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Misinformation surrounds solar farm debate in Linn County

Published: Dec. 29, 2021 at 9:00 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - People are using and pushing misinformation while debating solar farms in Linn County with elected officials, according to emails our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team received through an open records request.

The emails to Linn County Supervisors show some people pushing outright false claims like a solar farm decreasing enrollment at local school districts. Most emails push extremely misleading claims like solar panels reflect sunlight back up into the atmosphere affecting the ozone layer or solar farms will increase the local air temperatures.

Both claims are extremely misleading, according to California Institute of Technology professor Nathan Lewis. Lewis said in an email solar panels affect the ozone layer and local air temperatures similar to roads, roofs or parking lots.

“The claims are all making mountains out of molehills,” he wrote. “The effects being described are small to minimal at most.”

Ben Rodgers (D), who is a Linn County Supervisor, said he gets emails about solar farms nonstop. He said misinformation has made it more difficult to talk about local issues, but he said he has become used to people using misinformation since the pandemic began.

“One of the catchphrases is I’ve done my own research, or I’m doing research,” Rodgers said. “So you can find anything to justify your point of view.”

The search for information about solar farms can feel overwhelming online. When you search “What is a solar farm” on Google, it returns 421 Million results in less than a second. Each link contains different and sometimes conflicting information on solar panels, solar farms, and solar energy.

One of those links could come from The Center of the American Experiment, which is a think-tank in Minnesota. One claim our i9 Investigative Team found in multiple emails critical of the solar farm in Palo, Iowa cites a post from the group to argue solar panels produce toxic chemicals.

Issac Orr, who wrote the article for the interest group, said those chemical concerns shouldn’t worry Iowans. He said those are concerns for people living in other counties.

“I think those things aren’t necessarily those things you need to worry about if you are putting up a solar installation in Iowa,” Orr said. “But it’s not like those things aren’t affecting real people in other countries.”

American Experiment’s information in the post came from another group, which was cited in the article. However, Orr said it has no standard policy to fact-check information from another group.

“We don’t really have a standard policy,” he said. “Like if I read it and I think I agree with most of the points in it, then it adds into the conversation we’re having.”

The original claim came from an article on sciencing.com. The writer, who is David Nguyen, told our i9 Investigative Team in an email he is a tumor biologist. However, he couldn’t give us direct information about his qualifications to speak on solar panels, other than “some knowledge of environmental toxicology.”

Regardless, multiple people used Orr’s post to argue NextEra Energy’s solar farm would devastate the Linn County’s environment and create serious health concerns to elected officials.

Tim Weninger, who studies how humans consume and curate information at the University of Notre Dame, said people using misinformation isn’t a new problem, but it can spread easier on social media. He said interest groups with their own goals can put out information with good intentions that eventually gets turned into misinformation.

“Those kernels of doubt and misinformation someone else takes it and goes ‘I heard, I forgot where’ and they tell their neighbor [information] or they post it on Facebook, they post it on Instagram or Twitter and it takes off,” Weninger said.

He said the spread of misinformation results in a less informed public, especially about local issues.

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