Can Floating Solar Power the Future?

As the effects of global climate change worsen, we need to develop innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to produce enough electricity to supply demand.

Solar photovoltaic panels provide power without negative environmental consequences, but they require a great deal of space to really make a difference. A new type of solar technology, called “floatovoltaics,” may be the answer to this problem.

Consisting of solar panels floating atop bodies of water, floatovoltaic setups don’t occupy much land area. This means that their operation doesn’t come at the expense of agriculture or other productive purposes to which the terrain can be effectively put instead.

This is an important consideration, given that deforestation and desertification has led to a situation in which there’s little land to spare in many parts of the world.

Rather than despoiling our natural lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water, most floatovoltaic systems are located on artificial collections of water, such as irrigation and drinking water reservoirs. By covering up the water, they reduce evaporation and hinder the growth of algae and other contaminants. This allows them to help alleviate problems related to water scarcity and agricultural productivity.

This type of solar equipment sits on the surface of the water where it collects the sun’s rays, much as a traditional solar installation would. The fact that it’s in constant contact with water at all times means that it can transfer heat to the water. This allows for more efficient operation because solar panels tend to work poorly if they’re too hot.

Some studies suggest gains of around 10 percent in efficiency by placing photovoltaic cells on water as opposed to land. Productivity can be enhanced even further by allowing the panels to rotate throughout the day to capture as much sunlight as possible.

The initial costs for floatovoltaics tend to be higher than with other solar setups because the components must be made waterproof. In some parts of the world, steps must be taken to protect the solar panels from damage by storms, typhoons or other severe weather conditions.

On the other hand, the leasing rights to the water might be much cheaper than leasing a corresponding area of land. In any event, the costs can be largely offset through the sale of excess clean electricity to local energy providers.

In Napa Valley, California, the Far Niente winery installed a floatovoltaic system atop an irrigation pond, which allowed it to achieve self-sufficiency in electricity without having to cut down any of its valuable vines.

Another project, currently underway in Sonoma County, California, will be the largest floatovoltaic installation in operation in the United States when it’s completed. The county is partnering with Pristine Sun to create a 12.5-megawatt facility using six wastewater ponds.

The United States is by no means the only country hosting floatovoltaic equipment. In Japan, Kyocera, Ciel et Terre and Century Tokyo Leasing Corporation are working on a project even larger than the one being built in Sonoma County.

It uses recyclable materials, which can withstand the stresses of earthquakes and hurricane-force winds, and it’s located next to the Yamakura Dam in Chiba. It will be able to supply electricity for up to 4,700 Japanese households. There are currently operational floatovoltaic systems in the United States, Japan, Australia, Israel, the United Kingdom, South Korea and India, and many other projects are in the works.

By making use of a largely ignored resource, namely, the surfaces of man-made ponds and reservoirs, floatovoltaics will allow us to increase electricity production without wasting valuable land. These systems are already very efficient and will only become more so as the technology is refined and larger installations are constructed.

The surface of the earth is about 70 percent water, so it’s high time we started utilizing this vast area to help us meet our energy requirements.

Pic via                                                                                                                                               Beth Kelly wrote this article.

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