Building a Solar Farm: Landowner Tips for the Construction Phase

Topic: solar projects Read Time: 9 mins
Landowner type:
Independent landowners | Institutional landowners | Professional advisers | Site Operator
Energy: Solar
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Are you thinking of putting a solar farm on your land? If so, you’ll want to know exactly what building a solar farm entails. Join us as we review everything you need to know about the process and how it might affect you.

If you’re a landowner looking to build a solar farm on your land, you might worry about suitability, potential payments, and option agreements. But you might also want clarification about the process of actually building a solar farm.

You might be asking:

  • What goes into the construction process? 
  • How will your land be impacted? 
  • How long will it take? 

Well, these are all valid questions that deserve solid answers. And that’s precisely what we’re here for. To help you out, we’ve created the ultimate guide to building a solar farm, which clearly and efficiently outlines the entire process. We’ll start with the feasibility studies and progress to the Grid connection. 

If you’re new to solar farms, you might wonder what they’re made up of. Solar farms usually consist of ground-mounted solar panels spread across a large acreage. Generally, you’ll need at least 25 acres of land for every 5 megawatts of installation capacity, so bear that in mind. The panels are photovoltaic and absorb energy from the sun to produce renewable energy. They’re typically made of silicone (or a mixture of materials for thin film panels).

But aside from the panels themselves, most solar farms will also have the following parts to them:

  • Steel beams for mounting
  • Torque tubes
  • Inverters
  • Wiring

As a landowner, you’ll have very little involvement with the installation process. However, it’s always worth knowing what parts go into a project.

Once you’ve signed an option agreement, your project will need to go through several steps before it’s up and running. So, let’s run through a brief outline of these steps and what happens during them (to keep you fully in the loop).

Before a developer contacts you, they’ll carry out simple desktop studies to assess the viability of a site. This gives them a basic idea of topography, sunlight levels, weather, and potential output before they pour any significant funds into a project.

The first thing a developer will typically do is secure your land and any relevant permits for a new project. They’ll also start the planning permission process at this stage (which will happen as soon as you sign an option agreement, as the process can take a while). This process section will also include the initial site selection and a feasibility study. This will cover everything from soil conditions and electrical infrastructure to a financial analysis. Usually, this process stage is also when an environmental impact assessment is carried out.

These processes don’t usually involve a landowner, but you should know that they take time to complete. You’ll also need to provide access to your land for specific tests and measurements. But generally, this part is relatively hands-off.

A geodetic engineer carrying out a detailed site survey for building a solar farm

A site survey will occur once your site has been chosen and planning permission has been submitted.

The survey delineates the boundaries that should be in place for the solar panels themselves. It’s also helpful in assessing the site’s topography to get the angles of each panel just right. The solar orientation of the solar panels is critical for optimising the system’s output. Just so you’re aware, sites with sloping of more than 5% are generally seen as less than ideal for solar panels

Developers will determine the site’s latitude, climate, and overall shading during this period. They’ll then design the site and map out where each post should go for the mounted panels for maximum potential output. These posts are usually made from galvanised steel and then bolted to the ground for security.

Once the locations for the steel beams have been laid out in Step 2, the developer will start assembling the solar mounts in rows and clearing the land.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the panels usually face north to capture the most sunlight during daytime hours. Large solar firms may even use a solar tracker to pick the perfect angle for mounting (to boost efficiency). The ideal tilt should increase conversion efficiency, but this will all depend on the time of year and the area’s irradiation level.

During mounting, a pile-driving machine usually drives the posts into the ground. This is the most disruptive part of the building process, as the machines can be loud. Plus, there can be some damage to the soil as the poles are driven through (though it’s usually minimal).

When the building team has erected the posts, the torque tubes will be placed directly on top of each row. They’re placed about four to six feet in the air and provide a sturdy base that holds the panels in place.

Just a note on speed

Oh, we thought we’d add a quick note specifically for landowners. This process is surprisingly fast as all the panels, poles, and torques are standardised (unlike domestic projects where no rooftops are alike). Your developer will also work with high-grade commercial equipment to move things along nicely.

A worker installing a solar panel

Once the panels are in place, they’ll often be equipped with trackers. These allow the developers to optimise the solar irradiation that the panels receive. Every developer varies with their approach to tracking the panels, so it’s always worth checking whether they plan to add this to your specific site.

