The Environmental Disaster of Solar Energy

 Written by John Hinderaker    in EnergyEnvironment    on August 15, 2019    Print

Solar energy is terrible for the environment in a number of ways, including the fact that large land areas must be devoted to it. At Forbes, Michael Shellenberger highlights another problem with solar energy: it produces vast quantities of hazardous waste, which are not being adequately dealt with.

The last few years have seen growing concern over what happens to solar panels at the end of their life. Consider the following statements:

* The problem of solar panel disposal “will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment” because it “is a huge amount of waste and they are not easy to recycle.”

* “The reality is that there is a problem now, and it’s only going to get larger, expanding as rapidly as the PV industry expanded 10 years ago.”

* “Contrary to previous assumptions, pollutants such as lead or carcinogenic cadmium can be almost completely washed out of the fragments of solar modules over a period of several months, for example by rainwater.”

All of these statements come from solar industry insiders. Cadmium is a particular toxic waste problem:

The fact that cadmium can be washed out of solar modules by rainwater is increasingly a concern for local environmentalists like the Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake in Virginia, where a 6,350 acre solar farm to partly power Microsoft data centers is being proposed.

“We estimate there are 100,000 pounds of cadmium contained in the 1.8 million panels,” Sean Fogarty of the group told me. “Leaching from broken panels damaged during natural events — hail storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. — and at decommissioning is a big concern.”

This is how OSHA describes cadmium:

Cadmium and its compounds are highly toxic and exposure to this metal is known to cause cancer and targets the body’s cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems.

Disposal of decommissioned solar panels in regular landfills is “not recommended in case modules break and toxic materials leach into the soil.” But where do most decommissioned panels go? Landfills. Recycling is often recommended, but is not practical because “recycling costs more than the economic value of the materials recovered, which is why most solar panels end up in landfills.”

Worse, many decommissioned solar panels which were supposed to be properly disposed of are instead labeled “used” and sold to Middle Eastern countries that have no ability to deal with hazardous materials like cadmium.

Some might ask, don’t all sources of energy involve hazardous wastes? Perhaps, but the volume of waste produced by solar panels and wind turbines vastly exceeds that associated with reliable power sources, as this chart shows:

Solar panels rarely produce electricity–never at night, not much when it is cloudy, and in a Northern climate, not when they are covered with snow and ice. In Minnesota, solar panels produce electricity less than 20 percent of the time. The intractable problem of hazardous waste disposal associated with solar panels is one more reason why they are a terrible investment.

John Hinderaker spent 41 years as a litigator with Faegre & Benson and its successor Faegre Baker Daniels, during which time he tried 100 jury cases and appeared in courts in 19 states. Upon his retirement from the legal profession at the end of 2015, he became President of the Center of the American Experiment. John has had a long association with the Center, including co-authoring several papers published by the Center and serving on the organization’s Board of Directors. John was Chairman of the Center’s board in 1998-2000.

In addition to his legal career, John is a long-time commentator and activist. He founded the web site Power Line in 2002 and has been a prominent voice on the internet and elsewhere since that time. He has appeared as a commentator on NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN and CNBC and is a frequent guest and guest host on national radio programs. John has lectured at Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, Carleton College, St. Olaf College, Macalester College and the University of Minnesota.

Hungry for Change; Solar Panels are not on the Menu

By: Herb Eckerlin

United Nation scientists met in Geneva, Switzerland last week to shed new light on the global warming issue.  They have concluded that human-caused climate change is dramatically degrading the Earth’s land, and the way people are using the land is making global warming worse.

These conditions are creating a vicious cycle that is making food more expensive, scarcer and less nutritious.

The UN scientists believe that humanity must change the way it uses the land to avoid “world hunger.”  Given that reality, why are we covering arable farmland to build solar power plants that cover thousands of acres?

In light of the scientists’ conclusions, can you think of anything more irresponsible? 

Removing farmland from agricultural production is not a gradual process like the effect of global warming on the land, it is instantaneous.

The UN scientists have sent us a warning.  It is: “You had better change your ways before you do any more damage.”  As NASA climate scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig has stated, “The cycle is accelerating.” 

The threat of climate change and the improper use of agricultural land will affect our future food supply and create, in the scientists’ words, a “Hungry Future.”    

We have to find another way to address the Global Warming problem, and preserve our future food supply. Placing solar panels on agricultural land is simply making matters worse …. much worse.  Let us heed the warning of these scientists.  

To avoid a “Hungry Future,” we had better change our ways and stop taking farmland out of agricultural production. 

Dr. Eckerlin has over 60 years’ experience in the energy field, including experience in electric power plant operations (with VEPCO – now Dominion Power), electric utility boiler design, and solar research and design.  In 1987, he founded the NC Solar Center to promote solar energy in all its forms across the United States.  He is now retired and is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at North Carolina State University. 

Any views or opinions represented in this blog are for informational purposes only.  They are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in a professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.  The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information.  Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, or organization, company, or individual.

Shedding light on solar’s true energy potential

By: Herb Eckerlin 

The generation and distribution of electrical energy is a complicated business. Most people don’t give it a lot of thought. For example, if the light switch works, they move on. If it doesn’t, they panic and call the local power company.

…But what if “not working” becomes a regular occurrence, what then? This question may become more common in the future.

Solar power is intermittent and not reliable. Therefore, with a 100% solar system, the light switch will only work some of the time. Is that acceptable? Are our fellow citizens aware of this liability? People have to be informed of this liability.

Where does the electricity come from?

Most of it is generated at plants powered by fossil fuels (like natural gas and coal) and nuclear energy. Smaller amounts of power may come from hydro, solar and wind.

