Solar Farms: Protecting Homes, Property Value, Views & the Environment While Reaping Solar Energy Benefits
In this webpage we offer advice for protecting a home, views, farm, forest and the value of your property from a poorly planned solar farm project. Our goal is not to stifle the expansion of solar energy but to guide these essential facilities to sites where we can reap the benefits without causing undue harm to others.
We also explain how to resolve solar farm impacts on marginal sites.
So, read on or please contact us at 410-654-3021 or Rklein@ceds.org if you have an urgent question or don’t have time to wade through this webpage. You may also wish to consider engaging CEDS to conduct the Initial Strategy Analysis described at the end of this webpage. In the meantime, our best advice though is this: Please do not hesitate, act today, because delay almost always impedes success.
WHAT IS A SOLAR FARM
A solar farm, also known as a solar garden and by other names, usually covers several acres of land with solar panels as opposed to small solar panel installations on home rooftops or adjoining yards. The solar farms which tend to cause concern are the larger installation generating two megawatts or more. A megawatt is sufficient to power 150 to 200 homes.
Since four- to eight-acres of photovoltaic panels are needed to produce one megawatt of energy most farms cover 8- to 16-acres or more. In our home state of Maryland, solar farms cover 6- to 130-acres.
RESOLVING IMPACTS THROUGH NEGOTIATION vs. KILLING A SOLAR FARM
There are two widespread perception:
- The only way to prevent impacts is to kill a proposal, and
- It’s easy to kill proposals like a solar farm.
Both are actually misperceptions.
Visual impacts are among the most common concerns about proposed solar farms. This issue can frequently be resolved with the various screening measures described in the next section of this webpage. The second misperception arises from the extensive publicity resulting from the rare instances where a project is defeated.
Here are the reasons why you should exhaust efforts to resolve concerns through negotiation:
- Most of impacts can be resolved in ways that allow a fundamentally sound project to proceed,
- A successful negotiation allows society to benefit from increased solar energy generation, and
- Most successful negotiations can be completely for a fraction of the $20,000 to $100,000 it costs to roll the dice in hopes of beating the overwhelming odds and killing a project.
SOLAR FARMS & PRESERVING THE VIEW FROM YOUR HOME
The most common issue prompting solar farm opposition is replacing a view of forest or other natural settings with row upon row of photovoltaic (PV) panels.
Measures to Screen Solar Farms from View
Frequently PV panels can be screened from view with a combination of earth berms landscaped with rapidly growing evergreen trees like those pictured below.
Ideally, the view from your home would be preserved with these screening measures placed along the solar farm perimeter. However, this may not be sufficient if your home overlooks a solar site. In this case you may wish to consider negotiating with the applicant to install screening measures at the edge of your property.
As illustrated in the photos below, some evergreen species are very effective at preserving views while others are not.
Determining which measures will effectively preserve views from your home can get complicated. The first step is to carry out a viewshed or sightline analysis as described in the CEDS Scenic View Preservation webpage. If you wish, CEDS can do the analysis for you as part of the Initial Strategy Analysis described at the end of this webpage.
Negotiating for Screening Measures
So, how do you get those proposing a solar farm to agree to these measures? Well, when faced with a choice between these measures and fighting you and your neighbors in court most solar farm companies will jump at the measures. The reason being that refusing to take these relatively inexpensive measures can harm the applicant’s ability to gain approvals. Also, well-funded opposition could tie up a project in appeals for years.
The reverse is also true. Launching a campaign to kill a solar farm can cost you and your neighbors tens of thousands of dollars with a low-probability of success, which is why we urge you to negotiate first. For further advice see the CEDS Equitable Solutions webpage and Chapter 37: Negotiate with the Applicant in our free 300-page book How to Win Land Development Issues.
Ensuring Measures Will Be Maintained
If you reach an agreement on measures to preserve views or to resolve other issues, then it is critical that they be made binding on current and future solar farm property owners. Otherwise you may end up with a situation like that pictured below.
Note the double row of dead trees adjoining the solar panels above. These trees were likely part of a buffer intended to screen the panels from the view of those traveling on the adjacent road. This photo illustrates why guarantees must be in place that ensure impact reduction measures will be maintained throughout the life of a solar farm.
At a minimum, maintenance of each measure should be made an enforceable condition of at least one permit the applicant needs to build a solar farm. Even better is a bond sufficient to carry out maintenance. In the event a measure fails like the visual buffer shown above, a government agency could then use the bond funds to have maintenance performed.
