Land Use

2.1 Solar PV Land-Use 

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.[11] 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.[12]  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:[13]  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.[14]  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.[15]

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.[16]  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.[17]

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.[18]  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.[19]

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.[20]

    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.  
• 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. 

2. Weighing the Impact of PV Development on Agriculture

The purpose of this section is to explore how the competing land uses of solar development and agriculture interact and can coexist with each other. Subsection 2.1 provides analysis of data and metrics that quantify the current and potential amount of solar development on agricultural land in North Carolina. Subsection 2.2 explores the impacts that solar development could have on future agricultural production on the developed site and neighboring properties. Taken together, Section 2 of this factsheet provides several factors to consider when weighing the impact of PV development on agriculture. 

1.4 Duration of Solar Use

Currently in North Carolina most utility-scale solar projects have a 15-year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with the local electric utility. Some developers prefer to purchase the land, while others prefer to lease, depending on the project’s business model and financing arrangements. Typical land leases have a term of 15 to 30 years, often with several optional 5-year extensions.[10]  While specific lease rates are generally undisclosed, in our understanding lease rates often range between $500 and $1,000 per acre per year. Most solar PV panel manufacturers include a 25-year power warranty on their panels, which cover the panels to produce at least 80% of their original power output at the expiration of the warranty period. 

Modern solar facilities may be considered a temporary, albeit long-term, use of the land, in the sense that the systems can be readily removed from the site at the end of their productive life. At this point, the site can be returned to agricultural use, albeit with a potential for some short-term reduction in productivity due to loss of topsoil, compaction, change in pH, and change in available nutrients. Leasing farmland for solar PV use, particularly land that is not actively being farmed today, is a viable way to preserve land for potential future agricultural use. PV use is particularly valuable in this regard when compared to commercial or residential development, which require changes to the land that are very difficult to reverse. For landowners struggling to retain ownership of their land due to financial strains, solar leasing may provide a vital, stable income solution. It may also serve as a more appealing alternative to selling their land to buyers intending to use the land for other, more permanent non-agricultural uses.

While it is very difficult to predict the state of electricity, agriculture, and real estate markets 25 or more years into the future, existing circumstances can provide some insight into the likelihood of today’s solar facilities continuing as solar facilities at the end of the initial PV modules’ useful lifetime. The he economics of existing solar facilities are such that many of the projects built today are likely to update some of their equipment after 20 or more years and continue to operate as a solar electricity facility for many more years. The ability to facilitate interconnection to the electric grid provides great value to a landowner. A parcel of land featuring this capability in today’s market will likely also appeal to solar developers in the future due to the infrastructure cost savings.


1.3 Solar Facility Construction

Solar panels are supported by steel or aluminum racks. The racks are attached to galvanized steel posts driven 6-8 feet into the ground without concrete, although very occasionally, site conditions require the use of cement grout in the pile hole. The only concrete is generally at the inverter/transformer pads which are typically about 10’ by 20’ each. There is usually no more than one such pad per MW of AC capacity.  At some sites these pads are precast concrete or steel skids that sit above grade on helical steel piers. Much of the wiring at the site is above-ground attached to the racking under the rows of panels. The rest of the wiring is 2 to 3 feet underground either as direct-bury cables or in 2”-6” PVC conduit. Most sites involve minimal grading of the land.  

Every site provides access for vehicles, which requires roads, or “access aisles,”  to be constructed. These roads are sometimes improved with gravel, but they do not require application of concrete or asphalt. Many sites only use gravel close to the entry to the public Right of Way, as required by NCDOT regulation, with the rest of the access aisles as simply compacted native soil. Some developers use reusable wooden logging mats to provide temporary stabilization during construction to avoid the need for the addition of gravel. A best practice when building a gravel access aisle is to strip the organic topsoil, place a geotextile fabric under the aggregate and redistribute the topsoil on site to assist in soil stabilization.  This will provide stability for the aggregate, allow for more efficient removal of the gravel at the end of the project’s life cycle by providing separation between aggregate and subgrade, while preserving the valuable topsoil on site for future agricultural use.[9] Well-drafted leases will specify allowable construction techniques and locations of roads and other infrastructure. The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) requires soil erosion and sedimentation control plans and permits and inspects implemented measures on the site until vegetative groundcover is established.

