Getting the Benefits of Solar Farms Without Harming Nearby Residents or the Environment
In this webpage we offer advice for protecting a home, scenic views, farms, 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.
The best solar farms are:
- Established on sites where solar panels are either not visible from homes year-round or are at least 600 feet from homes,
- Battery storage systems, substations, inverters, and other equipment are situated on those portions of a solar farm site furthest from homes,
- Not created on sites where extensive forest clearing is needed, and
- Minimize the acreage of prime-productive soils taken out of agricultural production.
Further detail on these and other factors is provided in this webpage. So, read on or contact us at 410-654-3021 or Help@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. Keep in mind though that our goal will be to find ways of fully resolving your concerns, while achieving the benefits a solar farm can provide.
To see examples of CEDS successes in resolving solar farm concerns visit: https://ceds.org/success%20examples/#solar. 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, an example of which follows. This analysis showed that planting 8-foot high trees would screen the panels from view, provided they grew densely, were evergreen and required minimal maintenance. The sightline also showed the trees should not grow so tall as to obstruct the mountain view.
Perhaps the best resource for analyzing line of sight is the ArcGIS Viewshed and Line of Sight spatial analysis tool. An easier-to-use free resource is the Solwise – Surface Elevation Tool.
A University of Rhode Island (URI) study of the effects of solar farms on property value is presented later in this webpage. The URI researchers opined that if solar panels could not be seen then home value may not be lowered. 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.
Here is a sampling of local laws requiring a minimum separation distance between solar farms and homes or landscaping sufficient to fully screen solar panel from nearby homes:
- Weld County, CO: The Improved Area of the Solar Energy Facility shall conform to the setback requirements of the underlying zone. Additionally, the improved area must be at least five hundred (500) feet from existing residential buildings and residential lots of a platted subdivision or planned unit development. The residential setback requirement may be reduced if appropriate screening through landscape or an opaque fence is installed, or upon submittal to Weld County of a waiver or informed consent signed by the residence owner agreeing to the lesser setback. If landscaping or opaque fencing is substituted for setback, a landscaping plan or fencing plan shall first be submitted to and approved by the Department of Planning Services.
- Jackson County, GA: The facility shall be fully screened from adjoining properties and adjacent roads using the natural topography or by installation of an evergreen buffer capable of reaching a height of six feet within three years of planting, with at least 75 percent opacity at the time of planting.
- Whatley, MA: Setbacks for Large-Scale Battery Storage systems in Solar Electric Installations shall be as follows: (a) No less than 500 feet from any abutting plot in the AR1 or AR2 Districts. (b) No less than 200 feet from any well for lots not served by public water.
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 Help@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.
Surrounded By Solar
The most harmful solar farm proposals are those that would enclose existing homes on three sides with panels, substations or other facilities that do not belong in close proximity to residences. Fortunately, these proposals are the exception.
Pictured below is an example of one such solar farm. Several homes would have had solar panels within 100 feet of three sides of their lots. Though landscaping was proposed it would only screen the 18-foot high solar panels to a height of 2- to 9-feet after five years.
The following site plan excerpt shows the substation proposed for this same solar farm that would have been a short distance from a home. For a variety of reasons, substations do not belong near homes.
Exhaust the Search for Solutions
Even in the case of a solar farm that seems so incompatible, 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.
Noise & Glare
Both of these impacts appear to be rare occurences at solar farms. However, those living near a Florida solar farm reported that both noise and glare were an issue. In the following clip you can hear the noise which appeared to come from a solar inverter: Perry Solar Farm Inverter Noise. We contacted the owner of this solar farm repeatedly in hopes of learning what caused the noise and to get it corrected. Unfortunately, the owner never responded.
How Do Solar Farms Affect Property Value
Until recently, assessments of the effect of solar farms on residential property value had been commissioned mostly by those wishing to develop these facilities. These studies rarely noted an adverse effect of home values. This is not to say that the studies were biased. However, I suspect most would likely agree that independent research tends to be more reliable.
In September, 2020, the University of Rhode Island released Property Value Impacts of Commercial-Scale Solar Energy in Massachusetts & Rhode Island. Following are the principal conclusions from this study:
- “We study the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which have high population densities and ambitious renewable energy goals. We observe over 400,000 transactions within three miles of a solar site. Using a difference-in-differences, repeat sales identification strategy, results suggest that houses within one mile depreciate 1.7% following construction of a solar array, which translates into an annual willingness to pay of $279.”