WHEN A SOLAR FARM COMPANY REFUSES TO NEGOTIATE
Appeal to your elected officials to urge the company to take the reasonable steps you’ve identified to resolve your concerns. Even though a Town council member, a county commissioner, or a state senator may not have veto power over a project, they frequently have considerable influence with those wishing to develop solar farms. If you can show an elected official that you’ve tried to work cooperatively and your solutions are reasonable then there’s a good chance the official will urge the company CEO to negotiate in good faith.
WHEN ELECTED OFFICIALS REFUSE TO RESOLVE SOLAR FARM CONCERNS
Here are examples of good reasons why an elected official may feel they cannot act:
- Belief that they lack the authority to act, or
- Perception that impacts cannot be resolved without negating solar energy production benefits.
With regard to these two examples CEDS can has had considerable success identifying ways of amending laws to resolve impacts then mobilizing the public support needed to convince a majority of law makers to enact the amendment. For further detail see Guiding Solar Farms To Low-Impact Sites below. We can also usually find ways of resolving impacts without significantly lowering solar energy output.
GUIDING SOLAR FARMS TO LOW-IMPACT SITES
Many local and state governments have adopted laws designed to guide larger solar facilities to sites where the benefits can be obtained while minimizing negative effects. Following are links to a sampling of these laws and guidance documents:
- American Farmland Trust Solar Siting Guidelines,
- American Planning Association Planning and Zoning for Solar Energy,
- Best Practices in Zoning for Solar,
- California Solar Permitting Guidebook,
- Maryland Solar Zoning Laws,
- Massachusetts Model Zoning for the Regulation of Solar Energy Systems, and
- Minnesota Grow Solar Local Government Tool Kit.
Most laws have relaxed requirements for home rooftop installations and more comprehensive standards for larger installation above two megawatts or so. Four- to eight-acres of photovoltaic panels are needed to produce one megawatt of energy which is sufficient to power 150 to 200 homes.
If you feel current laws allow solar facilities on inappropriate sites then first verify that this is true. If it is true then consider calling upon your elected officials to adopt requirements that will guide new photovoltaic arrays to appropriate locations. You can begin by reviewing laws adopted by other governments in your state to find regulations that achieve your goals. If you’re concerned about a proposed facility then make certain that the project would not achieve vesting (grandfathering) from the effect of the law. To generate the widespread public support frequently needed to convince elected officials to adopt the law reach out to all those living next to inappropriate locations where solar farms would be permitted under current law.
For further guidance on the rather complex research and organizing described above see the CEDS webpages:
Also, see the following chapters in the free CEDS book How to Win Land Development Issues:
- Chapter 41: Changing the Law
- Chapter 39: Lobbying Final Decision-Makers
- Chapter 36: Mobilizing Support for Your Strategy
- Chapter 40: Legal Action
If you lack the time for all this research and organizing then consider retaining CEDS to carry out the Initial Strategy Analysis described at the end of this webpage. And, as always, please contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 or Rklein@ceds.org if you have any questions.
DEFEATING BAD SOLAR ENERGY PROPOSALS
Sometimes a project is proposed for a site that is so poorly suited for a solar farm that impacts cannot be reduced to a reasonable degree. Here are a couple of examples:
- A solar farm requires removal of a massive amount of forest supporting highly-sensitive species, or
- The significance of an important historic site would be lost if overwhelmed by a massive solar farm nearby.
Even in these cases it is essential that one first go through the exercise of seeking options for resolving impacts in ways that still allow a large portion of the solar farm to proceed. There are two very good reasons for this exercise:
First, occasionally one finds that what at first glance appeared to be unavoidable harm can largely be mitigated.
Second, decision-makers will be far more open to killing a solar farm if they see you genuinely sought Equitable (win-win) Solutions but were unsuccessful.
Unlike the preceding negotiation options, killing a solar farm frequently requires an attorney and expert witnesses at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. The CEDS Smart Legal Strategies webpage explains how you can greatly increase the likelihood of success at a far lower cost. We urge you to begin the effort with the CEDS Initial Strategy Analysis described at the end of this webpage.
POTENTIAL SOLAR FARM IMPACTS
Assessing potential solar farm impacts is difficult because these facilities are so new that long term effects are unknown. The other complicating factor is balancing the tremendous global benefits provided by solar energy against mostly local impacts. To make this topic even more complicated, the internet is replete with accusations of fake news regarding solar impacts and benefits. It is for these reasons that this webpage focuses on issues that are generally straight-forward and can be resolved on most sites.
Solar Farm and the View from Your Home
Because it is the most commonly cited concern, this issue is the focus of much of this webpage. The concern seems to be most common in rural areas where home owners are troubled by replacing a view of farms and forests with a mass of solar panels and the somewhat industrial feel they impart.
