The most impressive solar farms on the planet
Where are the world’s biggest solar farms? And just how big is big?
Today we’re looking at impressive solar plants (aka solar farms) that are built on a macro level. Macro is just fancy speak for really big and important. While we go about our own personal solar revolution powering our homes with roof-top panels and innovative batteries, private sector firms and governments are building the most astonishing solar arrays… and they’re BIG.
It’s really only the beginning, but these massive projects, buoyed by huge investment will eventually bring the world and its power-hungry subjects kicking and screaming into the modern age of clean, renewable power.
But what counts as big anyway? Is it the number of solar panels, the power generated or the cost and complexity of construction? Is it the space they occupy?
Or should we count relativities? I.e. the amount of clean energy it injects into a grid relative to the fossil fuel consumption it offsets. Maybe it’s about the number of houses they can power. It’s all well and good to say an array powers 50,000 homes – that sounds very impressive. But perhaps it’s not so impressive if these homes run only 2 light bulbs and a fridge.
Ultimately, it’s kind of irrelevant. Big is big. Impressive is impressive.
Currently in the macro solar world, by the time ‘biggest’ is claimed by someone, another one goes up and beats it. Is it India or China that has the biggest? Did someone just say Morocco? Is it California that is sporting the biggest and most powerful array?
At this point, we can go out on a limb and tell you that the Tengger Desert Solar Park is the world’s largest photovoltaic plant. It is located in Zhongwei, Ningxia, China. More on that later. Don’t hold your breath however, because details are pretty sketchy.
NOTE: The Karnataka solar plant in India is currently laying claims as the biggest. Built on 13,000 acres it is certainly big. However, as of January 2018, it had generated only 600 MW power. The claims are that by December 2018, it will be producing an astonishing 2000 MW in total. We’ll see.
Just google ‘the biggest solar plant’. You will get a surprising number of differing results as to which plant is the biggest. The trick is to ensure you check the date of the claim. It’s a highly fluid environment.
In order not to mislead you, we’ll take care not to rank them. This is because building humongous solar farms is becoming something of a sport. So, by the time this article is published, it’s not out of the question that some other breathtaking solar panel project will take the prize of biggest.
On that uplifting and inspirational note, let’s move forward with this article and look at the world’s most impressive PV solar farms. You will note we specified PV or photovoltaic solar farms. Essentially there are two types.
There are PV farms and CSP farms. PV technology is the technology you are most familiar with. This is what you have on your roof.
CSP or concentrating solar power is technology for large scale generation only. It’s where thousands of mirrors concentrate light toward a central receptor in order to create heat, and ultimately, electricity.
Today we’re talking about PV.
There are 6 farms up and running that we have awarded top billing. 3 in China, 1 in India, 1 in the USA and another in Australia.
Firstly, let’s take a little trip to big China.
1. Huainan, China. The biggest floating solar farm in the world
At the end of May 2017, the Sungrow Power Supply company had completed construction of the world’s largest floating solar farm. Operating at full capacity, the farm produces 40 megawatts of power. That’s enough electricity to power 15,000 homes.
Interestingly, this solar farm replaces the last biggest floating solar array that operates nearby yet has half the capacity. With a population of 1.4 billion, obviously China needs a few more solar panels to make a dent in their fossil fuel reliance. The good news is it’s a very determined step in the renewable direction. One of very many.
In a symbolic ‘bird’ to the coal industry, the array is built in a coal rich location over an old coal mine on a man-made lake. Man-made? Essentially, it’s a big hole created from the coal mining process that has filled with rain water.
For our money, even if not the biggest, it is certainly innovative. Firstly, onsite water is an ideal coolant for the panel infrastructure, creating greater panel efficiency. Cool panels work best. There is the added benefit of an absence of dust. Dust covered panels significantly reduce efficiency.
Secondly, utilizing this space ensures other land such as arable land and important ecosystems are not challenged by the impact of such a large structure. It was useless space turned to something very productive indeed.
While the Huainan solar farm is not the largest in China by far, it’s certainly very impressive. It is innovative, demonstrating effective use of unusable space. It’s also a carbon killer. This array slashes 16,400 tonnes of coal consumption per year.
Moreover, it’s a very important part of the Chinese push to cut the fossil fuel umbilical cord. More floating solar farms are coming for China and, of course, they’re significantly bigger.
