As the state pushes toward its solar goals, what environmental questions must be examined?
by Logan Solomon, for Community News Service
Connecticut’s second biggest natural gas energy generator looms over Ian McDonald’s town, Killingly, where his two children belong to a school district with facilities just two miles from a plant that pumps nitrogen dioxide into the air.
For every 200 people in Killingly, almost 30 live below the poverty line. It’s in a county that, in a 2012 report, had the state’s highest prevalence of asthma, an ailment aggravated by breathing in high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, federal officials say.
Killingly is a poster child for the type of situation Vermont leaders say they can alleviate by amping up the state’s solar energy output. Tens of thousands of solar panels over the last six years have been dispensed across Vermont’s roofs and yards, and “every single time a Vermonter puts up a solar panel, at some point, somewhere else in New England, less natural gas will be burned,” said Peter Sterling, executive director of the trade association Renewable Energy Vermont, typically in communities people of color and lower income families call home.
McDonald lauded Vermont’s energy expansion as “really, really critical” for his town — and the globe. From January 2017 to the start of this February, Vermont issued more than 16,000 solar permits, largely residential, that combined brought over 292,500 kilowatts of energy to the grid, state data shows. The permits were for net metering, a billing arrangement where utility bills are offset by solar generation.
But the statewide six-year effort would offload just 5% of the yearly energy production from the plant in McDonald’s town through residential panels, according to an analysis using information from the U.S. Department of Energy’s renewable energy laboratory.
Vermont falls below all but two states in yearly absorbable sunlight for generating energy, according to that federal lab, and residential panels here produce 85% less energy a year than they’re capable of.
Utility-scale projects — those at 1,000 kilowatts or greater — would likely do little to improve the issue if trends hold. Only two have been approved during the Scott administration, in 2019 and in 2021. And even if the nearly 40 utility-scale project proposals on the Public Utility Commission’s docket were approved and built, they would only be able to produce enough electricity to offload 3.5% of the natural gas being burned in McDonald’s town yearly, according to an analysis using federal data. The data comes from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which annually releases reports showing current and projected costs and performance metrics for energy technologies. The data allows analysts, industry players and anyone curious to estimate how much energy can be produced in a specific location. The numbers reported in this story represent a yearly average over 20 years.
And solar still brings fears from communities that panels could impact land and waterbodies across the state — more than 9% of the 16,000-plus permits since 2017 were for projects that would go on lands that contribute to water supplies, according to an analysis of state data.
Those facts muddy the already controversial picture around solar in a state known both for its environmental trend-setting and its inclination for NIMBYism. As officials, activists and developers look to continue the state’s solar spree, new questions have emerged about who controls the playing field, what environmental costs panel-users must consider and how Vermont can move forward in a way that protects the health of people and the planet.
The future of electricity policy
In 2015, Vermont enacted its Renewable Energy Standard, which required that 75% of the state’s energy be from renewable sources by 2032, 10% of which must be generated in state.
The state is progressing toward that goal on several scales. The average net-metering permit issued over the past six years was for a rooftop array on a large house, about 18 kilowatts energy capacity. And since 2019, Energy Action Network, a research and analysis nonprofit, has said the state’s electricity sector has met or is on track to meet all Vermont’s targets.
Industry and pro-solar activists want to raise the standard through H.320, which would require 100% renewable energy by 2030, of which 30% must be generated in state by 2035.
But the bill hasn’t moved since Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, introduced it to the House Committee on Environment and Energy in February, with legislative energy going instead toward climate policy in the heating sector.
Still, the bill has been supported by several environmental activist groups, including 350 Vermont, which delivered more than 1,700 signed postcards calling for the legislation among other asks, according to lead organizer Vanessa Rule.
Rule knows McDonald in Connecticut, and she said communities like his and those of Indigenous people in Canada are “bearing the burden of our electricity use.”