Where it comes from is of little concern to many, the more important question is, “Will the light switch come on?”

Local utility companies like Dominion and Duke Energy have the responsibility to generate the power and deliver it to your switch. We have come to expect it.

But, with intermittent solar power, this is often not the case.

Electrical power is generated in large central stations (also called power plants) rated in Megawatts. A 900 megawatt plant is not uncommon. It has the capability of generating 900 megawatts continuously, all day long (24/7).

The point here is this: Natural gas, coal and nuclear plants are reliable …. They can deliver 900 megawatts at any time of day or night. That cannot be said for a 900 megawatt solar plant. It can only deliver 900 MW for one hour at noon on a sunny day. That’s a huge difference.

Dr. Eckerlin has over 60 years’ experience in the energy field, including experience in electric power plant operations (with VEPCO – now Dominion Power), electric utility boiler design, and solar research and design.  In 1987, he founded the NC Solar Center to promote solar energy in all its forms across the United States.  He is now retired and is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at North Carolina State University. 

Any views or opinions represented in this blog are for informational purposes only.  They are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in a professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.  The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information.  Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, or organization, company, or individual.

Energy is a BIG problem for Data Centers – the real “energy hogs” on the solar farm

This process (the website and blog) has been an eye-opener. I was happy and ignorant until one of these large-scale projects was proposed in my front yard.

I had no idea that Data Centers were such incredible energy hogs. Power consumption by data centers appears to be a never-ending growth industry for electric utilities. In 2017, it was estimated that global Data Centers used about 416 terawatts of electricity (3% of all electric consumption). Back in 2013, U.S. data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, requiring roughly 34 giant (500-megawatt) coal-powered plants. This consumption was expected to increase by over 50% by 2020, equating to over 50 giant 500-megawatt power plants. This would equate to about 156 square miles of solar panels (It takes about 4 acres of solar to produce 1 MW of electricity. There are 640 acres in 1 square mile. 4 acres x 500 MW x 50 plants / 640 acres.) This is the equivalent of almost 7 Manhattan Islands of solar panels just to power Data Centers in the U.S. (Manhattan is 22.82 square miles.)

It seems like it is time to put the Data Center hogs on a diet to curb rural industrial-scale solar projects and resulting habitat destruction.

Questions to ask industrial-scale solar applicants

Industrial-scale solar “permitting” companies need to be asked important questions early in the process.

If you are faced with the appearance of start-up or established solar permitting firms, you may want to ask them and your local officials a lot of questions. They will promise the community a lot. When you look up, they are gone and everything they promised is gone as well (or simply never materializes). Examples of some questions include the following.

If the applicant is a limited liability company – who has ownership interests in the LLC?

  • Is it corporations, individuals, other LLCs?
  • How long has the LLC been in business?

Has the company ever constructed a solar project?

Does the company have sufficient capital to construct and operate an industrial-scale solar project?

Has the company every managed a solar project?

Has the company ever had to decommission a solar plant and return the site to pre-site conditions?

Why does the company always lease and not buy the project land?

In what solar project-related litigation has the company been involved?

If the company plans on selling its permit before construction begins or before it takes on project management, why should the company’s representations be believed if it isn’t going to be the party responsible for following through? For example:

  • assertions that the project will hire locally, as far is practicable (what does this even mean?);
  • assertions regarding maintenance of the property or landscaping to shield views; or
  • assertions re remediation.
  • What ongoing responsibilities will the initial permit holder have?

Exactly what type of solar panels will be installed?

Will the installation be able to withstand hurricane- and/or tornado-force winds?

What insurance of reserves will be maintained for clean-up and reconstruction if destroyed by high winds or fire? (If the project is abandoned prior to its expected life will sufficient site remediation funds be available?)

What will be the impact of site construction on the community?

  • What noise level will be generated by pile driving solar mounts?
  • How many mounts have to be driven in and how long will this take?
  • How many hours a day and how many days a week will construction occur?
  • What sound and dust barriers will be erected?
  • What impact will construction noise, debris, and traffic have on local business, work-at-home residents, or proposed or pending real estate transactions?

How many trucks and trailer loads will be traveling on roads?

Which roads will be impacted?

Will the company repair roads on an as-needed basis to prevent inconvenience to local residents?

Who will monitor project water quality and construction-related conditions?

How will truck and construction traffic impact school children and school buses?

How will the company pay for decommission/remediation?

  • What amount of funds needs to be set aside and when?
  • Will the company provide a durable letter of credit?
  • Any assumptions regarding salvage value of materials in determining remediation costs should be rejected.
  • Who will monitor to insure conditions have been met?

…and questions for the planning commissions and boards of supervisors

How does this project fit in to the town or county’s comprehensive plan?

Has the town set any limits as to the size of any project or projects in total?

What benefits are there for the community? More affordable power? Tax savings?

How many more rural industrial-scale solar projects are planned?

Have planning and board members visited other large-scale solar sites?

How is it green to destroy miles of open land and habitat, releasing carbon trapped in trees and the soil, and paving the landscape with non-oxygen-producing panels?

What potential unintended consequences could the project have?

  • loss of habitat by clear-cutting and paving square miles of land with solar panels (including the loss of Audubon and state-designated IBA land),
  • blocking river access for wildlife by fencing giant tracts of land, decreasing water quality and problem run-off,
  • destruction of culturally sensitive areas, and
  • destruction of town character impacting tourism?

Full disclosure as to who on any approval board or commission has a financial interest in promoting rural industrial-scale solar projects – including family members.