Mixed greens

Sunny times for solar

Posted 2/8/22

As we weather the February “deep freeze,” it’s a pleasure to share great news about utility-scale solar energy.

First: the latest annual benchmarking report for PV solar energy …

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Mixed greens

Sunny times for solar


As we weather the February “deep freeze,” it’s a pleasure to share great news about utility-scale solar energy.

First: the latest annual benchmarking report for PV solar energy and storage costs by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that the installed cost of utility-scale solar power, including solar panels and battery storage, has declined 82 percent since 2010, and fell 12.3 percent from 2020 to 2021. The NREL report credits lowered costs of the solar modules, hardware and inverters as well as increased solar module efficiency, which means that today’s solar panels convert a lot more sunlight to electricity. Price targets for 2020 for unsubsidized solar, set by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) back in 2010, were met by the utility solar sector three years early, and utility-scale developers are now focused on achieving the 2030 benchmark goal of 3 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity. More innovations are anticipated, especially in the form of improved efficiency in manufacturing processes that will yield additional cost reductions in the near future.

There’s more good news in a study published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Journal of Photovoltaics and supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and by SETO. The lead author for the peer-reviewed paper, which is titled “Land Requirements for Utility-Scale PV: An Empirical Update on Power and Energy Density,” is Mark Bolinger of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Bolinger and co-author Greta Bolinger analyzed the last comprehensive review of solar land requirements, which was published in 2013, revealing how outdated the 2013 solar performance data has become.

Because the 2013 data is baked into many of our subsequent calculations for solar output, the authors conclude that we are seriously overestimating the amount of land needed for the solar buildout to help meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals. It’s so important that we consider the impact of utility-scale solar energy on the landscape and select sites strategically; the use of old data skews the conversation, feeding anxiety about land-use issues, including concerns about the loss of high-value agricultural lands, scenic treasures and environmentally sensitive areas.

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New technologies have significantly reduced the land required for utility-scale solar installations, including higher-efficiency solar modules and more affordable tracking systems that allow solar panels to pivot throughout the day to follow the sun. Other technical improvements include better software for modeling the most advantageous orientation and layout, advanced algorithms that help solar developers design tracking systems that maximize the solar resource, and design options that can compensate for lower sun angles at higher latitudes.

The study defines utility-scale as projects greater than 5 MW. It focuses on a sample of 736 projects that came online between 2007 and 2019, across 38 states, representing about 92 percent of the utility-scale solar PV power plants in the U.S. ArcGIS technology was used to ascertain the actual footprint of the solar array at these sites, as distinct from the total acreage of the leased area.

The team looked at two important measures for each project: power density, expressed as megawatts of direct current per acre (MWDC/acre), and energy density, expressed as megawatt-hours per-year per-acre (MWh/year/acre).

Comparing it to the 2013 data, the team found that in 2019, power density was 52 percent higher for fixed-tilt systems and 43 percent higher for tracking systems. Energy density was 33 percent higher for fixed-tilt systems and 25 percent higher for tracking systems.

Overall, the study found that between 2011 and 2019, the median generating capacity of an acre of solar panels increased by more than 40 percent. The authors recommend that similar updates be prepared on a regular basis since solar technology is evolving so rapidly; they note that upcoming innovations like the increased efficiency that new bi-facial and larger-format solar panels will deliver to our growing renewable energy portfolio.

solar energy, utility-scale solar energy, solar panels, technology, climate change, renewable energy


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