One of the biggest roadblocks pro-solar activists see for in-state solar growth is Vermont law’s prioritization of aesthetics. To meet the legal standard, a project must pass a four-question test to determine if a project will have “adverse” and “undue” impacts on surrounding scenery. Some projects have been denied solely for failing the test.
But an H.320 provision, activists hope, could change the tide.
“The (change in the) aesthetic criteria would allow us to build more new renewable energy,” said Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, or VPIRG. “This is what the climate crisis demands, and that’s why we support it.”
The legislation would make it so that prior to Vermont’s scenic impact test, those opposing a proposed project would have to demonstrate “that the facility would be located on or affect a specific parcel” that is listed as a “scenic resource” in town or regional plan.
To Annette Smith, the amendment is “a very bad idea.” Founder of Vermonters for a Clean Environment and a vocal and frequent opponent of certain solar projects, Smith said the changes would “limit public participation” or even eliminate the criteria altogether — something Sterling disputed.
Smith criticized the provision as a reaction by Renewable Energy Vermont to projects in Bennington that were denied on reasons including aesthetics — decisions reaffirmed by the Vermont Supreme Court.
“I’m appalled that Renewable Energy Vermont is attacking that aspect of the public process just because the Public Utility Commission denied one project,” she said. “Shame on them.”
Supporters of the bill are reacting to a string of projects they think have been derailed by a bad law, Sterling said. In his mind, all the amendment would do is treat a solar project like any other commercial development in Vermont.
“All we are asking for is fairness,” he said.
Solar concerns go beyond aesthetics
Smith said communities she has met over the years have opposed a proposed solar development for reasons besides aesthetics: when it involves logging, could impact wildlife, is on prime agricultural soils or has profiteers who don’t benefit the community.
The largest energy-generating solar farm in Vermont is the same size as a planned project opposed by Jesse McDougall and the 160-person-plus group Stop Shaftsbury Solar. The project would put 87 football fields worth of solar panels across a hilltop next to his farm — and the opposition to it captures many of the chief complaints and fears about solar development.
McDougall said he has had poor experiences with solar developers, describing his time growing up next to an out of state company–owned solar farm in a small New Hampshire town.
“They were not good neighbors. They were dismissive and condescending and disrespectful,” he said, adding that he worries the same could happen in Vermont.
The firm in Shaftsbury is owned by an out-of-state company, a member of Renewable Energy Vermont, which counts among its ranks 17 other out-of-state companies involved in the solar industry, directory information shows.
Much of Vermont’s residential solar expansion over the last six years has been orchestrated by just two companies. Of the more than 16,000 projects issued net-metering permits, there is about a 50% chance that the installer was SunCommon or Sunrun Installers, also members of Sterling’s group.
McDougall thinks solar panels are a good tool to address climate change, but he said Montpelier’s efforts have been executed “haphazardly.” He wants to limit solar developments to 5,000-kilowatt capacity and wants panels put on developed land, like parking lots and roofs, not green spaces.
“So in terms of the climate fight,” McDougall said about the project next to his farm, “we don’t believe that cutting 30 acres of forest and degrading 85 acres of healthy fields, and destroying all those natural ecosystems, in order to roll out solar panels is the right approach.”
He also thinks big solar projects, including the proposed one in Shaftsbury, could be “damaging” to Vermont tourism as “people come here to spend time in a special place,” and it would make Vermont “like every other place.”
He has a business stake in that presumption: McDougall runs a short-term rental operation that doubles as a farm, which he said restores the lands through sheep grazing and draws visitors with its sweeping views.
Andrew McCarther, president of Trout Unlimited’s southwest Vermont chapter, wrote a February letter of concern about the project on behalf of the 265-person group. They fear the solar farm might impact trout and other small creatures in Paran Creek, a healthy creek and a known breeding ground at the bottom of the proposed development, one that is fragile, McCarther said.
The letter lists concerns like increased air temperatures and reduced biodiversity from deforestation, construction machinery compacting soil allowing for more runoff and runoff with increased water temperatures that flow into a normally cold creek.
