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The Role of Utility-Scale Solar in Expanding Renewable Energy

May 28, 2024

Utility-scale solar

Solar power has emerged as a powerful ally as the world grapples with changing fossil fuel prices and increasing regulations to curb pollution and global warming.

Small- and large-scale solar power projects are attractive because they provide consistent, cheap energy. Utility-scale solar projects, with vast photovoltaic (PV) arrays to provide energy to customers on the power grid, use proven technology to provide renewable energy.

These projects offer measurable reductions in carbon pollution, helping countries achieve the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions necessary to address global warming.

Let’s take a closer look at the role of utility-scale solar in the renewable energy revolution.

The significance of utility-scale solar power projects in renewable energy expansion

As of 2023, natural gas produces 43.1% of the electricity in the United States. 

However, solar panels significantly reduce pollution when they replace natural gas. According to data cited by the Columbia Climate School, replacing natural gas with an acre of utility-scale PV arrays can reduce carbon emissions by 198 metric tons per year. 

Factors like energy independence make solar power attractive to governments. The associated low maintenance costs make this renewable energy resource attractive for investors seeking long-term returns. There are various government policies in place that support the accessibility of PV systems.

There are other benefits to utility-scale solar. Consumers get clean energy without their own residential or commercial panel installations. Though prices may be affected by demand and the type of power source backing up the solar field, it will typically be more affordable than other options. 

Improvements in local air quality compared to natural gas or coal plants will also be evident. Solar installations can also reduce water use, which is needed for cooling in fossil fuel plants. 

Reducing carbon emissions with utility-scale solar

Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, are the largest contributors to global warming. Overall, they account for 75% of climate-changing GHGs.

Graph showing fossil fuels carbon emissions

Source: United Nations

Scientists, governments, and climate organizations focus on reducing reliance on fossil fuels because of this overwhelming environmental impact. For instance, Europe seeks to reduce fossil fuel emissions by 55% below 1990 levels by 2030.

With this in mind, renewable energy projects like wind and solar power that don’t produce emissions after installation become an ideal long-term solution. 

Solar energy vs. fossil fuels: reducing carbon footprint

Solar panels rely on non-consumable energy from sunlight. While weather can impact the amount of electricity the panels produce, energy will always be available as long as the sun is shining. 

Fossil fuels are consumable and nonrenewable. This means energy producers need a steady supply of coal, natural gas, or oil to create energy while not being able to readily replace it by natural means at a pace quick enough to keep up with consumption. These materials require carbon-producing combustion to create energy, leading to significantly higher pollution rates. 

This is why renewable solar energy is a popular option for reducing carbon footprints. 

Carbon reduction through utility-scale solar

Solar energy is one of the most optimal alternatives to reduce carbon emissions in power generation.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, these carbon savings are significant. Solar panels produce 43 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (g CO2e/kWh), most of which comes from the manufacturing and installation of panels. 

In contrast, natural gas emits 486 g CO2e/kWh, oil releases 840 g CO2e/kWh, and coal 1001g CO2e/kWh. 

Solar is responsible for 11 times less carbon than the cleanest fossil fuel (natural gas) and is 23 times cleaner than coal. 

Environmental and economic considerations

The differences between utility-scale solar and fossil fuel-based energy start well before energy production. 

Fossil fuel extraction also has an environmental impact. Coal and petroleum products require mining or drilling, which can degrade the land and alter ecosystems. For instance, coal strip mining requires digging up large land areas. 

These activities also produce toxic waste. Mining byproducts can leach into local water supplies, releasing potentially harmful chemicals like cadmium and arsenic. 

Renewable power also makes sense economically.

A study by Energy Innovations found that 99% of coal power plants are more expensive to operate than solar arrays or wind farms generating the same amount of energy. Solar especially requires minimal maintenance. Basic cleaning and repairs are necessary for continuous peak energy production throughout the panels’ lifespan. 

Energy source diversification

Power prices are tied to commodity prices. If coal or natural gas supply dips or prices rise for other reasons, electricity costs will follow. Also, failure of one source can lead to outages across the grid if no other sources step in to carry the load. 

Unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar power offer infinite amounts of energy, whose reserves will eventually run out.

A diversified grid relies on different energy production methods. It can get electricity from renewable power sources like wind, solar, hydroelectric, and nuclear plants or traditional sources like coal or natural gas. 

Initiatives like the US Department of Energy’s Energy Transitions Initiative (ETI) support remote communities and islands as they transition to electrical self-sufficiency using renewable installations like solar. 

The UN points out that with the right technical and financial support, diversification should be straightforward globally. Resources needed for wind, solar, or hydroelectric power are available worldwide, which should allow the widespread use of multiple renewable energy sources for every country. 

