Frequently asked questions about solar farms
General solar questions
Does a solar farm have grass under the panels?
The ground under a solar farm is more than 90% vegetation. Solar panels are mounted on racking that sits on posts – those posts take up less than 10% of the land. The rows of solar panels, from post to post, east to west, are typically 20 to 25 feet apart. Under the panels, in the rows and in all the buffer area, we plant site-specific grasses and other vegetation with a goal of increasing net biodiversity gain in the first 5 years of operation.
How tall are solar panels?
Solar panels are installed on racking with smart solar trackers that follow the sun during the day. As the panels very slowly rotate east to west during the day, the height ranges from 4 feet to 10 feet, reaching a maximum height similar to a field of corn.
Does solar work in the snow and cold weather?
Solar equipment actually works more efficiently in cold weather, and solar farms are designed to mitigate buildup of snow on the solar panels. Solar panels are installed on smart trackers that follow the sun from east to west during the day, to maximize solar energy production. These smart trackers serve other important purposes, too – they protect solar panels from hailstorms, and they prevent buildup of snow on solar panels.
Resource: Withstanding extreme weather on solar farms
Do solar projects really lower carbon emissions, when you look at the full lifecycle?
According to a recent report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), photovoltaic solar energy projects have a lifecycle emissions footprint 95% lower than a coal fired power plant – or said differently, coal fired electricity generation has over 20x the greenhouse gas emissions of solar. And natural gas generation has over 10x the emissions over the full lifecycle.
Resource: NREL Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Electricity Generation
What’s the benefit to the community if we’re not the direct recipients of the electricity?
All solar projects collectively help decarbonize our country’s electric grid, lower our country’s overall electricity costs, and contribute to our nation’s energy independence and security.
There are many end users of the electricity that flows from our nation’s electric grids, including both residential customers and business customers. This is true for electricity generated by fossil fuel plants as well as large-scale solar projects. The electricity from our solar farms flows into the local electric grid, exactly the same as a fossil fuel electric plant. A good analogy is water in a pipe. The electricity from a solar farm goes into the “water pipe” and mixes with electricity from other sources. Sometimes the electricity is indeed “earmarked” for a business customer, but at the end of the day whomever “opens their faucet” gets a mix of electricity from different sources.
As that “mix” includes more and more solar generated electricity, what will happen is that (1) our overall carbon footprint will reduce and (2) electricity costs for everyone will come down. Renewable energy has proven to be the cheapest source of power, worldwide.
Resource: World Energy Outlook Report
Health and Safety
Do solar panels release hazardous materials?
The layers of a solar panel are strongly laminated, and all materials are sealed inside tempered glass, the same material as car windshields and hurricane windows. In addition, Lightsource bp requires all solar panels used on our projects to pass strict testing protocols established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure that solar panels, even if broken, do not release harmful amounts of any hazardous materials into the environment. The EPA testing protocol is called the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP).
Will solar panels end up in a landfill in my area?
Lightsource bp is committed to recycling solar panels on all our solar farms in the U.S. versus disposing in a landfill. That includes any panels damaged during construction, operations, and all panels at the end of life/decommissioning. In addition, we exclusively use recycling facilities that are vetted by SEIA (the Solar Energy Industry Association) – to ensure that the panels will be processed at the most environmentally responsible U.S. facilities that strive for maximum material recovery.
Resource: Lightsource bp Recycling and Lifecycle Management
Can solar panels be recycled?
By weight, more than 80 percent of a typical PV solar panel is glass and aluminum – both common and easy-to-recycle materials. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has created a national solar panel recycling member-based program that aggregates and vets the services offered by recycling vendors here in the U.S. These partners are capable of recycling solar panels, inverters and other related equipment today.
Resource: SEIA National PV Recycling Program
Is EMF a concern?
EMF from solar is no more impactful than EMF from home appliances. Solar panels themselves generate electricity in DC current, so there is no detectable EMF, and several studies have measured EMF at the perimeter of a solar facility to be negligible.
In fact, we are all exposed to EMF throughout our daily lives. All electric lines and equipment, including the lines to homes, businesses and home appliances, create EMF. Since the 1970s, some have expressed concern over potential health consequences of EMF from electricity, but no studies have ever shown this EMF to cause health problems.
Resource: NC Cleantech “Health and Safety Impacts of Solar Photovoltaics (page 14)
Will I hear noise from the solar farm?
Sound at the solar project will be limited to inverters and the transformer, which cannot be heard past the project boundaries. In addition, Lightsource bp will adhere to any local regulations about noise levels and will conduct sound modeling to confirm our projects meet these requirements.
Do solar farms increase local temperatures?
A study from the University of Maryland shows that any heat created by a solar farm is much smaller than what is created by urban areas, dissipates quickly and can’t be measured 100 feet away. Lightsource bp also plants ground cover, which provides a cooling effect, and as referenced in the study, mitigates temperature increases. Additionally, there was a recent study by Lancaster University in 2021 stating “Scientists using satellite technologies have discovered that large scale solar parks have a cooling effect on the land surrounding them.”
Resource: University of Maryland Study
Resource: Science Daily
Is glare an issue?
Solar panels are designed to absorb, not reflect, sunlight and reflect less light than glass or water. Regardless, when required by the FAA, a study will be completed to confirm that there will be no interference with aircraft.
How much water is needed?
Due to precipitation during operations, cleaning may never be needed for the life of the project. For the operations and maintenance building or other minimal on-site use, the project would either connect to an on-site water source through appropriate local permits or bring in water.
Land use and soil protection
Is it a concern that we’re losing land to solar?
Utility-scale renewable energy development is imperative to reducing carbon emissions by displacing fossil fuel sources of electricity. One of the greatest threats to global and local ecosystems, our land, global economies, indeed all life on earth, is climate change.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, solar PV panels on just 22,000 square miles of the nation’s total land area – about the size of Lake Michigan – could supply enough electricity to power the entire United States.
