The NC Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) used GIS software to quantify the amount of solar land use. As of December 2016, solar installations occupied 0.2 percent (9,074 acres) of North Carolina’s 4.75 million acres of cropland. NCDA&CS has provided an updated estimate; they estimate that 14,864 acres of cropland, or 0.31 percent of the total, were occupied by solar development at the end of the first quarter of 2017. NCSEA and NCDA&CS were able to locate and quantify solar use for 318 of 341 currently-installed utility-scale facilities in North Carolina. A map of the solar installations in the state prepared by NCSEA is available at: http://energyncmaps.org/gis/solar/index.html. The researchers extrapolated the per-MW findings of the 318 sites found in aerial photos to generate an estimate for the remaining 23 projects not yet visible in the latest aerial photography. Across all projects, 79% of solar project area was formerly farmland, defined as land identified from aerial photography to have been used for crops, hay, or pasture before solar development. On average, the solar projects occupied 5.78 acres per MWAC.
N.C. has been losing farmland to various forms of development for many years. Over the last decade, North Carolina has lost about one million acres of cropland to development and housing. Since 1940, total cropland in N.C. has fallen from 8.42 million acres to 4.75 million acres (as of 2012). The North Carolina Department of Agriculture has identified farmland preservation as one of its top priorities since 2005.
As of the end of 2016, solar PV installations added 2,300 MWAC of solar generating capacity to North Carolina’s electricity grid, making NC second in the nation for installed solar PV capacity. These installations generate enough electricity to power approximately 256,000 average N.C. homes, equaling 6.2% of all households in the state. NCSEA and NCDA&CS published the summary of their land-use analysis in February of 2017 and NCSEA released a report on this research in April of this year.
If the current siting and production trends were to continue until ground-mounted solar produced, on average, an amount of electricity equal to 100% of N.C.’s current electricity use, solar facilities would cover about 8% of current N.C. cropland. This is an unrealistic extreme to illustrate the limited possible magnitude of land usage for solar even at very high solar generation levels, yet even this scenario would occupy only about half of the N.C. cropland acreage lost to development in the last 10 years. Even if solar were to provide all of our electricity, ground-mounted utility-scale solar will almost certainly not be the only source of electricity. As PV prices continue to decline it is likely that North Carolina will see more and more rooftop and parking lot canopies, reducing the need for green field development. A recent Department of Energy study found that rooftop systems have the technical capability to meet 23.5% of North Carolina’s electricity demand.
A more likely scenario, even assuming that fossil fuel and nuclear based electricity is entirely phased out, is that other sources of renewable electricity and technologies will meet a large portion of our electricity needs. A Stanford University study of the optimal mix of renewable energy sources for each state to achieve 100% renewable energy found that North Carolina would get only 26.5% of its electricity from utility-scale solar plants. At this still highly expanded level of solar development, based off of the 8.3% land use for 100% solar figure calculated earlier, the amount of NC cropland used for solar would be around 2.2%.
More realistically, in the next decade or two, solar electricity may grow to provide around 5 – 20% of North Carolina’s electricity, which would allow solar to meet, or nearly meet, the full requirements of the North Carolina Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard. At the 12.5% REPS requirement, this is about 13 GWAC of PV, which will require about 75,000 acres of land at the average historic density found in the NCCETC/NCDA study. This is not an insignificant amount of land, but if split between agricultural and non-agricultural land at the same ratio as the first 2.3 GW installed in NC this represents about 1.1% of cropland in the state. NCSEA projects that by 2030, utility-scale solar will provide 5.03% of North Carolina’s electricity and use 0.57% of available cropland.
Solar energy’s land use requirements are comparable to those of existing energy sources. According to an MIT study, supplying 100% of U.S. electricity demand in 2050 with solar would require us of about 0.4% of the country’s land area; this is only half the amount of land currently used to grow corn for ethanol fuel production, and about the same amount of land as has been disturbed by surface coal mining.
For landowners interested in solar development, it is important to understand the agricultural value of the land before entering into a solar lease agreement. Careful due diligence in the siting phase can help mitigate the use of the most valuable farmland. Landowners can contact their county tax office for property value information. The following online resources can assist landowners and developers in assessing the agricultural value of land before selecting the final footprint for solar development:
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service provides several tools in this link to identify soil types on property.
• www.ncmhtd.com/rye/ The North Carolina Realistic Yields Database provides landowners with a useful mapping and soil analysis tool that produces realistic productivity yields for expected crops given the landowner’s property location and soil type.