The Sungrow Huainan Solar Farm at a Glance
|Commenced Production||June 2017|
|Solar Panels (Array Size)||166,000 panels|
|Area||About 121 football fields. 86 Hectares|
|Unique feature||It floats on a man-made lake atop an old coal mine|
2. The Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, China
It only seems reasonable that China, owning the dubious title of world’s largest polluter, is driving gangbusters toward being a global renewables leader. China is now the world’s biggest investor in clean energy. China has the goal of reaching a renewables power target of 20% of total. Considering the profound volumes of fossil fuel consumption in the country, that’s an impressive, if lofty goal.
Looking closely at projects such as the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, it becomes apparent that China is very serious about achieving their renewables goal. This is one jaw dropping, massive solar array. It’s expensive and powerful, and just one example of China’s commitment to renewables.
Built high on the Tibetan plateau, it is perfectly placed for maximum efficiency. It’s cool, and there is plenty of sun.
Construction began back in 2013 and has been a work in progress. Now, in 2018 the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park has the capacity to produce 850 MW of power. That is enough to satisfy the demands of up to 200,000 households.
Generating that amount of power from the sun takes more than a handful of shiny photovoltaics.
Nearly 4 million panels resting over an area of 27-square-kilometres feed clean power to the grid. Power plants such as this don’t come cheaply, however. Want to build one yourself? You’ll get little change from 1.3 billion (AUD).
The Longyangxia Dam Solar Park at a Glance
|Cost||$890 million USD|
|Solar Panels (Array Size)||4 million panels (approximately)|
|Area||27 square kilometres|
|Unique feature||Large enough to be seen from space|
3. The Solar Star Projects, California, USA
The BHE-owned Solar Star Projects began construction back in 2013. A little research will reveal that this enormous solar farm is, more or less, owned by Warren Buffet. Constructed by SunPower Corporation, it would be 3 years of intensive labour before the go button was pressed in 2015.
Of course, like all the other mega solar plants, it was the world’s biggest when it came on line yet enjoyed the title for a very short period. Life as the top solar dog is very short lived these days.
It was a great employer for California, employing 650 workers during construction.
Interestingly, this massive piece of power infrastructure only requires 15 full-time employees to run, with much of the maintenance and upkeep outsourced. These days, solar is raising its hand as a future-proof employer.
The Solar Star Projects are actually two sites. Solar Star 1 and Solar Star 2. They cover a combined area of 3,230 acres. Yes, BIG. The farm consists of a whopping 1.7 million monocrystalline silicon PV panels producing 586 megawatts. This is enough to power the equivalent of 255,000 homes.
Note that this array is smaller and older than the Chinese 850-megawatt monster on the Tibetan plateau. However, the Solar Star Projects will power (supposedly) 55 thousand more homes than its Chinese counterpart. This prompts the question: Is bigger better? And what role does technology pay in driving efficiency?
Perhaps Solar Star Projects 25% (reportedly) extra output can be attributed to Tracker technology. Tracker technology simply allows the panels to follow the sun. The panels are not fixed. A motor turns the panels to face throughout the day for optimum sun exposure.
It is also reported that the SunPower designed solar panels are simply more efficient. The efficiency also has the environmental benefit of occupying less land for greater output in comparison to other panels.
Let’s not go splitting hairs here. When the outcome of the projects is the removal of 570,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually, there’s only room for celebration. In terms of emissions, they’re taking the equivalent of 2 million vehicles off the road. Great news in anyone’s language.
The Solar Star Projects, California, at a Glance
|Cost||$1.1billion (estimated project budget)|
|Solar Panels (Array Size)||1.72 million panels (approximately)|
|Unique feature||Super high efficiency|
4. Tengger Desert Solar Park, Zhongwei, Ningxia, China
We’re back in China again. It’s hard not be as the Chinese really are starting to set the mega solar farm benchmark. (Probably because India is nipping at their heels.) We’d like to wax lyrical about this particular solar farm because it’s awe-inspiring. Wow big. Like…enormous. For some reason however, the available details are a little sketchy.
Forgive us the footnote size of this particular summary.
At this moment, the Tengger Desert Solar Park in China is the biggest in the world, and by quite some margin on a number of scales. It’s behemoth size has earned it the nickname of “The Great Wall of Solar”.
