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Fossil Fuel Polluters and Friends Ramp Up New Attack on Solar Energy in Pa.

Fossil fuel polluters and their enablers in the legislature have been ramping up a new attack on solar energy in Pennsylvania.

Rep. Chris Dush, one of the most notorious climate deniers in the state  House of Representatives, led this charge in a recent House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee meeting with a speech that was either intentionally dishonest or profoundly ignorant.

He began by claiming that coal is “just compost” and is “natural,” whereas solar panels make use of “man-made chemical compounds” that are toxic.

Right from the start we recognize the “appeal to nature” fallacy. As much as advertising tries to convince us that anything “natural” must be safe, that’s ridiculous. Everyone knows not to go out and randomly pick mushrooms to eat, we call the plant “poison” ivy for a reason, and we rush to the hospital if we are bitten by a venomous snake or spider. It should also be no surprise to anyone that coal is one of the things the EPA specifically recommends not putting on your compost pile.

Rep. Dush may call it “compost,” but coal can contain arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, cyanide, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, and a host of other toxic and radioactive chemicals. When burnt, it releases tons of cancer-causing fine particulates, precursors of ozone smog, the sulfur dioxide that leads to acid rain, and carbon pollution that contributes to climate change. Afterwards, we are left with vast amounts of toxic ash that must be disposed of.  

In addition to the new pollution coal is responsible for every day, Pennsylvania is still struggling to cope with the result of decades of coal use. We have billions of tons of waste coal piles polluting our land and water and, as Rep. Dush even admits, a huge number of streams that were rendered effectively dead because of acid mine drainage. Of all people, our representatives should know the difference between compost and pollution.

Above: More than 45 tons of acid along with thousands of pounds of aluminum and manganese drain from the Jeddo Tunnel into the Little Nescopeck and into the Susquehanna River every day.

Fracked gas may contain fewer toxics and heavy metals as coal, but it’s hardly safe either. We know waste from drilling operations contains toxic and radioactive material, but the scary part is what we don’t know. A 2018 report on the use of trade secret rules to avoid disclosing the chemicals used in the drilling process noted that secret chemicals were used in more than half of the wells drilled.

In 2019, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency issued its recommendation to exempt oil and gas waste from regulation under the Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)—despite explicitly saying that exemption “does not mean that these wastes cannot cause harm to human health.” The rationale for this exemption included the claims that regulation could create “delays for exploration and production operations”, and perhaps more tellingly that “the large waste volumes generated could severely strain capacity at existing Subtitle C facilities.”

How large are these waste volumes? We know data from the PA Department of Environmental Protection indicates that in 2018 alone over 230,000 tons of waste from oil and gas operations was disposed of in Pennsylvania landfills. This included drill cutting, contaminated soil, spent lubricants, and drilling fluid waste along with other chemicals and radioactive materials. Of course, when Rep. Dush testified that he is “not too far from a massive landfill” and he doesn’t want to see “negative environmental impacts” from disposing of solar panels, he made no mention of the existing waste problem from the natural gas industry.

In order to generate 230,000 tons of waste from solar panels we would need to throw away about seven times the number solar panels installed in Pennsylvania today—and repeat that again year after year. In reality panels can have an expected life of more than thirty years, so the actual number that are taken out of service in any one year is tiny. To even get close to the volume of waste created by fracking, we would need several hundred times the amount of solar as we have today and decide, for some reason, to recycle none of the panels when they are retired.

No energy source can ever be perfect, but from an environmental perspective solar is pretty good. More than 90 percent by weight of solar panels is glass, plastic, and aluminum, which is already recyclable and not considered hazardous waste. Everyone agrees that the small amount of other compounds like silver, tin, lead, and other trace compounds need to be either disposed of properly or recycled. Fortunately the rare elements also tend to be commercially valuable so there is a lot of interest and research in developing effective recycling technology.

Even with the appropriate technology in place, recycling can’t be cost-effective unless there is a sufficient stream of material to process. This is one area where the long life span of solar systems creates a challenge. As the market for solar grows, so will the recycling businesses. But, instead of irresponsibly spreading fear and doubt while shilling for fossil fuels, our legislators could work to advance solar generation and, in doing so, welcome this new supporting industry to the state.

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