Responding to False Claims About Solar

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School provides the legal profession and the public with up-to-date resources on key topics in climate law and regulation. It works closely with the scientists at Columbia University’s Climate School and with a wide range of governmental, non-governmental and academic organizations. Recognizing that broad public support exists for climate policies, but that “misinformation and coordinated disinformation” can undermine support for renewable energy projects, a team led by Matthew Eisenson at the Sabin Center for Climate Change reviewed a series of false solar power claims in its document, “Rebutting 33 False Claims About Solar, Wind, and Electric Vehicles,” published in April 2024. Among other claims, the report identifies and examines 14 of the most pervasive misconceptions about solar energy.

Here, in summary, are the top responses to false claims about solar power, based on the report's compendium of current research:

  • Lifecycle emissions of solar energy are far lower than those of all fossil fuel sources, including natural gas. On average, it takes only three years after installation for a solar panel to offset emissions from its production and transportation and modern solar panels have a functional lifecycle of 30–35 years.
  • Solar panels do work in cold or cloudy climates. We know, in the Pacific Northwest, that, although cloudy weather may reduce power generation by as much as 45%, substantial energy can still be generated during those conditions and that cold temperatures actually increase solar panel efficiency by increasing voltage.
  • Complete reliance on solar generation does pose intermittency challenges, but wind and other renewable sources, as well as battery storage and long-distance transmission that carries power from sunnier regions can supplement energy supply, ensuring a resilient grid.  Energy storage, which is now included in many new projects and retrofitted in older projects, can provide the majority of the country’s electricity without compromising reliability.
  • Electromagnetic fields from solar farms are not harmful to human health. There is “no conclusive and consistent evidence” of “negative health impact[s] from the EMF [electromagnetic fields] produced in a solar farm.”
  • Toxic heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, do not leach out from solar panels and do not pose a threat to human health.  All materials, including cadmium, in a solar panel are “insoluble and non-volatile at ambient conditions,” and “don’t mix with water or vaporize into air. Interestingly, a study quoted in the report noted that fly ash, a product of coal combustion “commonly disposed of in landfills and as a soil amendment in agriculture,” contains significantly higher concentrations of lead (40x), cadmium (1.1x) and selenium (4x) than the soil samples taken directly underneath the solar panels in the study area.
  • Waste from solar panels to be disposed in future years will not overwhelm our landfills.  Again, quoting a different study, the report noted that “if we do not decarbonize and transition to renewable energy sources, coal ash and oily sludge waste generated by fossil fuel energy would be 300-800 times and 2-5 times larger [in mass], respectively, than PV module waste."  While recognizing that as little as 10% of panels are currently recycled, the report concluded that “[i]t is expected that the research for efficient PV recycling strategies will accelerate as the PV industry grows and as many more organizations and government work towards a sustainable future."
  • Solar projects do not reduce agricultural production and do not hurt farmers and rural communities. If all 10.3 million acres of solar farms estimated to be needed for total U.S. solar development were sited on farmland, they would occupy only 1.15% of the U.S. farmland (as of 2021). However, many of these projects will not be located on farmland.  Compare this to the 90 million acres of agricultural land in the United States that is dedicated to corn, of which 45% is used for ethanol (non-food) production.  Solar energy could provide a significantly more efficient use of the same land. Furthermore, significant progress has been made for solar arrays to co-habit with agriculture and allow, and even enhance, continued agricultural production on site.  Finally, climate change poses a far more severe threat to agricultural production than any loss of land caused by the building of solar power infrastructure. 

The report further shows that reliance on solar will not make the United States dependent on China and other countries, does not destroy US jobs, and we have sufficient mineral resources for large-scale solar development.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

get updates