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What is a Solar Farm and How Does it Work?

Solar farms: what are they and how do they work to produce energy?
Green News
2023-06-29T00:00:00.000Z
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Landscape farm with solar farms

As we know, humans are contributing to climate change and the rise of global temperatures. This has  been caused by the greenhouse gases emitted by our extensive use of fossil fuels over many decades.  We need solutions if we are to ween off these dirty energy sources.  

One of the most discussed solutions is solar power. The most efficient production of solar power is on solar farms.

👉 But what is a solar farm, and how do they make use of solar power plants? And how do solar farms work?

What is a solar farm?

If you are familiar with solar panels, you could assume what a solar farm is – a ton of solar panels collected in one area.

👉 The panels are usually mounted to the ground rather than to a building or other surface (such as rooftop solar panels) – and act as a power grid or an electricity grid, allowing for community solar farms to provide renewable energy

What are solar farms used for?

👉 Solar farms are used to collect energy from the sun. They are a renewable energy source that can help  replace fossil fuels in our energy-consumptive society, limiting our greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar farms are an integral part of the greater fleet of renewable energy resources we will need to rely on in years to come. Solar farms, along with other solar panels, currently produce power sufficient to  power 15.7 million American homes – demonstrating how the solar industry, solar projects, and residential solar installations are growing in the department of energy in the midst of climate change.

Overall, they are very beneficial to limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

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How do solar panels and solar energy work?

Like how plants take sunlight and make it into energy through photosynthesis, solar farms use specially designed technology to convert sunlight into electrical energy.  

Currently, there are two dominant solar energy technologies in wide use:

  • photovoltaic technology (PV);
  • concentrating solar-thermal power technology (CSP).  

👉 PV, photovoltaic power stations, is the technology that looks like the classic solar panels you are probably familiar with – which start with solar arrays (a collection of linked solar modules). PV devices are made up of individual cells that can each produce 1 or 2 watts of power. They are connected in long chains that make up the solar panels.  

The panels have glass and plastic surrounding the cells. These materials exist to provide a protective  layer for the cells. The glass allows light to pass through and reach the conductors, and helps the cells weather many years of living in the open air. In fact, the lifespan of solar panels installed panel is about 30 years.  

👉 CSP is a bit different of a technology – it uses a system of mirrors to reflect sunlight and concentrate it  onto receivers that convert the sunlight to heat. But most of the time someone mentions a solar farm, they are probably referring to PV farms.  

Solar panel farms are specifically designed to let the solar panels face the direction where they will get the most sun. They are often planned in areas that get a lot of sun, taking into consideration latitude, geography (flatness of area), and weather patterns.

In the U.S., many of the solar farms are concentrated in the south, from California to Florida – as solar power stations are likely to be more successful in providing to power lines in these sunny states.

After the energy from the sun is collected by solar farms, it must then by integrated into the energy  system in order to be used on the grid by homes and businesses.  

Batteries are an essential part of this process – without them, we could not store the energy collected  from solar farms to save it for nighttime. Instead, we would have to use all of the solar energy as it arrived to the PVs.  

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Facts and figures of solar farms

How do solar farms make money?

Solar farms make money by producing energy for the grid.

Energy companies pay businesses and landowners for the energy they provide. There are large companies that own solar farms as well as homeowners. The latter may choose to build their own solar farms, solar gardens, or solar parks – or lease their agricultural land to a solar farm company rather than building a community solar farm themselves, as according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the solar farm cost may be daunting to some.

Although the location and geography of a patch of land will determine the profit of a farm there, 1 acre of a solar farm generates over $1,000 per month based on the energy sold to the grid.  

The solar energy market has been quickly growing across the U.S. as solar has become economically competitive with fossil fuels, increasing the value of solar farms or solar power plant.  

Cost of solar farms

There are two different types of costs associated with solar farms – “hard costs” that refer to solar  hardware like PV devices and mounts, and “soft costs” that include permitting and financing. 

Depending on supply and demand, it can take a while to install a solar farm and get it up and running  from when the solar panels are bought. This lag time can raise soft costs.

But, as solar power has become more common, the cost of solar panels has dropped significantly since 2014: by nearly 70 percent. Furthermore, the U.S. government has tax credits available for PV systems.  

👉 When it comes to return on investment, solar farms typically have a 12-20% return on investment. The  payback period is between 7 and 9 years, depending on the various costs and and where a solar farm is  located.

Size of solar panel farms

Solar panel farms can be the size of an acre or smaller, but they tend to be between 10 and 50 acres  when on private land. However, utility-scale solar farms are typically 200 acres or larger.  

Problems with solar farms

Mining for materials

Sadly, solar power is not as green of an energy source as it may seem. Some of the essential components in the fabrication of solar panels are rare minerals, including indium, gallium, germanium, and tellurium. These minerals must be mined from the ground, typically necessitating the use of fossil  fuels, not to mention the fuels needed for handling and processing.

And for solar power to play as big a part in our green future as we need, mining will need to increase significantly in order to keep up with the current power output and solar farms popping up. Indium, for example, will need to be mined as much as 8,000 percent more than it now.

👉 Since solar panels last only about 30 years and mostly cannot be recycled, projections of solar garbage in 2050 are double that of global plastic waste.

Energy storage in batteries

Batteries needed for solar energy do not have a clean track record, either. They require the mining of rare minerals, just like solar panels. Another thing they have in common is the difficulty associated with  disposal – only about 5% of batteries used in solar power are recycled.  

It takes quite a while for a battery to become a carbon neutral object after requiring so much energy during production. For example, one battery that can hold enough energy equivalent to a barrel of oil  requires the same amount of energy as 100 barrels of oil.  

Impacts on animals

Solar farms can be deadly for animals. Thousands of birds die yearly from collision or immolation flying near or over solar farms. There is currently research on going on how to limit bird deaths due to solar  farms.  

The farms can also be protected by perimeter fencing to keep out intruders, both human and non human. But, animals can be trapped under the fences fleeing from prey, impacting ecosystem functioning.

However, it should be noted that solar farms' extent of negative impact on animals is marginal to the threat global climate change poses to ecosystems around the world.

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Is it safe living next to a solar farm?

According to current research, living next to a solar farm does not put you at risk of getting cancer. It can actually lower the risk of lung cancer if it means not living near dirtier energy sources.

👉 It is worth noting the existence of electromagnetic radiation near solar farms – a byproduct of the  industrial equipment needed to store the solar energy. But if you do not have electromagnetic hypersensitivity, you shouldn't need to worry about the implications of the radiation.

Likely the biggest risk to your health when living near a solar farm is the potential of mishandled waste. Luckily, this is not a typical occurrence.  

Beyond safety, living next to a solar farm can lower your property value. This also depends on where you live, and is not a catch-all rule.  

If you would like to know where there is a solar farm near you, the Solar Energies Industries Association  (SEIA) has a database of over 5,800 solar power projects where you can find that information. Click this link to see the map.

A greener future with Greenly

We hope you have learned something about solar farms and solar power in this article. If you would like to be a part of our world's shift towards green energy sources, reach out to Greenly.

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