- “We find substantially larger negative effects for properties within 0.1 miles and properties surrounding solar sites built on farm and forest lands in non-rural areas.”
- “This suggests that property prices for homes lying within 0.1 mile from a solar installation fall by 7.0% ($23,682) post-construction, compared to houses further away. These results suggest extremely large disamenities for properties in very close proximity.”
- “We hypothesize that prior land use may affect property value impacts. Specifically, houses in proximity to farms and forests that are developed into solar may depreciate more than houses in proximity to a brownfield or capped landfill that is developed into solar.”
- “Solar developers prefer farm and forest lands because they have substantially lower construction costs compared to alternative sites like brownfields, landfills, superfunds and industrial lands.”
The University of Rhode Island researchers opined that if solar panels could not be seen then home value may not be lowered.
In June of last year, Centre for Economic Policy Research researchers published Wind Turbines, Solar Farms, and House Prices. The researchers found the following based on a comparison of homes near solar farms in the Netherlands:
- “Further results indicate that solar farms seem to lead to a decrease in house prices within 1km of about 2-3%.”
A kilometer is 0.62 miles. So, the 2-3% decline noted in the Netherlands study is in the same range as the 1.7% decline for homes within a mile found in the Massachusetts-Rhode Island study.
From this independent research one might conclude that the adverse property value effects of solar farms are:
- Most likely when a solar facility is developed on forest or farm land,
- Most acute for homes within 0.1 miles (528 feet) of a solar farm where a 7% decline in property value was documented, but
- Adverse effects extend out as far as one mile.
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 beneficial effects of solar energy on climate change saves many, many birds.
A number of states have instituted programs to enhance the wildlife benefits of solar farms. The Minnesota Habitat Friendly Solar Program is a good example. Unfortunately, it appears there are few independent, peer-reviewed studies where wildlife population density and diversity on enhanced solar farms was compared with conventional solar sites and undisturbed sites. Here is a summary of a few such studies:
- Bird use of solar photovoltaic installations at US airports – Implications for aviation safety: The researchers found 37 bird species at solar farms near airports in three states (Arizona, Colorado and Ohio) compared to 46 species in grasslands lacking solar panels. The grasslands were mowed once or more annually, so this wasn’t a comparison to undisturbed habitat.
- Change in bird biodiversity trends due to environmental events at the Long Island Central Pine Barrens: The researchers found that bird diversity and populations increased in an area where a portion was in use as a solar farm. However, vegetation changes due to wildfire and reduced deer grazing may have been the cause of the increase.
- The impact of South Africa’s largest photovoltaic solar energy facility on birds in the Northern Cape, South Africa: Vegetation changes caused shrubland bird species to decline and grassland species to increase. The researchers found that bird mortality due to collisions with solar panels was not significant.
Following are a few relevant guidance documents:
- Arizona: Guidelines for Solar Development in Arizona,
- Florida: Solar Farm Best Management Practices for Wildlife,
- Illinois: Solar Site Pollinator Establishment Guidelines,
- Maine: Solar Energy Project General Resource Guidance and Recommendations,
- Massachusetts: Audubon Best Management Practices Nesting for Grassland Birds,
- Minnesota: Prairie Establishment & Maintenance Technical Guidance for Solar Projects,
- Mitigating biodiversity impacts associated with solar and wind energy development,
- North Carolina: Principles of Low Impact Solar Siting and Design,
- Pennsylvania: Solar Energy Development and Land Conservation,
- Vermont: A Guide to Solar Energy in Vermont’s Working Landscape,
There would be value in urging the incorporation of wildlife enhancement measures into the design of solar farms.
Please forward any guidance documents or independent, peer-reviewed studies or you think should be added to this page to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CEDS SOLAR FARM INITIAL STRATEGY ANALYSIS
For a modest fee CEDS can assist you in carrying out the following actions to determine the best strategy for resolving your concerns about a solar farm proposal:
- Identify all potential solar farm impacts,
- Seek to identify measures for resolving each impact,
- Assist you in negotiating with the applicant or regulatory agencies to win adoption of each impact resolution measure,
- If negotiations fail then we’ll determine the best strategy for winning impact resolution by:
- Identifying all permits and other approvals the project requires,
- Determining which provides the best opportunity to implement impact fixes,
- 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 impacts.
Our best advice remains: Please do not hesitate, act today, because delay almost always impedes success.