Superpowers on every continent are in an all-out sprint for the title of the largest utility-scale solar project on the planet. Who will win the race for clean energy, and what will we lose?
Renewable energy has made a big splash in the energy sector. Despite its upfront investment, clean energy is cheaper long term and reduces our reliance on fossil fuels. For some parts of the world, solar energy just makes the most sense. Take the deserts of Egypt and India, for example. With intense, all-day sunshine nearly all year long, solar could be the key to meeting ever-increasing demands for electricity.
In 1968, Professor Giovanni Francia of Italy built the first concentrated solar power plant in Sant’llario, Italy. Back then, a series of mirrors were used to concentrate the sun’s energy before storing it in various energy-storage contraptions. Solar technology has evolved considerably over the past 50 years, but one thing is for sure: the popularity of solar energy continues to grow. Large-scale or utility-scale solar power plants are on the rise.
The definition of a utility-scale solar project changes based on who you ask. The term has been applied to solar projects ranging from 25 kW to greater than 50 MW of output, and everything in between. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) defines a utility-scale as any project with a projected output of more than 1 MW per year. For simplicity, we’ll agree with that definition.
Put simply, utility-scale solar projects mean very, very large solar power plants. These facilities are popping up on almost every continent (excluding Antarctica, although there’s a small-scale solar project there, too). The plants produce anywhere from 500 to 5,000 MW of clean solar energy each year.
The largest projects on earth are all currently under development, and it’s an all-out race for the title. Here’s the list of the largest solar farms in the world by region in ascending order.
California has the most large-scale solar projects in the U.S. due to its expansive, largely uninhabited desert regions. Among these utility-scale plants are Topaz Solar Star and Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, which each produce 550 MW of solar power annually. None, however, beat Solar Star (formerly known as Antelope Valley Solar Projects) in Rosamond, California.
Solar Star produces 579 MW per year. The plant went live in June of 2015, and at that time it was the largest operational solar power facility in terms of installed capacity. The plant is home to 1.7 million solar panels installed across 3,200 acres of the westernmost Mojave Desert valley region. Solar Star achieves its output by use of higher-efficiency crystalline silicon solar panels, which produce higher output than the standard low-wattage, thin-film cadmium-telluride (CdTe) photovoltaic panels used at the Topaz and Desert Sunlight solar plants.
Solar Star produces enough electricity to power 255,000 homes. The plant is also a 90-minute drive from the City of Angels. Next time you’re in Malibu, take a drive to Rosamond and check it out.
Mexico is dedicated to clean energy. It plans to source 35% of its energy from renewably sources by 2024. To accomplish this, it has been steadily adding on to the Villanueva Solar Park in Coahuila, Mexico.
Villanueva Solar Park features an output of 754 MW per year and includes two solar parks: Villanueva 1 with an output of 427 MW and Villanueva 3 with an output of 327 MW. Each year, the facility plans to increase its output toward a final goal of 1,700 GWh of solar power generated per year. It will be Enel Green Power’s largest facility.
China has the highest solar capacity compared to any other nation in the world. Collectively, the country produces 130 GW of energy via solar power plants each year. That’s massive. To put it into perspective, that’s more than enough electricity to power the entire U.K. with clean energy.
Aside from having the largest total capacity, China is also home to the largest PV plant in the world, in terms of total production and size. Tengger Desert Solar Park generates an impressive 1,500 MW per year. Nicknamed the “Great Wall of Solar,” it is 745 miles long, occupying 3.2% of the entire Tengger Desert.
China is home to several other sizable solar panels, including Longyangxia Dam on the Tibetan Plateau with an output of 850 MW. Our favorite facility, however, is the cutest PV plant on the planet: the Datong County power plant with 248 acres of solar panels shaped like two giant pandas (one is even waving).
Egypt is also in the race to be the largest solar farm in the world with its new $2.8 billion solar undertaking. Positioned south of Cairo in the Nubian Desert, Egypt is building a 235-acre solar power plant projected to deliver 1.8 GW of power.
The new solar farm is build built in a 235-acre stretch of desert. It comprises approximately 200,000 photovoltaic panels that move with the position of the sun for higher efficiency. The project was undertaken in an effort to help the nation meet its goal of 20% renewable energy by 2022.
Once built, it will be the largest solar farm in the world, assuming construction is completed before India, or the UAE has anything to say about it.
Neither China nor Egypt will hold the title for the largest solar farm in Asia for long. India is vying for its spot with a 20-square-mile solar farm development in India’s tech hub Karnataka.
The park will cost $2 billion to build. Once complete, the 2-GW park is expected to power 700,000 homes. The first phase of the plant is online now. Development continues, somewhat slowly, due to concerns surrounding cost. Once complete, though, this will be the largest utility-scale solar project in Asia.
It’s also worth noting India is home to some of the largest solar parks on earth.
We saved the best for last. The most impressive solar project on the planet by far is the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in the United Arab Emirates, (UAE), located 50 miles south of Dubai. The park is named after the Prime Minister of the UAE. When complete, it’s projected to generate 5,000 MW of electricity by 2030 to support Dubai’s goal of 75% clean energy by 2050.
This solar park is not only the most ambitious park on the planet, it’s also the coolest. Already under development, it will feature the largest solar tower in the world, coming in at over 850 feet and generating 700 MW of clean energy.
The site is being developed in phases. By 2020, it’s projected to have an output of 1,000 MW. By 2030, the site is projected to have an output of 5,000 MW.
This solar plant will also solely power Expo 2020, making it the first 100%, clean-energy-fueled world exposition. Take that World Fair.
Massive solar power plants are a relatively new undertaking. In June 2010, there were only 34 major solar projects in the world. Today, there are hundreds. While it’s exciting to see nations all over the world take action toward future of clean energy, solar isn’t without its problems.
In the short term, solar farms demand expansive stretches of land and substantial water for development. This poses a risk to natural ecosystems, flora, and fauna in those areas. A recent study also found temperatures as much as 5 °C lower beneath solar panels, which could significantly impact local agriculture. Solar panels also create 300 times more toxic waste per unit than nuclear energy and can cause serious human health hazards with improper disposal. This is of particular concern with utility-scale solar farms in developing areas like India and Rwanda.
Other downsides to solar are related to output. Because solar farms can produce several gigawatts of energy doesn’t mean it’s feasible to use all that energy. Solar farms require expansive space and aren’t easily accessible in major metropolitans where energy is needed. Thus, much solar energy collected winds up not being used. In China, an average of 30% of its solar output is wasted due to infrastructure issues.
The current proposed solution to this problem is the development of super grids that can take energy from remote locations and distribute it to larger metropolitan areas. A supergrid that would span much of Asia and Russia was proposed, as well as a supergrid to connect the E.U.
Summing up, if you’re trying to get off the grid, choose your location carefully. The grid may soon find you.
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