Solar’s Dirty Secret


In 2017 I moved back home to Livingston County after serving seven years in the United States Marine Corps. A father, a veteran, and a millennial, I spent the last three years of my service stationed in the National Capital Region. My wife and I were ready to move back to the peace, tranquility, and rural beauty of our native Western New York to raise our growing young family.

Our return home has been better than we dreamed. We never realized just how much we missed the beauty of the seasons, the humidity-free summers, the Greenway Trail, Letchworth State Park, and “Sunday Drives” across our beautiful county. Yet the more we’ve re-explored our county, the more we’ve come across troubling changes to our local terroir; windmills on the ridgelines in Wayland, blue-green algae blooms in Conesus and Hemlock lakes making the water unsafe (and sending our son to the ER for two nights with an unknown blood infection), and now, the abhorrent black holes of solar fields built on farmland and frequently adjacent to state parks like Letchworth, the Greenway Trail, and Sonyea State Forest. I have been disgusted to watch local communities consider sacrificing thousands of acres of pristine farmland, wild life habitat, and God’s green earth at the altar of “renewable energy.” Which is worse: the underlying greed that appears to be motivating land owners to install black holes for all their neighbors to enjoy, or that this economic coercion is being deliberately pushed by Albany onto our local farmers who are struggling to survive? Furthermore, the real “winners” of these solar land grabs are out-of-state companies from California, Illinois, Massachusetts, France, and Italy that will buy, sell, and trade the renewable energy credits, cover the land, bring in 3 full time jobs per solar field, and collect millions in revenue. Communities are asleep at the wheel as Town Boards pass legislation to allow these solar fields to be built.

To be clear, local, sustainable, and renewable energy economies are a good thing, but we are deceiving ourselves if we think solar panels will fix our nation’s underlying issue of rampant consumerism. A study conducted by Environmental Progress in 2017 raises serious questions about the claim that solar power is “renewable.” The research found that “Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants. Solar panels contain toxic metals like lead … chromium and cadmium, known carcinogens. All three are known to leach out of existing e-waste dumps into drinking water supplies.” A study published by the German Stuttgart Institute for Photovoltaics concluded that cadmium “can be almost completely washed out…over a period of several months…by rainwaters.” Furthermore the lead scientists added that the issues of disposal for solar panels “will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment.”

The industry standard for solar panel life expectancy is 20-30 years. Considering the current methods of “recycling” are limited, destructive, and/or coercive, we are foisting the burden of disposal onto our children. Option 1 appears to be the good old-fashioned trick of dumping the panels into a landfill, consequences be damned. Option 2 is selling them back to countries in the Middle East to create mega-solar fields out of low performing panels. Option 3, the most insidious, is to illegally resell the solar panels as “second-hand goods” and dump them into e-waste sites in the developing world. Thanks Ghana, Nigeria, Vietnam, India, and Pakistan for taking our trash, but don’t worry about the carcinogens leaking into your local water source, they’re renewable!

I’ve heard the argument that “giving the land a rest” will be good for the farm and the farmer. Perhaps they’ll even be able to reinvent themselves as organic farmers after 25 years of a chemical-free existence. But I think I’ll pass on the cadmium-laced commodity crops that will be harvested and fed into the American Food System 30 years from now. How about the deconstruction of the solar fields in 25-30 years; surely the installation company will take care of that? Since 2016, seven leading solar investment companies have gone bankrupt, leaving the local tax-payers, communities, and municipalities to pick up the mess. Considering the entire solar panel industry is propped up by a few billions of dollars in state government subsidies, tax exemptions, and mandates (read Governor Cuomo’s 2015 NYS Energy Plan, Volume 1 pg. 70 is a good starting point), shouldn’t we think twice about banking our children’s future on the stability and honesty of state and federal politicians?

We must be clear-eyed about the evil side of “good” things.

