Solar energy is on the rise in Pennsylvania, but solar energy sounds scary to people in Adams County who don't want to see a planned project in their neighborhood.
Todd McCauslin, who leads a group opposed to Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources' Brookview solar project, tried to investigate the impact last year.
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What he found has made him concerned that the 500 acres of solar panels will destroy local ecosystems, increase the ambient temperature, and that heavy metals in the solar panels will leach and contaminate the soil and water.
These concerns don't just apply to McCauslin or Mount Joy Township.
Dan Brockett, an educator at Penn State Extension, has received calls from people around the state alarmed at the idea of living next to fields full of solar panels.
"Some people have even raised health concerns for themselves, for their pets, for their livestock, and for things like that," he said.
More than 200 solar projects planned for Pennsylvania were added to the New Services Queue of the regional power grid in 2020. Analysts say this is due to the low price of solar panels and signals from companies, institutions and governments that the world is switching to clean energy.
Many of the projects are planned for rural areas that traditionally do not have power generation, and now residents have to decide how to handle it.
It also happens outside of Pennsylvania. For someone looking for evidence that solar panels are toxic, the first page of a Google search comes up with multiple stories that seem to corroborate those fears. Mixed with credible articles and government resources are those based on disinformation from self-titled experts and think tanks tied to fossil fuel interests and climate science deniers.
Rachel McDevitt / StateImpact Pennsylvania
Science refutes fears of the sun
The claims have been largely refuted, said Jordan Macknick, the leading energy-water-land analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
"There was a challenge. The results of these studies are not as well known as people's initial fears or concerns," he said.
Although solar panels contain some toxic materials – similar to those found in smartphones and computers – they are sealed, and Macknick said it was almost impossible to get them out.
He cited studies that tried to release the metals by burning, but usually not – one of the most effective ways to separate materials.
"The chemical bonds are not broken by the temperatures that can be reached in a fire," said Macknick.
Macknick and colleagues are studying the environmental impact of solar panels at 25 locations across the country and have found that certain practices can actually improve the soil and water quality around the panels.
Although solar systems can create an island of heat, according to Macknick, the effect is limited to the immediate vicinity of the panels – within 30 meters. With the right flora, a cooler microclimate can result under the panels. This helps support plants that are good for pollinators and other insects that benefit agriculture.
Solar and Agriculture
Some solar projects position themselves as natural partners of traditional agriculture by promoting beekeeping, pollinator gardens and sheep grazing.
However, there is a wide range of solar projects. Some are designed to create co-benefits, such as the pollinator habitat.
"And there are also ways you can develop solar power in ways that might just bring benefits like low-carbon energy, but might come with those negative tradeoffs," said Rebecca Hernandez, professor of ecology and earth system science at the University of California Davis. who studies how solar energy interacts with the environment.
Hernandez said early sun fields in California leveled out bushland and deserts and created gravel plots for the installation of solar panels, essentially trading biologically diverse ecosystems for a barren landscape.
She said it was very unlikely that ecosystems would recover from such activities.
McCauslin and others in Mount Joy Township await a similar fate for the farm fields that surround their homes. NextEra has determined that the design of the project will not be final until after the company receives conditional use permission from the community.
In Pennsylvania, solar developers seem to be primarily drawn to farmland, although Penn State Extension educator Dan Brockett said he heard from some who have suggested clearing some forest areas in the north of the state.
Hernandez said we don't have to compromise the environment and climate when building solar projects in already developed areas.
"There are so many places that have been adversely affected, so many areas of our landscape that have already been altered by humans," she said. "Think how many parking lots there are in the US."
Brockett found that generating energy in any way has an impact.
"I heard someone say a long time ago that we all want cheap, abundant energy. Please just don't produce it anywhere I can see, hear, and smell it," he said. "The trick is to find the right place where everyone will be happy."
Pennsylvania is facing a boom in solar energy. Some communities want to fight it.
This story was produced in collaboration with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF, and WHYY to cover the Commonwealth of Energy.