Viral Post Says Solar Power Plants Act as 'Tornado Incubators.' We Looked at the Science

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In August 2023, Snopes began receiving messages from readers about a social media post making an odd claim about solar panels. Over the past year, we have continued to receive messages about the post, which has been shared widely with the exact same language. To massively simplify, the post claimed that large-scale solar farms will become "thunderstorm and tornado incubators and magnets." Snopes could not find substantial or reliable evidence to support this or related claims in the post.

In order to best fact-check it, we have broken the post down into individual claims. First, we briefly investigate the identity of the post's author, before tackling the science of solar panels and tornadoes. Inside the yellow boxes, you can read the original text of the post. Below each section, we analyze the claims and correct misleading information as necessary.

Claim: 'I Am a Retired Aerospace Engineer'

The post begins as follows:

As more & more counties get more solar farms…here's some truth about solar farms.

From a STEPHENVILLE resident, George Franklin:

I should start by telling you what bonafides I have for writing this. I am a retired aerospace engineer. A literal rocket scientist if you will. I worked on MX (Peacekeeper) Space Shuttle, Hubble, Brilliant Pebbles, PACOSS, Space Station, MMU, B2, the Sultan of Brunei's half billion dollar private 747 with crystal showers, gold sinks and 100 dollar a yard coiffed silk carpets. I designed a satphone installation on prince Jeffry's 757. I did all of the design work for the structure of Mark 1V propulsion module currently flying on at least 3 spacecraft that I know of. Some of the more exciting projects I have worked on are not shareable. I am also am FAA certified glider pilot and FAI certified gold glider pilot. I fly both full scale and model sailplanes. I am Microsoft certified and ComTIA A+ certified.

Snopes was unable to find conclusive evidence the "George Franklin" listed as the post's author was a real person. We did find that a man named George C. Franklin worked for NASA at the Johnson Space Center, but many of the projects the author of the post mentions are not ones Franklin worked on at NASA. Additionally, if Franklin has patented anything, Snopes was unable to find it, and nobody in the Federal Aviation Administration's database named George Franklin had the certification claimed in the post. Snopes reached out to the former NASA engineer George C. Franklin for a comment, but he did not respond. Given the lack of evidence, however, Snopes is unable to confirm who wrote the post or whether that person used their real name.

Additionally, none of the qualifications listed suggest the author would be an expert on solar energy.

Claim: 'Solar Panels Are at Best About 20% Efficient'

The post then attempts to explain some of the science behind solar panels: 

SOLAR PANELS are at best about 20% EFFICIENT. They convert almost 0% of the UV light that hits them. None of the visible spectrum and only some of the IR spectrum. At the same time as they are absorbing light they are absorbing heat from the sun.

Some of what the post claims here is true. Solar panels, which scientists call photovoltaic cells, are not efficient at capturing energy from the sun. Average commercial solar panels turn about 20% of the sunlight that hits them into energy, and the world record is about 48%. However, this is still much better than the zero percent turned into energy without solar panels. The author's statistics on different spectra of light (ultraviolet, visible light and infrared) are unimportant; the main point is that solar panels absorb light and, therefore, heat.

As the author claims, solar panels indeed absorb heat from the sun. However, all objects absorb heat from the sun, not just solar panels.

Temperature is a weird form of measurement. Unscientifically, it's how much something wiggles around at a microscopic level. Scientifically, it's related to the average amount of energy (thus the wiggles) found in all the particles in a substance. The more energy the substance has, the higher its temperature.

The sun heats objects by emitting light: Any object that absorbs some of that light (and again, that is literally everything) will get a tiny bit hotter based on how much light it takes in — think of the temperature difference between sitting in the sun versus in the shade. This is also why wearing a white or black shirt can make a big difference in how hot you feel — dark colors absorb more light than bright and light colors.

As part of our research for this story, Snopes reached out to numerous engineers and scientists, both inside and outside the U.S. government, who design and develop photovoltaic cells. We will update this story with any additional information they might provide as we hear back.

Claim: 'Solar Farms Will Become Thunderstorm and Tornado Incubators and Magnets'

The post continues discussing the effects that this absorbed heat could have:

This absorbed HEAT is RADIATED INTO THE adjacent ATMOSPHERE. It should be obvious what happens next. When air is warmed it rises. Even small differences in ordinary land surfaces are capable of creating powerful forces of weather like thunderstorms and tornadoes. These weather phenomena are initiated and reinforced by land features as they are blown downwind. It is all too obvious to me what will happen with the heat generated by an entire solar farm. SOLAR FARMS WILL BECOME THUNDERSTORM and TORNADO INCUBATORS and MAGNETS.

Here, the author uses some science that might seem vaguely intuitive to draw a rather shocking conclusion: As the solar panels take in light (and therefore heat) from the sun, they create a pocket of warmer air in the surrounding atmosphere that will create thunderstorms and tornadoes.

What's going on here is a minefield of somewhat-accurate statements being placed next to one another to form an "overpowering" conclusion.

Yes, heat taken in by the solar panels will be radiated into the adjacent atmosphere … over a longer period of time. Yes, warm air rises, but it takes a lot of warm air before to even make a dent in the surrounding climate. Yes, "small differences in ordinary land surfaces" are capable of creating weather, but there are many different factors that dictate the weather. Yes, weather phenomena are "initiated and reinforced by land features," but they can also be weakened and dismantled by land features.

The "buts" in every sentence here are little holes in the argument that the author conveniently skips over. So is there any actual scientific evidence that would support or refute the claim?

