The solar industry has seen rapid growth over the past decade, and a major contributing factor has been the surge in solar panel farms popping up across the globe. In this article, we’ll explain the different types of solar farms, how much they cost and how to start one.
What is a solar farm?
A solar farm, sometimes referred to as a photovoltaic power station, is a large solar array that converts sunlight into energy that is then routed to the power grid. Many of these massive arrays are owned by utilities and are another asset for the utility to supply power to properties in their coverage area.
A broader definition of solar farms could include other ground-mounted solar arrays large enough to supply power for many households. This general concept of a solar farm could be associated with both residential community solar and community solar projects that have a few hundred solar panels, and larger utility-scale solar that has thousands of solar panels. In some cases, community solar might be a good alternative for homeowners who cannot utilize a solar option on their own property.
Rooftop solar vs. solar farms
Joining a community solar farm can be a great option if your roof isn’t right for solar or don’t want solar panels installed on your property. Even if your roof is good for solar, enrolling in a community solar project can still be worth it if the costs are low and the contract terms are beneficial. As community solar projects become more common and the contract terms become more consumer-friendly, solar farm options will compete even more with rooftop solar. However, each individual property has unique challenges and considerations, and there’s no easy way to determine if you’re the right candidate for joining a solar farm.
Check out our comparison of rooftop and community solar for a more in-depth look at how the two options stack up against one another.
Types of solar farms: utility-scale and community solar
There are two main types of solar farms around the country: utility-scale solar farms and community solar farms. The main difference between the two is their customers, as utility-scale solar farms sell directly to utilities, while community solar farms sell directly to end-consumers of electricity, such as homeowners and renters.
Utility-scale solar farms
A utility-scale solar farm (often referred to as simply a solar power plant) is a large solar farm consisting of many solar panels and is owned by a utility that sends electricity to the grid. Depending on the installation’s geographic location, the power produced at these farms is either sold to wholesale utility buyers through a power purchase agreement (PPA) or owned directly by an electric utility company. Regardless of the exact structure, the original customer of the solar power is a utility, who then distributes the generated electricity to residential, commercial, and industrial customers connected to the grid.
Community solar farms
The idea of community solar has taken off in recent years as more homeowners have realized that they can go solar without putting solar panels on their own physical roof. A community solar farm—sometimes referred to as a “solar garden” or roofless solar —is a farm whose electricity is shared by more than one household. In most cases, a community solar array is a large ground mount installation that spans one or many acres.
Visually, these solar gardens resemble utility-scale solar farms, but they are often smaller in size. Customers can either purchase a share of a solar garden and own that portion of the overall array or they can lease energy from the solar system and, in a sense, replace their monthly utility payments with monthly community solar payments that are typically at a lower price. You can find community solar projects in your town or state in our Community Solar Marketplace.
How much does a solar farm cost?
While the per watt cost of building a solar farm is lower than residential solar, potential savings for individuals are not nearly as high. Subscribing to a community solar farm will generally save you about 5-15 percent on your electricity bill, whereas with rooftop solar, once you’ve paid off your system, you’ll be generating electricity for free!
Compared to residential solar panel setups, a solar farm is much cheaper to build on a dollar per watt basis at between $0.80 and $1.30 per watt rather than the $2.76 per watt average cost of a residential install. Depending on the size of install, solar farm cost can be between $800,000 to over 1.3 million dollars – significantly higher than the $20,474 average cost of a residential install. However, solar panel farms at the utility-scale will typically be at least one megawatt (MW), which is a power plant capable of supplying some 200 households.
What is the largest solar farm in the world?
The largest solar panel farm installed in the world is the Pavagada Solar Park, which was fully completed in 2019 in India. The 2,050 MW array can supply energy to hundreds of thousands of households.
It should be clarified that these massive solar plants are more commonly referred to as “solar farms” rather than smaller ground mount arrays often seen with community solar projects. Solar systems at the scale of the Pavagada Solar Park are the size of entire towns and thus take on the name “solar panel farm” to reference the size of the install (see above image). The term more commonly used with community solar is “solar gardens” due to the fact that the system could be only a few acres and could even live in someone’s backyard.
Frequently asked questions about solar farms
The profitability of a solar farm varies substantially based on its size and the cost of electricity in the area where it’s built. You can estimate the potential profitability of a solar farm by multiplying the average wholesale market rate of solar electricity in your area (in dollars per megawatt-hour, MWh) by the farm’s size (in MW). Just be sure to account for the upfront and maintenance costs associated with the farm – or if you’re renting land – in your solar calculations as well.
While solar farms are effective forms of renewable energy, the construction and installation of them can have a negative impact on the environment due to the space needed for a solar farm, the materials and energy required to produce solar panels, how to dispose of solar panels when they are replaced and even contaminated groundwater due to the maintenance requirements of a solar panel farm. When constructed properly, however, solar farms can be completely safe (and beneficial) for the environment – especially if they’re constructed on landfills or other types of land that aren’t pristine.
This is largely dependent on the efficiency of the solar panels, the geographical location, and the amount of sunlight the panels are exposed to. Landowners and companies that maintain a solar panel farm can expect several hundred MWh/year for one acre of solar panels.
One concern investors may have is how aesthetically pleasing a solar farm is and the impact that can have on permits and approvals. But, as shown by numerous examples from around the world, a little creativity goes a long way. Take a look at these artistic solar farms and how they are reshaping the idea that solar farms are bland.
Building a solar farm: how does it work?
When developers are considering building a solar farm, whether it be a 50 kW array or a 50 MW project and larger, here are five key questions they’ll ask:
1. How many acres do I need for this size of a power plant?
A smaller solar farm may only require a few acres of land whereas a large utility-scale solar farm can require hundreds of acres (for reference, the above mentioned Kamuthi Power Plant spans 2,500 acres).
2. How will electrical connection work?
You’ll need to consider the location of the land and whether or not it’s situated close enough to power lines and electrical panels to feasibly connect your array to the power grid or to a centralized power source.
3. How will I clean and maintain the plant?
Whether or not the location has water sources or cleaning options will be important in order to maintain the efficiency of so many solar panels that are situated so close to the ground. The Kamuthi Power Plant, for example, is constantly cleaned by a team of solar-powered robots.
4. How many solar panels will I need?
In order to make sure you’ll be able to meet the expected energy demand with your solar farm, you’ll need to first start with the needed kilowatt hours of energy and work backward to get a number of panels you’ll need for the array. To calculate this figure, you’ll need to determine the solar panel production ratio for your area to understand how much energy a certain solar panel wattage will provide. Check out our full explanation on how to do this type of calculation.
5. What’s a good price for my solar installation?
For larger solar panel farms, there will likely be significant discrepancies between quotes from various contractors, so it will be important to get a few bids from different companies. Solar Power World compiles a list of top solar developers each year that can be a helpful starting point.
If you’re in the early stages of considering a residential solar installation, rather than a solar farm, our Solar Calculator can offer a free estimate for what the array might cost, when you could break even on the investment and how much it could save you over time. For those interested in the community solar options in their state, check out our network of Community Solar Providers.