AP Photo/Winston-Salem Journal, Walt Unks

Crews install a solar farm in Davidson County, North Carolina in 2011.

Q&A: North Carolina researchers confront health fears about solar

As large-scale solar projects have proliferated across North Carolina, some critics have pushed back with a surprising critique: photovoltaic panels, while beloved by environmental advocates, are a danger to public health.

More than a half-dozen eastern counties have banned, delayed or restricted solar farms in part for that reason, while state lawmakers have threatened new onerous requirements.

“Without a required decommissioning and a bond to secure it, huge swaths of land could become riddled with dead solar panels,” Rep. Chris Millis (R-Pender) told the conservative Carolina Journal this spring.

But a recent white paper from the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, a public service of North Carolina State University, unequivocally dismisses these concerns.

Steve Kalland of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center.

“The health and safety risks associated with solar PV technology,” it reads, “are extremely small, far less than those associated with common activities such as driving a car, and vastly outweighed by health benefits of the generation of clean electricity.”

“Just like any scientific endeavor, it’s really hard to say that the risk is zero,” said Steve Kalland, the director of the Center, who’s now holding county meetings across the state to engage North Carolinians on solar. “But the reality is, it is negligible.”

Southeast Energy News spoke with Kalland and Tommy Cleveland – the report’s principal author, who now works with the nonprofit Advanced Energy – about the impetus for the paper and its implications for policy makers.

Southeast Energy News: What prompted you to draft this white paper?

Kalland: We were getting a lot of calls from local governments, and from other stakeholders around the state, with questions about solar. And a lot of those questions were coming in based on information that…we found wasn’t accurate. So, we were increasingly concerned that policy makers and landowners and other stakeholders were making decisions based on bad information. So, we started developing these fact sheets to help dispel some of that.

This was not just us in a vacuum. A lot of questions were coming [through] Co-op Extension offices. Especially in rural counties where a lot of the solar activity was happening, those offices have a very close relationship with county commissions and planning boards and other groups.

Tommy Cleveland of Advanced Energy.

Cleveland: I started out doing some of this research on a question by question basis, and found that there wasn’t really a single resource.

Kalland: The vast majority of what Tommy assembled was not new research. It was largely a literature review of peer-reviewed material that was already out there, although, as he noted, it was in a lot of different spots.

What were some of the most common concerns you heard?

Cleveland: The biggest two were some form of toxicity concern. Sometimes those were well-defined, and sometimes they were very general: “I’m worried about toxic solar panels.” The other was radiation, or electromagnetic fields, and some form of health impacts coming from solar panels or some part of the system.

And what did you find?

Cleveland: There’s no material concern. There is some level of toxicity in some of the panels. But there’s not a health and safety concern coming from that, because of the small amounts and the way they’re encapsulated in the panels. The high likelihood that [panels] will be recycled at the end of their life, leaves very close to zero health or safety concern. It’s hard to say it’s absolutely, totally zero. But it’s of no health and safety concern to the public.

Kalland: Just like any scientific endeavor, it’s really hard to say that the risk is zero. But the reality is, it is negligible. There really isn’t any significant doubt about this particular issue, but because we can’t say the risk is zero, somebody always tries to find a way to bend the facts.

This gets back to one of the reasons we put this [white paper] together. There are legitimate things that should be considered by policy makers [regarding the permitting of] solar farms, but the vast majority of those legitimate things do not fall in the category of health and safety impacts.

Cleveland: I’d go even further and say none of those things have to do with health and safety.

Kalland: A good example is a question that we got at one of these county meetings just recently. There was a woman who was concerned because a developer was promoting a large, utility-scale project in proximity to a residential neighborhood. Her question was: are there health and safety concerns about having this system so close to a residential neighborhood? And our response was, from a health and safety standpoint, the answer is: “no, not really.”

There are lots of other reasons you might be concerned about it…appropriateness of land use, consistency with neighboring land use…those are all completely legitimate questions. But pollution of the groundwater, or, “is my dog going to be injured by electric shock?” — those are not concerns to be worried about.

So, there’s absolutely nothing policy makers should do with respect to solar panels’ impact on health and safety? The panels could be dumped in a ditch at the end of their life, for example, and it wouldn’t matter?

Cleveland: As long as they’re currently following the rules, from our research, the panels are able to be landfilled as non-hazardous waste. Just like any other waste, they’re not allowed to be dumped in a lake or in a ditch. But from our research, there’s no special solar rules needed to protect health and safety, even if you assume that some fraction of people aren’t going to follow the exiting waste regulations, and dump them in a ditch or leave them in a field.

There’s been a lot of talk about decommissioning requirements at the state level. It sounds like you’re saying, from a healthy and safety perspective, they aren’t necessary?

Kalland: No. I think it would be hard to argue that from a health and safety standpoint, that there would be any rationale for that. I laughed when I heard comments that solar panels are the “next coal ash.” There are far more toxic issues associated with coal ash than there are with solar panels, so that’s ludicrous.

Decommissioning is something to think about, because especially as these solar farms get larger and larger, it would be a good to have some idea as to what the plan looks like at the end of the system’s life. In many cases, the plan may be to strip off the existing panels and put new panels on, because you’ve done the hard work of all the interconnection and all the site work.

But whether that’s true or not, we recommend as part of the model solar ordinance we put together, and in presentations that we give, that county commissioners ask for a decommissioning plan that lays out roles and responsibilities at end of life. Individual commissions are going to make decisions about that based on local needs and issues, and I wouldn’t dispute their ability to do that one way or the other — unless they were trying to do it based on some concern about health and safety, in which case I would say their concerns are misplaced.

Do you think the concerns your paper addresses are natural – or just the product of a few solar opponents trying to sow doubt?

Cleveland: Their concerns are based on the lack of knowledge of the technology. It’s a fear of the unknown. It’s a power generation source much closer to homes and neighborhoods than most large power plants. There probably is some impact from folks that are encouraging these fears. But I think there’s also a lot of natural fear of the unknown.

Kalland: I think that there has been a magnification effect driven by some that have an interest in seeing [solar] go a different direction, from a political or ideological interest. But in general, it’s a new technology for a lot of folks. Even though it’s something that’s been around since the 1950’s, it’s not something that has been commonly seen until recently in many rural parts of the state, and [answering questions about] it fits the mission of what we do at N.C. State. A land grant university has this role of an engagement player. Our job is to try and bridge the gap. Technology is developed in universities. We see it as part of our role and mission as part of the university to help folks understand technology and better utilize it for the betterment of their lives and the local economy.

One thought on “Q&A: North Carolina researchers confront health fears about solar

  1. And yet same people have no say in hog farms with their massive waste pits and spreading of manure on that stinks for miles and has demonstrated health effects.