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Solar farms: what are they and how do they work?

The solar industry has seen rapid growth over the past decade, with more individuals and businesses all over the world finding ways to tap into clean energy. A major contributing factor has been the surge in solar farms popping up across the globe. As more ways emerge to go solar, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and combat climate change, there can be a lot to keep track of and you’ve probably got some questions. In this article, we’ll explain the types of solar farms, how much they cost, and how to find one near you.

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Key takeaways about solar farms

  1. A solar farm is generally a large-scale solar installation. Solar farms are most often community solar projects or utility-scale solar power plants.

  2. Solar farms usually have hundreds to thousands of solar modules installed in a large field.

  3. Solar farms send solar energy to electricity grids, which, in turn, lessens their reliance on power produced by fossil fuels.

  4. Interested in joining a community solar farm? Check out projects near you on the EnergySage Community Solar Marketplace to start saving on electricity.

What’s in this article?

What is a solar farm?

A solar farm, sometimes referred to as a solar garden or a photovoltaic (PV) power station, is a large solar array that converts sunlight into energy that is then routed to the electricity grid. Many of these massive ground-mounted arrays are owned by utilities and are another asset for the utility to supply power to properties in their coverage area. These solar farms can include thousands of solar panels. Other solar farms are community solar projects, which typically include hundreds of solar panels and can be a good alternative for households that can’t install solar on their own property.

Rooftop solar vs. solar farms

Joining a community solar farm can be a great option if your roof isn’t right for solar or you don’t want solar panels installed on your property. Even if your roof is good for solar, enrolling in a community solar project can still be worth it if the costs are low and the contract terms are beneficial. As community solar projects become more common and the contract terms become more consumer-friendly, solar farm options will compete even more with rooftop solar. However, each individual property has unique challenges and considerations, and there’s no easy way to determine if you’re the right candidate for joining a solar farm. Check out our comparison of rooftop and community solar for a more in-depth look at how the two options stack up against one another.

Types of solar farms

There are two main types of solar farms around the country: utility-scale solar farms and community solar farms. The main difference between the two is their customers – utility-scale solar farms sell solar generation directly to public utilities, while community solar farms sell directly to end-consumers of electricity, such as homeowners and renters.

Utility-scale solar vs. community solar farms Utility-scale solar farmsCommunity solar farms Sell electricity directly to utilitiesSell electricity to customers A large operation for increased energy productionSmaller in size compared to utility-scale farms Power produced here is either owned directly by a utility or sold wholesale to utility buyers via a PPAAllow customers to purchase a share of the farm and the energy produced by that farm

Utility-scale solar farms

A utility-scale solar farm (often referred to as simply a solar power plant) is a large solar farm owned by a utility company that consists of many solar panels and sends electricity to the grid. Depending on the installation’s geographic location, the power generation at these farms is either sold to wholesale utility buyers through a power purchase agreement (PPA) or owned directly by an electric utility company. Regardless of the exact structure, the original customer of the solar power is a utility, which then distributes the generated electricity to residential, commercial, and industrial customers connected to the grid.

Community solar farms

The idea of community solar has taken off in recent years as more households have realized that they can go solar without being required to put solar panels on their own physical roof. A community solar farm – sometimes referred to as a “solar garden” or “roofless solar” – is a farm that generates electricity to be shared across multiple households. In most cases, a community solar array is a large ground mount installation that spans one or many acres, usually in a field.

Visually, these solar gardens resemble utility-scale solar farms, but they’re often smaller in size. Customers can either purchase a share of a solar garden and own that portion of the overall array, or they can lease energy from the solar system and, in a sense, replace their monthly utility payments with monthly community solar payments that are typically at a lower price.

In most states, community solar subscribers also have access to virtual net metering. This incentive allows energy generated by solar panels at a solar farm to be sent back as electricity bill credits to subscribers. You can explore community solar projects in your utility area by visiting our Community Solar Marketplace.

Advantages and disadvantages of solar farms

Starting or subscribing to a solar farm can be a great way to save money, reduce your carbon footprint and make the most of rapidly changing solar technology. However, there are several things to keep in mind before investing in one. ProsCons Generate environmentally friendly energy Have an upfront cost for property owners Require little maintenanceThey require a lot of space (but not on your property) Typically have no upfront costs for subscribersOnly work when the sun is shining (and energy storage can be expensive)

Environmentally friendly

If you have the available land and resources, starting a solar farm yourself can be a worthwhile investment. Solar energy generated by utility and community solar farms is abundant and readily accessible. Unlike fossil fuels, solar energy doesn’t produce any harmful by-products and is virtually inexhaustible.

Require little maintenance

Solar panel technology has improved greatly in the past few years and panels now require almost no maintenance. Solar panels are made with durable materials designed to withstand lots of damage from the elements and only require minimal cleaning.

No upfront cost for community solar farm subscribers

If you’re interested in subscribing to a community solar farm, you likely won’t have to pay any upfront cost. This makes community solar a great option for renters, those with roofs not suitable for solar panels, or those looking to avoid the cost of rooftop solar panels.

Disadvantages of solar farms

Have an upfront cost for property owners

Commercial and residential solar installations have significant upfront costs. For property owners looking to start a solar farm, you can expect to pay $800,000 to $1.3 million at first; however, there’s also the potential for a significant return on investment. Once you’ve constructed the farm, you have the potential to make as much as $40,000 per year by selling electricity for a 1MW solar farm.

