Solar farms (sometimes known as solar parks or solar fields) are the large-scale application of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to generate green, clean electricity at scale, usually to feed into the grid.
Now coming to the answer, it’s a yes, solar farms can be installed on agricultural lands. However, there are 3 key aspects to be considered namely:
- Suitability of the agricultural land
- Economic suitability
- Land regulations
Now let us discuss each of these aspects in detail.
Is my agricultural land suitable for solar farming?
- Some important factors that decide the suitability of the agricultural land with abundance sunlight available for solar farming are:
- Proximity to Grid connection- One of the biggest hidden costs of a solar farm is the distance required to connect a grid and it is advised to keep it within 1km of existing distribution lines
- Local Transmission Capacity – Careful study must be done if the power grids will be able to handle the excess capacity that a solar farm would introduce.
- Proximity to Main Roads – Proximity of a solar plant to a main road is considered an economic factor as the transportation costs affect the overall cost benefits.
- Other factors include Conservation and Environmental Impact Issues, Local Regulations and Ownership, Flood Risk Assessment, Quality of terrain, Local weathering factors, etc.
Can I continue farming after the solar farm installation?
- There are opportunities for large-scale solar energy installations to reduce environmental impacts and environmental mitigation costs through co-location with vegetation. Co-location can be defined as the deliberate production of vegetation and energy in a single location. Vegetation production might occur under or around energy infrastructure.
- Opportunities and approaches to co-location can be characterized as:
- Vegetation-centric: The basic premise is that the vegetation productivity of the land being utilized is not sacrificed for the sake of solar generation. Minimized changes to existing vegetation management activities, while also incorporating solar energy production activities is the key here.
- Energy-centric: This serves to maximize solar energy output, minimize changes to solar development standard practices, while also promoting vegetation growth under and around the solar installation. This is suited to lands where the remuneration from solar activities is quite high when compared with the existing agricultural practices.
- Choosing between the two practices mentioned above is an economic decision as it depends on the remuneration generated when they aren’t co-located, as it could potentially result in either lower vegetation productivity or lower energy output when co-location is preferred.
- However, in addition to vegetation-centric and energy-centric approaches, there are also hybrid approaches that seek to integrate both energy output and vegetation production goals.
- Regulations for solar farms
- Though many regions around the world appreciate the concept of co-farming, the solar farms would be required to follow a set of regulations established for each region when some of the best and versatile agricultural lands are converted into solar farms.
- Setting up solar farms in agricultural lands is highly constrained by most planning commission departments of each region and they may require permits and clearances from the directors.
- The regulations may also include restrictions on area to be converted into solar farms, setbacks, fencing, buffer zones, drainage, construction and glare.
As explained above, the suitability of agricultural land for solar farms depends on multiple aspects, and also depends on the overall business objectives. Broadly, it can be said that only in select cases can solar farms technically co-exist with agricultural farming; however, when it comes to the use of agricultural land for installation of solar panels instead of growing crops, economic and regulatory constraints play a greater role than pure technicalities.