Distributed Vs. Utility Solar Power Generation Systems (Facts to Know)

The definitions of utility and distributed solar power generation systems are based on where those systems are placed and whether the power generated is sold to supply the grid or not.

The primary difference is that utility solar power generation systems are placed ‘in front of the meter’ like the major energy distributors, while distributed solar generation systems are placed ‘behind the meter’ and found in residential homes and businesses.

Another difference is the size of the energy generation plants used on utility vs. distributed solar power generation. Let’s examine the two in more detail and some of the characteristics of each.

Distributed Vs. Utility

Utility Solar Power Generation Systems 

The term ‘utility’ is the keyword here as this shows that the power generation system is a large-scale operation and feeds power into the grid for sale to consumers. These generation systems can be photovoltaic (PV) or Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) installations.

According to the Solar Energies Industry Association,  a utility-scale solar generation system would only be classified as any system that produces over 1MW of power, but this definition may vary depending on the markets it is built for.

Some only consider utility classifications as 2MW or more, while others the minimum is 25MW, so the existing energy infrastructure significantly influences the classification of utility systems.

Another difference between utility and distribution systems is how the electricity unit rates are calculated as wholesale (utility) and retail (distribution) prices are not the same.

Utility solar generation systems are linked to the wholesale market and contribute power back to the grid and other generation utilities.

How Big Are Utility Systems 

Antelope Valley Solar Ranch,
Antelope Valley Solar Ranch, Northern Los Angeles County

As industrial size generation systems, the Utility installations can vary from 2MW to 25MW or more. Aside from the generation capacity, these sites require huge amounts of land to operate and massive infrastructure from the actual generating units to the distribution networks that move the power from the site to the grid.

Photovoltaic generation systems work as the solar panels on your roof and use the light energy from the sun to generate electricity. In contrast, CSP systems use the sun’s thermal (heat) energy and salt to create electricity.

What Are The Biggest Utility Solar Generation Systems In The US

According to Statista.com, the five largest utility companies that generate solar power are listed below :

  • AES Clean Energy (UT) – 526.18 MW
  • Silicon Ranch (TN) – 305.32 MW
  • Inovateus Solar (IN) – 101.43 MW
  • Carolina Solar Energy – 70 MW
  • Green Development (RI) – 19 MW 

The total of these five generational sites totals 1021.93 MW or 1,021 Gigawatts of power produced and sold back into the grid.

When you compare that to the top 5 utility solar generation plants globally, these are only about 25% or less! 

Five Largest Utility Solar Power Generation Sites In The World 

  1. Bhadla Park, India, with 2700 MW capacity spread over 14 000 acres.
  2. Huanghe Hydropower Hainan Solar Park, China, 2200 MW
  3. Pavagada Solar Park India – 2050 MW
  4. Benben Solar Park, Egypt, 1650 MW
  5. Tengger Desert Solar Park, China – 1547 MW

By comparison, these fives sites generate more than 10 000 MW or 10 GW of power which is ten times the capacity of the US utilities and use far more land to do so.

As you can see, the scale of these utilities is immense, with many of them set to expand and Bhadla park set to grow to a staggering 16GW of capacity, and this farm was only completed in 2018.

Distributed Solar Power Generation Systems 

home

These are the residential and small commercial solar power generation systems found on the roofs of homes and businesses. Whether home or business, some sites have enough ground space to mount the solar panels on the ground and are not limited by roof space.

Where this is possible, those sites can generate more power for the consumer. Those consumers can feed that excess energy back to the grid for credits on their utility account or store it using batteries at night or during power failures.

What Size Are Distributed Solar Generation Systems 

The average size US home would need a system of around 6kW to power most appliances and devices in the home. The exception is water heating and air conditioning, as the power needed to drive these systems would require much greater capacity.

Distributed systems are ‘behind the meter,’ meaning that the power generated flows directly to the household or business. Unless there are grid-tied and can feed power back to the grid for credit, all that electricity is utilized by the consumer and offsets grid billing.

Another element with distributed power is that these systems often work in conjunction with and can even provide power to heat pumps that drive water-heating or HVAC solutions as they use relatively little electricity.

What Are Advantages Of Distributed Solar Power Systems 

For starters, these systems don’t suffer the loss of power through the generation and transmission networks as the utility systems do. Solar generation is environmentally friendly as no fossil fuels are burned during the generation process.

Another consideration about distributed power is that they can harness other forms of energy such as wind and geothermal that would not be used for specialized utility installations.

A solar utility site will only generate electricity using the designated generation system, while other potential sources in the area would remain untapped. The utility system would then take the energy generated from other utilities such as coal, wind, and geothermal to make up the energy demand and supply to the national grid.

Distributed solar power systems don’t take up space or create ‘eyesores’ on the landscape or affect the immediate environment. For the most part, they are designed to be aesthetically pleasing and add value to the property.

State And Federal Incentives For Distributed Systems 

incentives

As state entities encourage the installation of distributed solar power by consumers to reduce grid strain, especially in the hot summer and very cold winters, they have introduced tax and other incentives, and utility systems don’t have that luxury.

Utility systems are expected to cover their capital expenses themselves and recoup investment from electricity sales back to the grid. At the same time, consumers can receive up to 26% in tax incentives for installing solar systems in their homes.

Conclusion 

Suppose you don’t have your own source of electricity. In that case, you are using the utility network for your power, and as such, your ‘utility’ bill arrives every month, and the price you pay per kWh is more than the price that it was when it left the generating unit.

If you have a solar PV system, then your utility bills will be less, and you may find small connection fees, if any, on your monthly bill. You can get off the grid as much as you can, and remember, like the global solar farms, you can expand your system slowly until you are completely self-reliant.

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