The largest scale of solar projects is utility-scale solar. Typically sized anywhere from 1 to 5 megawatts (MW), utility-scale solar installations can be massive projects, often spanning multiple acres of land. Utility-scale solar projects are usually ground-mounted arrays. Sometimes, these arrays include the use of solar trackers to maximize energy production.
What is a utility-scale solar installation?
The primary difference between utility-scale solar and other distributed solar options (such as commercial and residential installations) is that the electricity generated from a utility project is not used directly at the host site. Depending on the installation’s geographic location, the power produced at utility solar arrays 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 initial customer of the generated power is an electric utility company, which will then distribute the generated electricity to residential, commercial, and industrial ratepayers connected to the grid.
Utility-scale solar isn’t limited to photovoltaics – some utility scale projects are concentrated photovoltaics (CPT) or concentrated solar power (CSP). However, photovoltaic installations are the most common type of utility-scale solar solutions. Oftentimes, utility-scale solar installations will also include storage technology so that they can store solar electricity when the sun is shining, and distribute it later during hours of little or no sunlight.
How does utility-scale solar stack up against traditional electricity generation?
Compared to traditional power generation sources like fossil fuels and nuclear power, there is one downside to utility-scale solar that’s important and oftentimes difficult to overcome: intermittency.
Solar panels can only generate electricity when the sun is shining, while other traditional generation sources can supply energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Fortunately, solar can become available at all hours of the day with energy storage solutions like solar batteries.
An energy source that can provide power on demand, turn on and off, and has an adjustable power output is known as dispatchable generation. A coal, natural gas, or hydroelectric plant is considered dispatchable generation because it can be turned on to provide power within a relatively short window of time (usually between seconds and hours.)
Solar energy on its own is typically not considered dispatchable generation – it can only travel to the grid when the sun is shining and it cannot be turned on during many hours of the day, namely after the sun goes down. In order for utility-scale solar to be an effective dispatchable energy resource, batteries and other types of storage can be leveraged to accumulate solar energy that can then act as a dispatchable system when the solar panels aren’t producing electricity at night. Utility-scale solar storage makes solar energy much more reliable, and therefore much more attractive to utilities and their stakeholders.
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