You may be asking; why does this guy hate solar energy? I don’t, despite the obvious drawbacks with recycling panels and the dishonest claims that solar energy is “renewable.” As Alexander Solzhenitsyn teaches us, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts.” I still believe solar can be a vital resource to future energy independence when it is built and operated in areas of the country uniquely suited for large scale solar projects. The fact is we must be clear-eyed about the evil side of “good” things. We must be willing to apply common sense and ask ourselves; why is the state of New York pushing large scale solar projects in a green region known for its success in agriculture, dairy, wineries, and tourism? In the summer, Letchworth State Park hosts over 700,000 tourists to see the “Grand Canyon of the East,” and the tourism industry contributes over $3 billion into the Finger Lakes economy.

Moreover, for all our summertime beauty we still have an abundance of miserable winters. In fact the “sunniest” cities of Upstate New York leave most of us deficient in Vitamin D. Rochester is in the lead with 165 days of sunlight, followed by Syracuse with 161 days, and Buffalo in last place with 157 days of sun. Take into account that the largest solar projects in the US are located in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts of California, in Boulder City, Nevada, and Yuma County, Arizona which receive 270, 284, 294, and 313 days of sunlight respectively. It should make us wonder, why large scale solar projects in Upstate New York?

This is another rendition of corrupt downstate New York politicians forcing their ideological self-righteousness upon the people of Upstate.

Despite our obvious lack of sunlight, as a region, we’re still planning to install solar fields on farm land, adjacent to state parks, and in the backyards of our local communities. Why? I believe this is another rendition of corrupt downstate New York politicians forcing their ideological self-righteousness upon the people of Upstate, much like Mario Cuomo did to the folks of Allegany County in 1989-1990 over nuclear waste. For now, the governor is dangling a handsome financial carrot to the “red necks” of Upstate New York in exchange for their land development rights and 25 years of complete submission. If we say “no thanks” to the carrot, how long will it be before Governor Cuomo and his accomplices unleash the sticks of eminent domain and/or invoke Article 10 of the New York State Public Service Law to force us into submission? Article 10 “empowers the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment (Siting Board) to issue Certificates of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need certificates authorizing the construction and operation of major electric generating facilities” (emphasis added). Who determines public need? What if we, the people, disagree with our distinguished Governor’s determination that NYS must generate 50% of its energy from renewable sources at the expense of highly productive farmland and the strength, health, and beauty of rural communities? Simply put; if we don’t want black holes in our back yards will the Governor listen?

I suppose we could maintain the status quo and do nothing substantive about these burgeoning fields of chemical-laden panels. Perhaps this is just another rendition of the American Dream, to create insurmountable and long- lasting problems for our children to deal with while we ignore the realities of the present moment. But I hope and pray that the people of Upstate New York haven’t lost their fighting spirit after decades of Albany intimidation, coercion, and corruption.


  1. “Simply put; if we don’t want black holes in our back yards will the Governor listen?”
    I think I know the answer to that. It is the same answer that people here in Montana got, when they said “we don’t want your wolves.”
    If you are arguing that the only real solution here is to moderate our consumption, then I agree. Without that, we’ll always and forever just kick the can down the road to the next generation.

  2. Upstate NY is exhibit A in the destruction caused by one person, one vote. The NY state constitution had always explicitly decreed that NYC would be a minority in the state senate, and that was cast aside completely by US Supreme Court fiat, and now a generation later Upstate is in ruins.
    The powers that be in Albany have decided they’d save Upstate over the years by things like prisons, casinos, development programs that are used as slush funds for the politically connected, etc. After the last election, the last vestiges of political power held outside of NYC have been completely swept aside, so things are going to get even worse. Most communities have seen school sizes drop precipitously, accelerating even, leaving little chance for any revival.
    Newcomers aren’t welcomed, they’re interrogated about why the heck anyone would want to move there. It’s a beautiful land and the people are great, just broken down by the last several decades.
    It’s all such an unnecessary tragedy.

    • Care to explain how a fuel that destroys the land in every stages of its use: production, transportation, and burning?

    • The least problematic solution is one that’s not likely to popular with anyone: going full Amish.
      There doesn’t appear to be any truly responsible way to produce electricity.
      Coal mining, as Karen points out, is an environmental disaster from back to front, not to mention a tremendous danger to human life. I say that as a West Virginia native.
      Hydro dams are an environmental nightmare.
      Nuclear is…well…radioactive.
      Solar is loaded up with toxic chemicals.
      Windmills don’t cause cancer, but who knows what problems we might find there.
      Will any of us be willing trade the ease, comfort and other benefits in order to prevent environmental disaster? Well, I wasn’t planning on going Amish any time soon. Any of you? At very least we can try to reduce energy consumption. But our economic masters are unlikely to be happy about that. There will never be enough technology to turn our vices into virtues.

