It’s out there, in more ways than one.
David Dunagan doesn’t want a 760-acre solar power plant to be built across his fenceline. The Old Jackson Power Plant will replace farmland in Van Zandt County with gleaming, metal panels. Though the 127-megawatt plant will provide clean, renewable energy for some of the nearly 7.5 million residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex Dunagan has been organizing local landowners to stop it for the last year.
Generations of landowners have raised cattle or grown crops like hay and sweet potatoes in this slice of rural northeast Texas, and turning those fields into an industrial power plant isn’t an easy pill to swallow. One of Dunagan’s major worries is the environmental impact that the Old Jackson plant could have. “It’s literally in the middle of East Texas tornado alley,” he says. “There is a propensity for these facilities to get torn up, and the materials are scattered everywhere. These panels, there are several heavy metals used in thin layers,” he adds. “It’s been proven that these panels tend to leach over time, into the soil and water.”
Thing is, that hasn’t been proven. That’s because it’s not true. According to Wyatt Metzger, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there’s little truth to the leaching-panel claim. Concerns about what happens if panels are discarded improperly at the end of their 30-year lifespan, are legitimate, however. But the idea that inclement weather could turn a functioning solar farm into a Superfund site littered with lead and cadmium-laced debris has caught on across the country as solar energy developments take off.
It’s a talking point that Dunagan picked up from so-called experts such as Michael Shellenberger, a staunchly pro-nuclear environmentalist who’s called climate activists “alarmists.” It’s been repeated by a national group called Citizens for Responsible Solar, which presents itself as a grassroots coalition, but was formed by a Republican consultant in Virginia. The myth has been pushed by the Foundation for Economic Education and the benign-sounding Institute for Energy Research, both libertarian think tanks that have direct ties to billionaire fossil fuel executives and climate change denialists Charles Koch and David Padden. Koch and Padden fund the Heartland Institute, one of the most infamous climate denial groups.
Disinformation about renewable energy isn’t new. For decades, fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks have painted wind turbines as a bird-killing, unreliable, and property-value damaging source of energy. “We’re starting to see the same forces shift over, focusing on solar farms,” says Dave Anderson, a researcher with the Energy and Policy Institute who tracks fossil-fuel-funded disinformation about renewable energy. At the same time, solar energy is on the cusp of a growth spurt: Texas’ solar capacity is on track to grow by 150 percent this year. A similar upward trajectory is expected next year.
Many of the state’s largest solar plants have been built in West Texas, where land is cheap and sun is plentiful. In many of these counties, landowners were already used to having pumpjacks and wind turbines on their sprawling ranches, so solar wasn’t very different. Now, as the price of solar technology has dropped drastically, it’s more feasible for solar companies to locate their plants closer to energy-consuming cities, says Josh Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. In places like Van Zandt, Bell, or Wharton County, just outside of Sugar Land, developers will save on the cost of electric transmission from far West Texas. But here, residents aren’t as welcoming of the new, industrial developments.
This is going to get worse as the Biden administration makes a big push towards renewables as part of its climate change agenda. Be aware of what the propaganda is and be prepared to push back on it when you see or hear it.