Two agencies make a catalog of big solar energy projects across the country

Everywhere you look, you see more land covered by solar panels. In fact, the Energy Department estimates some 4,000 large solar projects are underway in the U.S...

Everywhere you look, you see more land covered by solar panels. In fact, the Energy Department estimates some 4,000 large solar projects are underway in the U.S. Now, thanks to Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the U.S. Geological Survey, solar watchers can access a database of them. It shows their size, location and other details. For the whys and hows of this project, The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the Director of Energy’s Solar Energy Technology Office, Becca Jones-Albertus.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Tell us, first of all, the scope of what’s going on in the country. Who’s building these things? What purpose do they serve and where are they in general?

Becca Jones-Albertus Yes, it’s an incredibly exciting time for solar in this country. Solar installations are just taking off. Ten years ago, we only had a couple of hundred large scale solar installations, and solar was still a tiny share of our electricity supply. And it’s been growing rapidly over the last decade. And now we have solar generating 5% of our electricity. And almost each year it’s getting larger. A lot of that, about two thirds, is supplied by large scale solar power plants, which we now have 4,000 of in this country. And those are plants that are at least a megawatt in size, which is about five acres of land or larger. They can be much larger. They can be 100 times that large or they can be smaller. So there’s a diversity out there of what you can see from things that are just a few acres to things that are hundreds of acres, it still count as a large scale solar power plant.

Tom Temin And are these being mostly constructed by privately held utilities or by, I guess maybe military could be building them for its purposes? Who’s actually behind all of these projects?

Becca Jones-Albertus These projects are being developed by developer companies who are typically privately held. They can also be working closely with utilities or utilities themselves can be developing projects. There’s diversity among these 4000 projects out there of how they’re developed, but they’re developed typically by different companies and then installed by companies to do engineering and installation. And they can have a diversity of owners as well who own the projects and or get the power from them.

Tom Temin And just out of curiosity, does anybody ever question whether this is the best way to consume beautiful landscapes and deserts and grassy glens by covering them with solar panels and fencing them in?

Becca Jones-Albertus There certainly are parts of the country that have been concerned about what it means to deploy solar on those lands. But for some perspective, the Biden-Harris administration has a goal of having a completely clean electricity supply by 2035. Doing that would need about 6 million acres of land for solar, and that’s about a third of a percent of all the land in this country. So 6 million acres is certainly a significant amount of land. But I do think that sometimes people think those numbers are even larger. So, again, we’re talking about a third of a percent of land for solar.

Tom Temin And again, just out of curiosity from a technical standpoint, are developments happening in these square mirrored types of panels such that maybe it would take one acre at some point to generate the power that two acres would require ten years ago?

Becca Jones-Albertus Yes, efficiencies of the panels have been going up steadily every year. And so it is taking less land than it used to to generate the same amount of power.

Tom Temin And just again, before we get to the database itself that we’re talking about, besides the panels, there is other pieces of infrastructure that have to accompany these wiring. And I guess there’s some electronic control rooms or a server farm or something that goes with them.

Becca Jones-Albertus So the panels are held up by structural supports. Typically we call them trackers. They’re largely made of stainless steel and they move the panels throughout the day. Not all large plants have panels that move, but most do say move as the sun moves throughout the sky to maximize the energy production. And then there are also power electronics that go with these systems. So solar panels generate direct current electricity and our power grid runs off of alternating current. So there’s power electronics that change that power into what the grid is using. And then typically put that power that’s generated by the sun and the solar panels onto the grid.

Tom Temin All right. We’re speaking with Becca Jones-Albertus director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office, SETO, at the Energy Department. And so with one of the big national laboratories in the United States Geological Survey, you developed a database. Tell us about why you did that, what that entailed, and then we’ll get into who might use it.

Becca Jones-Albertus So we supported DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, then partnered with USGS to develop a map of all of the large scale solar projects in this country. So far, the map goes through 2021, but we’re updating it with newer projects as well. We did this to provide more information for a broad set of users on the solar that is being developed in this country, and it gives information about the type of facility it is, how large, how much land. Other attributes of these projects as well. So this is anything from can be used by the public to understand trends in solar deployment and where solar is going. The solar industry can use it to think about new sites and doing their planning. Researchers can use it to really think about interactions between PV facilities and the natural environments, or what benefits they’re providing to host communities. And then federal and state agencies can use this data to look at a number of the different impacts that can come from having solar development, be that on wildlife or land use or grid resiliency. So we’re providing a lot of information the data set here that we’re hopeful will be useful to a broad array of stakeholders.

Tom Temin And how do you know where they are to be counted?

Becca Jones-Albertus That was work that we did with USGS and also Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where they did geospatial mapping. They utilized other information that’s collected by the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency. And they did the hands on work and research themselves, which included taking these maps and actually drawing outlines of how large the plants are by hand.

Tom Temin You can see a solar array of large scale of at least a megawatt probably from an aircraft. Can you see them from space? Can satellite see them?

Becca Jones-Albertus Yes. The satellite’s software you go on, software platforms like Google Maps and Zoom in and you can see solar plants.

Tom Temin So there are jagged outlines, but of made up of many uniform rectangles, you might say.

Becca Jones-Albertus Yes.

Tom Temin Yes. Almost like a mosaic, I suppose. The database. What form is it? Is it a pure database that you would need to develop applications to use, or is it something that someone could download or access and start looking?

Becca Jones-Albertus Yeah, you can go on to the website itself actually, and it has a great viewer system where you can zoom in and look at the systems themselves and hover over them and get all the information about the plants. So there’s this great interactive viewer that anyone can take advantage of that’s on the website today, as well as the underlying data that’s accessible.

Tom Temin And by the way, where is the biggest one located?

Becca Jones-Albertus I don’t know. We can get back to you. The largest plants in general are in the southwest U.S.

Tom Temin Where you have a lot of open land and where you have a lot of sunshine, I guess would be the obvious reasons there, huh?

Becca Jones-Albertus Yes.

Tom Temin By the way, whatever happened to the idea of where all of the mirrors point to one spot which gets really hot and generates is that’s still something that’s done?

Becca Jones-Albertus Yes, That’s called concentrating solar thermal power. And we’re continuing to develop and advance that technology. One of the reasons that we’re still excited about concentrating Solar Power or CSP is that it’s pretty easy to couple with storage. And so it can produce power not just when the sun is shining, but it can produce power at any time of day by being able to store that heat pretty efficiently. So the comparison is using solar panels coupled with batteries. But it turns out it’s storing heat. Is another interesting way to have storage and have power when the sun is shining.

Tom Temin And I’m imagining knowing where all of these projects lie could help in grid planning and redundancy planning and reliability planning because there is a physical proximity question that comes into play. Fair to say?

Becca Jones-Albertus Yes, absolutely.

Tom Temin And what about the rooftops that people, all these hucksters calling everybody and they’ll put a covering a roof. In my neighborhood there, people are doing this left and right. Does that figure into the total solar equation that the country is pursuing?

Becca Jones-Albertus Yes. So there’s about 4 million rooftops that have PV systems on them, and they provide about 30% of the total power that the country producing solar electricity. So they’re a very important part. They are not mapped in this database. This database is just the large scale PV systems. But those rooftop systems are another very important source of electricity for this country.

Tom Temin And what about the wind turbine developments? Are you working on a database for them, too?

Becca Jones-Albertus Yes. We actually already had a U.S. wind turbine database established that has locations and specifications for more than 70,000 wind turbines. So that will have the wind data and the solar data that are both accessible.

Tom Temin So the big challenge now is making sure that the wind farms don’t cast shadows on the solar farms.

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