Facts, not fiction, needed in solar energy debates

By: By Brian O’Hara - Guest columnist

A recent opinion piece (“Solar farming: Changing the future of farming,” Dec. 8, 2015) about solar projects in North Carolina is an unfortunate example of how misinformation and emotion can cloud the facts in an important discussion.

The article’s author, Dr. Ron Heiniger, has an impressive pedigree in soils and crop science. However the opinions expressed reveal a fundamental lack of understanding about solar energy and its relationship to agriculture.

There are too many incorrect or misleading claims in Dr. Heiniger’s opinion piece to address them all in this response, but here are just a few.

Claim: Because of solar farms, a whole series of cascading events will happen that causes grain prices to go up, livestock to be moved out of state, and then grain prices to fall (but apparently not livestock moving back).

Facts: North Carolina is the fourth largest solar market in the U.S. Despite that large market size, solar farms represent 0.036 percent or less than one twentieth of one percent of farmland in NC as of June 2015. The solar industry would have to grow to over 27 times its current size to represent just 1% of farmland. Weather and general economic factors are likely to affect the agriculture industry much more than solar could. In fact, guaranteed lease revenue from solar farms can actually improve financial stability for landowners and farmers, making it easier to ride through tough times.

Claim: “It is highly unlikely this land will ever be farmed again.”

Facts: There is no evidence for this extreme statement. In fact, one of the reasons landowners and family farmers have been so receptive to solar farms is precisely because they can easily be returned to farmland if the landowner chooses. Compared to uses like housing or strip malls, solar farms actually preserve the ability to return the land to farming in the future.

Claim: Landowners could be “stuck with the cost of decommissioning.”

Facts: Standard industry practice is that the solar project owner, not the land owner/lessor, is responsible for all decommissioning costs and for returning the land to its original state at the end of the lease.

Claim: “Because solar panels only capture 20% of the light…the rest of that solar energy will pass through to the ground.”

Facts: While a claim like this may be true in the field of crop science, this statement reveals a lack of understanding about solar power. Solar panels convert about 20% of the sun’s energy to electricity, but no light passes through a solar panel to the ground.

Claim: …and “as a result grasses, broadleaf weeds, and eventually woody shrubs will grow.”

Facts: Solar sites are planted with native grasses and 5-10% white clover for pollinators. Sites are maintained to prevent weeds or woody shrubs from growing and shading the solar panels. Buffers and fence lines are often planted with native plants and a wildflower mix that is friendly to pollinators, which helps provide much needed habitat and food source to support bee populations. These have a positive impact on surrounding agricultural activities.

Claim: “High rates of herbicides, frequent mowing, and the use of mulches, rock, or plastic will all have negative impacts on the land.”

Facts: Fewer chemicals are applied to a solar farm site than in a traditional farming operation. Compared to food production farming, solar farms use both lower rates of herbicides and less harsh herbicides. Also, solar farms only use pesticides on extremely rare occasions (a tick infestation, for example) whereas food production farming can apply pesticides numerous times throughout the year.

To control weeds and prevent erosion, solar farms are typically planted with native grasses and maintenance is done with mowing or livestock grazing, mostly sheep. Solar sites are not covered in rock, mulch, or plastic.

Claim: There is risk from “particles of damaged panels left in the soil resulting in contamination from heavy metals and rare earth elements used in solar panels.”

Facts: Any damaged panels and debris are removed from the site. In the unlikely event that any debris is accidentally left behind, it would most likely be small bits of glass that cover the panels. Solar panel recycling is more economically attractive than landfill disposal, and panel recycling is available today.

Claim: Solar panels “are not accepted for recycling by any plant in the United States” and “they will be either abandoned at the site or you (as the land owner) will be forced to pay for them to be shipped to third world countries for recycling.”

Facts: Like other claims, this is just plain wrong. For example, when Strata Solar has broken panels, they are either sent back to the manufacturer for recycling (in the U.S.) or sold to a local recycler based in Chapel Hill, NC. There are numerous other recyclers available in the U.S. There is enough value in panel materials that recyclers are willing to pay for the panels, even with today’s relatively low volume. There is also considerable salvage value in the metal racking that holds the panels.

Claim: Solar only works because it is paid for power at “generous rates.”

Facts: Solar farms in NC are paid “avoided cost” for electricity, which is the cost the utility would have paid to generate that electricity itself. That means there is very little impact on electricity bills. In contrast, the construction of new fossil fuels plants has increased electricity rates in NC about 30 times more than all renewable energy has over the same time period. And renewables like wind and solar have no fuel cost, so they help hedge against rising fuel prices in the future. Bottom line, solar is a good economic deal for ratepayers.

Claim: Solar farms have no batteries and are therefore not “green.”

Facts: This claim also reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of how our electricity grid works. Independent studies by grid operators have confirmed that increasing the amount of renewable energy on the grid clearly decreases overall emissions.

Overall, Dr. Heiniger’s opinion piece attempts to present an emotionally charged case against solar energy and concludes with the all caps statement “NO, THIS IS NOT A GOOD USE OF OUR LAND!” without providing any defensible evidence to support this conclusion.

In fact, the many landowners and family farmers who have solar farms on their property would likely disagree with Dr. Heiniger since hosting solar farms supplements their income and allows farmland to remain in the family. This is also a private property rights issue for each landowner or family to decide – not the government or other outsiders.

County governments that fund schools, roads, fire stations, and police might also disagree since they are seeing significant new tax revenues resulting from these new solar projects – without the burden to provide new government services.

And lastly, the thousands of solar construction workers supporting their families probably also disagree with his claims.

Dr. Heiniger may be a respected expert in crop science, and he clearly has a strong opinion about solar power, but personal opinions are not facts.

Brian O’Hara is senior vice president of strategy at Strata Solar, which is based in Chatham County. Strata Solar has built approximately 100 solar projects across North Carolina, including five in Sampson and Duplin counties.

By Brian O’Hara

Guest columnist

Brian O’Hara is senior vice president of strategy at Strata Solar, which is based in Chatham County. Strata Solar has built approximately 100 solar projects across North Carolina, including five in Sampson and Duplin counties.