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What is a Solar Farm and How Does It Work?

Large Solar Panel Field

The power of the sun is incredible. If we were to harness all the available sunlight that covers the earth over the span of one hour and store it in one big battery, it wouldn’t need to be recharged for one whole year. With a population of approximately seven billion people, that would mean clean, renewable, and sustainable energy for all. A 2019 report on global energy points out that only one percent of all global energy was supplied by solar technologies. With each passing year, solar energy is becoming more and more accessible thanks to its ability to provide sustainable, renewable energy with reduced utility bills for consumers. Solar farms are an easy way to add solar power to your home or business without adding one piece of equipment to your property. Whether you’re a homeowner, renter, condo dweller, small business, large business, institution, or municipality, you can benefit from the renewable energy a solar farm produces.

What is a Solar Farm?

A solar farm is a large-scale assembly of solar arrays that are ground-mounted on vacant land to harness the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity. Solar arrays are the collection of solar panels that collect the sunlight. Solar farms are also known as solar plants, solar parks, or solar power stations. Like fossil-fuel energy plants, solar farms are connected to an electrical power grid or substation to supply electricity to the intended recipients. The main difference between a fossil-fuel power plant and a solar plant is sustainability. Solar parks don’t create pollution or need the same water as traditional power plants.

When homeowners install solar panels, they typically mount them on the roof. The power they generate is only enough for the needs of that individual house. In contrast, a ground-mounted solar farm is developed to create enough energy to power several homes and businesses. They usually employ hundreds or thousands of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels to supply the required electricity. Four main differences set solar farms apart from rooftop and commercial PV systems.

Scale

Solar farms are much larger than residential or commercial solar systems. They leverage economies of scale. Placing large orders of solar panels and supporting equipment allows solar developers to reduce costs while providing a significant renewable energy output.

Location

Vacant land is chosen for the suitability of providing the most ideal sunlight. Residential and most commercial solar arrays are limited by the location of the structures they’re attached to. For instance, tree shade and other obstructions don’t interfere with a solar farm’s ability to collect direct sunlight as it might for different solar array designs.

Mounting

Solar farms are ground-mounted over vast swaths of land and decentralized from the intended solar energy recipients. That means the recipients of solar farm energy do not need solar equipment on their property.

Utility Unity

Solar farms generally supply power to electric grids and substations, joining a utility plant’s energy resources.

What is a Solar Farm Used For?

The main purpose of a solar farm is to provide commercial electricity to the main electricity grid. Solar farms are ideal because they offer a cost-effective, sustainable solution to growing energy consumption. Anyone can benefit from solar farms if they have an electric utility account. Solar power is a renewable, zero-emission energy resource.

Types of Solar Farms

There are two primary types of solar farms: utility-scale and community solar farms. There is one important distinction between the two—their customers. Utility-scale solar farms generate electricity to sell directly to public utilities. Community solar farms generate electricity to sell directly to consumers, such as renters and homeowners.

Utility-scale Solar Farms

A utility-scale solar farm is owned and operated by a utility company. As the original customer of the solar plant, the utility company can choose how to distribute electricity. It may sell the power to wholesale utility buyers through a power purchase agreement (PPA) or retain it directly. A PPA is a method of financing a solar power system similar to renting or leasing. A utility company or PPA financier takes on all the costs of buying and installing solar equipment and maintenance. The recipient of the power is charged for usage. How a utility-scale solar farm decides to distribute power can depend on the farm’s geographic location.

Community Solar Farms

Interest in community solar farms has skyrocketed over the past few years, with good reason. Homeowners don’t have to worry about installing a physical solar (PV) system on their roofs to benefit from sustainable energy. For many homeowners, roof installations can require an extensive overhaul of the roof itself before installation can even begin. Also known as a solar garden or roofless solar, a community solar farm is a large, ground-mounted solar installation that generates electricity for the benefit of multiple households—thus the name “community solar farm. Usually, a community solar farm is smaller in size than a utility-scale solar farm.

Customers have two ways of participating in a community solar farm. They can purchase a share of the roofless solar, giving them ownership of the overall solar array. The other option is to simply lease the energy from the solar garden, which allows them to replace their current monthly utility payments with more cost-effective monthly community solar farm payments. Several states offer consumers of community solar farms the ability to access virtual net metering, which supplies electricity bill credits to subscribers based on the energy generated by the solar farm. If you have a desire to save money and an account with an electric utility, community solar may be right for you!

How Does a Solar Farm Work?

