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What is a Solar Farm & How Do They Work?

types of solar farms

There is enough installed solar energy capacity in the United States to power almost 22 million homes. For the last decade, solar energy has had an average annual growth rate of 42%, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

However, the solar energy market consists of residential, commercial, utility-scale, and community solar, and the growth rates have varied in different segments. Two of the critical markets are community solar and utility-scale solar because these types of solar farms tend to be large and produce a lot of clean energy.

Many corporations and states are currently moving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and clean up the power grid to slow climate change. Increasingly, there is a demand for cleaner energy sources from solar and wind farms.

As these projects become more and more widespread, it provides opportunities for solar companies to get involved. Understanding solar energy farm development can help PV companies grow their businesses and leverage opportunities. We’ll discuss what solar farms are, how they work, and how they benefit the businesses and communities they serve.

What Is A Solar Farm?

A solar farm, also known as a PV power station or solar power plant, is a larger-scale solar energy installation. There are a variety of ownership models and the customers that benefit from the solar farm vary by the project.

There are two main types of technology: photovoltaic (PV) solar and concentrated solar power (CSP). The former uses solar PV panels to generate a current of solar electricity. By contrast, CSP uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight and produce steam to power turbines or engines. Solar PV projects are far more widespread throughout the United States.

Solar farms are usually ground-mounted PV systems located on vacant land without trees or any shading. The land for these projects can range from several acres to multiple kilometers and almost never includes rooftop solar projects.

Some of the largest existing solar farms are Solar Star in California, across 13 square kilometers with 579 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity, and Topaz Solar Farm in California on 15 square kilometers with 580 MW of capacity. The Samson Solar Energy Center in Northeast Texas is under construction and will generate 1,310 MW of renewable energy.

How Do Solar Farms Work?

Solar farms, also known as solar power plants or solar panel farms, work by harnessing sunlight and converting it into electricity through the use of solar panels. Here is a simplified explanation of how solar farms work:

  • Solar Panels: Solar farms consist of thousands of solar panels, also called PV modules, which are made up of multiple solar cells. These cells are typically made from silicon and are designed to capture sunlight.

  • Sunlight Capture: The solar panels are strategically placed in areas with maximum sunlight exposure. When sunlight hits them, the cells within the panels absorb the photons (particles of light) and generate an electric current.

  • Direct Current (DC) to Alternating Current (AC) Conversion: The DC electricity produced by the solar panels is then sent through solar inverters, which convert it into AC electricity. AC electricity is the standard form of electricity that can be used to power homes, businesses, and the electrical grid.

  • Electricity Transmission & Distribution: The AC electricity generated by the solar panels is transmitted through wiring and transformers to match the voltage required for distribution. This electricity can be used on-site or transported via power lines to the electrical grid for consumption by homes and businesses.

  • Net Metering & Grid Integration: Solar farms can be connected to the electrical grid, allowing excess electricity to be fed back into the grid. This process is commonly known as net metering.

  • Solar Monitoring & Maintenance: Solar farms require regular monitoring and maintenance to ensure optimal performance. This includes inspections, cleaning the solar panels, checking system components, and addressing any issues to maximize energy production.

Solar farms play a crucial role in generating renewable energy, reducing carbon emissions, and contributing to a more sustainable future. They are typically designed to operate efficiently for many years, making use of a clean and abundant energy source - sunlight.

solar panel farms

Different Types Of Solar Farms

There are a couple of primary types of solar farms with different business models. One supplies energy for off-takers and the other for end-users, like households and small businesses.

Utility-Scale Solar Farms

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, over 37,000 MW of utility-scale solar projects are in operation in the United States, and another 112,000 MW are under construction. Sometimes, this type of solar farm is combined with energy storage to meet high evening power demand or deliver backup power as needed. Utility-scale solar farms are usually at least one MW of capacity but can be far, far greater.

What sets utility-scale solar apart from other types of solar farms is that solar electricity is sold to wholesale buyers at a fixed price but not to end-use consumers. Sometimes, companies such as IT companies or major retailers enter power purchase agreements (PPAs) for a specific solar project. This can often result in cost savings and is an excellent way to source sustainable energy.

For example, AT&T will have the largest share of the Samson Solar Energy Center, with 500 MW. This will help the company reach its target of being carbon neutral by 2035. In addition, Honda, McDonald’s and Google are also corporate buyers for the project.

