Solar Energy Technologies Are Safe

Misinformation about solar panels ignores science, research, and decades of experience

The Commonwealth is moving to cleaner, home-grown, lower-cost forms of energy production like solar energy and Virginians have questions. For decades, our energy portfolio has consisted of a combination of coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy. These energy sources have served us well. Just as we’ve moved from landlines to cell phones and from Blockbuster to Netflix, our energy portfolio will adjust to the market and more sophisticated technologies. Certain renewable energies are now the lowest cost form of power generation and the market will lead us toward these energy sources. We all agree that the electricity that powers our homes and businesses is fundamental, but that we must keep a close eye on safety and the environment. In Virginia, solar energy development is a safe and effective way to power our communities while protecting our land, air and water.

Solar, or photovoltaic panels, are a tried and tested technology that we have used for many decades. Solar panels have allowed the exploration of other planets with the Mars Rover and have powered the International Space Station for over 20 years. Scientists trust solar panels to power these billion dollar projects in outer space just as communities trust solar to power their homes and businesses across the country.

In simple terms, there are three ingredients for a solar project: Metal framing, tempered glass, and photovoltaic cells secured between the sheets of glass. Metal posts, typically aluminium, are sunk a few feet into the ground to hold up an array. Panels are then snapped into metal frames between posts and pointed towards the sun. Like any project, many counties are right to require stormwater plans, revegetation plans, and responsible grading to limit runoff during and after construction. Once the panels are installed and native grasses are planted beneath, the soil sits untouched and is allowed to return to its natural state. The soil does not receive pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, or other treatments — it is allowed to revegetate at its own natural pace.

Unfortunately, misinformation has pervaded the discussion, and talk of toxic chemicals leaking into the soil is a scare tactic clean energy opponents often employ. Solar opponents will misinterpret and twist any study or experiment they can get their hands on, so people should look for scientific consensus over the findings of one individual study. The US Energy Information Administration has endless resources summarizing 30+ years of research into the human and environmental safety of solar technologies.

Researchers just down the road at Virginia Tech authored a study looking into American-made solar panels containing Cadmium Telluride (CdTe). The VT researchers studied soil and water samples near solar projects in normal operation as well as projects that had been damaged by hurricanes and even tornadoes. Even soil samples taken from beneath panels damaged in a tornado passed the EPA’s Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) tests: “Just as it is improper to assume water can burn because hydrogen burns, it is invalid to treat CdTe as if it were as toxic as Cd.” The semiconductors used in panels are thinner than a single red blood cell and are securely fastened between sheets of glass.

Solar skeptics have little grounds for concern about the materials in solar panels. The opponents to solar development ignore the fact that these same materials are found in every cell phone, in rusty cars sitting in the elements, and are by-products of other electricity generation like coal. Solar farm owners and landowners have a vested interest in keeping panels operational and keeping the environment clean, leaving the ground better than they found it. In fact, many view solar farms as land conservation tools–they are certainly less permanent and lower impact than any other form of development. Solar projects are new to many localities across Virginia, but the science is conclusive: responsible solar development is a win for clean air, clean water, landowners, neighbors, and communities.

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