Aerial view of a solar farm with many rows of solar panels in a field.
Steve Proehl

A solar farm owned by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California, the first municipal district to meet the state’s mandated renewable energy standards. The utility sells SolarShares in the solar farms to its ratepayers so that they may harvest a monetary return from the renewable energy revolution in California.

Utility-Scale Solar Photovoltaics

Reduce SourcesElectricityShift Production
CO2 Equivalent
Reduced / Sequestered
Trillion $US
Net First Cost
(To Implement Solution)
Trillion $US
Lifetime Net
Operational Savings
Solar photovoltaics can be used at utility-scale—with hundreds or thousands of panels—to tap the sun’s clean, free fuel and replace fossil-fuel electricity generation.

Solution Summary*

The sun provides a virtually unlimited, clean, and free fuel at a price that never changes. Solar farms take advantage of that resource, with large-scale arrays of hundreds, thousands, or in some cases millions of photovoltaic (PV) panels. They operate at a utility scale like conventional power plants in the amount of electricity they produce, but dramatically differ in their emissions.

Solar farms can be found in deserts, on military bases, atop closed landfills, and even floating on reservoirs, deploying silicon panels to harvest the photons streaming to earth. Inside a panel’s hermetically sealed environment, photons energize electrons and create electrical current—from light to voltage, precisely as the name suggests.

Bell Labs debuted silicon PV technology in 1954. At that time, photovoltaics cost more than US$1,900 per watt in today’s currency. Since then, public investment, tax incentives, technology evolution, and brute manufacturing force have chipped away at the cost of creating PV, bringing it down to sixty-five cents per watt today.

In many parts of the world, solar PV is now cost competitive with or less costly than conventional power generation. In tandem with other renewables and enabled by better grids and energy storage, solar farms are ushering in the clean energy revolution.

* excerpted from the book, Drawdown

Currently just over 1 percent of global electricity generation is estimated to be from utility-scale solar PV. Our scenarios project that by 2050, this solution could represent 20–25 percent of the electricity generation mix, with generation levels of 9353–17740 TWh. We assume an implementation cost of $1733 per kilowatt and a learning rate of 21 percent. This results in cumulative first costs of US$3.4-5 trillion, but with a huge amount of lifetime operational savings of $13–26 trillion—one of the financial benefits of producing electricity without fuel. The significant increase of the solution use could avoid 44–119 gigatons of greenhouse gases emissions, depending on the climate mitigation ambition and electrification of demand-side sectors.