Sitting in a remote and arid desert, this particular array delivers an astonishing 1547MW to the grid. This is over 500 MW bigger than its nearest competitor. It takes up a considerable amount of space. 43 square kilometres of PV panels is big time big. Interestingly, this is about all we can share.
Tengger Desert Solar Park, China at a Glance
|Solar Panels (Array Size)||Honestly, it’s hard to imagine|
|Area||43 square kilometres|
|Unique feature||It’s the biggest by far|
5. Kamuthi Power Project, Tamil Nadu, India
Formerly the world’s largest solar power park back in 2017, Kamuthi generates a very impressive 648 MW at full capacity. There are 2.5 million solar panels covering an area of 10 square kilometres. Kamuthi is estimated to make enough power for 750,000 homes.
At a cost of 690 million USD, the astonishing thing about Kamuthi is the lightning pace at which it was constructed. Approximately 8500 labourers completed construction in 8 months. When you consider the manipulation of 6000 km of cables and 30,000 tonnes of steel, (and that’s just part of it), Kamuthi is truly remarkable.
Owned by Adani power, Kamuthi generates its power from flat panel photovoltaics. While there is nothing terribly remarkable about that, the cleaning system to keep it operating at peak is indeed remarkable.
Isolated from regular rain, in an area where water supply is less than reliable or predictable, panel cleaning needs innovative solutions. Clean panels are essential for maximising panel efficiency, and when your array sits over dirt, dust is an issue.
Fortunately, an Israeli tech company developed a robot that provides a perfect dryclean for the panels. It’s automatic and requires not a drop of precious water. This is an environmental win. The robots even charge themselves.
India, like China, is racked with airborne toxins and heavy pollutants that affect the daily lives of its citizens. Reliance on coal is the problem. India too, has a goal of 20% total generated renewable power in the not too distant future.
Kamuthi Power Project, at a Glance
|Commenced Production||September 2016|
|Cost||690 Million USD|
|Solar Panels (Array Size)||2.5 Million|
|Area||10 Square Kilometres|
|Unique feature||Speed of construction|
6. Bungala Solar Project, South Australia (Near Port Augusta)
Where the numbers are concerned, it seems that Australia might be dragging the chain a little when it comes to macro solar. When compared to India, the USA and China we are small, but it’s kind of hard to use that as an excuse, owing to our abundance of space and sun.
Thankfully, foreign investors (and the South Australian Government) recognise the potential, and our macro solar projects are gaining in size and pace. Stage 1 of the Bungala solar project has just come on line producing 110 MW. Stage two, due August 2018 will increase capacity to 220 MW. If contractual arrangements can be settled, a further 80 MW will be added to the array at a later stage.
When all 3 stages are completed, Bungala will produce 300 MW. It doesn’t sound like much relative to the other plants presented above. However, if it wasn’t for the Italian owners and the Dutch Infrastructure Fund, Bungala would still be just an idea. The government footed none of the 450 million AUD price tag.
Once completed, the Bungala plant will cover the consumption needs of approximately 82,000 Australian households. It will also ensure over 520,000 tonnes of CO2 does not make its way into the atmosphere.
The array consists of 420,000 solar panels. The modules track and follow the sun’s path, increasing the plant’s efficiency. This is the same technology as used in the Solar Star Projects in California. The array covers an area of 800 hectares.
While is small relative to other plants, it is ours. (Well, sort of). And it’s just one of many such facilities in planning and approval now.
Like the floating solar plant in China, Bungala is old coal mine stomping ground. Again, it seems kind of poetic that we are burying our nasty carbon past in such a manner.
Bungala Solar Project, at a Glance
|Cost||450 Million AUD|
|Solar Panels (Array Size)||420,000|
|Capacity||300 megawatts (stage 3 completion)|
|Unique feature||It’s Australian|
While we clearly have a very long way to go on our path to 100% renewable energy, it’s these mega projects that spur our hope and imagination.
These are just a few of the huge solar projects already working. There are countless more on the drawing board, in planning and waiting for approvals.
It’s kind of exciting that we still haven’t grown out of the “We’ve got the biggest” behaviour. It means we egg each other on to build bigger, better, more impressive and more efficient clean renewable power generators.
Looking at these amazing projects, our power future is looking very sunny indeed.
PLEASE NOTE: The data and details supplied above have been presented as accurately as possible. The source material frequently presents conflicting information in relation to costs, outputs and dimensions. Discrepancies are very limited however and will not mislead.
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