Maybe you have one in your community, or you saw one recently during a drive through the countryside. Solar farms are appearing throughout the country. You may be wondering what they mean for you — both the good and the bad.
Solar Farms have five major advantages and five significant disadvantages. Solar power is an excellent source of renewable green electricity, but like any other power source it does have effects on the community and the environment that we need to contend with.
This article will walk you through all the important pros and cons of solar farms — how they provide the electricity we all need without harming the global climate, but also how they can affect the local climate. I’ll show you the good and the bad. But first, we need to explain just what a solar farm is.
What Is a Solar Farm?
A solar farm is an installation that uses sun power to produce electricity on a large scale — basically a solar power plant. Sometimes the plant will use sunlight to produce heat that can be used to turn a generator. But the overwhelming majority of solar farms will have a large array of photovoltaic cells that produce electricity directly. This article will focus on these.
You may have a family in the neighborhood who has installed solar panels in their yard or on the roof of their home. A solar farm will work much the same way but on a much bigger scale. And instead of using the electricity to power just one home, the solar farm will provide power to an electric utility, which will send it along to the grid. So whether or not you have solar panels, odds are at least some of the power you use at home comes from the Sun.
Generally speaking, a solar farm will cover at least an acre, an area a little smaller than a football field. Some solar farms cover more than 100 acres. By contrast, a typical rooftop solar setup will cover maybe 1/20th of an acre. A solar farm in Kamuthi, India, might be the world’s largest, covering just under four square miles.
1. Renewable Power
Barring some unforeseeable cosmic catastrophe, the Sun is expected to glow for another five billion years. And as long as the Sun continues to burn, solar power will be available on Earth. There is no worry about its power running out, mines and wells emptying, or politics disrupting our supply. We cannot shut the Sun off even if we wanted to, and humanity will probably never have that ability.
Solar power is the ultimate renewable energy source. Over the long run it is as reliable as anything can be. This makes solar power very valuable, especially as concern continues to mount over global warming and the use of fossil fuels. Solar energy can be captured and converted into electricity without pumping carbon dioxide or any other greenhouse gas into the air.
As governments place tighter and tighter restrictions on oil, gas, and coal, solar will be untouched. If anything, solar power will be encouraged until the danger of global climate change passes.
2. A Clean, Quiet Energy Source
Even the largest solar facility will emit practically nothing into the atmosphere — no carbon, no toxic fumes. As long as the panels are properly maintained and disposed of when they are taken down, they should release little or nothing into the soil or water either. Unlike nuclear power there is no risk of a meltdown. Solar farms are far safer for the health of the nearby community than any traditional power source.
They are also extremely quiet. Solar farms have little in the way of moving parts. At most, passers-by may hear a low hum from inverters and transformers that convert the power from solar panels into electrical power that the grid can use. That humming sound is pretty much unavoidable any time large amounts of electricity are generated.
3. Profitable Power
The value of solar power is reflected more and more in the energy marketplace. Solar panels can work in any location with frequent sunshine, but large, commercial solar energy works best on the outskirts of big cities, where large plots can be put together and there are few large buildings to block sunshine.
Depending on the location and the climate, a solar utility can earn $20,000 to $40,000 per acre every year. That means they can afford to rent land at rates that are very attractive to farmers and developers with a large enough plot of undeveloped land in the right place. This illustrates just how valuable renewable energy can be.
4. Low Maintenance
Because there are few moving parts, there is little risk of parts breaking down. That makes solar farms easy to maintain for the utility companies and adds to their reliability. Once the panels are installed, utility management will want to monitor output to make sure none of the panels is malfunctioning. Every now and then a panel or some of the associated electronics might need to be replaced.
But that shouldn’t happen too often. Solar panels are pretty durable. Solar panel manufacturers have devised ways to make panels that can withstand heavy rains and even golf-ball-sized hail with minimal damage. Otherwise, maintenance and upkeep will be limited to periodically cleaning the panels so that the maximum amount of sunlight gets through.
5. Minimal Traffic and Disruption
All of which makes a solar farm a pretty good neighbor for the most part. Because the solar farm won’t need any fuel, there is no need for pipelines or delivery trucks. As repair and maintenance needs are generally light, there won’t be much traffic going into or out of the facility, either of parts or staff.
