There is no significant cause for concern about leaking and leaching of toxic materials from solar site infrastructure. Naturally occurring rain is adequate to generally keep the panels clean enough for good electricity production. If panels do need to be washed, the washing process requires nothing more than soap and water. Additionally, the materials used to build each panel provide negligible risk of toxic exposure to the soil, environment, or people in the community. Details about toxicity for aluminum and zinc are described below, and more information on the potential for human toxicity can be found in the NCSU Health and Safety Impacts of Solar Photovoltaics white paper.
According to its current Stormwater Design Manual, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality allows solar panels associated with ground-mounted solar farms to be considered pervious if configured such that they promote sheet flow of stormwater from the panels and allow natural infiltration of stormwater into the ground beneath the panels. For solar development, an erosion control and sedimentation permit is required, which involves on-site inspections and approval by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. The permit requires establishment of permanent vegetative ground cover sufficient to restrain erosion; according to DEQ staff, the site must be “completely stabilized,” although this does not require a specific percentage of ground cover. In-depth information on erosion control and sedimentation laws, rules, principles, and practices is available at the NC DEQ’s website. Once permanent vegetation is established it will be necessary to maintain soil pH and fertility as mentioned above in order to ensure sufficient, healthy, and continuous ground cover for erosion control.
Soil compaction can negatively impact soil productivity and will occur to some degree on every solar site. Soil compaction can also limit water infiltration into the soil environment, and lead to greater surface water runoff during rain events. In addition to the roads built in and around solar project sites, the construction of the facility itself as well as regular use of lawn mowers compacts the soil, decreasing the ability of plant roots to grow. However, use of land as a solar site will avoid agriculture-related activities that can induce compaction, such as tillage. There are no data available on the degree of compaction common at solar facilities, but it is possible that some sites could experience heavy compaction in frequently used areas. In cases of heavy compaction, hard pans in the soil will form that can take decades to naturally free up; however, tractor implements such as chisels and vibrators designed to break up hard pan can often remove enough compaction to restore productivity. To prevent damage to soil due to compaction, landowners can negotiate for practices that will result in the least amount of compaction and for roads to be constructed on less productive land. Additionally, maintaining healthy groundcover, especially varieties with deep root systems, can serve to keep the soil arable for potential future agricultural use. The appropriate use of alternative vegetative maintenance strategies, such as grazing with sheep, can reduce the use of mowing equipment onsite and therefore the compaction that may result from using this equipment. Furthermore, livestock grazing works to cycle nutrients in the pasture ecosystem onsite and improve the soil.