When water temperature rises, it is harder for trout to get oxygen, making them lethargic and interfering with their breeding.
McCarther’s group does not have a position on solar panels on the whole, but he said it opposes developments that inhibit the organization’s mission to conserve, protect and restore trout and salmon fisheries and their watersheds.
Leaching: A source of exposure or only a source of concern?
Some have raised concerns that metals and chemicals in solar panels could deteriorate and seep into soil and water. But that scenario is unproven.
Really there are two separate concerns: heavy metal leaching and PFAS leaching. Exposure to those latter chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, can lead to reproductive effects and cancers, hormone interference and reduced ability to fight infections.
Leaching is “a topic that comes up in almost every case” Smith works on, she said.
Smith said she has worked with communities to oppose projects on areas the government determines “contributes to water supply.”
Of the six-odd years of largely residential solar permits analyzed, 1,575 certificates — a little less than 10% — are on those lands. Other types of permits do not have an address listed, so Vermont’s bigger projects could not be compiled.
Smith said she has asked the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources three times to test soil around panels to see if PFAS leaching is occurring.
The agency isn’t doing that kind of testing, said spokesperson Stephanie Brackin, but officials did look into it.
“Approximately a year ago, we conducted both a review of literature surrounding contaminants in solar panels and a data review of landfills that installed solar panels,” Brackin said in an email. “This is an emerging issue, but there were not observed groundwater impacts where solar panels were used, and we would not expect any runoff from a solar panel to exceed our soil standard. We will continue to monitor literature to determine whether additional work is required.”
Smith is still unsure, and she’s not alone in her concerns. Three federal officials — one, two and three — and a Connecticut senior drinking water health official have all expressed concerns about PFAS leaching from solar panels in recent years.
“You place this kind of technology in a public drinking water supply area, that is a concern for us,” said Lori Mathieu, environmental and public health chief for the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s drinking water branch, in a November 2020 meeting. “Thousands (of PFAS) are out there that are new, that are not tested and could leach into our water supplies.”
Officials in New Hampshire, according to a 2018 state presentation, tested soil around three solar sites and found no PFAS, but they did not test if the panels had PFAS or list what compounds were tested. More than 9,000 PFAS compounds exist.
Michigan State University professor Annick Anctil has had research supported by the U.S. Department of Energy on whether PFAS is in solar panels.
“All current models that are being manufactured, we don’t necessarily know what they’re using,” she said. “But the most common materials used in manufacturing don’t contain PFAS.”
Still, she isn’t willing to rule out the possibility.
A 2018 article in the North State Journal newspaper in North Carolina quoted a federal scientist, Mark Strynar, citing 39 scientific records documenting PFAS in solar panels. “It appears PFAS are included in solar production and thus have the capacity to be sources of PFAS,” he said, according to the newspaper.
A 2021 report by the Green Science Policy Institute, a “team of science and policy experts,” cites 11 studies that document 14 types of PFAS in solar panels. The studies also show that there is a type of PFAS in every piece engulfing a panel’s solar cell. The report found no documentation that the chemicals have ever leached into groundwater.
Anctil said most studies, including that report, look at panels constructed in a non-commercial setting using atypical materials or commercial panels made before 2012.
Sterling, the Vermont industry rep, said PFAS “very well could be (in) solar panels,” but PFAS leaching is “highly unlikely” and would “take an exceptional occurrence, (but) not (that) it would never, ever, happen.”
Smith is unsure. She owns solar panels bought in 1989 and 2008 and said she has watched the older panels experience “infiltration” and “degradation.”
Smith is frustrated “that we don’t have better answers” over whether the chemicals are leaching into the soil.
There could be more clarity coming. According to a December 2022 federal regulation, domestic solar manufacturers must list in the federal toxic substance inventory whether they are using PFAS in solar panels.
Edgerly Walsh of VPIRG would not comment on the leaching concern as he “did not have the information in front of him,” while Rule of 350 Vermont said she did not know much about the issue. Rule added that understanding any energy source’s impacts are “critical.”
