Screening: The Use of Landscape as a Buffer for Solar Projects

One of the most consistent requests by neighbors regarding solar energy projects is the development of a landscape buffer. In our experience, the treatment and design of the landscape buffer surrounding a solar project is a top priority for both town or city officials as well as community and neighborhood groups.

But how is the buffer design determined? For most city and town regulations, the buffers are required to be 50 feet and should include a dense vegetation planting plan. In some cases, the landscape buffers may be reduced or eliminated if a solid fence is constructed as an alternative.

Illustration #1: Before
Illustration #1: After

This means that over the next few years as the current solar projects reach maturity and the landscape buffers grow, solar fields will become virtually invisible when viewed from the ground or from a car. Just a quick review of the before and after for a recent project shows a very attractive landscape view for all neighbors to enjoy (see Illustration #1). And in some cases, the unused land for a solar field project may serve as a “park” or open area for community and neighborhood uses.

However, the general utility industry does not share the common goal of landscaping buffers and general beautification. Just a quick inspection of any energy substation shows how little attention is given to the street appearance that the community and neighborhood sees each day. It seems remarkable that solar energy projects receive significant requirements for landscaping buffers while major utility companies are most often excluded and are not required to provide community landscape buffers.One might ask, “is there too much added cost for the utility company to be required to add improved landscape buffers?” However on any project, landscaping represents on average less than 1% of the total project delivery costs.In addition, it does not seem reasonable to require one segment of the utility industry to be required to provide landscape buffers that improve community satisfaction while allowing the dominate utility provider to avoid making any necessary planting investments.

Looking at another facet, what street corridor is has not received a complete mutilation of trees in order to allow for the utility overhead wire ways. We live in Charlotte, NC – a city that is recognized as the “City of Trees”. While generally the street trees are quite special, there still are numerous places where seasonal pruning has completely destroyed the necessary balance between nature and electrical utility provision. This approach makes for irregular and often visually criminal results. Why not require the removal of the tree? This would allow the town or city officials along with the utility provider to select the appropriate replacement street tree or landscaping and to make a clear community improvement while that the same time allowing for the necessary electrical benefits. 

So what can be done to improve community and neighborhood appearance? Our team believes that all utility operations must include landscape management as a significant part of a power generation and distribution plan.The solar industry has made significant investment regarding the landscape buffer issue and will certainly continue to do so. Further, regulators, planners and permitting agencies must uniformly apply equal requirements under the law for all utility generating and management groups. This would include major utility companies that have avoided this issue for decades.