That story starts with the discovery that cities are consistently warmer than the countryside. This effect, which has been known about since the 1800s, is called the urban heat island effect, and many cities across the world have brainstormed and implemented plans, including planting trees and using more reflective materials in construction in order to reduce urban temperatures. The similarities here should become apparent — what the author of the post is proposing is that large-scale solar farms also create heat islands.

The scientific evidence for this is mixed. Certainly, solar panels provide excess heat to the environment, but whether that heat is enough to cause a heat island effect is questionable. Some studies found that there was a significant heat island, while others found that all the extra heat generated was contained to the solar farm and completely dissipated overnight.

This leads to a follow-up question: Do heat islands affect the weather? If so, how much? Again, the answer is quite complicated. There have been some analyses that show heat islands could help create storms, while other analyses show that heat islands actually help disperse them.

However, none of those analyses focused on the type of severe storms that cause tornadoes.

Aaron Hill, an associate professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma who studies ways to improve weather forecasting and prediction, told Snopes via email that tornadoes don't form in the way the post suggests they do.

"Simplifying tornado formation and occurrence to simply the radiation emitted (or reflected) by solar panels is a gross, error-filled representation of severe weather hazards," Hill said.

It takes a specific set of atmospheric conditions in order to make a tornado. Matthew Flournoy, a research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory, explained the two key ingredients via Zoom. The first is atmospheric instability, created when warm, moist air sits underneath cold, dry air. Combine that with vertical wind shear, where the wind's speed and direction changes depending on altitude, and you have a breeding ground for severe thunderstorms that can produce tornadoes.

There are a few problems with the solar panel claim on the weather side of things, then: Hill said a solar farm would not affect any one of the key atmospheric factors that create tornadoes. Furthermore, both Hill and Flournoy said that even a very large solar farm wouldn't be big enough to create severe weather. In the United States, the atmospheric conditions to form tornadoes come from the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico. India's Bhadla Solar Park, one of the largest in the world, is about 22 square miles. The Gulf of Mexico is about 600,000 square miles.

In other words, this isn't a problem we need to worry about.

What's more, the research conducted to figure out whether there really is a heat island effect had several proposals to counteract any potential downsides. The strategies often resembled those implemented by cities hoping to reduce their own heat islands, like deliberate design of roads to break up the heat into smaller chunks, planting greenery under the solar cells and improving solar panel technology to reflect the parts of the light spectra they don't absorb. Meanwhile, research on whether heat islands create storms in the first place has found a lot of other variables are important, too, including skyscrapers that disturb wind patterns and high levels of air pollution that give water in the air something to stick to.

Therefore, the potential heat island effect from solar farms would not be a "tornado magnet," as suggested by the post.

Claim: 'This Is Known as Black-Body Radiation'

The post continues, moving onto a different part of science. 

Solar panels are dark and and they emit energy to the space above them when they are not being radiated. This is known as black-body radiation. Satellites flying in space use this phenomenon to cool internal components. If they didn't do this they would fry themselves. So solar farms not only produce more heat in summer than the original land that they were installed on, but they also produce more cooling in winter, thus exacerbating weather extremes.

Using complex scientific terms with which the public is unfamiliar (in this case, "black-body radiation") is a common tactic among people trying to spread disinformation because anyone attempting to disprove the statements must first ensure that they understand the science before approaching the claim itself. Because we already are supposed to believe the post's author is a scientist, it's natural to assume that they know about complex science that we don't.

Indeed, that's what's going on here: a description of a real scientific phenomenon that has nothing to do with the claim as a whole. Instead of having to do with the color of solar panels, black-body radiation just explains why really hot things glow. In case it wasn't already clear, no, solar farms do not "exacerbate weather extremes" because of black-body radiation. Interestingly, however, there are studies that show solar panels would reduce the urban heat island effect and bring cities back in line with their rural surroundings.

Claim: 'There Is No Such Thing as Green Energy'

With the misuse of fancy scientific language, what conclusion does the "rocket scientist" draw? Green energy is bad:

So I conclude with this. THERE IS NOTHING GREEN ABOUT GREEN ENERGY except the DIRTY MONEY flowing into corrupt pockets.   There is no such thing as green energy. The science doesn't exist. The technology doesn't exist. The engineering doesn't exist. We are being pushed to save the planet with solutions that are worse than the problems.

As the specter of climate change continues to grow, environmental activists have faced increasing pushback against their efforts. Despite a 2021 analysis that found more than 99% consensus on human-caused climate change in scientific papers, many non-scientists remain skeptical. But as the consensus on human-caused climate change has become harder and harder to outright deny, anti-climate change propagandists have changed tactics. Politicians have increasingly critiqued the proposed solutions instead of the problems, and many social media posts attempt to discredit forms of environmental upkeep. This switch-up is called "new climate denial."

When the author says "we are being pushed to save the planet," it implies that anyone who says we need to save the planet is deliberately misleading the public. The part that's left out? The people doing the pushing (again, climate change advocacy is supported by more than 99% of scientific papers on the topic) say we need to save the planet from climate change.

In case it was not already clear, this is an example of one such post. One report from Agence France-Presse discovered the post dated as early as August 2022, but Snopes could not further pinpoint the post's origin.

It's also littered with discrepancies. While there are places where the author says something scientifically accurate, the post's conclusions do not follow neatly from the argument. The installation of large-scale solar farms will certainly have some kind of environmental effect — there is no such thing as a free watt of power. But green energy does exist, with the science, technology and engineering to support it.

Contrary to the post's claim, large-scale solar farms are not going to become "incubators" for tornadoes, thunderstorms and disastrous weather events. Climate change, on the other hand, is already doing just that.


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