Solar Farms (What They Are & How They Work)

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Solar farms – professor Giovanni Francia built the first one in Sant’llario, Italy in 1968.

Since then, the world has gone on to build thousands more, allowing renewable energy to reach the farthest corners of our planet.

If you think about it, this should come as no surprise.

Solar PV module prices have dropped from $106.09/W to $0.38/W within 43 years, allowing this green technology to become accessible not only for industrial-grade implementation but for small-scale residential installations alike.

This article aims to explain exactly what solar farms are and how they work. Furthermore, it’ll answer all the most frequently asked questions surrounding this breakthrough technology.

Grab a pen and paper and get ready to take some notes!

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What is a Solar Farm?

Solar farm

A solar farm, also known as a photovoltaic power station or solar plant is generally characterized by a large array (1MW to 2,245MW) of solar panels that supply electricity to the power grid.

The vast majority of existing large-scale solar power plants are owned and operated by independent power producers. However, utility-owned projects are increasing throughout the country.

In summary: A solar farm is an area of land in which a sizeable number of solar panels are set up to generate a large amount of electricity.

Types of Solar Farms

There are currently two types of solar farms – utility-scale solar farms, and community-driven solar farms. The main difference between the two is their customers. Utility-scale solar farms sell their electricity directly to various utility companies, while community solar farms sell their electricity directly to end consumers such as homeowners.

  • Utility scale solar farms – are either owned privately or by the electric utility companies themselves. When owned privately, the power generated by the plant is sold to wholesale utility buyers through a power purchase agreement (PPA). Regardless of the setup, the utility is always the original customer of all utility-scale solar production. Once acquired, the utility will distribute said electricity to residential, commercial, and industrial customers who are connected to the grid.
  • Community solar farms – is an idea that has trended in recent times, particulary in the United States and Australia. The concept itself is ingenious. Instead of selling the energy produced to utility companies, local residents and businesses are able to buy the energy through a subscription service. As of 2020, about a third of American states have enabled policies for residents to join in on community solar.

How Much Does it Cost to Set up a Solar Farm?

The cost of setting up a solar farm depends on the total size of the installation – how many acres does the plant span across and how many photovoltaic panels are installed.

Additional factors that affect the cost of solar farms are:

  • Location
  • Average peak sunlight hours

To get an in-depth answer to this question, we reached out to one of the industries leading solar installers, First Solar.

They had this to say: “the cost per watt for solar installations at this scale is somewhere around $1/watt. Therefore, you can assume that a 1 MW solar farm would cost roughly $1 million to install. If that value sounds unusually low in comparison to typical costs associated with residential solar ($2 to $4 per watt), it should. The “economies of scale” concept is in full effect with the solar industry.”


How Many Acres Do You Need For a Solar Farm?

Solar farms generally take up much more land mass than conventional power plants. With that being said, the number of acres required for a solar farm really all depends on the amount of kW or MW you would like your power plant to produce.

  • A general guideline would be you need 100 sqft for every 1kW of solar panels.

Below we have created a table outlining the number of acres needed per solar farm power output:

Solar Farm (Power Output)Square FeetSquare MetersAcresHectares
1 MW100,00092902.51
5 MW500,00046,45111.54.6
10 MW1,000,00092,90322.79.2
50 MW5,000,000464,515114.7846.44
100 MW10,000,000929,030229.5692.89
200 MW20,000,0001,858,060459185.75
500 MW50,000,0004,645,1521147.84464.51
1000 MW100,000,0009,290,3042295.68929
2000 MW200,000,00018,580,6084591.361858

How Much Does It Cost To Build A Solar Farm?

As with the number of acres needed, the cost of a solar farm depends on the power output of your power plant.

The larger your system, the more it is going to cost. Below we have created a table that shows you the cost breakdown per solar farm size.

Solar Farm (Power Output)Cost
1 MW$1,000,000
5 MW$5,000,000
10 MW$10,000,000
50 MW$50,000,000
100 MW$100,000,000
200 MW$200,000,000
500 MW$500,000,000
1000 MW$1,000,000,000
2000 MW$2,000,000,000


How Do You Clean and Maintain a Solar Farm?

Large-scale solar farms that have been in operation for many years often produce less than their maximum output due to inefficient cleaning.

Often, it is the solar facilities located closest to agricultural fields, coastal towns, airports, and bird flight paths that are affected the most over time.

If your solar farm happens to be located near any of these areas, your panels will likely need more frequent cleaning.

  • Most larger solar farms utilize an automated cleaning system. This usually takes the form of automated spray systems, which look familiar to irrigation systems. These sprinkler systems are mounted on or near panels to regularly remove dirt at the touch of a button.

How Often Do Solar Farms Need To Be Cleaned?

