Hailstorm exposes vulnerabilities in solar infrastructure: A wake-up call from Texas

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Recent destruction of solar cells at the Fighting Jays Solar Farm in Texas has sparked concerns amongst locals about potential land contamination and drawn attention to reliability gaps in solar power. The solar farm, spanning 3,300 acres, was hit by a severe hailstorm, leaving many of its solar cells shattered. Drone footage of the farm went viral online, showing the extent of the baseball sized hail on the operation.

This event highlighted the vulnerability of large-scale solar installations, especially in regions prone to severe weather. Texas, like every state, needs to prioritize reliability when designing energy grids.

A few years ago, Texans learned another hard lesson about relying too heavily on weather- dependent power. In an analysis of the 2021 Texas electric grid crisis, the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that:

More than $60 billion in capital investment has flowed into wind and solar generation since the outages in 2011, and those generating resources produced less than 1 GW of power at the height of Winter Storm Uri on the night of February 16, 2021.

Since that crisis, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT has been working to set new reliability standards to fill supply gaps and ensure electric transmission. There are federal policies that will require or incentivize grids to shift to high cost and unreliable sources of electricity generation. Among these are the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed power plant rule that will jeopardize many existing power plants’ ability to stay online, as well as the billions in funding for solar and wind projects in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Hailstorms damaging solar farms is hardly a new problem. Last year, a solar farm in Scottsbluff, Nebraska was damaged in June and came back online about six months later. Considering the labor involved in removing, replacing and recycling the panels, this isn’t a bad turnaround. But, if a grid was relying primarily on renewable electric power that didn’t have reliable backup sources, such as nuclear, natural gas or coal, then what would happen?

Texas residents near the panels shared with their local FOX network their concern for the damage. One resident said, “My neighbors have kids and a lot of other residents in the area who are on well water are concerned that the chemicals are now leaking into our water tables.”

To be clear, just because a solar panel is damaged doesn’t mean that it is necessarily leaking dangerous chemicals. Solar panels are made of materials that need to be disposed of in a particular way so that soil and ground water aren’t contaminated. The EPA and state landfills have set procedures for solar panel disposal. The same is true for most electronics, such as televisions and laptop computers.

Still, the immediate concerns of residents are rooted in the reality that grid planners ought to wisely weigh the risks of installing solar and prepare for speedy clean up if a disaster does occur.

Severe weather is a fact of life in many states and isn’t something that we can escape from. It’s simply something that we must prepare for and adjust to. Car dealerships hold sales of hail-damaged cars periodically across the Midwest and it’s not uncommon for home roofs to need repair due to hail damage.

States need to prioritize reliable electricity, not achieving the wind and solar goals of policymakers. Solar may have a place in our energy grid, but it’s a vulnerable resource. That reality ought to be considered when planning for our energy future.