Solar farms temporarily set aside land and protect it from permanent loss due to industrialization and urbanization – and that they afford a myriad of opportunities to layer on the benefits of solar since the land under and around the panels is protected for decades. As part of our Responsible Solar approach, Lightsource bp designs and implements site-specific Land Management and Biodiversity Plans to achieve biodiversity net gains, foster habitats, improve soil health, and support agrivoltaics.
Solar energy is also critical to mitigating the detrimental effects that climate change is having on America’s farmland. A Stanford University study says climate change has caused a 21 percent drop in farm productivity over the last 60 years. And a study published in Environmental Research Letters finds that long-term warming contributed $27 billion to the losses covered by the U.S. crop insurance program from 1991 to 2017. Payouts to farmers for these losses are heavily subsidized by the US taxpayer.
Resource: Stanford University: Climate change has hurt farm productivity
Resource: Stanford University: Global warming increased U.S. crop insurance losses by $27 billion in 27 years
Resource: Environmental Research Letters
Resource: Solar Energy in the United States (Solar Energy Technologies Office)
Why build solar on farmland?
There are several reasons why farmland is ideal for solar projects:
- Farmland is previously disturbed land, meaning the impacts of solar on the land are greatly minimized.
- Solar protects farmland in the long term from urban sprawl or industrialization. According to the America’s Farmland Trust, the biggest threat to farmland is low-density residential development. Each day, America loses 2,000 acres of farmland to low-density, inefficient urban sprawl.
- Leasing a portion of their land for solar provides revenue for landowners and generations of their families, contributing to the economics of their farming business – providing a steady stream of income that enables them to keep the land during hard economic times. And in the future the land can be returned to farming.
- Roughly 40% of all corn grown in the US is refined into ethanol and not used for feeding people, which is approximately 40 million acres (1.6% of the nation’s land). If this land were repurposed with solar power, it could provide around three and a half times the electricity needs of the United States.
- With agrivoltaics, the land can remain in agricultural production during the life of the solar project.
Solar can improve and preserve the land for future agriculture. Over the life of a project:
- Soil will be protected from erosion with stable groundcover underneath and around the solar panels – and no intensive tillage for decades.
- Far fewer chemicals will be utilized than when farming.
- Practices such as grazing and pollinator plantings will increase biomass production, nitrogen content, soil carbon storage and soil moisture.
- “Resting” the ground can return it to a better condition at the end of the project’s useful life, similar to fallowed parcels under USDAs Conservation Reserve Program.
As part of Lightsource bp’s long-term Land Management and Biodiversity plans, baseline biodiversity surveys and soil health sampling are performed on site and will be repeated periodically to measure biodiversity and soil health improvements over time.
Resource: Farmland Trust
Resource: How Corn Ethanol for Biofuel Fed Climate Change
Resource: Solar+food in ethanol fields could fully power the United States
Resource: Raising sheep on solar farms
Should I be concerned about stormwater runoff from the project?
As part of our land management best practices, Lightsource works to seed our sites prior to start of construction, often in partnership with local farmers or landowners. The practice of early seeding assists with soil and vegetation stabilization, along with weed suppression and stormwater management, prior to and during construction.
Post construction, for the life of the project, Lightsource bp creates vegetation plans that establish healthy groundcover that aids in holding stormwater and reducing erosion. In fact, our solar farms can reduce sediment runoff by converting tilled row crop acreage to permanent vegetation under and around the solar panels that help retain water.
Additionally, Lightsource bp is required by law to develop and comply with a comprehensive stormwater plan for each of our projects, often called a “Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan” (SWPPP). The SWPPP must include measures to control erosion and sedimentation. These plans are regulated by the Federal Clean Water Act and administered and enforced by state and/or local agencies.
How will bird habitats in the area be protected?
We develop solar projects in a manner that conserves important habitats and species. As a company, we’ve been building solar farms with the aim to increase local biodiversity since 2010. Our solar farms include landscaping to minimize visual impacts from roads and homes, often adding thousands of new trees to the neighborhood that also become home to local bird species. The study listed below, which includes several of Lightsource bp’s solar farms in the UK, shows an increase in biodiversity as well as bird species and abundance of birds at solar PV farms.
Resource: Solar Farms Biodiversity Study
Will the project cause a decrease in my property value?
Multiple analyses examining property value in states across the country have demonstrated that large-scale solar arrays in rural settings have no measurable impact on the value of adjacent properties, and in some cases may even have positive effects. Proximity to solar farms have been proven to not deter the sales of agricultural or residential land. Large solar projects have similar visual characteristics to a greenhouse or single-story barn and are often augmented by landscaping to minimize visual impacts. Studies such as the 2018 Cohn Reznick Property Value Impact Study have shown that no consistent negative impacts occur to the value of properties adjacent to solar farms. These conclusions are confirmed by numerous county assessors who saw firsthand the lack of impacts in their respective counties.
Resource: Cohn Reznick Property Value Impact Study 2018
Resource: SEIA Property Value Fact Sheet
How does decommissioning work?
Lightsource bp submits a full decommissioning plan for a solar project. The plan ensures that the project will be dismantled, removed and recycled at the end of its life and that the land can return to agricultural activities or another use as landowners decide.
Steps to achieve this include:
- Removal of primary components of the facility; including modules, trackers, foundations, steel piles, and electric cabling and conduit installed below soil surface as dictated by the local jurisdiction or laws
- Removal of internal access roads unless requested to be left in place by landowner
- Repair of public roads damaged or modified during decommissioning/reclamation process and in compliance with applicable road use agreements
- Restoration and revegetation of any disturbed land