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Community solar farm

Community solar is often hailed as a win-win solution for the environment and for its customers, for good reason. Community solar reduces greenhouse gas emissions and your annual utility bill, but some worry about how these large-scale solar panel installations might have environmental, aesthetic, and community use impacts. While these are valid apprehensions, community solar also supports landowners and farmers, repurposes otherwise unusable land, and contributes to a cleaner local environment. 

As a refresher, community solar involves enrolling in a portion of a large solar panel installation known as a solar farm. By paying a monthly subscription fee, you receive a discount on your electric bill. On average, a community solar subscription can save you 5-20% on your annual utility bill. As mentioned, community solar is a positive force for both clean energy and local communities, but it doesn’t come without its concerns. Let’s dig deeper into the impacts and outcomes of community solar.

Key takeaways

  • The 6,200 megawatts (MW) of community solar installed in the U.S. require just 0.001% to 0.003% of the nation’s land mass. 

  • Community solar can have environmental, aesthetic, and community use impacts on the land it uses. 

  • Community solar is a great way to repurpose otherwise unusable land, support local landowners and farmers, and contribute to a cleaner local environment. 

  • Agrivoltaics refers to the joint land use of solar panel installations and agricultural practices. 

  • Community solar land can be restored once a project is decommissioned.

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Community solar functions similarly to utility-scale solar. Both community and utility-scale solar projects generate electricity at a central power plant (like those large solar arrays you might see off highways or in large fields) and feed it back to the local electric grid. 

The main difference between community solar and utility-scale solar programs is transactional. Usually, utility-scale solar programs sell solar power directly to utility companies or are owned by the utility itself. Community solar companies offer subscriptions to local residents and businesses. Subscribers are allotted a share of the solar farm and receive a discount on their electric bill. 

Utility-scale solar projects are known to be larger than community solar farms, but most generate between 1 and 5 megawatts (MW) of electricity. While solar power plants can seem huge, they occupy a very small amount of the nation’s land mass. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), just 0.6% of U.S. land is needed to power the entire country with utility-scale solar. In general, solar power plants require 5-10 acres per megawatt. Currently, utility-scale solar produces 37,000 MW. With 2.26 billion acres across the U.S., that requires just 0.008% to 0.016% of American land. 

Community solar projects are typically less than 5 megawatts in size. The 6,200 MW of community solar installed in the U.S. requires just 0.001% to 0.003% of American land.

Learn more about utility-scale solar and community solar.

Community solar expands the benefits of solar energy by offering an alternative source of electricity to renters and others who might not be able to install their own solar panels. Not only does it save you money on your annual utility bill, but it benefits the environment as well.

  • Community solar decreases greenhouse gas emissions. Solar farms generate emission-free electricity and send it to the utility grid. The more electricity your community solar project generates, the less you demand from a fossil fuel power plant. 

  • Community solar reduces respiratory and cardiovascular health issues. As a clean energy source, solar energy doesn’t release air pollutants. 

Community solar has an overall positive impact on the environment, but it’s not perfect. Land must be cleared and graded to develop a community solar farm. As a result, wildlife habitats and ecosystems may feel the effects. 

Learn more about the environmental benefits of solar

Community solar’s wildlife impact 

As with any construction project, local governments ultimately decide whether or not to permit solar developments through various assessments, including environmental studies. Still, a solar farm undoubtedly changes the landscape of the plot it’s built on. Fencing around the perimeter of a project can restrict wildlife movement in the area. Additionally, the removal of trees and vegetation can disrupt bird habitats. To minimize the ecological impact and boost community trust, solar farms should be responsibly sited to avoid critical areas for biodiversity and wildlife.

In the words of The National Audobon Society, “the benefits to birds by reducing carbon emissions outweigh other concerns, as long as the installations are built with care.” Developers need to understand the unique needs of the local community. Steps should be taken to:

  • Continuously monitor the project’s impacts.

  • Work with environmental and wildlife experts to implement habitat restoration plans.

  • Transparently engage with the local community to hear their concerns, inform them of the project’s benefits, and work together to find a community solar solution that works for the area. 

Solar farms repurpose land

One way to carefully build a community solar installation is to choose a plot of otherwise unusable land, such as a landfill or a brownfield. Solar farms can even breathe new, sustainable life into the community through clean energy and stable jobs by repurposing sites like former coal mines. 

Learn more about the pros and cons of community solar.

Agriculture is a vital American industry with a deep and personal history. Since its peak in 1935, the number of farms in the U.S. fell from 6.8 million to just 2 million in 2022. Family-operated farms account for 98% of American farms and produce 86% of U.S. agricultural products. Understandably, solar projects built on farmland can feel threatening to communities reliant on agriculture. 

The good news is that the current land use of solar energy poses little risk to agricultural production. With 100% renewable energy goals looming at the local, state, and federal levels, it’s possible for that to change. Farmland is an attractive site for solar projects due to its large parcel sizes and relatively level terrain. As we move towards a renewable future, it’s important to maintain and protect prime soils for agricultural production. Responsibly siting a community solar farm means minimizing the adverse economic impact on local industry. 

While farmland is prime real estate for solar farms, much of it is not for sale. Instead, solar developers often lease land from private owners. Leasing underused or unused land to solar developers can benefit landowners and their communities. Let’s look at a few positive impacts community solar creates: 

  • A new, stable revenue stream for landowners. 

  • Steady jobs for farm workers.

  • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and health risks linked to air pollution. 

Agrivoltaics: Solar farms and agriculture can work together 

Solar panels and agricultural practices can not only coexist on the same land, but enhance each other’s productivity. Known as agrivoltaics, combining agriculture and solar panels can benefit farmers and cut carbon emissions. Ground-mounted solar panels can give crops optimal sunlight while keeping the soil moist and saving water. Alternatively, the transfer of water from the soil into the atmosphere by plants keeps solar panels cooler, aiding in efficiency. Livestock such as sheep also share farmland well with solar panels. It’s not for every farm, but agrivoltaics can improve crop yields and reduce water consumption while producing emission-free electricity. 

Learn more about agrivoltaics.

The life expectancy of a solar panel is about 25-30 years. Once a solar farm reaches its useful life, the equipment is removed and the land restored. This process is known as decommissioning. It’s the responsibility of the solar project owner to de-compact the soil, backfill excavation sites, and revegetate the area. Usually, a restoration plan is required as part of the original proposal. Solar farms are often easier on the land than some other types of developments. In time, the land can be restored to its former glory once decommissioned.

On top of lowering your annual electricity costs, community solar creates local jobs and promotes a cleaner environment. Keep up to date with your local community solar market on the EnergySage Community Solar Marketplace. Sign up today to explore, compare, and receive unbiased guidance from our energy experts. Start your journey today and go solar with confidence.

Get the benefits of solar without installing panels
Please enter a five-digit zip code.
  • 100% free to use, 100% online
  • Enjoy 5 - 20% off your annual electricity bill
  • Unbiased Energy Advisors ready to help
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