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Risks of Hail Damage and Toxicity in Solar Facilities


A recent hailstorm in Texas has caused significant damage to the Fighting Jays solar facility, one of the largest solar power plants in the U.S. with a capacity of 350 MW. Concerns quickly emerged about the potential environmental impact, specifically regarding the leakage of toxic chemicals into the local water table. These fears were voiced by local residents, including one who expressed his worries to KRIV-TV, highlighting the risk to families in the area who rely on well water.


However, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has addressed these concerns, clarifying the situation through a report. SEIA has confirmed that the damaged panels at the Fighting Jays solar farm do not contain cadmium telluride, a toxic compound that was feared to have been used. Instead, the facility utilizes crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells, which are free from this hazardous material. This clarification from SEIA aims to alleviate public concern by dispelling the rumors about potential environmental hazards stemming from the storm's damage.


In the United States, most solar panels are made from silicon, a material commonly found in sand and quartz and used in products ranging from glassware to computer equipment. Despite concerns about potential toxicity, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) assures that the risk of hazardous substances leaking from solar panels is virtually non-existent.


SEIA detailed the construction of the panels at the Fighting Jays facility, noting that they are encapsulated between two layers of durable transparent plastic and tempered glass, with an additional protective backing and a sealed aluminum frame. This robust design ensures that even if the panels are damaged, as in the recent Texas hailstorm, the release of any substances would be extremely slow, potentially taking decades.


Furthermore, SEIA has established a network capable of recycling up to 10 million solar panels annually, offering an environmentally responsible option for damaged units. Repair and repowering are also viable options for some facilities, enhancing their resilience and sustainability.


However, hail remains a significant challenge for the solar industry, particularly in parts of Texas. According to VDE, a hail-risk expert, over the past five years, hail has accounted for more than 50% of all insured losses in solar projects. Although such events are rare, when they occur, they can cause extensive damage, with losses in Texas surpassing $300 million in 2022 alone. This underscores the need for ongoing risk assessment and mitigation strategies within the solar sector.


The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) emphasizes that while solar panels are vulnerable to natural disasters, they are not uniquely so; traditional energy sources also face similar challenges. For instance, natural gas stations and coal piles can freeze, power plants may flood, and nuclear facilities often shut down during severe storms.


Despite recent damage at the Fighting Jays solar facility in Texas caused by a severe hailstorm, the site continues to operate at partial capacity. This resilience contrasts sharply with incidents like the 2021 Winter Storm Uri, which led to widespread power outages primarily due to frozen natural gas facilities. These outages had profound economic impacts, costing an estimated $130 billion.


The incident at Fighting Jays highlights the growing issue of hail damage in the solar industry, a risk that is gaining attention. To address this, a recent webinar hosted by pv magazine with hail-risk expert VDE discussed strategies to mitigate hail damage. These include selecting appropriate solar panels, employing software-controlled mechanisms to tilt panels away from direct hail impacts, and other innovative protective measures. The discussion also covered the broader implications of solar panel toxicity, particularly concerning those containing cadmium telluride, ensuring a comprehensive approach to both environmental safety and reliability in the face of natural challenges.


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