Introduction

The increasing presence of utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems (sometimes referred to as solar farms) is a rather new development in North Carolina’s landscape. Due to the new and unknown nature of this technology, it is natural for communities near such developments to be concerned about health and safety impacts. Unfortunately, the quick emergence of utility-scale solar has cultivated fertile grounds for myths and half-truths about the health impacts of this technology, which can lead to unnecessary fear and conflict.

Photovoltaic (PV) technologies and solar inverters are not known to pose any significant health dangers to their neighbors. The most important dangers posed are increased highway traffic during the relative short construction period and dangers posed to trespassers of contact with high voltage equipment. This latter risk is mitigated by signage and the security measures that industry uses to deter trespassing. As will be discussed in more detail below, risks of site contamination are much less than for most other industrial uses because PV technologies employ few toxic chemicals and those used are used in very small quantities. Due to the reduction in the pollution from fossil-fuel-fired electric generators, the overall impact of solar development on human health is overwhelmingly positive. This pollution reduction results from a partial replacement of fossil-fuel fired generation by emission-free PV-generated electricity, which reduces harmful sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).AnalysisfromtheNationalRenewableEnergyLaboratoryandtheLawrenceBerkeleyNationalLaboratory,both affiliates of the U.S. Department of Energy, estimates the health-related air quality benefits to the southeast region from solar PV generators to be worth 8.0¢ per kilowatt-hour of solar generation. 1 This is in addition to the value of the electricity and suggests that the air quality benefits of solar are worth more than the electricity itself.

Even though we have only recently seen large-scale installation of PV technologies, the technology and its potential impacts have been studied since the 1950s. A combination of this solar-specific research and general scientific research has led to the scientific community having a good understanding of the science behind potential health and safety impacts of solar energy. This paper utilizes the latest scientific literature and knowledge of solar practices in N.C. to address the health and safety risks associated with solar PV technology. These risks are extremely small, far less than those associated with common activities such as driving a car, and vastly outweighed by health benefits of the generation of clean electricity.

This paper addresses the potential health and safety impacts of solar PV development in North Carolina, organized into the following four categories:

  1. Hazardous Materials
  2. Electromagnetic Fields (EMF)
  3. Electric Shock and Arc Flash
  4. Fire Safety

Summary

The purpose of this paper is to address and alleviate concerns of public health and safety for utility-scale solar PV projects. Concerns of public health and safety were divided and discussed in the four following sections: (1) Toxicity, (2) Electromagnetic Fields, (3) Electric Shock and Arc Flash, and (4) Fire. In each of these sections, 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.

References
  1. ^ Wiser, Ryan, Trieu Mai, Dev Millstein, Jordan Macknick, Alberta Carpenter, Stuart Cohen, Wesley Cole, Bethany Frew, and Garvin A. Heath. 2016. On the Path to SunShot: The Environmental and Public Health Benefits of Achieving High Penetrations of Solar Energy in the United States. Golden, CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Accessed March 2017, www.nrel.gov/docs/fy16osti/65628.pdf
NC State Credit