Energy radiating off solar panels can cause slight temperature changes in a limited area, but posts circulating on social media claim this phenomenon will lead to extreme weather events. This is misleading; scientists say these fluctuations are comparable to those generated in urban areas, and solar farms have not been linked to severe climatic conditions.
“Solar farms will become thunderstorm and tornado incubators and magnets,” says the text of a December 25, 2023 Facebook post.
The post points to Canada’s largest solar energy farms in the province of Alberta, claiming that the renewable source of power radiates the majority of the heat from the sun — raising the temperature and creating extreme weather events such as thunderstorms.
The text of the publication is purportedly copied from “Stephenville resident, George Franklin” who is said to be “a literal rocket scientist.” But AFP found no publications related to solar energy under that name.
Nearly identical blocks of text claiming solar panels cause extreme weather appear to have circulated online and in text chains since at least August 2022, and variations have been published on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and X, formerly known as Twitter.
Research has found that solar farms can cause temperatures to fluctuate locally by a few degrees because energy that is not absorbed to become electricity is radiated by the pane to the surrounding area (archived here).
Additional modeling showed possible impacts on global weather patterns if large-scale solar farms — for example panels across 20 percent of the Sahara Desert (700,000 square miles or 181 million hectares) — were installed (archived here).
Aixue Hu, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the United States, said the temperature changes caused by solar panels at this scale would not be large enough to cause severe weather events such as thunderstorms or tornadoes.
“These impacts should be very small because the area that the solar farm covers, roughly speaking, is pretty small,” Hu said.
Hu also said that the location of the solar panels influences the temperature impacts, pointing to his findings that panels in forested or grassy areas could have a cooling effect.
Urban heat islands
Peter Crank, a geographer and climatologist at the University of Waterloo, said the urban heat island effect is typically seen when the excess energy from a city’s consumption causes temperatures to rise locally by several degrees.
He said this extra energy has some influence on the path a weather system might take and could raise precipitation levels, but they do not impact the occurrence of extreme meteorological events.
“We would not expect to see that happening then from just having a solar field built in the plains of Alberta,” he said.
Crank said Alberta’s climate is dry and sunny, but relatively cooler than other places, meaning the impact would be lower than having a group of solar panels in a desert. He said the impact of solar farms could be greater during a heatwave — as is the case with urban heat islands.
“Certainly, in those hottest days in Alberta one to two degrees Celsius warmer is going to have some uncomfortable impacts,” he said.
Both Hu and Crank said that while no current evidence points to severe weather outcomes from solar farms, the impact of projects remains under study. The researchers agreed that using solar panels as an alternative energy source poses less of a risk of climate change than burning fossil fuels.
Climate change risks
Hu said that the burning of fossil fuels could raise global temperatures to a point humans have never experienced before while the impact of solar farms would be much smaller.
“In general, we use solar panels to generate the energy we need in a much better way than just using fossil fuels,” he said.
Read more of AFP’s reporting on misinformation surrounding the climate here.