solar farm

Solar farms: what are they and how do they work?

The solar industry has seen rapid growth over the past decade, and a major contributing factor has been the surge in solar 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 find one for community solar near you.

Key takeaways about solar farms

  • A solar farm is generally a large-scale solar installation. Solar farms are most often community solar projects or utility-scale solar power plants.
  • Solar farms usually consist of hundreds to thousands of solar panels installed in a large field.
  • Interested in joining a solar farm? Check out community solar projects near you on the EnergySage Marketplace to start saving on electricity.

What’s in this article?

What is a solar farm?

A solar farm, sometimes referred to as a solar garden or a photovoltaic (PV) 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 households that 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

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 vs. community solar farms

Utility-scale solar farmsCommunity solar farms
Sell electricity directly to utilitiesSell electricity to customers
A large operation for increased energy production.Smaller in size compared to utility-scale farms.
Power produced here is either owned directly by a utility or sold wholesale to utility buyers via a PPA.Allow customers to purchase a share of the farm and the energy produced by that farm.

Community solar farms

The idea of community solar has taken off in recent years as more households have realized that they can go solar without being required to put 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, usually in a field somewhere.

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.

In 41 states, community solar subscribers also have access to virtual net metering. This incentive allows for energy generated by solar panels at a solar farm to be sent back as electricity bill credits to subscribers.

You can find community solar projects in your town or state in our Community Solar Marketplace.

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.

Advantages and disadvantages of solar farms

Starting or subscribing to a solar farm can be a great way to save money, reduce your carbon footprint and make the most of rapidly changing solar technology. However, there are several things to keep in mind before deciding to invest in one.

Solar farms generate environmentally friendly energy

They have a upfront cost for property owners

Solar farms require little maintenance.They require a lot of space

Solar farms have no upfront costs for subscribers.The battery storage needed for collecting energy can be expensive.

Advantages of solar farms

Solar energy is environmentally friendly

If you have the available land and resources, starting a solar farm yourself can be a worthwhile investment. Solar energy generated by utility and community solar farms is abundant and readily accessible. Unlike fossil fuels, solar energy doesn’t produce any harmful by-products and is virtually inexhaustible.

Solar farms require little maintenance

Solar panels require almost no maintenance. Solar panel technology has improved greatly in the past few years. Panels are made with durable materials designed to withstand lots of damage from the elements with only minimal cleaning necessary.

There is no upfront cost for community solar farm subscribers

If you are interested in subscribing to a community solar farm, you can expect not to pay any upfront cost. This makes community solar a great option for renters, those with roofs not suitable for solar panels or those looking to avoid the cost of rooftop solar panels.

Disadvantages of solar farms

Solar farms have an upfront cost for property owners

Commercial and residential solar installations have significant upfront costs. For property owners looking to start a solar farm, you can expect to pay $800,000 to 1.3 million dollars at first. However, there is also the potential for a significant return on investment. Once you’ve constructed the farm, you have the potential to make as much as $40,000 per year by selling electricity for a 1MW solar farm.

Solar farms require a lot of space

A significant amount of land is needed for solar farms with about 5-7 acres in total to account for the solar arrays themselves as well as space for related equipment and space between for repair and maintenance.It also may take up to 5 years to construct a solar farm. 

Energy storage for solar farms can be costly

Like solar-plus-storage options for homeowners, utility-scale and community solar farms require storage technology like batteries to collect and preserve the excess energy generated by solar panels. This can get expensive. However, there are financial benefits for both subscribers and owners who sell energy back to the grid in the form of net metering.

How much does a solar farm cost?

If traditional rooftop solar isn’t right for you, subscribing to a community solar farm could be a good option. There is no up-front cost to sign up unlike the initial investment required to install solar panels. Once you’ve subscribed, you can expect to save about 5 to 15 percent on your electric bill.

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 in India, which was fully completed in 2019. 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.

The largest community solar-plus-storage farm is the Happy Hollow farm located in Winchendon, Massachusetts and includes a 3.3-MW energy storage system as part of the total 7.1-MW available on-site. The project was completed in 2019 by Borrego Solar.

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 the 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.

Frequently asked questions about solar farms

How profitable is a solar farm?

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. 

Are solar farms bad?

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.  

How much electricity does one acre of solar panels produce?

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.

How do solar farms look?

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

community solar content

How to find a solar farm near you

If you are interested in community solar, the best way to find a solar farm near you on the EnergySage Community Solar Marketplace. You can filter by all sorts of project details, read about individual developers and panel locations, and compare your estimated yearly savings by subscribing. Get started today to start saving money on electric bills, even as a renter.

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About Jacob Marsh

Jacob is a researcher and content writer at EnergySage, where he's an expert on current issues–and new technology!–in the solar industry. With a background in environmental and geological science, Jacob brings an analytical perspective and passion for conservation to help solar shoppers make the right energy choices for their wallet and the environment. Outside of EnergySage, you can find him playing Ultimate Frisbee or learning a new, obscure board game.