Ground-Mounted Solar Panels: What You Need to Know Before Investing

Mounting solar panels on the ground instead of on a roof has benefits and drawbacks.

Solar panels awaiting ground-mounting

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In This Article

As its name suggests, a ground-mounted solar system is a free-standing solar array mounted on the ground using either a rigid metal frame or atop a single pole. Ground-mounted systems can take the place of a rooftop system when the latter isn't available or suitable. Both provide greater benefits than relying on fossil fuels for your electricity needs. Not every roof is suited for solar panels. but not every home has the extra space needed for ground-mounted panels.

Benefits of Ground-Mounted Solar

Depending on your space requirements, ground-mounted solar panels can be a more worthwhile investment than rooftop panels. The list of benefits is longer than the list of drawbacks, but every individual situation is different.

Nothing on Your Roof

Your roof may not have the structural integrity capable of supporting solar panels. A professional contractor or inspector can determine its suitability.

Asphalt roofs also need replacing roughly every 10 to 15 years. You may also not like the aesthetics of solar panels on your roof, or perhaps your homeowner's association prohibits rooftop installations.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

If you have a big enough lot, you can set ground-mounted solar panels beyond the sight from your house or immediate yard. If you are lucky enough to have a second property or are able to lease land somewhere, you can install ground-mounted solar panels on that property, then get credit through a net metering program for the electricity that they send into the electrical grid. (This is how community solar programs work.)

Potentially More Efficient

While a roof that faces north-south can still support solar panels that generate electricity, the amount of solar radiation they receive may make the panels not efficient enough to pay for themselves. Ground-mounted systems can be placed without obstructions like chimneys, trees, or neighboring structures, shortening the payback time.

More easily than rooftop panels, ground-mounted ones can be adjusted according to the season or can support a solar tracker that follows the path of the sun throughout the day. A ground-mounted system with a tracker can be 10% to 45% more efficient than a rooftop solar system.

The larger height of ground-mounted panels means they are better suited for bifacial panels, which have solar cells on the back of the panels that capture light reflected off the ground or other hard surface. Because air flows more freely around ground-mounted solar panels than rooftop panels, they are less likely to suffer from heat buildup, which reduces the efficiency of solar panels.

Treehugger Tip

You can test the potential productivity of a ground-mounted solar array on your property using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's System Advisory Model.

Potentially Safer

Faulty wiring in any solar system can create fire risks, but in a ground-mounted system those risks are isolated from your home rather than sitting on your roof. Ground-mounted panels also have independent electrical grounds rather than the ground being bonded to your house's.

More Easily Expandable

Should your energy needs expand in the future, such as after the purchase of an electric vehicle or heat pump, it's easier to expand a ground-mounted solar system than a rooftop one, especially if it has already maximized all available roof space.

Dual-Purpose Capabilities

A ground-mounted solar array can double as a solar carport or solar canopy, providing shade and shelter for vehicles and patios, or as a spot to charge your electric vehicle.

Easier Maintenance

Ground-mounted panels are easier to access than rooftop panels and thus easier to repair when an inverter fails or some other defect arises. They are also easier to periodically clean to maintain their efficiency. All solar systems need periodic inspections from your installer or an electrician—panels that are easier to inspect can reduce the maintenance costs of the system.

DIY Capabilities

With kits available on the market, you can more easily and safely install a ground-mounted solar system than climbing on a roof to install one. As always, follow all local ordinances, obtain all permits, and use a licensed electrician if you are unable to set up the system yourself.

Drawbacks of Ground-Mounted Solar

Ground-mounted solar panels in a backyard

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There are also drawbacks to ground-mounted solar systems compared to rooftop solar, but whether or not they outweigh the benefits depends on your situation.

Land Required

The most obvious drawback of a ground-mounted system is that it requires available land, making it more suitable for rural or suburban settings than for urban ones. A ground-mounted solar system capable of generating enough electricity to meet the average needs of an American household would need roughly 1,000 square feet of open space with unobstructed sun.

Potential Environmental Impact

There are over 8 billion square meters of rooftops in the United States already available and suitable for installing solar panels, capable of doubling the country's current electricity generating capacity. No extra land needs to be made available. In terms of land use, the potential environmental impact of rooftop solar is minimal.

For a typical ground-mounted solar array, land needs to be cleared of vegetation, graded, then covered with gravel prior to construction. Sacrificing pristine lands with a high environmental value is not only costly in terms of time lost to the permitting, public approval, and potential litigation, but costly as well to the biodiversity of the local environment.

Siting ground-mounted solar projects on marginal lands like brownfields or other disturbed or contaminated lands can limit their environmental impact. It is also possible to mount solar panels high enough to make room for agrivoltaics, which combines solar panels with agriculture, where the panels can support crop-growing and provide shade for grazing animals. Increasingly, U.S. states are introducing renewable energy siting tools to guide the environmentally friendly development of ground-mounted solar projects.

Home Resale Value

While a recent study from Zillow found that a house with solar panels sold for 4.1% more than comparable homes without them, the study was limited to rooftop solar. No comparable study has tested the resale value of a home with a ground-mounted solar system, but a ground-mounted system may turn away potential buyers who want to use the property for other purposes.

Extra Permitting

A rooftop solar system may fall under “permitted development” in certain municipalities. But because it is a new use of property, a ground-mounted systems may require an application to local zoning, environmental, or planning authorities for permission, depending on the system's size, height, and of course, local regulations.

Extra Wiring

Ground-mounted systems need longer wiring to connect the panels to the home. Those extra wires may need to be buried to protect them from squirrels or other animals munching on them.

Costs of a Ground-Mounted Solar System

Solar panels with a hard hat and cost estimate

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On average, a solar system is about $2.81 per watt, so a 6 kilowatt system (enough to power the average American household) would cost $16,860, including installation. The upfront costs of a ground-mounted system are greater, because they include the cost of a concrete foundation, extra mounting hardware, extra labor, extra permitting, and (potentially) a tracking system, which on its own can add $500 to $1,000 per panel to the entire system cost.

Any solar system is a long-term investment, so the most important calculation to make is not the upfront costs (though those are important) but the return on investment (ROI). Many factors go into calculating a solar system's ROI: the cost and efficiency of the panels, the cost of financing, local labor costs, federal and state incentives, and the price of electricity in your area, among others factors. The average time it takes for the system to pay for itself is 7 to 12 years.

The main factor determining whether or not a ground-mounted solar array is cost-competitive with a rooftop system is its efficiency. If it's able to produce more electricity using fewer panels, it may have a quicker return on investment.

Treehugger Tip

Whether a ground-mounted system is right for you is a complicated question with roughly 25 years of implications. It's helpful to contact a solar installer to walk you through the options and the costs. It's certainly less complicated to stick with whatever electricity plan you have now, but don't let those complications stop you from investing your money wisely in a cleaner, less expensive alternative.