Key takeaways


roadly speaking, a solar utility plant is a large scale solar project. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) defines a utility scale solar plant as a project with a solar capacity of at least 1 megawatt (MW). According to SEIA, there are currently around 10,000 solar utility projects all over the United States. The nation’s utility scale solar additions grew by 25% in 2021 to a record 13.2 GW, as the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported .

Utility scale solar – the main driver of solar power rollout

On a global scale, utility sized solar plants accounted for 52% of global solar PV capacity additions in 2021, far ahead of the residential (28%) and commercial and industrial (19%) solar segments, as stated by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Key facts about solar power deployed at the utility scale

  • Large scale solar generates 2.8% of the total utility scale electricity in the U.S.

According to the EIA’s report, solar power projects operating at the utility scale accounted for 2.8% of electricity generated in the U.S. in 2021. By comparison, solar provided less than 0.1% of the U.S. electricity in 1990.

In 2021, solar utility power projects were also responsible for 13.5% of renewable electricity generation.

  • Electricity generated by solar power utility projects is now the cheapest in history

According to IEA's new World Energy Outlook 2020, new solar power utility projects with low-cost solar financing offer the cheapest source of electricity in history. This is the first time utility scale solar has surpassed coal- and gas-fired utility scale power generation.

  • The U.S. capacity of utility scale solar power projects can reach 270 GW by 2030

On August 2022, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which envisages, among other things, pumping $369 billion into utility scale clean power generation, including solar power. Such support will be a significant boon for utility solar: Rystad Energy projects that the incentives will result in about 70 GW utility scale solar additions and a cumulative solar capacity of 270 GW by 2030.

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Types of solar power utility projects

Utility scale solar power plants fall into two main categories: photovoltaic solar utility projects and concentrated solar power (CSP) utility projects. Let's have a closer look at each.

  • Photovoltaic (PV) solar power utility projects

Utility scale photovoltaic plants operate on the same principle as residential solar systems. But while an average rooftop solar system consists of 20-25 solar panels, even a small 1-megawatt solar utility power plant needs at least 5,000 solar panels.

How do photovoltaic solar utility plants work?

Utility scale solar PV plants are typically built on large, open spaces. They employ multiple rows of solar panels, mostly made of crystalline silicon. These solar panels capture sunlight and transform it into direct current (DC) electricity using the photovoltaic effect, and a solar inverter converts the DC to alternating current (AC). The voltage is stepped up by a solar transformer, after which the electricity is fed into the utility transmission and distribution system.

  • Concentrated solar power (CSP) solar utility projects

While for most people, solar power is mainly associated with photovoltaic panels, one more solar technology is well-suited for utility scale applications - concentrated solar power (CSP). Instead of the photovoltaic effect used by PV solar power systems, they generate electricity by transforming solar irradiance into heat.

How do CSP solar utility plants work?

CSP solar utility installations harvest solar radiation using mirrors and focus it onto a receiver. The concentrated light is then converted into heat, which drives a steam turbine connected to an electrical power generator.

Key challenges for utility scale solar power

Even though the solar power utility sector is the fastest-growing and the most promising renewable energy source in the United States, it still faces particular challenges. Here's a quick overview of the most pressing solar power utility market issues.

China's dominance over solar panel production poses risks for the U.S. utility scale solar

China's global dominance in solar panel production is one of the main factors that offset the growth of utility scale solar power. As IEA reports, the country currently controls over 80% of all the solar manufacturing stages, including polysilicon, ingots, wafers, cells, and modules. This means that U.S. solar utility owners are growing increasingly reliant on China’s equipment supplies.

Utility power transmission lines are insufficient for the utility scale solar power

While the United States has set an ambitious goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035, some experts doubt the country’s power transmission system is ready for these clean energy volumes, particularly from solar utility plants. The difference between hourly net generation and demand causes energy imbalances in the grid, which leads to grid disturbances. Therefore, the regions with broader utility scale solar energy adoption must enhance solar power exchanges with other regions to minimize disruptions.

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Utility scale solar farms generate intermittent power, hence solar storage is necessary

Solar farm
Solar farm

The intermittency of solar power is one of the main challenges for utility scale solar. As the power grid can’t store large amounts of power, solar plants need battery storage to utilize it effectively.

The main barrier to wide scale solar-plus-storage adoption is higher costs than standalone photovoltaic projects. Additionally, utility scale solar installations paired with battery storage rely on emerging technologies, which is why gauging investment and managing risks can be complicated.


Key takeaways

Unlocking Solar Power: A Deep Dive into Utility Scale Projects

Scale Matters:Utility scale solar projects, exceeding 1 MW capacity, are transforming the energy landscape with approximately 10,000 such projects in the USA, witnessing a 25% growth in 2021 to reach a record-breaking 13.2 GW.

Global Dominance:Globally, utility scale solar dominated solar PV capacity additions in 2021, accounting for 52%. In the USA, these projects contributed 2.8% to total electricity generation in 2021, a significant leap from 0.1% in 1990.

Cost Revolution:Solar utility projects offer historically cheap electricity, surpassing coal and gas. With legislative support, the USA targets 270 GW capacity by 2030, backed by a $369 billion investment under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Diverse Technologies:Utility scale solar includes photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) projects. While PV relies on solar panels for direct current (DC) electricity, CSP generates power through concentrated solar irradiance, catering to diverse energy needs.

Challenges Ahead:Despite rapid growth, challenges persist. China's dominance in solar manufacturing poses risks, and the US power transmission system requires upgrades. Additionally, solar power intermittency demands innovative storage solutions for effective utilization.

Future Outlook:As utility scale solar continues its ascent, addressing challenges and embracing evolving technologies will be pivotal for sustained growth, ensuring a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.

Jun 29, 2023
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