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Seven of the biggest renewable energy projects in the world

23/01/2019
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The demand for renewable energy is growing every day, with countries around the world pushing for a greater dependence on sustainable power sources. To achieve these goals, revolutionary projects have been constructed on massive scales, utilising innovative techniques to generate unprecedented amounts of solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal power. 

As newer technologies begin to create power on greater scales, we’re celebrating seven of the biggest renewable projects currently in operation.

Tengger Desert Solar Park is known as the "Great Wall of Solar"
(The "Great Wall of Solar" - Tengger Desert Solar Park - image via escn.com)

Tengger Desert Solar Park - China
China has more solar energy capacity than any other country in the world, thanks to its vast resources and commitment to clean power. 

After years of dependence on other energy sources, with solar being considered “too expensive” in the country as recently as 2012, China’s government has turned its policy around. They’ve pledged to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Change Accord and vowed to spend $360bn on renewable energy sources by 2020 - creating 13 million jobs in the process. 

With this they hope that by 2030 China will draw 20% of its power from renewable sources. However, so far solar energy meets just 1% of current demand. To increase this, China is utilising its vast deserts which cover around 20% of the country. 

A series of large-scale facilities is being built throughout China, including the world’s largest - Tengger Desert Solar Park. 

The Tengger Desert Solar Park covers 43km2 of desert in Northern China and comprises over 20 integrated solar farms
(The entire Tengger Desert Solar Park as seen from above - image via Google maps)

Often referred to as the “Great Wall of Solar”, the sprawling plant covers an area of 43km2. It’s located in a 1,200km2 stretch of open desert near Zhongwei in the Ningxia region of Northern China.

Developments like this benefit from the decrease in production costs of photovoltaic panels over the last few years. With 60% of the world's solar panels being made in China, the country is in a prime position to make the most of the technology.

The park is continuing to expand, but according to the most recent reports it currently comprises over 20 integrated photovoltaic power plants, generating up to 1547 megawatts - more than any other solar farm in the world.

300,000 mirrors are used to reflect sunlight to the three solar thermal power towers of the Ivanpah Solar Facility, located on the California/Nevada border in the Mojave desert
(300,000 mirrors are used in the Ivanpah Solar Facility - image via Getty) 

Ivanpah Solar Facility - USA

Three solar thermal power plants cover 14.2km2 of the California/Nevada Border in the Mojave Desert.

The plants use a power-tower concentrated solar system developed by BrightSource. Rings of software controlled mirrors reflect sunlight to a 459 foot tower that sits in the centre. This concentrated sunlight heats water stored at the top of the tower to create steam. 

Controlled mirrors track the sunlight to reflect it to a solar receiver at the top of a tower, boiling water inside to create steam and power a turbine
(Components of the three solar thermal power plants of the Ivanpah Solar Facility - image via BrightSource Energy)

From there the system works like a traditional power plant. The steam is piped from the boiler to turn a turbine and generate electricity. Transmission lines then carry the power to over 140,000 homes each year throughout California. 

300,000 mirrors are used between the three units, each measuring 10ft wide by 7ft tall. They have to be perfectly angled in order to maximise the energy focus, so each one rotates to track the sun throughout the day. Construction of the project took three years, beginning in October 2010 and ending in December 2013, and at its peak involved 2,636 construction workers and support staff.

Three towers are used to create steam and power turbines, creating enough energy to power 140,000 Californian homes
(Focused sunlight boils water within the tower to create steam - Image via BrightSource Energy)

Together the three fields are able to generate up to 392MW of power. The equivalent capacity from a fossil fueled plant would emit up to 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. It also employs a dry-cooling process which uses air instead of water to condense steam, in a closed-loop system allowing it to use 95% less water than other solar thermal systems.

Sihwa lake is home to the world's biggest tidal power installation, featuring ten submerged bulb turbines rotated by water flowing through a seawall from the West Sea
(Sihwa Lake is home to the world's largest tidal power installation - image via International Hydropower Association)

Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station - South Korea

 Along the West Coast of South Korea is the 43.8km2 artificially constructed Sihwa Lake - built using a 12.7km long seawall at Gyeonggi Bay in 1994 as part of a land reclamation project. Sluice gates in the seawall periodically open to circulate seawater and prevent contamination in the lake.

The Tidal Power Station was constructed in 2004, becoming operational in 2011, to make use of the inflows. The Station has the added bonus of helping to boost water circulation by 200%.

Ten 25.4MW submerged bulb turbines are rotated by water flowing in from the West Sea twice at day at high tide. As the tide ebbs the sluice gates are closed, which isolates the lake at its lowest level.

The tidal barrage is the world’s biggest tidal power installation and cost $560 million to construct. It generates 552.7GWh of power each year - enough to power a city of 500,000 people. The equivalent output of an oil-powered station would create 315,000 tons of CO2.

Located in the Irish Sea, 14km off the coast of Cumbria, Walney is the largest offshore wind farm in the world
(Located in the Irish Sea, Walney is the largest offshore wind farm in the world - image via Ørsted)

 Walney Wind Farm - UK

 Costing over £1 billion to build, the Walney Offshore Wind Farm is the largest in the world, stretching over an area of 145km2 (55 square miles) in the Irish Sea.

Located 14km west of Walney Island, off the coast of Cumbria, the wind farm features a total of 189 wind turbines. Each turbine stands 190m (623ft) tall and has a capacity between 7MW and 8MW. 
189 wind turbines generate 650MW of energy for the UK from the £1bn Walney Wind Farm
(189 wind turbines have been installed in the Walney Wind Farm - image via BBC)

The farm was built in three separate phases, with construction of phase 1 beginning in 2010 and completion of the third stage (The Walney Extension) taking place in September 2018.

