This guest post was written by Pat Looney, chair of the Sustainable Energy Technology Department at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory.

If the sun is shining over Long Island, NY, as you read this article, the Long Island Solar Farm (LISF) is generating enough clean solar energy to power as many as 4,500 homes for the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA).

Construction of the LISF at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) began in the fall of 2010 and officially concluded this month when the array began commercial operation. LIPA hosted a formal commissioning ceremony today, November 18.

LISF is the largest solar power plant in the eastern United States. It sits atop nearly 200 acres at the southeast end of the Laboratory site and consists of 164,000 solar panels that provide LIPA with up to 32 megawatts of alternating current electricity.

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Some of the 164,000 solar panels that make up the Long Island Solar Farm.

The LISF was developed by BP Solar and is privately owned, however, BNL will have access to data from the array as a condition of the easement agreement granted by DOE for use of the land. So as the solar panels at LISF are now collecting energy from the sun, researchers at Brookhaven are busy installing sensors and imagers to collect large amounts of data from LISF systems. The data will be used by researchers at the Lab and across the country to address the key issues facing deployment of large-scale solar power plants.

One of the main challenges we are focused on is the role of distributed generation — power generated by multiple sources distributed across a region — and how it will affect the efficiency and reliability of electricity delivery. For the past hundred years or so, electricity has been generated at large centralized power sources, such as dams and power plants, and then delivered to customers through the existing distribution grid of transformers, power lines, etc. With solar energy sources as large as the LISF and as small as arrays installed on roofs of homes, electricity from multiple power sources is now being integrated into that same grid, and the impacts of integrating this distributed generation are not well understood. Data from the LISF will help researchers develop and validate models that can be used to study this issue and develop new technologies to address it.

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The Long Island Solar Farm will provide up to 32 megawatts of electricity — enough to power some 4,500 homes and businesses.

Another issue that will be studied is how the intermittent nature of solar energy will affect operation of the electric grid. As the sun rises, it sometimes shines brightly or is blocked by clouds, and then sets in the evening, so amounts of electricity generated at solar arrays will vary and be intermittent. These fluctuations could adversely affect the electric grid. With innovations and upgrades developed as a result of our quantitative observations, we want to make the grid and the electricity it provides as efficient, secure, and resilient as possible.

Since the LISF is privately owned, new technologies cannot be tested there. That is why construction of a second array on site — the Northeast Solar Energy Research Center (NSERC) — will begin in early 2012 and is expected to be complete next summer. This research array will be a DOE-owned user facility and a proving ground for Brookhaven Lab and our industrial partners to test new solar system technologies, including electrical inverters, storage devices, solar modules, and other technologies.

The five-acre NSERC array will generate approximately 700 kilowatts to one megawatt of electricity at full power, which will be distributed to the Laboratory’s electrical network for our own use.

Many different groups have worked together to develop both LISF and NSERC. Here on site, the Environment & Life Sciences, Facilities & Operations, and Global and Regional Solutions directorates, Information Technology Division, and the DOE Brookhaven Site Office have been instrumental in preparing our research agenda, and developing a plan to bring it to fruition. Collaborators from off site include American Superconductor, Blue Oak Energy, BP Solar, Electric Power Research Institute, General Electric, LIPA, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Stony Brook University, and University of California at San Diego. We gratefully acknowledge the DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Solar Energy Technology Program for providing funding for this research.

For more information, see the press release.

For more photos of the LISF, see our flickr stream.

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