McDougall, from the Shaftsbury opposition group, said that “some of the neighbors here are very concerned about it, and I don’t know enough to be very concerned, but I am cautiously concerned.”
Metals are certainly used in solar panels, and specific ones can have environmental and health impacts. Although, Anctil said, solar panels are less toxic than a phone battery.
An International Energy Agency study of PV solar panels, which comprise 95% of the solar market, says there is “low risk for the prioritized chemicals” of lead and cadmium on human and environmental health but did say findings are not representative of an additional six “environmentally sensitive” compounds.
Anctil says studies do show metals from panels can leach out as they break down, making them more of a potential environmental hazard in landfills but not in the course of normal operation. Studies also show panels leaching when they are smashed and left outside for an extended period of time.
But, the professor said, “I don’t know why someone would have a non-working solar panel broken in a million pieces and not clean it up or replace it.”
Sterling said panel breaks are “not a very common occurrence” and said that “solar developers take enormous care to make sure there aren’t trees nearby.”
McDougall remains worried about panel damage. In the case of the project next to his hilltop farm, he said 100 mph winds are not uncommon and expects the “panels will break in just a matter of time.”
Studies typically assume that panels very rarely break. But this study, which was described in a comprehensive literature review by the federal energy laboratory, said that “80% of decommissioned PV modules (studied) are younger than 4 years from the date of manufacture,” the literature review says.
Sterling said that if a panel did break, it would be quickly cleaned up as every panel is “monitored literally hourly” by a computer system.
If panels withstand the weather, how long do they last? Sterling said between 20 and 25 years. The federal lab says 30. And Smith’s 1989 panels are still kicking after 34 years of running her off-grid life.
Solar waste — what happens now? In the future?
Officials and others predict that in 10 years, “most residential systems will be replaced for more efficient panels, so (we will) all want to be prepared to handle those (older panels),” said Brackin, the natural resources agency spokesperson.
The landfill might be an option. Or it might not.
“Businesses who have solar panel waste are considered regulated and must determine whether or not the panels are hazardous,” Brackin said, adding that state or local waste entities can help and that Good Point Recycling in Middlebury is willing to take decommissioned panels.
The federal government says the most common reason a scrapped panel can be considered hazardous waste is if a toxicity test determines its materials can leach into landfills. But the Agency of Natural Resources doesn’t do that kind of testing.
Sterling says solar waste is “not a problem for Vermont’s landfills” because “worst case scenario, broken panels can go into climate-controlled warehouses.” He added that those panels would not degrade for years.
“Kind of” refers to the technical and economic challenges of solar recycling.
In a study she wrote, Anctil describes that entire panels could end up in landfills due to a lack of value in materials retrieved from recycling them — and the high cost and difficulty in doing it. She thinks recycling likely needs to be required to ensure this does not happen.
Vermont is considering two paths to achieving a robust solar recycling program: an effort between industry and the state to work toward a universal program and a bill putting recycling responsibility on solar installers. Smith said no one wants the cost of recycling, which is why she calls the situation a “real hot-potato.”
The first option is an explorative initiative by the Agency of Natural Resources alongside Renewable Energy Vermont. The parties are looking at options for reuse or recycling, such as shared warehouses between installers for scrap panels. But officials have no start date or specific recycling goals.
Rep. James Harrison, R-Rutland, offers a different approach, H.47, which would require every permit issued by the Public Utility Commission to include a plan to recycle panels when decommissioned.
The bill would also task the commission with setting guidelines for recycling programs. Harrison said he drafted the bill after a constituent asked him what they should do about solar waste.
But the measure has sat idle in committee.
Sterling’s group is proactive in dealing with solar waste, he said, but in his mind it’s a small problem compared to fossil fuels.
“What are we going to do in 20 years when we need to recycle a solar panel versus the problem (of climate change)?” he asked. “Let’s be honest: What we’re doing now is killing our planet.”