Solar arrays are installed on vacant land and arranged to allow them to absorb the most direct amount of sunlight possible throughout the year. The solar panels are ground-mounted; however, if the land presents flooding challenges, the panels may still be ground-mounted but raised higher off the ground. As sunlight contacts the solar array, semiconductors inside the panels are activated to help absorb and convert sunlight into usable electricity. The generated power is transmitted over attached three-phase distribution lines, which deliver the power to a substation or power grid for end-consumer use.

What Zoning is Needed for a Solar Farm?

Before a solar developer can install a solar farm on a vacant piece of land, they have to ensure the farm meets local ordinances and zoning regulations. While land needs for solar farms can vary from as little as ten acres to over ten thousand, local zoning regulations may stipulate a few rules, such as reserving a certain amount of land for solar array setbacks—a required space for safety. Other local ordinances can include the following:

  • Stipulation on a specific ratio of land to solar use
  • The preservation of habitats for certain species of plants or animals
  • Visual buffers from the solar arrays
  • Allotted proximity to substations

Each local area may have its own set of zoning rules and regulations. Also, a community-scale solar PV system may be subjected to different zoning requirements than a utility-scale solar PV system. As the solar energy industry continues to grow, many states and local governments are rewriting zoning laws to help promote the use of sustainable solar energy.

Pros and Cons of a Solar Farm

There are several advantages to utilizing a solar farm for energy. Here are four of the most important values:

Eco-Friendly

As solar farms collect sunlight, convert it into electricity, and distribute it to power stations, no harmful emissions are created. In contrast, fossil fuel plants emit excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases, which get trapped in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Solar energy doesn’t contaminate the land or water either. Fossil fuels, such as oil, can be spilled or leaked, causing a dangerous environmental situation for the soil, vegetation, animals, and people. The continued development of sustainable solar energy decreases the need for fossil fuel-driven power plants, alleviating the environmental pressures they create.

Low Maintenance

The average life span of most solar arrays is twenty-five years. During that time, minimal maintenance is required. Solar panels are made of very durable material to withstand the elements. Solar professionals conduct routine check-ups to ensure the PV system runs optimally, such as electrical inspections, battery maintenance, and solar array cleaning. The land may require general upkeep, like mowing or removal of debris.

Low Noise

The lack of noise pollution is a big win for solar energy. Solar farms produce very little noise outside of a possible low murmur from the power exchange between the solar arrays and the power grid. By contrast, producing fossil fuel-driven energy requires using drills and pumps to free energy from the earth.

Sustainability

Solar power is a form of renewable energy. The source of solar energy is sunlight, which has unlimited availability. Solar arrays simply wait for sunlight to come to them and convert it to energy. Fossil fuels require a lot of energy to be freed up and refined into usable energy. As we continue to burn fossil fuels, we harm the planet. Eventually, we will exhaust the finite amount of fossil fuels without renewing them.

While the advantages of utilizing solar farms are impressive, there are also a few drawbacks. Here are three of the most significant cons to solar farms:

Energy Storage

Like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter, storage technology plays a big role in providing continual energy to power grids. Storing energy can be quite expensive, yet it’s a crucial necessity. Solar farms require lithium-ion batteries to collect energy since sunlight is not continuously available. The solar arrays have nothing to do at night but wait for sunrise. Seasonal shifts from summer to winter offer fewer available hours of sunlight.

Inconsistent Availability

While the trajectory of the sun can be predictably calculated with the changing seasons, there are a few elements that can be challenging to determine. The sun may be out, but it’s no good for solar arrays if clouds block it. Depending on the geographic location, some areas may receive less sunlight than others. For example, the rainy climate of the Pacific Northwest generates much less solar energy than an arid climate such as Arizona. On the East Coast, weather systems can delay the ability to absorb sunlight for several days, particularly during hurricane season.

Rare Materials

Semiconductors that help capture and convert sunlight into energy require rare minerals in their production. Cadmium telluride (CdTe) is a stable crystalline compound formed from the rare minerals cadmium and tellurium. Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) is a semiconductor material comprised of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. While sunlight is unlimited, the rare elements used to create the semiconductors may be challenging to obtain over time.

US Light Energy Community Solar

US Light Energy specializes in community solar. When you subscribe to the clean energy created by a community solar farm, you can accumulate credits towards the balance of your utility account. That means you can reduce your electricity cost while supporting the addition of renewable solar power into the energy supply of your community without ever needing to add one piece of equipment to your home or business! US Light Energy has no subscription fee, long-term contract, or credit check. Contact us today to learn more about how you can subscribe to community solar. US Light Energy is leading the charge for a new generation.

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