Importance of energy diversification for sustainability

Fossil fuels do not offer long-term sustainability. According to a 2019 Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) study, oil and natural gas reserves should be depleted between 2052 and 2060. All the world's coal will be mined by 2090. At this point, renewables will have to be the primary energy producers. 

Renewable energy sources like solar do not rely on finite resources, so they are more sustainable. Some fuels, such as those that rely on biological materials like plant-based oils or alcohols, also fall into the sustainable category because they can be replenished by growing more of the source material. 

Some countries rely on specific natural resources because they are abundant. However, a single change to the supply or method of use can cause problems. For instance, Russia limited natural gas supplies to Europe following its war on Ukraine. Countries that chose not to buy gas from Russia were looking for alternatives. An already-diversified energy system would have helped respond to such a situation. 

Utility-scale solar: diversifying energy portfolios

Utility-scale solar can provide solar diversification and sustainability benefits without requiring property owners to participate, as they would have to do in residential and commercial solar initiatives

Solar arrays do not require damming like hydroelectric plants, and they do not rely on potentially dangerous substances like nuclear plants. Though they require proper placement for maximum output, utility solar fields are often easier to place than wind turbines, which may require higher altitude or offshore placement for maximum efficiency. 

Like other energy systems, solar panels also need maintenance. But unlike other power structures, particularly when compared to renewable energies, solar panels are more inexpensive, efficient, and cost-effective due to several technological advancements such as bifacial modules, trackers, monitoring software, etc.

Complementary role of solar with other renewable energy projects

Solar power is intermittent. Panels do not produce energy at night. Wind turbines can produce power at night but depend on wind, which can be inconsistent. The intermittency means producers cannot rely solely on one energy source. 

Grids need to combine wind and solar with other renewable sources like hydroelectric or geothermal power. Such diversified systems allow operators to select energy sources based on availability, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. 

Hybrid grids rely on these multiple energy sources, combining them with energy storage solutions like utility-scale batteries. Though these systems can potentially provide sustainable energy with limited risk of interruption, they require addressing challenges, like the cost of setting up a hybrid with many independent energy production facilities. 

Energy security enhancement 

Energy security involves having access to an ongoing supply of affordable and stable energy. Different factors affect energy security, including a supply of resources needed to create electricity, a stable infrastructure to deliver it, and regulations or pricing policies that ensure affordability. 

Energy is necessary for everyday modern life. Extended outages are inconvenient for households, disrupt businesses, and cause economic problems. This can put countries at a political or strategic disadvantage as they scramble to replace lost energy sources.

Addressing energy security in a renewable context 

We have already mentioned the vulnerabilities of traditional energy sources to price changes, geopolitical events, and natural disasters. These problems harm overall energy security. 

Renewables like solar energy sometimes require importing materials or components from other countries. However, the systems do not require an ongoing flow of outside resources. Therefore, each utility-scale solar array can fill a portion of energy demands usually filled by fossil fuels. This replacement increases energy security. 

Enhancing energy security

Utility-scale solar diversifies the energy grid and facilitates domestic energy production without reliance on imported commodities. 

Utility-scale solar can also be decentralized, which improves energy security. Producers can install arrays in different locations. If weather events or transmission problems impact one area, other arrays can fill demand. Decentralization also allows a modular approach. Energy companies can add or remove arrays as needed to meet expanding demand. 

Power outages can affect critical functions like healthcare and food storage. Resilient systems like utility-scale solar with a modular layout across a grid system can get back online quickly after a disaster and provide critical power to keep systems online. 

Overcoming challenges and opportunities

Utility-scale solar developments face inherent challenges related to land and integration with a grid system designed for traditional energy production. Meanwhile, upfront costs can keep some producers from investing. 

Despite these obstacles, the future of utility-scale solar is bright. Combined solar and wind capacity is expected to more than double between 2022 and 2028. Decreased panel costs and tech improvements like AI-enhanced system design are helping solar array owners overcome some challenges. 

Common challenges in utility-scale solar projects

Securing large land areas and balancing them with agriculture are hurdles. Solar panels require five to ten acres of land to produce each megawatt (MW) of electricity. One challenge is finding suitable land for solar arrays. 

Another is the competition between solar companies and farmers. Solar arrays can occupy prime cropland, complicating food production. In some areas, the arrays may displace local farmers who lack an alternative place to grow crops. 

Problems also exist outside of these land-use challenges. 

Integrating large-scale solar farms into the existing power grid presents unique issues. Grid stability and reliability depend on consistent power flow; intermittent solar energy does not fit this traditional design. Utility-scale projects may not be possible in some areas without infrastructure upgrades, which add to the overall cost of solar adoption.

