The biggest commercial benefits of floating solar can be found in areas where land is sparse and/or expensive. Using floating solar in these areas can be significantly more cost-effective, help generate income from otherwise unused bodies of water

Floating Solar Panels: The Future of Renewable Energy?
Floating Solar Panels: The Future of Renewable Energy?

Article from | Robert Cathcart

Across the globe, solar is accepted as one of the best methods of clean energy production. This means large-scale investments are being made in solar at almost every level in order to test new methods and technologies. 

One method which is growing in popularity is floating solar. In this guide, we explore what floating solar is and what it might mean for the future of renewable energy. 

 

What is floating solar? 

Floating solar is much as it sounds. 

The term refers to any solar panel system that is installed on the surface of a body of water. This can include lakes, reservoirs, and oceans. Approaching solar panel installation in this way is a fairly new and novel idea, at least when compared to traditional land-based solar panel installation.

 

Why floating solar? 

Floating solar isn’t just an alternative location for installation, it also offers significant economic, social, and environmental benefits. 

The biggest commercial benefits of floating solar can be found in areas where land is sparse and/or expensive. Using floating solar in these areas can be significantly more cost-effective, help generate income from otherwise unused bodies of water, and will allow businesses and local governments to allocate valuable land to other purposes such as crop growth. 

From an environmental perspective, floating solar can help reduce water evaporation. This is especially beneficial for use on bodies of water such as reservoirs, helping limit potential water shortages. On other bodies of water, it can also help maintain important underwater habitats. Equally, floating solar can limit the need to potentially damage on-land habitats through land clearing. 

In densely populated areas floating solar can provide much-needed energy resources whilst limiting the use of land which could otherwise be used for housing. Plus, the cooling effect of water can help improve the efficiency of solar panels, helping increase their output. 

 

How are floating solar farms constructed? 

The exact construction of floating solar installations can differ based on factors such as their size and location. Yet there are two key considerations that much addresses in every project: 

  • How will the solar panels stay on the surface of the water? 

  • How will the solar panels be kept in one location? 

For example, some installations will use a pontoon-like structure to hold solar panels in place. Others will use individual floating modules which may be anchored to the bottom of the body of water or moored in some way.

One big challenge for floating solar installation is longevity. This is hardly surprising when you consider the fact that these projects are combining engineered materials such as metal with corrosive elements such as salt water and harsh winds. 

 

Is combining water and electricity safe?  

Water and electricity - we are all warned not to combine the two. So why is floating solar seen as a generally safe and smart option in electricity production? 

Well, expertise in water-based structures is being applied to floating solar installation. For example, Scotland-based business Nova has an extensive background in tidal energy production and is now applying their knowledge to the challenge of floating solar in Scotland.

Using a combination of high-resistance waterproofing on electrical parts and regular maintenance will ensure the long-term safety of floating solar installations. 

 

What kind of panels are used in floating solar? 

Photovoltaic (PV) panels are the most common type of panel used in floating solar. This is the same type of panel you would expect to see in an on-land installation that converts sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity. 

The PV panels that are used on floating solar farms can be either monocrystalline or polycrystalline. Each has its benefits: 

  • Monocrystalline - made from single-crystal silicon - tends to be more efficient. 

  • Polycrystalline - made from multiple smaller silicon cells - tends to be less expensive.

Whatever type of panel that is used, it will need to be constructed from robust materials and apply smart engineering practices in order to withstand the harsh environment. 

 

Where is floating solar being used? 

Although the benefits of floating solar farms are only now beginning to be clearly understood, there are already several examples of these installations across the world. 

One great example is the ‘Floatovoltaic’ solar installation in Napa Valley, USA. This solar farm was installed both to produce the energy needed for wine production in the area and also to reserve fertile lands for grape growth. The area includes 1000 solar panels on pontoons, which, when combined with a land-based solar panel generates 400 kilowatts of energy at peak output.

An example of a larger-scale project of this type can be found in Vishakhapatnam, India. This project was commissioned by the Andhra Pradesh government in 2022, seeing a 3MW floating solar project built on the Meghadri Gedda Reservoir.

Europe’s biggest floating solar farm can be found in France at the O’MEGA 1 project. This facility has a capacity of 17 MW and aims to supply electricity to almost 10,000 people each year. 

 

What are the disadvantages of floating solar?  

It is clear that floating solar has many benefits, but what are the downsides? 

The first big hurdle to overcome is cost. Floating solar farms require specialist equipment and engineering to be installed and to resist the harsh environment in which they are located. Consistent maintenance can also add to the lifecycle cost of these types of solar farms. 

Although there are many environmental benefits to floating solar farms, the shading they create can also limit the light and oxygen that makes it under the surface of the water. This will negatively impact some underwater environments. 

Like all solar farms, the output of floating solar is largely weather dependent. 

 

Where in the world would floating solar work best? 

Several factors come into play when assessing the viability of floating solar across the world: 

  1. Availability of sunlight radiation

  2. Availability of bodies of water

  3. Weather patterns

  4. Energy requirements

For example, countries with very low levels of sunlight radiation will see a much lower return on floating solar investments than those in climates with more sunlight. Equality, landlocked countries may find it harder to allocate large-scale locations for floating solar farms. 

Countries such as Brazil, the USA, Portugal, Spain, and Australia would all likely benefit most from investment in floating solar. 

 

Floating Solar Panels: Summary 

It is clear that floating solar offers several benefits which cannot be ignored in the pursuit of more sustainable energy sources. As floating solar projects continue to be commissioned and tested we are likely to see a wider acceptance of this energy production method, especially in suitable locations across the globe. 

 

 

About Robert Cathcart
Robert Cathcart is Yorkshire-based renewable energy researcher, copywriter and blogger. With over 20 years experience in copywriting he has turned his attention to ecological issues and the green revolution. Specialising in Solar Power, Robert aims to inform, educate and inspire. 

 

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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