Solar Energy FAQ: 14 Frequently Asked Questions About Utility Scale Solar

According to new figures from Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), there are now over 2 million solar photovoltaic (PV) installations in the U.S. These solar projects range from small, residential rooftop systems of 2 kilowatts to utility-scale solar projects as large as 500 Megawatts. Despite the rapid growth of large scale solar in the US, many details about this clean energy source are not widely known. Listed below are some common solar energy FAQs.

How do solar panels work?   

Solar panels, also known as photovoltaic modules (PV modules), work by turning sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity. These panels are supported by some type of racking structure that can be fixed, or it may rotate on an axis. Solar panels are paired with inverters that convert the DC electricity into a more useable form of electricity known as alternating current (AC.) The AC electricity then passes through a transformer to ensure that the power is the appropriate voltage before it is sent to the electric grid. AC electricity is what is found in your home or business.  

Where does the electricity generated by a utility-scale solar project go?   

The power produced from a utility-scale solar installation is injected directly into the electric grid at the project’s “Point of Interconnection”. This injection can be into a distribution line (low voltage) which is what connects to your house or business or into a transmission line (high voltage) which takes power from power plants to the distribution grid that serves your house or business.

Can Solar Energy be Stored?

Yes, solar energy can be stored. There have been tremendous advancements in battery technology and reductions in costs that have led to an increase in the application of battery storage with renewable energy projects. When batteries are added to utility-scale solar projects, it allows the project to control how much and when energy is released into the grid. Additionally, the project can control when the batteries are being charged. Utility-scale solar plus battery storage projects are not widespread yet, but as costs continue to decrease,  we expect to see a steady increase in implementation, enabling the transition of large-scale renewables from intermittent to dispatch-able energy resources.

What is a “Utility-Scale” solar installation and how is it different from a rooftop solar array?

Urban Grid considers utility-scale solar projects to be 20MW or greater in size, which is enough energy to power thousands of homes or major manufacturing facilities. These projects require an interconnection to the power grid and use of the local electric grid to transmit power to the end user.

Rooftop solar and ground mount distributed generation installations are generally small, supplemental energy sources usually totaling less than 2 MW of generation capacity. These installations are also typically “behind the meter”, meaning the energy is being fed straight from the panels to the end user. In many markets, the surplus power not utilized by the house or facility is injected into the grid. Depending on the utility serving the facility, the utility may pay the generator for this power at a predetermined rate.

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Do utility-scale solar projects prevent homeowners from installing panels on their roofs?

No. People are free to install solar panels on their roofs if the circumstances are right for them and if the local regulations permit.  

How long is a utility-scale solar project operational?

At Urban Grid, we fully expect our projects to have the capability of producing electricity efficiently for more than 35 years.  Here are some key factors that will impact the project’s life:

  1. The solar panels used in utility-scale solar projects typically have a manufacturer’s warranty for 25 years or longer. Solar panels will continue to produce energy past their warranties.
  2. The project may have land control for 50 or more years, depending on the specific terms of the land agreement.
  3. Solar projects have life spans of approximately 30-40 years (or longer) until the panels are no longer efficient. With the underlying land secured, the project will be able to be upgraded or re-powered over the course of operation with new more efficient equipment, extending the life and improving efficiency.

What happens after the useful life of the solar project?    

When the solar facility is no longer efficient, the system will be decommissioned and the equipment removed, recycling everything that can be, and returning the land to the condition in which it existed prior to the installation of the solar project. Solar has a minimal impact on the land, unlike fossil fuel power plants. When the project is removed, the land is returned to essentially its original state. Many landowners see leasing land for utility-scale solar projects as a form of land banking, as it has minimal long term impact on the value of the land.

Do solar projects make any noise?   

Solar panels do not produce noise, but the inverters that change the current of electricity from DC to AC do produce a slight hum that is not audible past the property boundaries. Solar is considered a quiet neighbor.

Will the project produce glare?   

Urban Grid utilizes the best available Photovoltaic solar (PV) panel technology for all of our utility-scale projects. These panels are dark in color and are treated with an anti-reflective coating. The purpose of solar panels is to absorb as much sunlight as possible to produce energy efficiently so the point of the panels is to be as minimally reflective as possible. Solar panels are generally less reflective than windows and have been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for installation on and around airports across the country.

How tall are solar panels for utility-scale solar projects?

Solar panels can range in height from  8-15 feet high depending on the racking structure and solar module used.

How does Urban Grid approach landscape design and management?

Urban Grid works hard to ensure that our projects will not change the look or feel of the community. Solar arrays have a low profile (8-15 feet from grade) and we use setbacks and vegetative buffers to shield the project from view. We see this as part of being a good neighbor.

Are there long-term stormwater concerns with utility-scale solar?

Utility-scale solar projects do not increase runoff and may actually improve soil and water quality. Stormwater management plans are a required part of the solar development process. These plans are prepared by professional engineers to ensure that projects do not contribute to erosion or flooding. Once operational, the use of perennial ground cover and elimination of annual tillage, irrigation, and fertilizer (in the case of farmland) allows the soil to absorb water and rejuvenate during the life of the project. A solar project has maximum ground permeability and is much better in terms of stormwater runoff than most other types of development.

What are the impacts on wildlife?

Solar farms do not pose a threat to wildlife. Wildlife studies are an important part of the development process- trained experts study proposed sites to ensure that solar development minimizes impact to wildlife. Solar projects can also provide important habitat for birds and pollinators like bees and butterflies.

What benefits do utility-scale solar projects bring to the community?

In most cases, solar projects are sited on land that generates relatively little tax revenue. The change in use provides the locality with a new higher tax revenue source. Additionally, solar projects utilize minimal public infrastructure (water, sewer, police, etc.) relative to commercial or residential development so the cost to the locality is very low. Utility-scale solar projects create local construction jobs and increased business for local services such as hotels and restaurants. The solar projects also create a small number of long term jobs for vegetation management and Operations and Maintenance of the facility.

This  Economic Impact analysis on utility-scale solar in Virginia provides more information: https://www.vml.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/VTCApril19_Mangum_22-23.pdf

Do you have other questions about utility-scale solar?  Call us at (410) 604-3603 or contact us online today.

337 Log Canoe Circle
Stevensville, MD 21666
2400 Old Brick Rd
Glen Allen, VA 23060

Additional Locations:

  • Charlottesville, VA
  • Washington, DC
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