1.4 Operations and Maintenance – Panel Washing and Vegetation Control

Throughout the eastern U.S., the climate provides frequent and heavy enough rain to keep panels adequately clean. This dependable weather pattern eliminates the need to wash the panels on a regular basis. Some system owners may choose to wash panels as often as once a year to increase production, but most in N.C. do not regularly wash any PV panels. Dirt build up over time may justify panel washing a few times over the panels’ lifetime; however, nothing more than soap and water are required for this activity.

The maintenance of ground-mounted PV facilities requires that vegetation be kept low, both for aesthetics and to avoid shading of the PV panels. Several approaches are used to maintain vegetation at NC solar facilities, including planting of limited-height species, mowing, weed-eating, herbicides, and grazing livestock (sheep). The following descriptions of vegetation maintenance practices are based on interviews with several solar developers as well as with three maintenance firms that together are contracted to maintain well over 100 of the solar facilities in N.C. The majority of solar facilities in North Carolina maintain vegetation primarily by mowing. Each row of panels has a single row of supports, allowing sickle mowers to mow under the panels. The sites usually require mowing about once a month during the growing season. Some sites employ sheep to graze the site, which greatly reduces the human effort required to maintain the vegetation and produces high quality lamb meat. 60

In addition to mowing and weed eating, solar facilities often use some herbicides. Solar facilities generally do not spray herbicides over the entire acreage; rather they apply them only in strategic locations such as at the base of the perimeter fence, around exterior vegetative buffer, on interior dirt roads, and near the panel support posts. Also unlike many row crop operations, solar facilities generally use only general use herbicides, which are available over the counter, as opposed to restricted use herbicides commonly used in commercial agriculture that require a special restricted use license. The herbicides used at solar facilities are primarily 2-4-D and glyphosate (Round-up®), which are two of the most common herbicides used in lawns, parks, and agriculture across the country. One maintenance firm that was interviewed sprays the grass with a class of herbicide known as a growth regulator in order to slow the growth of grass so that mowing is only required twice a year. Growth regulators are commonly used on highway roadsides and golf courses for the same purpose. A commercial pesticide applicator license is required for anyone other than the landowner to apply herbicides, which helps ensure that all applicators are adequately educated about proper herbicide use and application. The license must be renewed annually and requires passing of a certification exam appropriate to the area in which the applicator wishes to work. Based on the limited data available, it appears that solar facilities in N.C. generally use significantly less herbicides per acre than most commercial agriculture or lawn maintenance services.

Weed and Vegetation Control

Maintenance of vegetation on site can be accomplished using several options, including but not limited to the following: mowing, weed eaters, herbicides, and sheep. Reductions in fertilizer use on the site will slow growth of vegetation and weeds. Mowing allows the landowner to have the option of laying cut grass or vegetation on grounds of site to decompose and improve long-term soil fertility. In some cases, landowners have used grazing animals, normally sheep, to frequent the solar site grounds and control the vegetation and weeds, which also returns organic matter to the soil on site

Like most lawns and parks, many utility-scale solar facilities in N.C. use a combination of mowing and herbicides to maintain the vegetation. When using herbicides, applicators are advised to be mindful of label instructions and local conditions. Herbicide persistence is affected by the organic matter content and moisture level of the soil. The importance of complying with legal responsibilities in using the treatments cannot be stressed enough, especially for land located near surface water, land where the surface is near the water table, or where application might carry over to other neighboring lands..

Herbicide use at solar facilities is typically similar to that in agriculture, and the types of herbicides used are similar between the two uses. As such, the impact of herbicides used at solar facilities on neighboring land and the environment is likely to be no more than that of conventional agriculture. Herbicide use differs widely among different crops and farming techniques, so the change in herbicide appliance between agricultural and solar use will vary in individual cases, but in the aggregate, there is no reason to believe that solar facilities will result in more herbicide impacts on neighboring lands than do current agricultural uses.[31] Herbicide use can be discontinued 1-2 years before decommissioning of a site, minimizing any residual impact on crop production at former solar sites.[32]

A number of sites use sheep at low densities to maintain vegetation during the growing season, although the sheep do not fully replace the need for mowing and/or herbicide use. The sheep are leased from sheep farmers, and the demand for sheep at solar facilities has been beneficial for North Carolina’s sheep industry.[33] The grazing of sheep at solar facilities incorporates local farmers into the management of the sites, engaging the local community with solar development. The growth of solar farms represents a huge opportunity for the North Carolina sheep industry, with thousands of acres that are fenced well for sheep, and allow North Carolina farmers to diversify into new agricultural products for which there is increasing demand.[34]