Community Solar Panel Farms

Community solar farms, also known as community solar gardens, provide power for members of the project, such as a group of households, organizations, and companies. This is an especially appealing option for renters, residents of multiunit buildings, homeowners with shaded properties, or low-income households. As of early 2024, there were 6.5 Gigawatts of installed community solar capacity in the United States, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York are the leading states for community solar. Currently, about 22 states have policies that support this type of solar farm. Unfortunately, some states have policies that limit community solar or make it prohibitively expensive.

Subscribers are typically billed in one of two ways: variable or fixed. With a variable subscription, the monthly payments vary according to actual solar energy production. Therefore, most customers will pay more in the summer months when solar production is greater.

For fixed subscriptions, members pay the same amount each month based on their subscription size, regardless of actual power generation. Thus, a household will pay the same in January as they do in July, even if the solar modules produce more electricity in July.

Considerations Before Building A Solar Energy Farm

These projects can take many months or even several years to plan and construct.

Solar Farm Permitting & Zoning

State and local laws, such as setback requirements, determine the criteria for installing a solar farm. Various federal, state, and local agencies may need to approve a project before it can proceed. Solar farm permitting and siting can often take a long time.

GreenLancer specializes in solar permitting, engineering, and interconnection. Our solar design services include PV plan sets, interconnection applications, and PE stamps.

Land & Locations

Typically, solar energy farms are located on privately held property. The amount of necessary land varies by the capacity of the project but commonly ranges between several acres and multiple square kilometers for very large projects. Solar farms need to be located near three-phase power and a transmission substation. Gaining a place in the utility queue is critical for utility interconnection, and it sometimes requires upgrading the electric grid.

Ideally, the property for a solar project is relatively flat, cleared, and with minimal wetlands. For example, a solar farm on a north-facing slope would get less usable sunlight, impacting production. Sometimes, PV farms are constructed adjacent to working farmland because they pose no threat to livestock or crops.

Financial Considerations

Often, solar farm developers enter into PPAs with off-takers for power from a project. Although the owner of the solar farm and not the off-takers receive the solar tax incentives, off-takers benefit from clean power and do not have maintenance responsibilities.

Solar Farm Maintenance

Maintenance typically includes ensuring that the solar panels aren’t shaded, making needed repairs, and reviewing solar monitoring data. Some solar farm operators are experimenting with alternative approaches to mowing grass, such as planting native wildflowers that require less irrigation and mowing or using sheep to graze around the panels instead of mowers or herbicides.

FAQ About Solar Farms

Read on to get answers to common questions about solar panel farms.

How Much Does It Cost To Install A Solar Energy Farm?

Due to economies of scale, solar farms are cheaper than residential and small commercial projects on a cost-per-watt basis. According to EnergySage, the average cost-per-watt of a solar farm is between $0.80 and $1.30, compared to a national average of around $2.76 per watt for a residential solar installation.

Where are Solar Farms Located?

Solar farms are located in various regions around the world, with the specific locations varying depending on factors such as sunlight availability, land availability, government policies, and renewable energy demand. In the United States, for example, there are numerous solar farms spread across different states, including California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, due to their favorable solar resources and large land areas. Other countries like China, India, and Germany also have significant numbers of solar farms due to their commitments to renewable energy and market demand.

To find specific solar farm locations, resources like the Renewable Energy and Sustainable Development Map (RESDM) or the Major Solar Projects List from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

What are Good Locations for a Solar Farm?

Solar farms are typically located in areas with ample sunlight and available land. Common locations for solar farms include:

  • Desert Regions: Deserts often have vast expanses of land with high solar irradiance and minimal cloud cover, making them ideal locations for solar farms. Examples include the Mojave Desert in California and the Sahara Desert in North Africa.

  • Rural Areas: Rural regions with large, open fields or agricultural land are often chosen for solar farm development due to the availability of space and lower land costs. These areas may include farmland, pastureland, or unused industrial sites.

  • Brownfield Sites: Brownfield sites, which are abandoned or underutilized industrial areas, are sometimes repurposed for solar farm development. Reclaiming these sites for solar energy helps revitalize communities and mitigate environmental risks associated with contaminated land.

  • Capped Landfills: Some solar farms are built on closed landfills, where the land is unsuitable for traditional development but can still be utilized for renewable energy generation. Solar panels are installed on top of the landfill cap, providing dual benefits of renewable energy generation and land remediation.

Get Started With Your Next Solar Panel Farm Project

Some solar installation companies are looking to expand their businesses and get involved with solar farm projects. Because this is an area of tremendous growth in the solar industry, it can also present a lot of opportunities.

However, planning and siting a solar farm can be very difficult due to interconnection and permitting constraints. To help streamline projects, work with GreenLancer on your next solar farm project. Complete the form below to contact a representative today.


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