In short, a solar farm won’t do much to disrupt your community or place much strain on your existing roads or infrastructure. Mostly it will just sit there quietly cranking out electricity.
1. Intermittent Power
Remember how I said that solar power was extremely reliable over the long run? The flip side is that in the short run solar power is not going to be there around the clock. Solar panels do not generate power during the nighttime, and their output drops during rainy and overcast days.
Much of this can be predicted and adjusted for. Utility operators can turn to other power plants to feed the electric grid at night or when storms roll into the area. Engineers are working on battery systems that can hold power from solar farms and release it later when it is needed.
But battery capacity is limited at present, and until batteries of sufficient size are made affordable, solar farms will not be able to provide all the power we need on their own. Utilities will need to keep some nuclear or fossil-fuel plants in reserve for those periods when solar farms cannot produce power at or near their peak.
2. Space Requirements
Solar power facilities require a lot of land to be practical for utility companies — that’s part of why they are referred to as “farms.” As a rule of thumb, it takes 2.5 acres — about two football fields — to generate a megawatt of electricity. That’s enough to power a modest town of around 200 homes.
A typical utility company will serve millions of customers, so to make a difference solar farms will need to cover more than a few acres. Location matters. A solar farm needs to be reasonably close to its customers, so you don’t lose a whole lot of power as it goes through the electrical lines. But to assemble enough space it will need to be away from built-up areas.
A more traditional power plant, powered by coal, gas, or nuclear energy, will take up anywhere from 1/50 to 1/100 of the space that a solar farm uses to produce the same amount of electricity.
3. Expensive to Set Up
This is the flip side of the low maintenance costs. Between assembling the land and installing the panels, a solar farm’s up-front costs can be pretty stiff. A small solar farm producing one megawatt of electricity will cost the utility company $3 million. A natural gas plant producing the same amount of electricity can be built for a little over $800,000
A solar farm will not need fuel to operate and will have low maintenance costs. Once the plant is online day-to-day operation will be fairly cheap.
But the high initial price tag will affect how utilities use solar power. Utility companies build power plants with an eye toward future demand. If the company’s projections are off and demand doesn’t develop, a large solar farm can be an expensive white elephant. At the very least, a utility’s management will wait until they are certain there will be demand before they set up a solar farm.
Many people choose to live in the countryside for the scenery. Living near a solar farm can reduce the quality of their views. Looking out at row upon row of solar panels, plus support structures and wiring, can be a letdown if one was used to seeing farmland or cattle and horses.
This might seem like a minor, purely aesthetic complaint, but the less attractive view can put a noticeable dent in local property values. Solar farms might not be the ugliest thing humanity has assembled, but they aren’t exactly pretty either. In a bucolic rural setting many folks will find the mass of solar panels jarring.
5. Effects on local animal and plant life
Solar farms will break up the terrain, and this can affect local wildlife. Instead of having a familiar grove of trees or crops, animals will now have an artificial terrain of solar panels. At a minimum, the solar farm will disrupt their migration patterns. At worst, it breaks up animal habitats, denying local wildlife critical space to forage for food, find cover, or seek prey.
At the same time, the area cleared around the solar panels can become the host to invasive plants. Weeds will be pulled up or removed with pesticides in neighboring farms. But the utility company is not worried about plants as long as they don’t block out the Sun, so unwanted plants can take root on the solar farm, then spread their seeds into the larger community, creating nuisances for many local farmers.
It’s not all bad news. There is some indication that solar farms can be welcoming places for bees and other pollinators. With some planning, a solar farm can be a great location for flowering plants that attract bees, which will then pollinate plants throughout the area.
Like any technology, solar power has advantages and disadvantages. But the value of clean, renewable power is undeniable. Solar farms have their drawbacks, but most of these can be managed.
Utilities can overcome the cyclical nature of solar energy by balancing solar with gas and nuclear. The environmental downsides can be minimized by choosing locations carefully and with smart layouts that encourage plant and animal life nearby.
In time, solar farms will be as much a part of the countryside as cornfields and cattle. And we will all be better off for that.