PacB Group // The Importance of Utility Scale Solar Power


The Importance of Utility Scale Solar Power

Once described as an inconvenient truth by former US Vice President, Al Gore, global warming is now driving the search for cleaner energy. Whether from utility scale solar plants, wind farms, or hydroelectric dams, a solution is vital. While some choose to ignore the contribution made by humanity’s carbon footprint to global warming, others are intent on encouraging measures to counter what even the general public in most countries are now seeing as an impending worldwide catastrophe.

One obvious remedy is to generate electricity in a more sustainable fashion, and it seems possible that the ability to harness solar power on a utility scale could provide the planet and its occupants with a source of renewable energy that might, at least, offer us a partial reprieve.

Capturing some of the almost limitless energy provided by sunlight is not a new idea. Who, as a child, did not focus the sun’s rays with the aid of a magnifying glass to burn a piece of paper or char a leaf? Through their leaves, plants are able to harness that same source of energy to create the nutrients essential for their growth from water and carbon dioxide, utilising the biochemical process known as photosynthesis. It may have taken a while, but eventually man learned that it was possible to leverage a physicochemical process known as the photovoltaic effect, to obtain electricity from the sun’s radiation.

Though solar panels were initially restricted to domestic and other small installations, utility scale plants are already operating in many countries around the world. Commonly referred to as solar farms, they consist of multiple panels that often extend over vast areas. Each panel consists of individual photovoltaic cells, each capable of generating about half a volt. A variable number of these must then be connected to create a panel that acts to combine and increase the total output. By interconnecting multiple panels, the giant array that results can generate an output that is sufficient enough to bolster that produced by conventional power stations.

The number of operational utility scale solar plants, with the capacity to produce 200 megawatts or more, already exceeds 40, and there are almost just as many that are either planned or already under construction. Currently, the world’s largest solar farm is located in China. It started operating in 2016, and delivers a massive 1547MW, almost twice that of the previous leader, also located in China, and commissioned just a year earlier.

In the meantime, South Africa is committed to upgrading its power generation capacity with a plan to limit consumer reliance on the existing overworked and ageing infrastructure that was ultimately responsible for the introduction of Eskom’s disruptive programme of load shedding. The ambitious plan proposes to achieve this goal by constructing a series of utility scale solar power stations, with a proposed combined output of 9 600MW, to be completed by 2030. In terms of its goal, the plan appears to be well on target with 26 plants already completed, generating an output of 1 013MW between them. A further 16 plants are already under construction and, when complete, they are expected to boost this figure by feeding an additional 1 063MW into the national grid.

While national producers and major utility companies seem likely to dominate, the technology opens the door for smaller producers and the possibility of a steady income from power purchase agreements. For this, it may be necessary to precisely define the expected output of an installation that might reasonably be classified as a utility scale solar generating facility. Currently, there appears to be no such standard, and proposals range from anything above a single megawatt, to the 5MW that was proposed by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the more realistic threshold of 10MW, suggested by Wiki-Solar.

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