      • Most of the pollution in the world comes from ten large corporations. Even if all of us go Amish, so long as Amazon, Walmart, and Exxon still exist and work, we’re doomed. Solar and wind have to be part of the solution, especially smaller solar panels.

        As for the landscape, I nominate West Texas as a perfect place for all the wind farms and solar plants possible. It’s one of the ugliest, least useful places on the planet and has a tiny population. What loveliness it might have had has been ruined by a century of overgrazing and oil production. Use that space.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Barrett, for a thoughtful article!
    This is just one more variation on the way our oh-so enlightened urbanized/sub-urbanized masters view us here in Fly-over Country, regardless whether it’s Upstate New York, Middle Tennessee, or Montana! The quick buck, the “greater good” (i.e. the “good” for the corporacrat’s maintenance of his power and profit, as well as the rest of us, who worship at the altar of the gods Convenience, Comfort, and Security), will always, ALWAYS trump our homes and our way of life! “Thou shalt not steal . . . except by majority vote!” (The Ten Commandments 2.0).

    Incidentally, thank you for your service, brother!

  4. Unless, as Nicholas correctly puts it, you are suggesting to go full Amish, then this is just plain NIMBYism. Electricity is not infinitely fungible and transportable, loss occurs all along the way, so most generation needs to be “close” to use. Nuclear is not renewable. It is probably true that solar isn’t very smart in NY, and yes your state is dominated by “other people”, but we must pay the piper for the life(style) we demand. Karen, yes, overlapping solar onto the already devastated west texas oilfields might be okay, but people live there too, there’s still the transmission distance problem, and outside of the actual oilfields many of us value our southwest deserts as much as Adam values his NY farmland.

    • I didn’t mean to suggest that Adam was in engaging in NIMBYism. I was mostly responding to the idea that coal was somehow superior. Being from a State that’s been plagued by the coal industry and knows full well how dirty even “clean” coal is, I was mostly shooting that down. I was also affirming that Adam is right in pointing out that there are not easy alternatives. Adam points out that, as usual, our political class seem to have seized on a “solution” without considering the long term. Much like “going paperless”, trading cutting trees for toxic (and explosive) lithium ion battery-powered laptops, solar panels seem to be an option that reduces consumption of one resource while replacing it something that will likely be poisoning soil and water sources in the not-so distant future. If not here, then in some other country we dump our excessive garbage on. We can’t just kick the can further down the road forever. If our supposedly sustainable alternatives prove not to be sustainable, the only solution is a drastic reduction in energy use. I was being self-effacing in pointing out my unwillingness to stop participating in the mess. I fully support anyone who wants to go primitive. More power to them. I wish I had the guts to do it. Karen is right though. Even if we all did it, the megacorps are belching up most of the Earth-destroying crap. Switching off the lights when you leave the room will save you some money on your power bill, but it won’t stop an environmental catastrophe.

  5. Natural gas is a pretty clean way to produce energy. Not every deposit is suitable for fracking, but the rest of the process is better than this, and more reliable.

  6. Well thought out and presented though I would have left out the presumption of greed on the part of landowners who may genially not have known about the ‘dark side’ of solar. Rrom Pope Francis’ Laudato Si: […] Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems {environmental damage and decisions on ‘solutions’}, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others. […]. Convenience for the living and disposable lifestyles along with the lack of developing critical thinking skills has gone a long way towards enabling some of this ‘thoughtlessness’. the ‘quick fixes’ of ‘electrification’ from ‘renewables’ leads to too many air quotes in writing and too little true discourse in resolving things. Convenience for the living leads to ‘quick’ fixes like abortion and electric vehicles and the whole ‘renewable’ energy and anthropogenic global climate change argument – people need to question especially when someone says it’s ‘settled’ science – thank goodness thousands of years of man on earth did not fall for science as ever really being settled about many things. We need to keep asking and digging into the heart of things instead of forcing our will on others.

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