Even without these upgrades, utility-scale solar can produce financial roadblocks. The upfront capital costs can deter investors, who may also be wary of local regulations and zoning requirements. 

Technological advancements driving solar progress 

Technology could help address these challenges by improving efficiency, performance, and integration. Though current solar panels have efficiency ratings of around 20%, researchers have developed cells with 50% efficiency. This advance could increase energy production for each panel and lower land requirements.

Energy storage solutions are evolving rapidly. Utility-scale batteries can reserve solar-produced power and release it uniformly over time. This solution helps with power distribution after dark and eliminates surges on the grid during the daytime. 

Finally, robotic smart tracking systems can maximize energy capture. They adjust solar panels to face the sun throughout the day, maximizing efficiency and power output during every daylight hour.

Utility-scale solar installations: growth opportunities 

Energy security, resilience, and sustainability are all reasons to opt for solar energy. Emerging economies in Africa and Asia are prime candidates for large-scale solar sites. Countries near the equator have consistent sunshine throughout the year and increasing energy demands. 

Their distribution infrastructures are growing, meaning they can be built to handle solar intermittency and hybrid energy systems. 

Developing countries could enjoy energy independence and inexpensive power to meet their economic growth goals. 

Meanwhile, many other countries are faced with regulations aimed at curbing global warming. For instance, the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) require that utilities get an increasing percentage of their energy from wind, solar, or other sustainable sources. In the US, many states aim to have 100% renewable energy in the future, with deadlines ranging from 2030 to 2050. 

Future outlook 

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) saw a 51% increase in panel installations between 2022 and 2023. The US-based organization has also set the goal of producing 30% of all solar energy by 2030.

Utility-scale solar will play a significant role in this effort. In recent years, utility-scale solar projects have eclipsed residential and commercial capacity, and the trend is set to continue. 

Projected growth and importance of utility-scale solar 

Solar power is the dominant renewable energy solution. 

Quote on solar power by international energy agency

Source: IEA

The Department of Energy's Solar Futures Study estimates that solar could provide 45% of the power in the United States directly by 2050. With the addition of grid-connected batteries and increased wind and hydroelectric power, solar could serve as the backbone of a fully decarbonized electrical grid. The lack of emission-producing energy sources will also significantly reduce GHG emissions. 

Solar expansion is also already bringing economic benefits in the form of employment. By the end of 2023, 4.9 million people worked worldwide in the sector. Demand for solar professionals in the US will increase by 22% between 2022 and 2032. 

Emerging solar trends and technologies 

Technological advances are helping make intermittent renewables more practical and efficient. Battery technology is a prime example. These energy storage units allow producers to reserve electricity and release it to the grid when needed. 

The capacity of lithium-ion batteries continues to increase while costs fall. These trends could make it easier for utility providers to store and throttle PV-produced electricity. 

Another area of innovation is grid integration. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and automated transmission controls can measure loads and demand and automatically adjust the grid to operate at peak efficiency at all times. 

Utility-scale solar’s role in global sustainability goals 

Utility-scale solar, with grid enhancements and storage technologies, can bring energy to consumers on existing grids for a fraction of the GHG emissions of fossil-fuel-based energy production methods. 

Because of its availability, modularity, and effectiveness at reducing emissions, PV power is often considered the backbone of efforts to meet emissions-reduction goals and limit the impacts of global warming. 

The other advantage of utility-scale solar is that it does not require the participation of individuals like residential and commercial solar does. The reliance on large arrays can speed up the adoption of renewable energy to meet climate change reduction goals. 

A greener tomorrow with utility-scale solar

Utility-scale solar power can provide clean energy and reduce emissions. It also offers energy security and independence benefits, bringing a level of resilience unavailable in traditional energy production methods. 

Utility-scale adoption is on an upward trend, and technological advancements and incentives should make it more accessible for investors. Even with this growth, continued investment and support are necessary to achieve the ambitious goals of limiting the impact of global warming and reducing carbon emissions without disrupting the energy supply.

Take a step towards a cleaner future. Explore the latest renewable energy statistics and insights to uncover the data driving sustainable change.

Edited by Shanti S Nair

Solar design software
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Solar design software
Go green with style!

Discover how solar design can help you design, simulate, and analyze the performance of your projects with ease.

The Role of Utility-Scale Solar in Expanding Renewable Energy Discover how utility-scale solar projects drive global renewable energy progress, reduce emissions, and enhance energy security for a sustainable future.
Conrado Lamas Conrado Lamas is the Head of Demand Generation at PVcase, a leading SaaS firm with customers in 80 countries, whose software makes engineering and building renewable energy projects less labor-intensive, time-consuming, and complicated.

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