It’s no secret that energy costs are rising across the nation, along with everything else. Depending on income bracket, this harsh reality can prove anything from an inconvenience to a true health hazard, when impoverished communities are forced to forego power in favor of other necessities – food, medication, rent – during periods of extreme heat or cold.
Happily, the 21st century has proven that widespread solar power is more than a sci-fi theory promulgated by a select few. It’s a viable technology capable of meeting America’s power needs on a grand scale. “From just 0.34 GW in 2008, U.S. solar power capacity has grown to an estimated 97.2 gigawatts (GW) today,” the U.S. Department of Energy explains. “This is enough to power the equivalent of 18 million average American homes.”
In that time, the cost of photovoltaic panels has dropped. So has the price of solar electricity. Simultaneously, the number of jobs in the solar industry has skyrocketed. It’s a better time than ever to join the great solar race, leading many farmers and communities wondering, “How can I start my own solar farm or lease my land for solar?”
Glad you asked. Let’s take a look at the requirements for a solar farm so you can move forward with your clean energy goals today. However, if you’re a business, non-profit, or farming entity that receives a power bill, you’re in a different category and can take advantage of installing solar panels to offset your company electrical usage. Click here if that applies to you. If not, read on to learn about solar farms.
What Is a Solar Farm?
Personal solar panels are de rigueur in America. Unfortunately, many people and businesses don’t have the ability to install panels on their rooftops or in their backyards, meaning a huge percentage of the population is unable to benefit from the sun’s limitless potential.
The answer? Solar farms that can collect lots of energy in one place, then send it to the grid for public consumption. For our purposes, there are two main types of installation:
- Community-scale solar farm: While these farms vary in size, they share the common goal of providing power to a local community or commercial enterprise that backs the effort.
- Utility-scale solar farm: These solar farms are so named because they aim to provide clean energy to the grid, just like any power plant would.
Both types of solar farm need a way to produce the energy, then transmit it to those who need it. There are several other requirements for a solar farm as well – eight critical ones, to be exact. Let’s take a closer look.
Requirements for a Solar Farm
While solar technologies are now so widespread that they represent a viable energy option across the nation, there still a number of hurdles. Specifically, you need:
1. Sufficient Acreage
Solar farms require land on which to build. It takes about 4 to 5 acres to generate 1 megawatt (MW), depending on the panels and how much buffer land your local regulations require.
Also, you need space between panels for maintenance access and acreage on which to store inverters and other necessary equipment. While 20 acres might provide enough land for a solar panel installation, most utility-scale solar farms are on parcels of 100 or more. That being said, in many states, like California, there may be opportunities for farms as small as 5 acres.
2. The Right Kind of Land
Unsurprisingly, solar panels need access to the sun. That means large stretches of relatively flat, cleared land. Although flatter is ideal, photovoltaics (PV) can handle greater inclines and slopes if need be.
What does surprise some people? Use of land for other applications alongside solar power is not prohibited. In fact, co-solar is becoming more popular by the day, because it is such an efficient way to use valuable greenfield sites and agricultural property. If you have grazing sites, unused rows and borders, or flood plains, those may all prove all good places for solar panels.
3. Limited Incline
Flatness also makes a piece of land more valuable. While it isn’t strictly necessary for photovoltaics, land with a limited incline is ideal because it allows you to use solar trackers.
Trackers may move on one axis or more, enabling them to follow the sun as it passes across the sky and significantly upping potential energy production. Single-axis trackers increase energy yields by 30 percent, Again, while not a strict requirement per se, it’s a very smart characteristic to prioritize in a property.
4. Land Ownership or a Power Purchase Agreement
It goes without saying that you must have the legal right to install solar panels on a particular piece of land. There are a few ways to accomplish this:
- Owning the land, developing, installing, and operating a power plant system yourself.
- Owning the land and leasing it to a company or developer for solar energy production (most common).
The first option to capture solar energy production is less common, as it is similar to developing and owning a business or large apartment building. Most will opt for option two, which is a much more hands-off approach.
5. Sufficient Capital
Solar farms are worth it, but if you want to install a system, you’ll need a significant amount of capital to realize the dream. According to Q3 2021 numbers from the Solar Energy Industries Association, very large utility fixed-tilt panel power plants (for example, 400+ acres) can cost as low $.89/Wdc (maximum watts with full sun exposure) and can cost as high as $3+/wdc for smaller installations
A good way to get around this requirement is to consider leasing your land. If your land is a suitable site, a solar developer may offer you a worthwhile amount to lease the land on an annual basis for a solar farm.
6. Proximity to Infrastructure
Today’s technologies don’t yet allow us to collect energy from the sun and magic it straight to the homes and businesses that need it. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” so we’re not ruling it out for the future. Today, however, we have to work with what we’ve got.
And what we’ve got is interconnection, the process by which we link up solar farms to nearby power grids. The further away the farm is from the grid, the more expensive this will be. Your solar farm will need two things in order to be viable:
- Proximity to three-phase power (1,000 feet or so)
- Proximity to a substation (2 miles or so)
Where neither of these exists, you will need to go through the lengthy process of getting infrastructure built, which while successful in many cases, involves lots of waiting. A solar development and installation company well-versed in these specialty project types can help advise further about meeting interconnection needs quickly and affordably.
7. Due Diligence
Laws help ensure that clean energy projects don’t do more harm than good, and you must do your due diligence to ensure that your proposed site doesn’t run afoul of those laws. They exist in many forms, including:
- Environmental regulations: You need to prove that your solar farm won’t harm wildlife or habitats nearby.
- Flood assessments: While solar panels can withstand heavy rain and flooding– and are intentionally constructed to do so – you must make sure that flooding won’t cause detrimental effects to the environment.
- Geology: Area geology also impacts whether a solar site is viable. For instance, regions high in fragile karst are often a concern, because changes to the topography (such as installing solar panel supports) can cause sinkholes or alter groundwater flow and quality.
- Visual buffers: While solar, unlike wind, is a silent renewable energy, communities still worry about the aesthetic impact of panels. Some areas require visual screens.
- Interconnection: Even if you are close to infrastructure, you’ll still need to get approval from authorities to link up with the grid. They will first conduct a study to ensure your solar farm won’t negatively impact it.
All of this can take time, so make sure to start your due diligence process as soon as you identify a viable site.
If everything checks out, and your due diligence clears you to develop the proposed land for solar, then you need permits to make everything official. This allows you to move forward without worrying about whether you have the right to use the land, and with a way to prove to government officials and the community that you do have that right.
Note that permits vary depending on your state, region and locality, and the rules governing permitting in the United States are a bit of a quagmire. Luckily for you, solar installers are expert at navigating them. If you’re not sure how to proceed with environmental due diligence and permitting, talk to the experts.
Learn More About the Process for Solar Farm Design Installation and Operation
The process to install a solar farm is certainly not straightforward. Remember that these type of solar installations are power plants, so there are steps and hoops to jump through. If you are a land owner, we can help to see if your site may be a fit. A premier commercial solar company in California, Coldwell Solar boasts a large portfolio of projects in the commercial, agriculture, solar farm, and utility space as well as a variety of resources. We offer renewable energy credits education or solar calculators that are free for you to use and can provide information related to solar farms as well. Reach out today with further questions!