent property. For comparison, some examples of property line setback requirements for other state-permitted facilities and activities are shown below.
|Facility/Activity||Property Line Setback|
|Oil and gas production (including wells and drilling waste storage)||0 ft|
|Major air pollutant sources||0 ft|
|Land application sites for septage||50 ft|
|Hazardous waste landfills||200 ft|
|Swine house or swine waste lagoon||500 ft|
A quick search did not turn up an existing state-imposed property line setback of greater than 500 feet.
S 843 also requires wind and renewable energy facilities to be setback from all easements and rights of way for a state road or municipal street by a distance equal to 2 1/2 times the height of a wind turbine. Some wind turbines proposed in N.C. have a tower height of around 300 feet and total height (based on extension of one blade straight up) of nearly 500 feet, resulting in a road setback of 800-1250 feet.
New requirements for decommissioning a renewable energy facility, including financial assurance for decommissioning. The bill requires the owner/operator of a wind or renewable energy facility to remove all equipment and buildings and return the site to predevelopment conditions within one year after ceasing operation. The requirement seems to be unprecedented as applied to a utility or commercial development project. To the extent existing laws include reclamation or closure standards, the standards generally focus on eliminating specific safety hazards (appropriately closing abandoned wells); taking steps to prevent environmental degradation (capping closed landfills) and restoring disturbed areas to provide stability and prevent erosion. State permitting programs do not normally require the owner/operator to return a site to pre-development conditions by removing buildings and equipment.
S 843 also makes the owner/operator responsible for “properly recycling each piece of equipment used in the facility”. State law already prohibits landfill disposal of specific types of waste such as aluminum cans, scrap tires and computer equipment. (See G.S. 130A-310 for a complete list of materials banned from landfill disposal.) S 843 appears to go much further and require recycling of all equipment used in a renewable energy facility. The recycling requirement for renewable energy facilities looks particularly burdensome by comparison to a 2013 state law allowing demolition debris from a decommissioned electric generation station to be buried on site. See G.S. 130A-301.3.
Strict liability for damages caused by construction, maintenance, operation, decommissioning, disassembly or demolition of a renewable energy facility. The bill would impose strict liability on the owner/operator of a renewable energy facility. “Strict liability” means the owner/operator could be held liable for personal injury or property damage caused by the activity even if the damage was not the result of intentional misconduct, negligence, or violation of any regulatory standard. Strict liability can also deny the owner/operator the benefit of some usual defenses against a damage claim — such as the defense that the injured person caused or contributed to their own injury. Usually, strict liability is reserved for inherently dangerous activities where it provides an incentive for extra caution on the part of the person engaged in the activity. Very few N.C. laws create strict liability for personal injury or property damage; one applies to owners of dangerous dogs and another makes parents responsible for damage caused by their minor child. A few laws create a sort of limited strict liability. For example, state law generally assumes a hydraulic fracturing operation will be liable for contamination of a water supply located within 5,000 feet of a natural gas well. But in that case, the presumption of liability only applies to one type of injury occurring in a very specific set of circumstances — not to all injury or damage caused by a fracking operation.
Taken together, the provisions in Senate Bill 843 treat renewable energy facilities as a serious threat to public safety and the environment.