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There’s no doubt about it. If we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must quickly reduce our carbon footprint by bringing online all available renewable energy resources—and that includes commercial solar production. Over the past year several large-scale solar projects have been proposed for Sullivan County, but rather than being welcomed as healthy alternatives to fossil fuels, two projects, both in the Town of Delaware, have encountered fierce opposition.
One, a proposed two-megawatt installation on Baer Road, triggered concern that the solar array would mar the viewshed within the federally protected Delaware River corridor. To its credit, Delaware River Solar (DRS), the project sponsor, quickly revised its plan to preserve this treasured and economically important resource. A second DRS project, a 1.75 megawatt solar array on Hospital Road, has also been sharply criticized, but in this case the opposition appears to be on much shakier ground. One member of the public asserted that solar panels “leak” toxins into the environment, but there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. Toxic materials, including cadmium and lead, are used in solar panel production, but these elements do not leach into the environment while the panels are in use.
Legitimate safety concerns need to be addressed during the manufacturing process and again when the panels are taken out of service, usually after 20 or 30 years. The Town of Delaware is right to insist that DRS have a responsible decommissioning plan in place before the solar array is constructed. Then there’s claim that “dirty electricity” emissions from the installation will adversely impact nearby residents. The fact is, we live in a sea of electrically induced radiation emitted by everything from cell phones and cell towers to computers and microwave ovens. Scientists have been investigating whether or not electromagnetic radiation impacts human health for decades, but the evidence remains inconclusive.
In 2011, the World Health Organization described microwave radiation as a “possible” carcinogen and said further study is warranted. If it turns out that electromagnetic radiation does impact human health, most scientists agree that the most dangerous devices are liable to be the ones like cell phones that function in very close proximity to our bodies. Moreover, the concept of “dirty electricity” as a health hazard has not been embraced by the broader scientific community.
Last year the National Institutes of Health published a review of literature in the field that concluded “the available evidence for DE [dirty electricity] as an exposure affecting human health at present does not stand up to scientific scrutiny.” As with the Baer Road project, the impact on viewshed (and property values) was brought up in connection with the Hospital Road solar array. But here, the view in question isn’t the Delaware River corridor; it’s the one enjoyed by several individuals who own property in the vicinity. Delaware River Solar has attempted to address concerns by offering to screen the solar panels with trees, but one property owner replied, “I don’t want to look at a row of trees.” Be that as it may, owners have limited control over views that are provided by property owned by others.
Many energy experts view local electric generation as an essential component of a sustainable energy future. It reduces grid load and is more efficient because less energy is wasted in transmission. If built, the Hospital Road installation will occupy around seven acres and produce enough electricity to power about 350 homes—that’s less power than the Town of Delaware itself consumes. Perhaps it’s time to stop seeing solar panels as eyesores and start seeing them as lifelines to a more livable world.
[Bruce Ferguson is a resident of Callicoon Center, NY.]