Require a lot of space

A significant amount of land is needed for solar farms (typically about five to seven acres) to account for the solar arrays and the space for related equipment, repair, and maintenance. It also may take up to five years to construct a solar farm.

Energy storage for solar farms can be costly

Solar panels only work when the sun is shining. So, like solar-plus-storage options for homeowners, utility-scale and community solar farms require storage technology like batteries to collect and preserve the excess energy generated by solar panels. This can get expensive. However, depending on the location, there are financial benefits for both subscribers and owners who sell energy back to the grid in the form of net metering.

How much does a solar farm cost?

If traditional rooftop solar isn’t right for you, subscribing to a community solar farm could be a good option. There’s typically no up-front cost to sign up, unlike the initial investment required to install solar panels. Once you’ve subscribed, you can expect to save about 5 to 15 percent on your electric bill.

Compared to residential solar panel setups, a solar farm is much cheaper to build on a dollar-per-watt basis; you may pay between $0.80 and $1.30 per watt to build a solar farm rather than the $2.86 per watt average cost of a residential installation. Depending on the size of the installation, solar farm costs can be between $800,000 to over 1.3 million dollars – significantly higher than the $20,020 average cost of a residential installation. However, solar panel farms at the utility-scale will typically be at least one megawatt (MW) in size, capable of supplying electricity to about 200 households.

What is the largest solar farm in the world?

The largest solar farm installed in the world is the Bhadla Solar Park in India, which was fully completed in 2021. Located in the desert state of Rajasthan, the region’s climate is naturally advantageous for solar power production. The 2,245 MW array can supply energy to hundreds of thousands of households and spans over 14,000 acres.

Community solar gardens are normally much smaller than utility-scale solar farms but gaining in popularity. Notably, Nebraska’s largest PV project is a community solar farm. Located in Norfolk, Nebraska, the 8.5 MW solar-plus-storage farm includes a storage system capable of storing up to 2 MWh of electricity. The project was completed in 2022 by Sol Systems.

Building a solar farm: how does it work?

When developers are considering building a solar farm, whether it’s a 50 kW array or a 50+ MW project, here are five key questions they’ll ask:

1. How many acres do I need for this size of power plant?

A smaller solar farm may only require a few acres of land whereas a large utility-scale solar farm can require thousands of acres, like the Bhadla Solar Park mentioned above.

2. How will the electrical connection work?

You’ll need to consider the location of the land and whether it’s close enough to power lines and electrical panels to feasibly connect your array to the power grid or to a centralized power source.

3. How will I clean and maintain the plant?

Whether or not the location has water sources or cleaning options will be important to maintain the efficiency of so many solar panels situated so close to the ground. For example, the Bhadla Solar Park in India is constantly cleaned by a team of solar-powered robots.

4. How many solar panels will I need?

To make sure you’ll be able to meet the expected energy demand with your solar farm, you’ll need to first start with the needed kilowatt hours of energy and work backward to get the number of panels you’ll need for the array. To calculate this figure, you’ll need to determine the solar panel production ratio for your area to understand how much energy a certain solar panel wattage will provide. Check out our full explanation of how to do this type of calculation.

5. What’s a good price for my solar installation?

For larger solar panel farms, there will likely be significant discrepancies between quotes from various contractors, so it’s important to get a few bids from different companies. Solar Power World compiles a list of top solar developers each year, which can be a helpful starting point. If you’re in the early stages of considering a residential solar installation rather than a solar farm, our Solar Calculator can offer a free estimate for what the array might cost, when you could break even on the investment, and how much it could save you over time. For those interested in the community solar options in their state, check out our Community Solar Marketplace.

Frequently asked questions about solar farms

How profitable is a solar farm?

The profitability of a solar farm varies substantially based on its size and the cost of electricity in the area where it’s built. You can estimate the potential profitability of a solar farm by multiplying the average wholesale market rate of solar electricity in your area (in dollars per megawatt-hour, MWh) by the farm’s size (in MW). Just be sure to account for the upfront and maintenance costs associated with the farm – or if you’re renting land – in your solar calculations as well.

Are solar farms bad?

While solar farms are effective forms of renewable energy, their construction can have a negative impact on the environment. In addition to the amount of space needed for solar facilities and the materials and energy required to produce solar panels, solar farms can contribute to harmful solar panel disposal practices and even contaminate groundwater due to the maintenance requirements of a solar panel farm. When constructed properly, however, solar farms are completely safe (and beneficial) for the environment – especially if they’re constructed on landfills or other types of land that aren’t pristine.   

How much electricity does one acre of solar panels produce?

This largely depends on the efficiency of the solar modules, the geographic location, and the amount of sunlight exposure. Landowners and companies that maintain solar panel farms can expect several hundred MWh of electricity produced yearly for one acre of solar panels.

How do solar farms look?

One concern investors may have is the aesthetics of solar farms and their impact on permits and approvals. But, as shown by numerous examples from around the world, a little creativity goes a long way. Take a look at these artistic solar farms and how they’re reshaping the idea that solar farms are bland.

community solar content

How to find a solar farm near you

If you are interested in community solar, the best way to find a solar farm near you on the EnergySage Community Solar Marketplace. You can filter by all sorts of project details, read about individual developers and panel locations, and compare your estimated yearly savings by subscribing. Get started today to start saving money on electric bills, even as a renter.

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