Soil compaction can negatively impact soil productivity and will occur to some degree on every solar site. Soil compaction can also limit water infiltration into the soil environment, and lead to greater surface water runoff during rain events. In addition to the roads built in and around solar project sites, the construction of the facility itself as well as regular use of lawn mowers compacts the soil, decreasing the ability of plant roots to grow. However, use of land as a solar site will avoid agriculture-related activities that can induce compaction, such as tillage. There are no data available on the degree of compaction common at solar facilities, but it is possible that some sites could experience heavy compaction in frequently used areas. In cases of heavy compaction, hard pans in the soil will form that can take decades to naturally free up; however, tractor implements such as chisels and vibrators designed to break up hard pan can often remove enough compaction to restore productivity. To prevent damage to soil due to compaction, landowners can negotiate for practices that will result in the least amount of compaction and for roads to be constructed on less productive land. Additionally, maintaining healthy groundcover, especially varieties with deep root systems, can serve to keep the soil arable for potential future agricultural use. The appropriate use of alternative vegetative maintenance strategies, such as grazing with sheep, can reduce the use of mowing equipment onsite and therefore the compaction that may result from using this equipment. Furthermore, livestock grazing works to cycle nutrients in the pasture ecosystem onsite and improve the soil.
Modern agriculture relies on regular additions of lime and fertilizer to maintain soil pH and fertility. Solar facilities maintain vegetative ground covers that can help build soil quality over time, which may require lime and fertilizer to be applied. When the vegetation is cut, the organic matter is left in place to decompose which adds valuable organic matter to the soil. A facility operation and maintenance schedule should include a plan for maintenance of sufficient plant groundcover to protect soil from erosion. Maintaining healthy plant cover will require monitoring of soil fertility and may call for the addition of fertilizer or lime to ensure sufficient nutrients are available for plant growth and that soil pH is adequate. Vegetation mixes may help balance soil nutrient needs, but will need to be managed. Species composition will change over time. NREL and others are researching and using vegetation mixes that include many native grasses with deep root systems; many include some nitrogen fixing plants as well. According to a study published in July 2016 that measured soil and air microclimate, vegetation and greenhouse gas emissions for twelve months under photovoltaic (PV) arrays, in gaps between PV arrays and in control areas at a UK solar sited on species-rich grassland, UK scientists found no change in soil properties among the three locations.After a solar project is removed, a routine soil test (available from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture) should be obtained to determine fertility requirements, including lime, for optimum crop production.