1.2.4 Non-Panel System Components (racking, wiring, inverter, transformer)

While previous toxicity subsections discussed PV panels, this subsection describes the non-panel components of utility-scale PV systems and investigates any potential public health and safety concerns. The most significant non-panel component of a ground-mounted PV system is the mounting structure of the rows of panels, commonly referred to as “racking”. The vertical post portion of the racking is galvanized steel and the remaining above-ground racking components are either galvanized steel or aluminum, which are both extremely common and benign building materials. The inverters that make the solar generated electricity ready to send to the grid have weather-proof steel enclosures that protect the working components from the elements. The only fluids that they might contain are associated with their cooling systems, which are not unlike the cooling system in a computer. Many inverters today are RoHS compliant.

The electrical transformers (to boost the inverter output voltage to the voltage of the utility connection point) do contain a liquid cooling oil. However, the fluid used for that function is either a non-toxic mineral oil or a biodegradable non-toxic vegetable oil, such as BIOTEMP from ABB. These vegetable transformer oils have the additional advantage of being much less flammable than traditional mineral oils. Significant health hazards are associated with old transformers containing cooling oil with toxic PCBs. Transfers with PCB-containing oil were common before PCBs were outlawed in the U.S. in 1979. PCBs still exist in older transformers in the field across the country.

Other than a few utility research sites, there are no batteries on- or off-site associated with utility-scale solar energy facilities in North Carolina, avoiding any potential health or safety concerns related to battery technologies. However, as battery technologies continue to improve and prices continue to decline we are likely to start seeing some batteries at solar facilities. Lithium ion batteries currently dominate the world utility-scale battery market, which are not very toxic. No non-panel system components were found to pose any health or environmental dangers.