This largely depends on the location of your solar farm. As previously mentioned, if it is located near “problem areas” you will want to clean the panels more frequently.

A general rule of thumb would be to clean your panels once every month or two, particularly if your farm is located along a bird flight path.

What Is The Best Solar Panel Cleaning Product?

For many years the industry has recommended cleaning your solar panels with plain old water. However, water alone can be an ineffective cleaning agent (depending on the circumstances).

What is the best cleaning agent that will effectively rid your solar panels of bird droppings, plant matter, dust, sand, and other contaminants?

First and foremost you need to find a cleaning agent that has:

  • Low-toxicity
  • Biodegradable
  • Contain no VOCs
  • Balanced pH levels

We recommend checking out this cleaning agent from Titan Laboratories.


Solar Farms And The Heat Island Effect

Over more recent years there have been some growing concerns on whether solar farms create a heat island effect similar to that induced by urban areas, such as cities/industrial areas.

Essentially, the concern is that large-scale PV farms may reduce the albedo in that the modified landscape becomes darker and, therefore, less reflective – resulting in the heat island effect.

If these effects were only local, there would not be much of a problem.

The issue herein lies with the sheer size of a large-scale solar farm (one spanning thousands of miles) would emit enough heat for wind currents to catch and redistribute this in a flow of heat. This could have a regional or even global effect on the climate.

What Would A PV Heat Island Effect Cause?

  • A PV Heat Island Effect (PVHI effect) would result in detectable increases in sensible heat flux (atmospheric warming). In short, it would contribute to global warming.

What Is The Largest Solar Farm In The World?

Bhadla Solar Farm

To date, the largest solar farm in the world remains Bhadla Solar Park in India. The solar farm is spread over a total area of 5,700 hectares (14,000 acres) and has a total capacity of 2245 MW. The entire Bhadla Solar Farm project cost $1.4 Billion to build.

Of course, this solar farm was not built in one go but instead developed in stages over time. Below we have listed each of the developers and the total amount of capacity they contributed to the project:

Project DeveloperCapacity MW
SB Energy (Softbank)600
Hero Future Energies300
NTPC260
ACME Solar200
Azure Power200
Charisma Energy/Sunseap140
Engie140
Avaada Power100
Fortum Solar70
Vector Green70
ReNew Power60
Phelan Power50
Electrotherm5
Aditya Biria20
LNB Group5
Roha Dyechem25
Total2245

Solar Farms In The United States

The United States has a total of 26 recognized solar farms adding up to a total capacity of 10,340 MW.

Below We have listed the name of the solar farms, their year built the total capacity, and the total amount of land used:

NameCapacityLand Size (Km2)Year Built
Copper Mountain Solar Facility80216.22016
Mount Signal Solar79415.92020
Solar Star747132015
Desert Sunlight Solar Farm550162015
Topaz Solar Farm550192014
Roadrunner Solar Project497N/A2019
Permian Energy Center460N/A2019
Springbok Solar Farm4435.72019
Agua Caliente Solar Project4109.72014
Mesquite Solar project4009.32016
Techren Solar Project4009.32019
Prospero Solar Park379N/A2020
Greasewood Solar Farm347N/A2021
Taygete Solar Project344N/A2021
Misae Solar Park324N/A2020
Beacon Solar Project291N/A2017
California Flats Solar Project28011.72017
Great Valley Solar2816.52018
Garland Solar Facility2728.12016
GA Solar 4 Project2618.12019
Tranquillity Solar project2587.72016
McCoy Solar Energy Project2509.32016
Silver State South Solar Project25011.72016
California Valley Solar Ranch2507.962013
Stateline Solar2506.822016
Moapa Southern Paiute2508.12016

Gloabal Installed Solar Energy Capacity


Final Thoughts

According to Our World in Data, global solar production has risen from 0.17 GW in 1996 to 707.5 GW in 2020 – a +411,683% relative change.

Currently, it takes somewhere around 3 trillion watts (or 3 TW) to power the entire world.

As countries around the world become more industrialized and more people are born onto the grid, the demand for electricity is expected to increase about 80% by 2050. 

In order to meet the growing electricity demands in the future, we will need to rely on all sources of renewable energy, such as wind energy, hydro energy, geothermal energy, and biomass.

We as individuals can in fact already make a difference though, by switching our homes to solar.

If you would like to figure out whether your home has solar potential, feel free to reach out to us in the comments section below or simply use our contact form to get in touch.

Kyle Browning

Kyle is a researcher and content specialist at Climatebiz. He has a strong interest in green technology, particularly in photovoltaic systems. Kyle believes in a future where everyone has affordable access to renewable energy, regardless of their race, religion, or social status. This ideology led Kyle to found Climatebiz - with the goal to provide free information for anyone, anytime.

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