At the end of 2016, the Tamil Nadu project in Kamuthi, India took the lead as the largest solar power plant in the world. Previously, this spot went to Topaz Solar in California.
The Tamil Nadu project took 8 months of construction, an incredibly fast timeline for a plant that spans about 2,500 acres of land. Reports say that at some points during construction, there were a total of 8,500 workers split between three shifts who worked with construction crews to install more than forty thousand solar panels a day.
Upon it’s completion, the plant boasts a 648 megawatt capacity, which gave it the title of largest in the world when compared to Topaz Solar’s 550 megawatt plant.
To the average person, this may seem very confusing, so for clarity, here are a few watt comparisons. Think of your standard lightbulb, perhaps a 40 watt bulb. A ‘watt’ is a unit of power measuring the amount of electricity being drawn from the system at any point in time the bulb is turned on. The average kitchen blender is about 400 watts while the average microwave is about 1100 watts (though they can range fairly significantly.) In the case of power plants, power is measured in megawatts (MW). One megawatt is equivalent to one million watts. To put this in perspective, the Tamil Nadu project comes in at 648MW capacity, about 6.5 billion watts. That’s a lot of power.
So what exactly does a solar plant do? Solar plants essentially “collect” and store energy from the sun for use in a power grid system. Solar plants come in two main varieties: photovoltaic plants (like the Tamil Nadu project in India or Topaz Solar in California) or solar thermal plants. A photovoltaic plant can also be called a solar park, and its purpose is to supply a large power grid with power. It converts sunlight directly into electricity, meaning that solar power harnessed here will go through utility companies, rather than directly to the end user. India hopes to achieve a system with 20,000MW of power by the year 2020. Though the Tamil Nadu project is a only a small fraction of this number, its quick construction time bodes well for numerous other plant projects around the country.
The other type of solar plant is a solar thermal plant. In a solar thermal plant, rather than converting sunlight directly into electricity, the sunlight is collected and used to heat a liquid substance, which in turn produces steam. This steam is then used to power generators that produce electricity. This extra step in the process is the big differentiator between the two types of plants, though both are highly effective and environmentally friendly.
Regardless of the type of plant, these additions to the solar power system of the world are bringing about sustainable ways to produce energy safely, efficiently and at a lower cost than ever before. With more and more countries joining the solar power movement, it becomes increasingly likely that a decent percentage of the world’s power supply could soon come from the sun.