It has a total capacity of 650MW, enough to power 600,000 homes in the UK. It has an expected lifespan of 25 years and employs around 250 people for operation and maintenance

The Roscoe Wind Farm features 627 wind turbines over 400 square km of Texas land, generating up to 781.5MW of energy
(The Roscoe Wind Farm involves 627 onshore turbines - image via Clark Crenshaw Photography)

Roscoe Wind Farm Texas

 627 wind turbines are spread across 400km2 of Texas, crossing four separate counties. The complex is a collaborative project between 300 land owners and renewable energy companies including Mitsubishi, General Electric and Siemens AG. Together these make one of the largest onshore wind farms in the world.

Construction of the project involved over 500 workers and cost over $1 billion. Most of the land is leased from dryland cotton farmers. Construction began in May 2007 and involved four phases. The completed farm was fully operational by October 2009.

One turbine was installed every day during construction, each standing between 350ft and 415ft tall and spaced 900ft apart.

$1 billion was spent installing onshore wind turbines across four Texas counties
(10% of Texas' power comes from the Roscoe Wind Farm - image via CBS)

781.5MW of electricity is produced - enough to power 230,000 homes. This is around 10% of the total Texas power market, which has a capacity of 7,907MW of wind power generation. It’s estimated that the wind farm saves around 375,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Texas is the USAs leading state in renewable energy development, with its wind generation capacity at around four times that of California, in second place.

Underground steam from Calfornia's Geysers is used by 22 facilities to generate electricity
(Natural steam from the Geysers geothermal field - image via Greentumble) 

The Geysers - California

115km north of San Francisco, the midst of the Mayacamas Mountains, is the geothermal field known as The Geysers.

Covering 30km2 (45 square miles) along the border of Sonoma and Lake County, these naturally occurring steam field reservoirs are thought to be caused by a large magma chamber located four miles below the surface and spanning eight miles in diameter. Fractured and permeable rock around this chamber allows water to get close enough to the magma to heat and turn into steam, which is forced back to the surface.

Energy companies such as Calpine have capitalised on this natural phenomenon to create the world’s largest complex of geothermal power plants. 22 facilities are located on the field, drawing steam from over 350 wells.

Geothermal power plants use natural steam from beneath the ground to generate power
(Geothermal plant in the Geysers - image via Calpine)

19 of these plants are owned by Calpine, one by US Renewables Group (USRG) and the remaining two jointly owned by the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA) and Silicon Valley Power.

The first geothermal wells were drilled at the site in 1921 and produced 250KW of electricity. Now the fields deliver a total power capacity of 1517MW, producing 60% of the power demand of the coastal region between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oregon state line.

The Geysers have been used to generate electricity since the 1920s
(Underground magma heats water in the rock to create steam - image via Norcal public media)

Waste water is now pumped in to the fields to create more steam, increasing the amount of power that can be generated. The Geysers account for 20% of all green power generated in California.

The Three Gorges is the world's biggest hydroelectric dam, stretching over the Yangtze river
(Three Gorges is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world - image via wiki)

Three Gorges Dam - China

The largest hydroelectric dam in the world is so huge that it’s been said that a shift in its total water mass can literally slow the rotation of the planet.

Built across the Yangtze river near the town of Sandouping in Western China, the dam was first envisioned in 1919 by Sun Yat-sen, who believed such a project could be capable of generating up to 22GW. Proposals were regularly put forward in the decades ahead, with Mao Zedong supporting the project and even writing a poem about it in 1956. However it wasn’t until 1992 that the project was finally approved, with construction commencing on December 14th 1994. Almost 100 years after first envisioned, and 18 years after beginning construction, the Three Gorges Dam finally became operational in May 2012.

Construction of the dam made a dramatic impact on the landscape around the Yangtze river
(Construction had a dramatic effect on the surrounding area - image via Nasa)

In total, the project cost 148.31 billion yuan (£16.8 billion). Construction used 463,000 tonnes of steel - enough to construct 63 Eiffel Towers - and moved 102,600,000m3 of earth. It stretches over 2km in length, and stands 185m high.

The dam sits at the end of a series of steep canyons running 630km in length, at an average width of 1.3km to create a reservoir with a maximum capacity of 39.3 billion cubic metres. The water flows over 32 main electricity producing turbines - 14 on the North side, 12 on the South and 6 underground - each of which is capable of producing up to 700MW of power.

39.3 billion cubic metres of water fill the reservoir behind the dam and is used to spin 32 turbines and generate electricity
(The dam features 32 turbines and controls flooding downstream - image via Barcroft Media)

In October 2010 the reservoir reached its total capacity for the first time. With the dam working at full capacity it can generate a total output of 22,500MW - making it the world’s largest power station.

Though construction and costs were often controversial, at full capacity the dam can produce enough energy to offset 31 million tonnes of coal consumption per year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million tonnes per year. On average it provides around 1.7% of electricity demand throughout China.

The Three Gorges Dam creates a reservoir between a series of steep canyons
(Construction took 18 years and used 463,000 tonnes of steel - image via Flickr TimS)

It also increases the shipping capacity of the Yangtze River sixfold, allowing barges to be used instead of trucks which is estimated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by ten million tonnes and lowering transport costs by 25%. It also reduces potential flooding downstream through industrial areas, farmland and large cities including Wuhan, Nanjing and Shanghai.

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Seven of the biggest renewable energy projects in the world - Time to read 10 min
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