How Solar Farms Harvest the Sun's Energy

Amber waves of grain are being replaced by fields of solar panels. What to know about a fast-growing type of farm.

A large solar array next to a farm field.

Farms aren't just for crops these days. Massive solar arrays are popping up on farmland, providing an growing portion of energy to the electric grid. 

Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Solar panels aren't just a rooftop accessory for showing off your green cred and slash your utility bills. It's increasingly common to see entire fields populated with reflective photovoltaics. 

These large installations of panels are typically called solar farms -- and they're quickly becoming a bigger part of our energy mix and the grid itself. 

In some places, large-scale solar farms have become sources of controversy, triggering local battles between the desire to displace fossil fuels with renewable energy and what some locals consider to be a large eyesore that can also disrupt wildlife habitats and agricultural traditions. 

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While conflicts continue to be hashed out, solar farm developers are working directly with farmers to lease land for large solar arrays that provide steady revenue with no maintenance or management costs. 

But solar farms aren't just for farms. They can also be found covering large warehouse roofs, shading large parking lots and in other places. 

What is a solar farm?

There's no hard and fast definition for what a solar farm is, other than some sort of large-scale solar array. 

Brandon Smithwood, senior director of policy at Atlanta-based Dimension Renewable Energy, told me many people envision panels on a farmer's back 40 acres, but there are plenty of urban solar farms as well. 

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"People kind of think of it sitting in a field, but these projects have a lot of similarities whether they're in the built environment or a field," Smithwood said.

Dimension works out leases with property owners, acquires permits and then constructs, maintains and manages the solar farm for years. 

More solar farms have been popping up nationwide in recent years due to government initiatives to add more renewable energy to the grid. The Inflation Reduction Act and ongoing efforts from the Biden administration look likely to continue to fuel the expansion of solar farms, at least in the near to medium term. 

What are the different types of solar farms?

Some neighborhoods and smaller groups have begun banding together to create microgrids of small solar arrays that can power a few homes or blocks, but solar farms are typically going to be larger. Think utility or industrial scale. At the moment, there are two main types of farms, those built by utilities or for community solar programs. 

Community solar farms

A popular use of solar farms is for community solar programs. Typically an energy provider constructs a solar farm, which community members can subscribe to. The provider then sells that energy to a local utility. 

Smithwood said electric co-ops have been early adopters of community solar, whereas investor-owned utilities usually have to be compelled to adopt similar programs through state legislation.

Utility-scale solar farms

Utilities, both co-ops and investor-owned, have also been active in building solar farms of their own for years, often incentivized by government grants or loans. 

It's common to see utilities and co-ops partnering with local organizations to put small or large solar farms all over their geographic footprint, whether it's in public parking lots, rooftops of large buildings or in fields. 

Utility-scale farms help make local grids more resilient by reducing reliance on a single source of power, such as a large plant-burning fossil fuels. 

Sheep graze under solar panels.

Solar panels are a high-tech presence on agricultural land, but they can coexist with what you might think of as traditional farm functions. Consider these sheep grazing in the shade of solar panels in Minnesota.

Ben Brewer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rooftop solar vs. solar farms 

Keeping in mind that it's possible for a solar farm to be on a large rooftop, typical residential rooftop solar differs from a solar farm in that a homeowner has control over how the energy their system produces is used. It can be used by the home, stored in batteries or fed onto the grid

A solar farm, on the other hand, functions more like a typical power plant that is simply adding more energy potential to the grid. 

Smithwood said low-value agricultural land is the most common place for a farm, but there are also projects on landfills, brownfields and parking lots. Such projects are often more expensive and subsidized by state or local governments. 

How much energy can a solar farm produce?

According to Smithwood, a 30-acre solar farm can produce enough energy to power about 1,000 homes. A typical residential rooftop system is 5 kilowatts, whereas a farm might be 5 megawatts -- a thousand times as much energy.  Part of this big boost has to do with the ability to use trackers that keep a farm's panels at the ideal angle at all times, whereas most rooftop installations are stationary. 

How can I get my energy from a solar farm?

The simplest course of action is to simply contact your local utility or co-op to find out if they already make use of solar farms. It's possible that a proportion of the energy flowing through your house already comes from the sun. You can also let them know you'd like to see more renewables on their grid as a customer.

If you live in a deregulated energy market, you may also have the option of purchasing your energy from a provider that supports renewables. 

Community solar programs operate in a similar manner to energy providers, but are focused on renewable energy and operate in some markets that aren't yet deregulated. Again, check with your utility to see if they participate in any community solar programs. You can also get more information from the Solar Energy Industries Association or your state affiliate organization.

What are the pros and cons of solar farms?

Solar farms are a great way to use otherwise unused space to generate renewable energy, although there may always be some room for debate over whether it's the best use for every space.


  • Increases renewables in energy mix and grid resilience.
  • Good use of unused agrigultural land that provides a revenue source for farmers and ranchers.
  • Land can easily be converted back to farming at the end of the lease. 
  • Solar farms often reduce utility bills.


  • Solar farms can disrupt wildlife and aren't always attractive.
  • Big upfront cost to construct.
  • They generate power intermittently. 


Is a solar farm a good investment?

It depends on the terms of any leases and commitments from energy buyers. 

How much profit can you make from a solar farm?

This depends on your situation, but some community solar programs will lease land and construct and maintain a solar farm at no cost to the landowner. 

Article updated on August 11, 2023 at 3:47 AM PDT

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Eric Mack
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Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects, and CNET's "Living off the Grid" series Credentials
  • Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
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