Solar Engineering for Commercial and Utility-Scale Solar PV
The cost of solar has fallen more quickly than most experts predicted, particularly in commercial and utility-scale applications. Breakthroughs in technology that could lead to the development of solar panels that work at night, coupled with larger, more efficient factories producing modules and expanded R&D efforts, are leading to commercial price reductions and improvements on the return on investment (ROI) for utility-scale solar applications.
While commercial solar has been growing in popularity for the better part of a decade, the year 2020 will likely go down as a tipping point for utility-scale solar PV. 2020 was a record-breaking year for solar — a particular feat considering the pandemic upended lives and changed so many people’s routines, both at home and at work.
The uptick in utility-scale solar PV that began in 2020 wasn’t temporary. It continues today, as more companies discover the benefits of commercial solar.
Utility-Scale Solar PV
The utility-scale solar sector is the primary driver of growth in the solar industry today.
Nearly three-quarters of the solar capacity installed in 2020 was filled by the utility-scale sector. Of that capacity, more than one-quarter was installed in the last year. Solar power has become the second largest source of U.S. electricity-generating capacity additions, as well.
While the U.S. continues to build new natural gas power plants, these plants account for a small capacity in 2022. More power in the U.S. is now coming from wind and solar than ever before, with each of these sources contributing about 40% of the capacity.
Commercial Solar Penetration Rates in the U.S.
Compared to the electricity system as a whole, solar still only makes a modest 3% to 4% of all electricity running through the grid. However, in certain states, solar penetration is much higher.
Solar power now exceeds 25% of annual power generation in California and is spreading rapidly in states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia.
How much of the U.S. electricity comes from solar depends on how you slice the data and whether or not you focus on concentrated solar power.
In 2020, Texas led the nation in utility-scale solar deployment. Texas has completed some of the largest utility-scale solar projects ever seen in the U.S. in recent years, generating up to 410 megawatt AC (MW). Texas is also home to one of the largest utility-scale solar projects in the country.
The majority of new commercial solar projects use single-axis tracking in 2022. Unless the ground in a particular area is especially challenging, single-axis tracking technology provides solar engineering firms with a more comprehensive, efficient solution.
Single-axis tracking has been exceeding fixed-tilt installations since 2015. The technology achieved a new level of dominance in 2020, when 89% of all new capacity began using single-axis tracking.
Even solar projects in high latitude states, like Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York now use this technology.
Solar and Storage Hybrids
Another big trend in the solar engineering field has to do with solar and storage hybrids.
Solar and storage hybrids began growing in popularity starting in 2020. While these are still the minority of projects, experts now predict that within the next decade there may be a boom in hybrid power plants.
As of June 2022, 1,400 gigawatts of proposed generation and storage projects had applied to connect to the grid, according to researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. More than one-third of those projects involve hybrid solar plus battery storage.
The combination of solar modules and battery storage allows hybrid plant operators to provide power when demand is strongest. Batteries also help smooth out production from wind and solar power, along with storing excess power that would otherwise be dropped.
Solar Deployment Trends
Costs for commercial solar projects have continued to drop. The median installed cost of PV has fallen by 74%, or 12% annually since 2010, according to the Electricity Markets and Policy Group. The lowest 20th percentile of project costs began to fall in 2019. Today, even the expensive outliers have become less common.
Larger utility-scale solar projects (100 MW to 500 MW) now cost 17% less than smaller projects (5 MW to 20 MW) per MW of installed capacity. The difference in project size explains the cost variation.
For the most up-to-date pricing information for commercial and utility-scale solar PV, call the solar engineering experts at KMB Design Group at 855-75-KMBDG (855-755-6234).