New report shines light on sustainable solar farm development in the Southeast

Lauren Bowen, Katie Ottenweller and Peter Stein, three attorneys working on SELC's Solar Initiative, visit a solar farm outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (© Alice Keeney)

A new report released by SELC highlights how communities across the Southeast are harnessing the many benefits of solar power while ensuring that energy demands are balanced with smart, sustainable development of solar farms.

The Environmental Review of Solar Farms in the Southeast U.S.” describes the environmental review processes and sustainable practices that currently inform the development of solar farms, which the report defines as projects larger than 1 megawatt (MW) and require roughly 5 acres of land.

Download the report

As the price of solar power continues its steep decline, local solar farms are making up an increasing portion of the Southeast’s energy landscape. Solar farms generate emission-free power that feeds into the local grid, supplying utilities and their customers with clean, affordable electricity.

“Solar farms in the Southeast are providing real cost savings for customers and have proven to be a major driver for rural economic growth, and there is still a great deal of untapped potential in our states,” said Senior Attorney Katie Ottenweller, leader of SELC’s Solar Initiative. “By adding more solar power in our region, we could be creating even more local jobs, providing a valuable income stream for farmers, and generating much-needed tax revenue for rural communities.”

While acknowledging that all electricity generation has the potential for environmental impacts, this report lays out a fact-based analysis of the benefits of solar power compared to other resources that we use to generate electricity, such as coal, nuclear energy, and natural gas, considering impacts on water consumption, land use footprints and carbon emissions.

Another common question for communities as they begin exploring how to tap into the Southeast’s solar potential is what federal, state, and local envi­ronmental review processes are in place today to provide protection from potential adverse impacts. This report outlines current protections and provides recommendations for further minimizing impacts on land use, water resources, habitat, and sensitive species.

The report also demonstrates how solar developers are going above and beyond to ensure benefits for Southeastern communities. For example, Sun-Raised Farms in North Carolina pairs local sheep farmers with solar farms, providing much-needed grazing land to the sheep farmers while benefiting the solar developers by managing plant growth around solar panels. In 2015, the partnership resulted in earnings of over a quarter million dollars for local farmers.

City and county governments are often tasked with decisions about local land use, siting and permitting, and may be unfamiliar with this new technology. With this in mind, the report provides guidance to local governments considering proposed solar farms in their community.

“While some local communities are embracing solar power, others are struggling with this new land use, leading to the emergence of short-sighted roadblocks in the form of solar moratoriums, land-use restrictions targeting solar farms, and permit denials,” said Ottenweller.

“We want to encourage thoughtful and measured local oversight of solar, with the goal of supporting solar power that grows the local economy, benefits communities, protects our natural resources and preserves landowners’ ability to invest in solar. Finding these win-win solutions is what local governments do best – and will be essential to communities across the Southeast continuing to harness our most abundant natural resource – the sun.”

Click here for a report summary.

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