This photo of a landslide at South Korean solar farm has circulated online since at least August 2020

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A photo appearing to show a landslide on a hill where solar panels had been installed has been shared in multiple Korean-language social media posts that blame the damage on the energy policies of South Korea's previous administration. The image was shared after parts of the country were flooded after torrential rains at the end of June and early July 2022. However, the picture was shared in a misleading context; It has circulated since August 2020 in a news report about a landslide in a rural village in South Korea, and experts are divided about whether solar arrays such as this increase the risk of landslides.

"This year's heavy rainfall disaster was caused by Moon's solar panels," reads the Korean-language caption of an image shared here on Facebook on July 5, 2022.

It appears to show the aftermath of a landslide that has partially destroyed an array of solar panels.

The "Moon" referenced in the post is South Korea's former president Moon Jae-in, who pledged to move the country towards carbon neutrality by ramping up the supply of renewable energy.

The country quadrupled its supply of solar power under Moon's leadership, according to local media reports here and here, but this expansion was met with criticism about newly built solar farms' susceptibility to landslides.

The criticism gained momentum in 2020 after several landslides were linked to solar farms. Claims that the solar power initiative had caused more landslides persisted into the following year.

Screenshot of the misleading Facebook post, captured on July 11, 2022

The photo was shared online after heavy rainfall hit several areas of South Korea at the end of June and early July, causing flooding and damage.

The same photo was shared alongside similar claims on Facebook here, here and here; and here on Twitter.

However, the image has been shared in a misleading context.

2020 landslide photo

A reverse image search on Google led to this report about solar panels crashing into homes, which was published by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper on August 11, 2020.

The report, which includes multiple photos of the incident, said heavy rainfall hit Maedong village in Hampyeong County, South Jeolla province, causing a landslide that swept some of the solar farm towards the houses below.

Below is a screenshot comparison of the photo shared on Facebook (left) and the photo as it appears in the newspaper report (right):

The caption of the photo reads: "On the morning of the last 10th [of August 2020], two houses are seen damaged by solar panels from a nearby hill destroyed by heavy rains in Maedong village in Sangok-ri, Daedong-myeon, Hampyeong County, South Jeolla. The accident occurred on the morning of the 8th."

The incident was also covered by other South Korean media organisations here and here; and in a blog post here.

Solar arrays and landslide risks

In a press release issued in August 2020, South Korea's Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said, "there is a lack of objective evidence to suggest solar energy facilities are the main cause of landslides."

Government data showed only 1 percent of landslides in 2020 were linked to solar farms.

Rules about where solar arrays could be installed were strengthened in 2018, following public concern about the safety of panels that had been installed on steep mountainsides.

Ha Ik-soo, a professor of geotechnical engineering at Kyungnam University, said the claim was "unscientific" as "there is no data that supports the claim that landslides mostly occurred in areas with solar power facilities." 

"As long as proper safety protocols are followed in building these facilities, there is no significant risk of landslides," Ha added.

Soil erosion

Park Chang-geun, a professor of civil engineering at Catholic Kwandong University, also said the claim was "misleading".

"The type of damage that sometimes occurs in areas where solar panels have been built is closer to soil erosion, which happens because rainfall wears away topsoil made more unstable by the lack of vegetation like trees," Park said.

However, Lee Soo-gon, a former professor of civil engineering at the University of Seoul, said there was a "strong connection" between solar power facilities and landslides.

"Landslides occur because mountains are shaved into flat terrain to make way for solar power stations," Lee said. "In the process, the land is made devoid of trees and vegetation, which are critical in stopping water runoffs after rain."

He suggested there were major flaws with safety regulations in building solar farms, saying "both regulators and building contractors are engaging in shoddy construction practices" particularly in failing to build proper drainage facilities where these facilities are erected.

The controversy surrounding solar arrays and landslides has also been covered in several local news reports, including here, here, here and here.