1.2 Landowner Land Use Choice

North Carolina policy generally leaves land use decisions in the hands of landowners. That said, the state, local, and federal governments can encourage or discourage specific landowner choices through the incentives or disincentives that they provide for particular uses, as well as through various forms of regulation, such as zoning rules and environmental restrictions. The balance of state-provided incentives for agricultural or solar energy production can, in some cases, be the determining factor in the decision to invest in solar or agriculture development. Also, the current grid infrastructure limits the sites feasible for solar development; it is only feasible to connect solar to certain locations in the grid and only to a limited density.

North Carolina has granted local governments the power to regulate land use in their jurisdictions, although state and federal rules apply in many circumstances. This means that local governments can manage land development with the needs of the community in mind, while also safeguarding natural resources. These land-use regulations can put limits on the allowed uses for some land and thus limit landowners’ options, in some cases affecting the viability of solar development. Some agricultural land has been exempted from certain regulations due to “grandfathering,” and changing the land use to solar may remove these exemptions, which can affect the ability to return the land to agricultural use in the future.[7]

Land use regulations that may be relevant to solar development, depending on the location, can include (but are not limited to):[8]
    • Local zoning and land use rules (fencing, buffer zones between buildings and roads, border shrubs/trees, etc.)
    • Floodplain development rules
    • Erosion and sedimentation rules
    • Permitting regarding military and air traffic impact
    • Water quality rules (i.e. Neuse nutrient strategy rules, Coastal Area Management Act rules)
    • USDA wetlands impact rules

To determine whether these and other rules are relevant for a potential solar development, landowners and solar developers should consult their local government planning departments, the Soil and Water Conservation Division of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office, and the USDA Farm Services Agency. 


1.1 Developing Renewable Energy

Currently, almost all of North Carolina’s electricity is generated from fuels, such as coal, natural gas, and uranium, which are produced outside the state. Some coal plants in North Carolina are reaching the end of their useful lives and being retired.[1],[2] Alternative sources of energy, such as solar and wind, have become much more economically attractive in the last several years, making it possible to economically replace some nuclear, coal, and gas electricity generation with these  sources.[3] 

More than three hundred privately financed utility-scale solar facilities operate in North Carolina under current electricity prices, regulations, and policies, with more planned for the future. As with any new technology, price drops and performance improvements may be expected over time as production volumes increase and experience is gained. Since 2009, the total cost to develop and build a utility-scale solar facility in North Carolina has dropped from over $5 per watt to about $1 per watt. This rapid cost reduction in utility-scale solar facilities has greatly improved the financial viability of solar projects; many solar projects are now being planned even without the North Carolina renewable energy tax credit that expired at the end of 2015.[4],[5]

In addition to the increasingly attractive economics, some of the shift towards solar energy has been driven by policy choices. Solar and other types of renewable energy have many benefits that have motivated support from policymakers. For instance, they do not use imported fuel, reducing our exposure to fuel price volatility. Solar energy also does not produce the air pollution and greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel-powered electricity generation, and it avoids some other environmental risks associated with fossil and nuclear fuels such as coal ash and radioactive waste disposal. Reduction of air pollution has been part of state and national policy for decades, and the U.S. has seen steadily improving air quality as a result.[6] Solar and other clean energy sources assist in this ongoing reduction in air pollution.

Solar energy offers many benefits to North Carolina. However, while solar development provides a source of clean in-state energy, it requires land to do so. This means that solar energy projects will sometimes compete with other potential land uses.


1. Understanding the Context of Solar Development and Agriculture in North Carolina

This section provides some background on solar development in North Carolina. By illustrating the existing demand for renewable energy (1.1), touching on the state’s political climate towards private land use (1.2), and highlighting two important considerations of PV development (1.3 and 1.4), the context surrounding the two competing land uses of solar development and agriculture can be better understood. As agriculture is and has been a dominant, established land use in this state for generations, discussion in this section will primarily focus on the increasing demands of land to be used for solar development.