A solar farm is a piece of land that has been dedicated to the mass production of green energy via solar panels. A solar farm can be as small as a back garden or as large as the pastures on traditional farms, as well as being owned by a private individual, a community or entire companies. The energy is either sold to the national grid, or they are used to power local homes.
As concerns about climate change and the rising cost of fossil fuel power go through the roof, we believe solar farms will become more common. They offer a limitless supply of energy that does negligible damage to the atmosphere. And so, ESE has put together a guide detailing how solar farms function, as well as the different types, challenges, and examples of successful projects.
How do solar farms work?
Solar farms are filled with solar panels, which are devices that can pull in the sun’s energy (DC), and convert that energy into electricity that can be used by any appliance in the home (AC). Solar energy is considered green energy, meaning its use is not only infinitely renewable but has no ill effects on the environment.
Solar farms are not just filled with solar panels, however, as several other components of Solar Panels are added to ensure maximum productivity:
- Inverters – Whilst the Solar Panels capture the sun’s energy, the component that converts it to usable energy is called the inverter. The inverter converts the sun’s base energy (DC) into AC, which is the type of electricity that is used to power homes.
- Racking and Mounting Systems – These systems hold the solar panel in place. Using these systems, solar panels can be installed into fixed platforms that may or may not be elevated, some of which come with auto-tracking functionality.
- Electrical Infrastructure – These are fairly standard and consist of wiring, junction boxes etc. for safe transfer of power from solar panels to inverters to homes/storage systems.
- Monitoring Systems – These systems are used to both monitor and maintain the solar farm. They consist of many features, such as automated alerts, data analysis tools, weather tracking and energy management tools.
So, overall, the process is simple. Solar panels gather energy, inverters change the energy to AC, and then it’s transferred to homes or batteries. A lot of this is similar to how normal solar panels atop homes work except for the high levels of sophistication in maintenance and monitoring.
What types of Solar Farms exist?
Two different formats of Solar Farms exist in the UK.
Ground-Mounted Solar Farms
Ground-mounted solar farms are installations set up on the ground and are usually quite expansive. They are set up in areas that not only have a high amount of solar irradiance but also have a lot of land availability, which is why many of them are found in rural/semi-rural areas of the UK. These lands are almost always on flat land, as sloping requires specialised mounting systems that can rack up the costs.
Panel arrangements consist of solar panels arranged in long rows, usually on metal frames, with adequate spacing between the rows to prevent shading. They are placed behind fences to prevent unauthorised access, as well as internal roads built for maintenance vehicles and personnel.
You can expect to find substations and grid connection facilities, as well as energy storage systems.
|Large-Scale Energy Production: These farms can generate significant amounts of electricity due to their size and scale.
|Land Use: Requires a large area of land, which might be a concern in regions with limited space or high land value.
|Optimised Sun Exposure: The layout can be designed for maximum sunlight exposure, enhancing efficiency.
|Environmental Impact: Potential disruption to local ecosystems and habitats during construction and operation.
|Economies of Scale: Larger installations can achieve lower costs per unit of electricity generated.
|Visual Impact: This can alter the landscape and may be considered visually unappealing by residents.
|Renewable Energy Source: Contributes to reducing reliance on fossil fuels and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
|Infrastructure and Access: Requires investment in infrastructure like roads, and grid connections.
|Potential for Ecological Benefits: Can be combined with agricultural activities (agrivoltaics) or biodiversity initiatives.
|Initial Capital Investment: High upfront costs for installation and setup.
|Flexibility in Location: Can be built in various settings, including non-arable land.
|Maintenance: Requires ongoing maintenance, though generally less than other forms of energy generation.
Rooftop Solar Farms
As the name suggests, some solar farms are placed entirely on rooftops. These solar farms are usually used to generate electricity for use on-site, usually in commercial areas. Since rooftops are utilised, the issue of solar panels being obstructions is eliminated.
Unlike ground-mounted solar panels, which are almost always placed on flat land with uniform mounting systems, no such thing is possible with rooftop solar farms, as roof sizes and shapes can vary from block to block. As such, rooftop solar farms will be designed to fit as much available roof space as possible whilst taking obstructions, such as the chimney, into account.
With the UK being in the northern hemisphere, the sun is always in the south. This means that Solar Panels are most effective when facing south. Some roofs do not face south, which is a problem. When faced with this issue, techniques such as elevated mounts, or simply accepting that there will be lowered efficiency, are employed.
|Pros of Rooftop Solar Farms
|Cons of Rooftop Solar Farms
|Reduction in Energy Bills: Solar panels generate free electricity, leading to significant savings on electricity costs.
|Initial Cost: High upfront cost for purchasing and installing the solar panels.
|Environmentally Friendly: Produces clean, renewable energy, reducing carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.
|Roof Suitability: Not all roofs are suitable for solar panel installation due to orientation, angle, or structural strength.
|Energy Independence: Reduces reliance on the grid and insulates against electricity price fluctuations.
|Maintenance Requirements: Although minimal, solar panels require regular cleaning and occasional repairs.
|Increased Property Value: Buildings with solar installations often have higher property values.
|Aesthetic Considerations: Some may find solar panels visually unappealing on their building.
|Potential for Financial Incentives: Many regions offer rebates, tax credits, or feed-in tariffs for solar energy systems.
|Weather Dependent: Efficiency can be impacted by weather conditions and less effective during cloudy or rainy days.
|Grid Relief: Can alleviate stress on the local power grid during peak energy usage times.
|Space Limitations: The amount of electricity that can be generated is limited by the available roof space.
Who owns Solar Farms, and why?
There are two types of entities that own solar farms – the community and commercial/government entities.
Community Solar Farms
These types of solar farms are made to benefit the community. Their usage model revolves around collaboration, as the solar power system must be contributed to be sufficiently shared across several homes.
These projects are ideal for those on low income or for people living in conditions where their roof is simply not fit for solar power. Many community-based solar projects do not charge a great deal to those who require power, as many of these recipients who contribute to the project usually are in fuel poverty.
As such, many contributors do so in the form of subscribing or purchasing shares of the company. The idea of community solar farms is that solar panels can output more than enough energy for everybody, and essentially pay for themselves in the end through savings.
Examples of community farms include the Heart of England Community Energy (HECE), which is a project near Stratford-upon-Avon. It can generate 14.7MW of energy, which can power thousands of homes.
Commercial Solar Farms
Commercial solar farms are owned by businesses and/or the government. They often take up large areas of hundreds of acres and have had serious money invested. The purpose of commercial solar farms is to produce energy to sell or simply transfer directly to the national grid for storage.
These solar farms, needing many solar panels to be feasible, opt for the ground-mounted format.
The Future of Solar Farms
The solar power market, as of 2024, is booming. By the end of 2022, the UK’s total solar PV installation capacity stood at around 11.77 million. Around 40% of these installations are based on rooftops for private use.
The UK government has actively pursued the expansion of renewable energy developments, and the biggest on board is solar energy. In 2022, a record number of Solar Farms had been approved for development, generating 3.1 gigawatts (GW) in 2021 to 4.0 GW. (1 gigawatt is equal to 1 billion watts).
The UK solar power market is expected to reach 18.53 GW in 2024, and predicted to increase to a massive 53.12 GW by the end of 2029, meaning that it is inevitable that solar farms will play an increasingly significant part in the UK’s solar energy production.