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Shown here is the Pegasus Solar Project, which was developed by Geronimo Energy and is now operational in Brooten in central Minnesota. Geronimo is planning to build the 200-megawatt Harmony solar project in rural Cass County.

Regulators look to create rule for dismantling solar facilities as industry moves into North Dakota

BISMARCK — With construction on the first large-scale solar farm in North Dakota slated to begin next year, state regulators are creating a rule that spells out steps for one day dismantling such facilities.

The rule proposed by the Public Service Commission would require companies that operate solar farms to submit decommissioning plans.

“This lays out a set of rules that are roughly aligned with wind decommissioning but would take into consideration some of the physical differences between wind and solar facilities,” Commissioner Randy Christmann said at Tuesday’s PSC meeting, where commissioners advanced the proposal for a public hearing.

North Dakota updated its rules for dismantling wind farms in 2017, but the state does not have any for solar farms. No utility-scale farms exist in North Dakota, though a smaller, 300-kilowatt facility became operational earlier this year on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

The proposed rule would apply to facilities greater than 500 kilowatts, to coincide with PSC regulations on wind farms. It would not affect residential solar installations, as the capacities of those rooftop systems are smaller.

Under the proposal, the decommissioning process must begin within a year after the end of a facility’s life. Work must be completed within another year. The operator would need to restore the site to the original topography that existed before the facility was built, as well as restore the topsoil and reseed the area.

A solar farm operator would also have to provide an estimate of the cost to decommission its facility and put up financial assurance, such as a bond, that guarantees money will be available for cleanup if the site is abandoned.

The new rule would apply only to future solar farms and not to Geronimo Energy’s proposed 200-megawatt Harmony Solar Project in Cass County, which already received approval from the PSC. Regardless, Geronimo provided a plan to the PSC last year for how it intends to decommission the Harmony farm.

“It’s only fair to commend the company for bringing a decommissioning plan forward on a voluntary basis when they didn’t have to,” PSC Chairman Brian Kroshus said. “To me, that’s a sign they’re a good corporate citizen operating in the state and want to do the right thing.”

Christmann said there are minor differences between the Harmony plan and the proposed PSC rule. Namely, the rule would require that companies pull out the entire rods — known as piling — that secure the solar panels into the ground. The Harmony plan says the operator will remove its equipment to a depth of 4 feet underground.

Christmann said that’s a matter that could come up at a public hearing on the proposed rule slated for Sept. 19.

“I don’t see a good reason to leave them,” Christmann said. “We have found it acceptable to this point to leave the concrete bases on wind turbines because they are so enormous and there would be a significant cost involved in removing them.”