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The Oldest Solar Farm in the US

Updated: Dec 29, 2023


aerial photograph of rows of solar panels on farmland

It is commonplace these days to see solar panels painting the rural landscape by occupying farm and ranch land. Solar power generated by solar farms may have recently spiked in popularity, but solar farms have been around for a while. Can you guess just how long?


If you guess the early 80’s, you’re spot on! The first & oldest solar farm sprouted in 1983, and the solar landscape has shifted substantially since the farm’s inception. Check out the history of this historical farm and the data from LandGate’s website painting a picture of what is now one of the largest solar farms in the country.


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The First & Oldest Solar Farm on the Carrizo Plain

The first industrial-scale photovoltaic solar power plant in the nation was constructed on the Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo County, CA. Operating from 1983 to 1994, the plant was originally constructed by the Atlantic Richfield oil company (ARCO).1 After the energy crisis of the late 1970s, ARCO became a solar energy pioneer. The Carrizo Solar Corporation, based in Albuquerque, NM, purchased the solar plant from ARCO in 1990. The corporation dismantled the solar plant due to a design flaw in its panels that allegedly caused them to lose output. Two decades later, the site was developed into the largest solar power plant in the US during the “solar boom” that started with government incentives and mandates in 2011. It is now known as Topaz Solar Farm.

Topaz Solar Farm

Construction on Topaz Solar Farm, owned by BHE Renewable and developed by First Solar, started in 2011 and the plant began operating in November 2014. Operating at full capacity, the 550-megawatt plant produces enough electricity to power about 180,000 homes.2 The project spans 3,385.09 acres at 0.209 MW per acre and Pacific Gas and Electric buys the electricity from the solar farm under a 25-year power purchase agreement. You can see all this data and more on LandGate’s platform.

Solar Farms Then vs Now

Solar farms built in the ’80s did not enjoy all of the government incentives in place today that encourage the adoption of solar energy. Federal policies such as the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) play a massive role in how many solar energy projects are built every year. The ITC reduces the overall costs related to the construction and development of newly built solar farms by up to 30% during the program’s early days. In 2021 the ITC is offering developers a 26% discount on their federal taxes. During the eleven-year period from 2006 to 2017, the number of solar farms built per year has accelerated from less than 10 projects per year to peaking at over 300 solar projects being installed in 2017. The ITC was first enacted in 2006 and was a major milestone for the solar industry. This increase in solar farms is not due to federal incentives alone, as one of the largest factors playing into the economics of a solar farm’s cash flow and the rental rate that can be offered for a solar lease (solar lease value) is the state and local incentives to renewable energy projects. These incentives come in the form of Renewable Energy Credits (REC), Performance-based incentives (PBI) or Feed-In Tariff (FIT). The capital and operating costs have also decreased by 50% since 2014, making the economics of solar energy production even more attractive to developers and investors. The total number of installed solar farms has increased dramatically since 2011, accelerating to a peak in total capacity installed per year in 2016.

Solar Growth Will Continue

The solar industry will continue to grow due to new financing options, increased efficiency, progressive policies, and more values-driven energy choices. The US Energy Information (EIA) projects renewable energy’s share of US electricity generation will grow from 20% in 2020 to 22% in 2021 with solar accounting for 39% of all new US electricity generation capacity in 2021, surpassing wind for the first time. Companies that can’t adapt will be left behind. For data like this at your fingertips, LandGate offers next-gen solar data solutions. Along with solar farm locations and data, access hotspot mapping based on value, solar comp data, in-depth infrastructure data, and databases of landowners in the hottest areas. We are helping energy investors gain a competitive edge by evaluating smarter, buying faster, and lowering their costs.

  1. http://clui.org/ludb/site/original-carrizo-solar-power-plant-site

  2. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/85403/topaz-solar-farm-california

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