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The 4 Types of Solar Projects

Solar developers need land for utility-scale and community solar projects. But what are those? For that matter, what are residential and commercial solar projects? There are four general types of solar projects.

“Residential solar” means solar panels to power a single house. The panels are typically mounted on a homeowner’s roof, but could also be mounted in the backyard (this is called a “ground-mount array”) or on the roof of another structure on the property, such as a detached garage, carport or shed. A residential solar array typically consists of anywhere from eight to 20 panels.

“Commercial solar” is simply solar for a commercial business. The business could be as small as a gas station or as big as a manufacturing facility or the headquarters of a multinational corporation and involve a dozen panels or several thousand panels. As with residential solar, panels are typically mounted on the roof of commercial buildings but could also be mounted on the ground adjacent to or nearby the facility.

With both residential and commercial solar, the panels are mounted on the property of the homeowner or business and supply power only to the home or business.

A “utility-scale solar” project is a typically a very large array comprising hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of panels. The power generated by a utility-scale project is purchased either by:

  • A utility, municipality (if the electric utility is owned by a city), or an electric cooperative (in more rural areas) to serve both residential and commercial customers in their service area
  • A corporation to power its needs in a particular region
  • One or more large universities or other institutions in the same area that pool together to buy electricity

“Community solar” is something of a hybrid. Community solar is a solution for consumers who want to obtain their power from solar energy but cannot install an array on their house because, for example, they live in an apartment, or because their roof does not face south. In response, some utilities offer their customers a community solar option. The utility builds a utility-scale array sized to meet the power needs of interested customers, then offers those customers special pricing and contract structures to obtain their power from that array. In essence, community solar projects are small utility-scale projects developed for a specific reason, with the power they generate sold in a unique business model.

Utility-scale and community solar projects can be of any size. There is no absolute definition of how large they must be in terms of megawatts (MWs). Community solar projects typically range from 0.5-20 MWac in size, whereas the kind of utility-scale projects utilities or large corporations typically buy range from 25 MWac all the way up to 1,000 MWac (one gigawatt, or 1 GW).

Because virtually no rooftops are large enough to accommodate the number of panels required in any utility-scale or community solar array, these projects must be mounted on the ground–and that requires a lot of land. That’s where landowners come in. 

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