top of page

A Guide to Utility Scale Solar Power

utility scale solar

When people think about solar energy, they often think of rooftop solar panels on a house. However, the residential solar energy market is only a small segment of the total installed solar capacity. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), there are over 37,000 megawatts of utility scale solar power projects in operation in the United States, with an additional 112,000 megawatts under development.

In fact, utility scale solar is the largest segment in terms of installed solar energy capacity, followed by commercial solar, then residential solar. Finally, off-grid solar is just a tiny sliver of the total market. The significant players in utility scale solar include China, the United States, Europe, India, Brazil, and Japan.

What Are Utility Scale Solar Power Projects?

Utility solar design enables projects to generate a large amount of electricity, typically feeding into the utility grid. These utility solar projects are characterized by their significant capacity, often measured in megawatts (MW) or even gigawatts (GW), and require a substantial amount of land to install solar panels.

Increasingly, utility scale solar power plants are paired with battery energy storage systems (BESS) because renewable energy is an intermittent power source. Solar battery banks help utility companies meet peak energy demand with clean energy, which often occurs on summer evenings.

Key features of utility scale solar projects include:

  • Scale and Solar Capacity: Utility scale solar is designed to generate electricity on a large scale, capable of supplying power to thousands of homes or businesses.

  • Grid Integration: These utility scale projects are typically connected to the electrical grid, enabling the power generated to be distributed and used by consumers efficiently.

  • Land Requirements: Utility scale solar power requires a significant amount of land to accommodate the installation of solar panels. The specific land requirements can vary depending on the technology used and the project's capacity, but generally, it ranges from 5 to 10 acres per megawatt of electricity generated.

  • Lower Cost Solar Electricity: Due to their large size, utility scale solar projects often benefit from economies of scale, making them cost-effective compared to smaller solar installations.

  • Solar Technology and Components: Utility scale solar power farms utilize various technologies and components, including solar panels, inverters, tracking systems, and transformers, to convert sunlight into electrical energy.

  • Solar Permitting: These projects often require specific permits, approvals, and compliance with regulations related to land use, environmental impact assessments, and grid interconnection.

GreenLancer specializes in permit-ready solar plan sets, engineering reviews, and interconnection applications. Create an account to begin shopping for utility solar design and engineering services.

Market Trends in Utility Scale Solar

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the growth of utility scale solar continues to accelerate in the United States. In 2024, a record 36.4 GW of utility scale solar installations are expected to be added to the grid, nearly doubling the previous year's record of 18.4 GW. As a result, solar and battery storage are projected to make up 81% of new US electric capacity additions for 2024.

In fact, solar has contributed more than 40% of all new capacity in the past two years, over 30% in six of the last seven years, and over 20% in each of the last ten years in the United States. Utility scale and distributed solar energy accounts for a combined 49% of all capacity additions to US grids in 2022, surpassing wind power's 22% contribution.

utility scale solar power

Types Of Utility Scale Solar Projects

There are two primary solar power technologies in use at utility scale solar plants.

Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Farms

These solar modules use sunlight to generate a current of electricity and are the same technology commonly used for residential and commercial solar PV systems. The solar cells contain a semiconductor material, typically silicon, and produce direct current (DC) voltage. Then, an inverter converts the power to alternating current (AC).

The greater the intensity of the sunlight, the greater the flow of electricity. The PV panels on the market today are commonly between 16% and 23% efficient; solar panel efficiency has increased significantly over the last couple of decades.

Concentrated Solar Power Plants

This technology uses mirrors to concentrate the sun's heat to drive steam turbines or engines, producing electricity. In addition, plant operators can store the thermal energy generated from concentrated solar power (CSP) plants to generate electricity later. There are several types of CSP technology in use in the United States, including parabolic trough, compact linear Fresnel reflector, power tower, and dish-engine.

Benefits of Utility Scale Solar

Here are the advantages of grid scale solar energy.

  • Cost-effective solar power: Utility scale solar projects have low operational and maintenance costs, making them financially attractive in the long run.

  • Job creation and economic growth: These solar projects create employment opportunities, drive innovation, and contribute to strengthening the economy.

