By Lea Maamari and Melody S. Gee

Melody S. Gee is a business and technical writer in St. Louis, MO.

We in the solar industry receive many questions about solar facility’s components, how Utility-Scale solar will impact the surrounding communities, and what effects solar equipment technology might have on the environment.  

Today, we’re bringing you answers from the latest research on solar technology, installation processes, operations, and more. Bottom line, solar is one of the safest, if not the safest, technologies producing electricity and as a land use results in an inconsequential impact. 

Solar was first deployed by the US over sixty years ago. Research on solar technology is second to none.  

Is solar equipment safe? 

Solar panels are composed of commonly used building materials, such as glass, polymer, aluminum, copper, and semiconductor materials. Panels are constructed to last through all kinds of weather events, including wind, hail and thunderstorms. It takes a substantial amount of force to crack the face of a solar panel. However, if such an event occurred, the materials inside a solar panel are solids and insoluble – meaning they can’t leach out.  Solar panel materials pose no threat to the soil or water table. Virtually all of the material used in a solar panel can be recycled at the end of a panel’s life. 

According to an extensive report by the NC Clean Energy Technology Center at NC State, solar components, including photovoltaic (PV) panels, racking, wiring, transformers, and inverters pose little to no risk to public health or the surrounding environment. Overall, the report found that “the negative health and safety impacts of utility-scale PV development were shown to be negligible, while the public health and safety benefits of installing these facilities are significant and far outweigh any negative impacts.  

Solar panels contain many kinds of materials, including cadmium telluride, copper indium selenide, sulfur hexafluoride, and silicon tetrachloride. All of these materials are fully contained— the manufacturing process embeds these materials into the panels   and these materials are unreactive. Because the materials are solids, they pose no risk of leaching into soil or groundwater. 

Does installing a solar farm harm the land? 

Installing a solar system involves clearing the land, building fences, and often building new roads that the project owner will remove and decompact after the lifespan of the project. Posts are pile driven into the ground, racks are attached to these posts and then panels are bolted to the racks. Larger equipment such as transformers and inverters are installed on concrete pads, typically the only concrete used at the site. 

In all, solar construction results in one of the least invasive and least permanent forms of commercial land use. Solar farms do not permanently alter soils or agricultural potentials and leave the land viable for agricultural and other uses. 

In addition to not causing harm to the environment or neighbors, solar farms bring a number of environmental benefits, including: 

  • Displacing carbon-based sources of energy that cause deaths globally to over 3.6 million people annually, according to a study from the Cardiovascular Research journal.
  • Consuming zero water  
  • Naturalizing surrounding wildlife areas, which results in 
    • Increased pollination 
    • Improved water cycling 
    • Enhanced biodiversity 

What environmental standards must solar farms meet? 

In Virginia, every solar project is granted a permit by the Department of Environmental Quality only after developers have been through a rigorous application process. This includes environmental studies, mitigation if required, and obtaining various environmental permits to ensure that wetlands, wildlife, ground water, air, and historic resources will all be safeguarded. 

How is a solar farm safely maintained? 

Once a solar project is installed and active, ground maintenance in the form of trimming and vegetation is required. In addition, the panels may be washed, but often natural rain is enough to keep them sufficiently clean. Like any equipment, professional repairs and maintenance will be occasionally performed. 

Do solar farms emit heat or radiation? 

Solar panels are designed to absorb sunlight and actually reflect less light than many standard building materials, including metal roofs and wood shingles. 

All electrical and electronic devices create electromagnetic fields or EMF around them when used and also emit electromagnetic radiation or EMR.  This includes solar panels and solar inverters. Solar panels generate very little electromagnetic radiation (EMR) and what is emitted is non-ionizing radiation, meaning this frequency does not have an impact on human cells, unlike ionizing radiation such as X-Rays. Likewise, inverters produce non-ionizing radiation similar to levels found in the electrical wiring in your home.  According to the NC Clean Energy Technology Center, “someone outside of the fenced perimeter of a solar facility is not exposed to significant meaningful EMF from the solar facility.” 

Do solar farms create noise or glare? 

The lowdecibel hum of inverters is the most significant sound generated at solar facilities. And even that has been found to become completely inaudible at 50 to 150 feet away. Utility-scale solar facilities place the inverters back from the fence line, and with the buffer from the fence line to the property lineno audible noise would be heard outside the property line of a solar facility.  And, because solar panels are designed to absorb sunlight, they reflect only about 2% of light that strikes them—less than water or snow. 

How does my locality benefit from a solar farm? 

Solar facilities pay property taxes, which provide local communities with long-term, predictable revenue to support schools and many other county services. Solar farms also pay property owners who lease their land, usually between $400 and $800 per acre annually. In addition, solar farms help lower electricity costs for everyone and create high-paying jobs—nearly 250,000 positions in the US as of 2019. 

If you have questions about the safety and overall benefits of solar in your area, contact SolUnesco for additional resources today.