How Do Solar Farms Affect Property Value
There appear to be few if any independent studies of the effects of solar farms on the value of nearby homes. Most of the studies one finds online were done on behalf of those wishing to build solar farms. While this does not necessarily mean that these developer-funded studies are biased, they all do seem to conclude that solar farms have no adverse effect on property value.
Most of these studies compare the selling price of comparable homes located near solar farms with those more distant. Unfortunately, few of the studies clearly state whether the solar farm is visible from the nearby home. This could make a substantial difference in selling price.
With regard to property value, perhaps the only thing that can be confidently said is that it’s more likely that a home within view of solar farm will probably – though not absolutely – sell for less. By how much less remains to be seen.
Replacing Cropfields & Forest with Solar Farms
The following issues appear common to those concerned about larger solar farms:
- Loss of prime-productive farm land,
- Loss of forest, and
- Loss of wildlife habitat and interference with migrations.
Ideally, new solar facilities would be guided to industrial areas, abandoned mines, and other locations where impacts to neighborhoods, agriculture, and the environment would be minimal. Unfortunately, the lower land cost prompts many new solar farms to locate in rural areas.
Some jurisdictions have adopted restrictions on siting new solar farms in highly-sensitive areas or have placed a cap on the number of acres of prime-productive farmland that can be converted to solar farms. Consider the suggestions offered in Guiding Solar Farms to Low-Impact Sites above if you’re concerned about undue impacts to sensitive lands.
River, Lake, Wetland & Other Aquatic Resource Impacts of Solar Farms
Potential aquatic resource impacts may include increased stormwater runoff, pollution, and the loss of the benefits provided by forests and other natural landscapes. Unfortunately, it can take a decade or more before the long-term aquatic resource effects of facilities like solar farms are fully understood. Until then one can only speculate about potential effects.
Potential solar farm aquatic resource impacts are:
- Loss of groundwater recharge,
- Stormwater pollution, and
- Release of cadmium.
Loss of Groundwater Recharge: The water tapped by wells and that providing dry-weather inflow to wetlands, streams, and river originates as rain or snowmelt that soaked into the earth to recharge groundwater systems. The greatest recharge occurs in forests and grassland. Replacing forest with photovoltaic panels and grass would likely increase runoff volume and reduce recharge. With the right stormwater infiltration measures the impact could be resolved completely. However, even with highly effective measures other forest and grassland benefits could still be lost.
Stormwater Pollution: For the waters closest to 80% of U.S. homes, pollution washed from streets, rooftops and other impervious surfaces is the primary reason these waters are degraded. The pollution originates as emissions to the atmosphere from motor vehicles, power plants, etc. which comes to rest on impervious surfaces. The pollutants are then washed into nearby waters with each rain.
Since solar panels are an impervious surface they would also contribute to this form of runoff pollution. Fortunately, there are a number of highly effective measures to remove these pollutants from runoff before it enters ground or surface waters. Unfortunately, not all solar farms benefit from these measures. For further detail see the CEDS River, Lake & Wetland Protection webpage.
Cadmium: Most solar panels contain cadmium, which can be harmful to public health and aquatic life. The cadmium is encapsulated between layers of glass and plastic. If a panel should be damaged in a way that exposed the cadmium to rain or other moisture then it is possible that this metal could be transported into ground or surface waters. While there have been instances where panels have been damaged sufficiently to allow exposure, they have been rare to the point where it is highly unlikely that cadmium contamination would occur.
One of the most often cited negative wildlife effects is that caused by a form of solar energy known as thermal solar where sunlight is concentrated to turn a fluid into steam. A 2017 Audubon article described how a thermal solar tower in California killed a large number of birds. Fortunately, most solar projects are of the panel type; not the thermal solar type. The Audubon article noted that the beneficifial effects of solar energy on climate change saves many, many birds.
CEDS SOLAR FARM INITIAL STRATEGY ANALYSIS
For a modest fee CEDS can analysis the following to determine the best strategy for resolving your concerns about a solar farm proposal:
- Identify all potential solar farm impacts,
- Explore options for resolving each impact,
- Assist you in negotiating with the applicant or regulatory agencies to resolve each impact,
- If negotiations fail then we’ll determine the best strategy for killing the solar farm by:
- Identifying all permits and other approvals the project requires,
- Determining which provides the best opportunity to nix the project,
- Search for attorneys with a good record of success in winning similar cases,
- Help you raise the funds needed to win, and
- Explore opportunities to amend laws to prevent harmful projects from being approved.
Our best advice remains: Please do not hesitate, act today, because delay almost always impedes success.