  • Energy storage integration: These solar farms can be paired with battery energy storage systems to provide backup power, manage energy ramps, and enhance grid stability.

  • Scalability: Utility scale solar power projects can be easily scaled up to meet growing energy demand without significant additional infrastructure.

  • Sustainability: Solar energy is a clean and renewable energy source, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.

  • Grid stability and reliability: Utility scale solar power plants can contribute to grid stability, especially when combined with energy storage or other grid management techniques.

Utility Scale Solar Design Challenges

Although utility scale solar is growing significantly, there are project development hurdles to contend with.

Permitting For Utility Scale Solar Projects

Unfortunately, permitting issues can delay projects or even stop them from progressing. Congested interconnection queues can slow renewable energy project development because interconnection studies can be time-consuming and expensive. Interconnection timelines and costs are among the biggest hurdles to rapid utility scale solar growth. Contact GreenLancer if you need solar permitting support.

Transmission Capacity Expansion

Developers often locate utility scale renewable energy projects far from load centers, so they require transmission capacity expansion to reach electricity markets. Therefore, generation interconnection requests often require transmission network upgrades.

Solar developers often foot part of the bill for needed improvements to the electricity grid, despite many of these upgrades creating system-wide benefits. These costs drive up the cost of solar electricity and create uncertainty as they can be challenging to anticipate.

Environmental & Community Issues

While solar energy is considered clean and renewable, utility scale solar projects may face environmental concerns related to land use, habitat disruption, solar panel recyclability, and visual impact. Proper project planning and environmental assessments need to carefully address these issues.

Land Use for Solar Panels

Solar power plants require land. Unfortunately, large plots of land are often most available and affordable in rural areas far from load and population centers. Solar developers often lease land from landowners for the project's lifespan or, in some cases, they purchase the land. Some solar developers have incorporated agricultural production with solar farms, including sheep grazing.

Considerations for Utility Scale Solar Design

Several crucial factors are carefully considered to ensure the successful planning and operation of projects.

  • Solar Energy Resource Availability: The first step in designing a utility scale solar farm is to assess the solar resource availability at the project site. This involves analyzing historical weather data, solar insolation levels, and shading patterns to determine the energy potential of the area. Understanding the solar power resource availability is essential for estimating the energy output and therefore the financial viability of the utility scale solar power project.

  • Land Availability and Site Selection: Identifying suitable land for the solar farm is critical. Factors such as land size, topography, soil conditions, proximity to existing infrastructure, and land ownership rights are considered during the site selection process. Choosing the right location can impact overall project costs, solar energy production, and environmental impacts.

  • Grid Connection and Interconnection: Integrating a utility scale solar farm with the electrical grid requires careful planning and coordination with local utilities. Design considerations include determining the optimal connection point, assessing grid capacity and stability, complying with solar interconnection requirements, and implementing grid-interactive technologies for smooth integration and power delivery.

  • Technology Selection and System Configuration: Selecting the appropriate solar technology and system configuration is essential for optimizing the performance and reliability of the solar farm. Designers must choose between fixed-tilt, single-axis tracking, or dual-axis tracking systems based on site-specific factors like energy production goals, space availability, and cost-effectiveness.

  • Environmental Impact Assessment and Permitting Requirements: Environmental impact assessments evaluate the potential ecological, social, and visual impacts of the solar project as part of the utility scale solar design process. Therefore, designers must adhere to regulatory requirements and secure necessary permits for land use, environmental compliance, construction, and operation.

  • Local Regulations and Stakeholder Engagement: Compliance with local regulations, zoning ordinances, and community engagement are essential aspects of utility scale solar design. Engaging with stakeholders, addressing community concerns, and obtaining support from local authorities is crucial for successful project development and long-term acceptance.

Utility Scale Solar Projects Are Essential

As concern about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change continues to rise, utility scale PV plants provide a solution. As the installed capacity of solar photovoltaics increases, the demand for fossil fuel power plants decreases. In addition, battery storage systems at solar plants enable solar power to meet peak energy demand, even when the sun isn’t shining.

Utility scale solar comes with its own permit and engineering nuances and challenges – GreenLancer has a network of utility scale solar designers and engineers who specialize in AHJs across the country to navigate the process with simplicity.


bottom of page