New Approaches Helping to Lower Costs for Large-Scale Solar

Solar-photovoltaic (PV) installations sized 5 megawatts (MW) and above 
are often called “utility scale,” but such projects also might be 
installed for large corporate clients, such as Apple, Google and others 
seeking to green their operations and provide a hedge against future 
electricity price hikes. The scale of such systems can make them more 
efficient to operate than rooftop panels or community-sized solar 
gardens, but upfront construction costs can be very expensive, due to 
the shear volume of equipment they require. Eaton Corporation

Chuck Ross

Solar-photovoltaic (PV) installations sized 5 megawatts (MW) and above are often called “utility scale,” but such projects also might be installed for large corporate clients, such as Apple, Google and others seeking to green their operations and provide a hedge against future electricity price hikes. The scale of such systems can make them more efficient to operate than rooftop panels or community-sized solar gardens, but upfront construction costs can be very expensive, due to the shear volume of equipment they require. With the cost of the panels, themselves, having fallen dramatically over the last five years, manufacturers now are more keenly focused on the remaining equipment and installation expenses – what’s called the “balance-of-system” (BOS) costs.

Bringing down BOS costs is important for all electricity consumers, as electric utilities across the United States now are investing in large-scale solar generation. As of late March 2016, the Solar Energy Industries Association forecast nearly 12 gigawatts of new utility-scale solar capacity will come online this year, almost triple 2015’s total.  

Among the major expenses for developers working at this scale is the wiring involved in consolidating the electricity generated by hundreds – or, even, thousands – of ground-mounted solar panels. The traditional copper wiring used in such installations is both expensive and heavy to work with. As a result, suppliers are investigating new, less-expensive wiring approaches. These include the Sunnector system recently introduced by Eaton, which combines aluminum wiring for long electrical runs, with factory-assembled copper branch terminations.

Additional components in the system include aluminum wiring harnesses and combiner boxes, both designed to work with aluminum wire. Eaton estimates this aluminum-wire-based approach can reduce labor and material costs by 15%, on average.


Photo courtesy of Eaton Corporation