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The "Dark Side" of Solar Coverage in the LA Times

08/03/11

  04:19:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 656 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, SEIA, Residential Solar, Safety

The "Dark Side" of Solar Coverage in the LA Times

We have written before about the PR problems haunting solar power and we received yet another reminder of that ongoing issue in the form of a troubling Los Angeles Times article by Tiffany Hsu titled, “The dark side of solar and wind power projects."  We won’t address the specifics about wind power projects since that is outside of our expertise, but the overall tone of the piece and some specific comments about solar demand a response.

One problem we have are the recurring quotations from industry opponents, such as the quote “One of these days, a turbine’s going to fall on someone,” attributed to the executive director of an industry “watchdog” organization called the Industrial Wind Action Group.  Yet according to the Group’s website:

Industrial Wind Action was formed to counteract the misleading information promulgated by the wind energy industry and various environmental groups. Support for this effort comes from a large and diversified group of environmentalists, energy experts, and ordinary citizens.

None of that “large and diversified group” is identified on the website.

Much of what is mentioned in the article is provided with no citations at all.  Here’s one particularly egregious example: “The complicated wiring under solar panels has left some firefighters so bewildered that they have allowed residential rooftops to burn."  Really?  Where and when did that happen?  Hard to refute scary stories that appear without citation.  Not great journalism, either.

The article continues:

Panel parts can also be flammable or prone to melting, or torn off in storms or cracked by hail, testing experts said.

Prone to melting?  We decommissioned a solar power system that had been in use in Furnace Creek - you know, Death Valley, just the hottest place in the United States - and while their performance had degraded over time, none of them had demonstrated melting.  (The online version of the article includes a video taken at a UL lab where solar panels are put through extremes that would never be seen on a residential roof.  Yet no such qualification is included in the article itself.)

Solar panels are not generally flammable (that is why they are given a Class-C fire rating) and when installed by a competent installer (think NABCEP certified) will not be torn off your roof in a storm.  (Tornadoes excluded!)  And as for being cracked by hail, well the Solar Kid “exploded” that myth months ago:

Then, finally, there is the tragic issue of injuries.  Energy generation is a complicated enterprise and there exists a significant element of danger when you concentrate lots of power in a relatively small space.  Toss in the need to be working at heights - often a component of residential solar installations - and the possibility of injury or even death is always present.  Solar installers who are NABCEP certified have demonstrated their knowledge of the safety rules and best practices that accompany working in this area.  As consumers become better informed about how to differentiate one solar installer from another, the emphasis on such certification will certainly grow, and that will be good for consumers and workers alike.

But sadly missing from this article is any attempt at balance about the safety issues surrounding other energy generation systems.  After all:

  • No solar power system has ever malfunctioned to the point where the residents around the facility for 25 miles had to run for their lives.  (Sorry, nuclear.)
  • No solar power system has ever resulted in its workers being buried alive.  (Oh, my, coal.)
  • A solar power system has nothing to “spill” or “gush” or “spew” into the environment.  (Eeew, oil.)
  • Operating solar power systems do not create toxic, cancer-causing, or greenhouse gas emissions.  (Ouch - there goes all fossil fuels.)

Every industry - including the renewable energy industry - needs to be self critical, to learn from its mistakes and constantly strive to improve its safety performance.  But “dark” stories masquerading as journalism don’t help that process, and readers of the L.A. Times deserve better.

5 comments

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Comment from: Stephanie [Visitor]
5 stars
StephanieThanks, Jim, for an excellent article. Very distressing to hear that an LA Times reporter would make such horrific claims without providing any support or clarification regarding sources. Hope you sent your response to the paper and that they address their inflammatory and unfounded comments (i.e., read “correct” them) in a timely manner. That IS what readers expect from a reputable newspaper!
08/03/11 @ 19:57
Comment from: Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO [Member]  
Thanks, Stephanie - Yes - I posted a comment on the paper’s website and linked back to this post. *Lots* of the comments really took Ms. Hsu to task for this awful excuse for journalism. Alas, I am skeptical that the Times will do anything about this - and it isn’t the first such story from Ms. Hsu. In fact, given her beat at the paper, I cringe every time I see her byline in the Business section.
08/03/11 @ 20:02
Comment from: Christof [Visitor]
ChristofYup, this LA Times story really irked me, and it is very poor journalism. I posted a critique in the comments section below the article, but it didn’t go for some reason. I have in the past, sent direct e-mails to Denver Post reporters telling them I’m using their article as an example for my beginning journalism students of how NOT to do a good news story. Have actually generated some direct e-mail responses from Post reporters and editors by doing so. Maybe I should have done that with Ms. Hsu ;-)
08/04/11 @ 10:12
Comment from: Lisa Linowes [Visitor]
Lisa LinowesI appreciate your refraining from commenting on wind turbine safety given it’s outside your knowledge base. It is an area we spend considerable time on. The fact is, wind turbines are not benign structures. There have been significant, serious tower failures in the last three years alone that need to be acknowledged and appropriate steps taken to protect workers and the public. This article is NOT a hit piece on wind or solar. It’s a reality check. Respectfullly,
08/08/11 @ 08:55
Comment from: Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO [Member]  
Lisa - good of you to take the time to comment. I did not describe the article as a “hit piece” - just shoddy journalism, which it is. My sole comment regarding Ms. Hsu’s quote from you is that she described your organization as a “watchdog” group without bothering to even disclose your own statements about your organization’s purpose and mission. I believe readers should be entitled to know the facts and Ms. Hsu failed to provide them. Best regards… Jim
08/08/11 @ 09:04
Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
In addition, Run on Sun offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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