A worker installing the wiring of a solar panel

Once the solar panels have been placed, workers will come back to wire the panels together and get them up and running. Usually, there will be around 26 modules wired in series to get to the appropriate voltage. This can be between two and four strings per row wired in parallel. When this wiring is in place, the electricity from the panels passes through to inverters as direct current.

Although the panels produce direct current, this isn’t actually usable in the average home. And that’s where inverters come in. The inverters are responsible for converting the direct current to usable alternating current before it’s sold to the Grid. This alternating current is then brought back to a central substation, sent to a transformer, and sent across high-voltage transmission lines.

For context, inverters range in size from 2 MW to 4 MW, depending on the manufacturer. To put this in perspective, a 200 MW solar farm would need around 50 to 100 inverters across an entire farm. So, that’s an awful lot of investment for a developer.

A technician checking the solar panels

Hundreds of thousands of electrical connections are usually made for the average solar farm.

As each connection needs to be stable, technicians must check that ALL of these connections meet specifications before a project goes live. Before the developer fully signs off the project, the communications systems (and tracking) must be checked.

Once these connections are checked and given the thumbs up, a project is usually handed over to a site operator. This marks the end of the development contract and the start of the operational contract. At this stage, the building process is complete.

The final thing to be done before a solar farm recoups its investment is getting an almighty Grid connection agreement. Getting a Grid connection in the UK can take several years and be very costly, developers will often apply for this right at the option stage. In many cases, developers will prioritise sites that already have Grid connections to save themselves the hassle of the application process. So, if you already have a Grid connection at (or even near) your site? You’ll be in an excellent position to get up and running quickly.

And this step marks the end of building a solar farm – you’re ready to go.

We won’t go into this in detail, but solar farm energy is produced when photovoltaic cells convert solar energy into electricity.

This electricity is then transferred to the power Grid for direct consumption by consumers around the country. The UK is split up into fourteen separate local grids that supply energy to consumers across the country. Each section connects to the National Grid and keeps the country running efficiently.

Sometimes, the electricity will be stored in battery form or sold to specific businesses. However, much energy harnessed from solar sites is sold directly to the Grid or as part of a Power Purchase Agreement.

***If you’d like to learn more about how solar energy is produced, look at our detailed guide to solar energy production.

A solar farm between 2 and 5 MW usually takes around 8 to 14 months to develop, depending on equipment supply.

Much of the timeline also depends on Grid capacity and how long this takes to set up. As we’ve said, the backlog for Grid connection can be several years long, making it tricky to get new projects fully up and running. It’s also worth mentioning that solar farms are more complicated to build than wind farms (which can be ready in as little as two months). This is because making the inverters, transformers, and panels can take far longer. As with any project, you’ll also need to account for any construction delays or hiccups that can push the process back.

To keep yourself up to date with the construction process of your specific project, it’s always worth contacting your developer. They’ll have the most up-to-date, detailed information that should put your mind at ease.

Although you might think that building a solar farm would have an enormous impact on a landowner’s everyday life – it simply doesn’t. While the building process will restrict access to your land, the developer will have already bookmarked the space required at the option phase.And technically, you’ll already have weighed up whether you can afford to leave that land vacant for up to 30 years. So, the space the project takes up should be familiar.

Overall, the building process is relatively transparent and shouldn’t worry landowners. While parts of the process can be time-consuming and slightly noisy, the overall impact is minimal. Plus, there’s virtually zero maintenance once the solar farm is up and running. An occasional clean and weather maintenance (all of which a site operator will manage) is all that needs to be done. 

Maintenance costs are around £12 per kilowatt. Cleaning the panels usually costs between £4 and £15 per panel. So, if you’re dealing with thousands upon thousands of panels, this can quickly become significant. In terms of running costs, you’re looking at around 1% of the initial startup costs per year.

Yes, you’ll need planning permission for virtually any large-scale solar project. If the project is under 50MW, you should approach a Local Authority. Projects over 50 MW are Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects and require permission from the Secretary of State for DESNZ.

If you’re considering getting a solar project on your land, contact the friendly Lumify Energy team. We’ll happily guide you through building a solar farm, how it’ll impact you, and how much you can afford to benefit. The figures might surprise you.

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