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Low-Impact Solar Development Basics


Low-impact solar development improves soil health, retains water, nurtures native species, produces food, and reduces energy costs for local communities. It's unlike traditional solar development, which uses land solely for energy production.

What Is Low-Impact Solar Development?

Low-impact solar development can mean a lot of different things, but some general principles are shown in the table below.

Conventional Site Preparation:

Low-Impact Site Preparation:

Clearing and grubbing of soil and roots Existing vegetation is left intact or is replaced with low-growing native vegetation species or crops
Topsoil stripping and stockpiling Existing topsoil is left in place to allow for the successful growth of native vegetation and to promote soil health post-decommissioning of the solar project
Land grading and leveling utilizing heavy machinery Natural contours of land are worked into the design and configuration of the solar project, with minimal if any land grading required
Soil compaction utilizing heavy machinery Soil and vegetation are left intact to facilitate the growth of native vegetation, improved stormwater management through less runoff and erosion, and soil health
Land footprint for the foundations of vertical support structures, often including concrete Lower land footprint for foundations of vertical support structures, often driven piles
Vegetation that supports habitat is discouraged and removed Vegetation that supports habitat (e.g., pollinator species, other native fauna) is encouraged
O&M activities include herbicide spraying, mowing of weeds and other vegetation Minimal O&M activities due to low-growing native vegetation species, could involve livestock grazing



Low-Impact Solar Development Opportunities:

There are many different configurations that can support low-development solar development:

Solar Centric

Minimal changes to solar configuration

Low-lying vegetation for ground cover and habitat

Photo of a row of solar panels in a grassy field with mountains in the background

Solar-centric pollinator-friendly solar project in Wisconsin. Photo by Jordan Macknick

Vegetation Centric

Minimal changes to vegetation design

Large spacing in solar technologies

Photo of the sun peeking through the clouds over a solar panel on a farm

A field of crops hosts solar panels. Photo by Jake Marley / Hyperion

Co-Location and Co-Optimization

Solar and vegetation configurations are designed jointly for maximum dual output

Photo of two rows of solar panels with plants and vegetables growing below them and a man standing around in the distance

Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL



Benefits of Low-Impact Solar Development

Benefits to Land Owners

  • Self-generation of electricity and reduced energy bills
  • Additional income stream and increased revenue security
  • Control of wind and soil erosion
  • Compatible with grazing activities, provides shade and cover for livestock
  • New market opportunities for shade tolerant crops
  • Protection of natural habitat
  • Safeguarding soil health
  • Improved habitat for pollinator species

Benefits to Solar Developers

  • Reductions in site preparation and installation costs
  • Reductions in O&M costs
  • Reduced need for dust suppression
  • Reduction in litigation vulnerability
  • Decreased permitting time
  • Increased solar energy production from cooler air zone created under modules
  • Reduction in environmental mitigation investments