Building blocks for a green future: solar power

Producing clean and green energy has come into sharp focus in recent times. It’s seen as the cornerstone of the successful transition from fossil fuels. The UK is lucky to have the capability of generating solar, hydro and wind energy, and this mix of technology is vital for ensuring our transition to net zero.  

But, for something so important, the answers to some key questions are not commonly known. Is it sunny enough in the UK for solar? How do you turn water into energy? Will wind turbines impact wider landscapes? In a series of informative articles, we unpack the main steps for constructing solar, hydro and wind facilities. First up, we explore the construction process for a solar farm. 

The power of solar in the UK:   

Despite the popular view that the UK’s weather is mostly grey, we have more than enough sunlight to power solar panels. 

We can generate electricity from solar panels when sunlight reacts with the silicon crystals in the panel to produce an electric current. This current can then be fed into the National Grid.  

As of the end of September 2021, there were 1.1 million individual solar generators across the UK. Collectively, this equates to 13,587 MW. To put this into perspective, 1MW can power around 2000 homes for an hour.  

As well as large-scale farms, solar panels can be found on commercial properties and ordinary homes. Below is an outline of the main stages of creating a solar farm.  

Stage 1: Location, land acquisition and grid application 

Using land surveys, developers will identify a suitable location to place ground-mounted solar panels. This is vital, not just for the efficiency of the technology, but to ensure minimal impact on the land the panels are placed in.  

At the very least, the sites need to be big enough to accommodate a solar farm and are close to existing electrical grid systems. On average,  solar farms cover five acres and consist of approximately 5,000 panels. A facility of this size can produce over one million watts at any given moment (high noon on a sunny day). These figures can vary depending on the size and wattage of the panels. 

As part of  stage 1, the developers will need to determine the effect of adding more solar power to the local grid.  

Gaining site control and gathering sufficient regulatory permits for construction can be a lengthy process and can take the majority of the construction cycle.  

Stage 2A: Solar park construction 

In this stage, engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firms will start building the solar site. Over a number of months, the contractor will prepare the ground, arrange facilities required for day-to-day work, remove large obstacles, put in storm controls, and place the solar panels.  

In the wider context of things, the process of placing the panels and digging trenches for underground wiring is relatively swift. Crews can typically install 800-900 panels per day, meaning construction can take around four to six months.  

Stage 2B: Connecting to the grid 

After a few months, the site will start to resemble a fully functioning solar farm. The next step is creating the infrastructure to connect to the national grid.  

The majority of the interconnection work will happen during construction. But the “connection” stage includes:  

- Installing electricity poles 

- Upgrading the substation or even building a new one. 

Stage 3: Testing and commissioning 

Once everything is connected, the solar park will enter testing stage before going live. Should the testing be satisfactory, maintenance procedures will need to be considered. 

Anything that could block the solar panels, such as weeds and grass, need to be controlled. You can read how sheep are contributing to the maintenance of solar panels in one of our other articles.  

It is also important to engage a preventative approach to maintenance. Whether that is monitoring transformers, cells, wiring, risk of vandalism or even the weather. Preparing, rather than repairing, ensures the solar plant will operate efficiently for longer.  

If the tests are passed and you have preventative maintenance procedures in place, the solar farm can start harvesting clean, renewable energy. 

While solar farms are incredibly important to creating clean energy, ensuring a balanced mix of renewable energy generation is key to our journey towards net zero. In the next article, we will explore the process of creating a hydropower dam.  

To find out more about Downing’s solar assets, please click here.  

If you would like to read similar stories, like our Solar Sheep, please click here.