Solar panels on floats: the future of clean power?

Nov 3, 2023 | News

The UK government aims to increase solar capacity five-fold by 2035. Arrays on farmland could be banned. Here are five inspiring global examples of floating solar that could fill the gap.

The world is finally waking up to the sun. By 2022, solar power will be at record levels globally.

Small-scale PV installations are booming in the UK due to the energy crisis and the falling cost of panels. It’s a good thing, too: the government wants to increase solar capacity five-fold by 2035. That would be enough to power all homes in England twice.

The untapped potential on rooftops, both domestic and commercial, is not enough to get us there. Larger-scale land-based arrays have also been a source for controversy. Solar Energy UK (SEUK), the industry body, estimates that to reach our 2050 net-zero targets, we would need to convert as little as 0.4% all of the land in Britain into solar farms. The government is still planning to ban solar arrays on agricultural lands, in a misguided attempt to ensure food security, according to critics.

This puts floating solar in the mix of larger-scale projects. “Anyone who has looked at the numbers to reach climate targets knows there’s no single solution – we need a combination of all kinds technologies,” says Ian McKee. He is the communications chief for green energy provider Good Energy.

Both the freshwater and marine markets are expanding rapidly.

Trinzic, a renewables developer, has launched a campaign to encourage the UK government, through policy reform and grant incentives, to support 30GW of floating-solar installations by 2030. Just 3GW of floating solar is installed globally.

Aram Wood, Trinzic’s director of renewables says: “It is ambitious but achievable.” “We are seeing signs that both the freshwater and marine markets will expand rapidly compared to the current installed base .”

Time will tell whether the idea is viable. Here are five floating solar projects that are making waves around the world.

1. The solar array that chases after the sun

The floating solar system has many benefits. Sitting panels on water increases efficiency by keeping them cooler. They also stay cleaner longer because they are not covered in dust and dirt. The 38-metre-wide Proteus array in the Netherlands can also be moved to follow the sun’s arc across the sky. Proteus, which is only 180 panels wide, is small by today’s standards. However, it generates 40% more energy compared to panels that are fixed on land.

The Proteus array, located in the Netherlands, follows the sun’s path across the sky. Image: SolarisFloat/Protevs

2. The array that powers clean water infrastructure in New Jersey

The largest floating array is located in New Jersey and covers approximately 17 acres (6.9 ha) of the Canoe Brook Reservoir. Its 16,510 panels provide around 95% of power to a nearby water treatment facility. It’s an example of how water bodies can be used to generate clean energy. For areas susceptible to drought, floating panels also double as a giant umbrella to prevent evaporation.

The Canoe Brook Reservoir in New Jersey provides power for a nearby plant. Image: NJR Clean Energy Ventures

3. Bright projects energising London

The floating array at Walton-on-Thames west of London, which covers 6% of Queen Elizabeth II reservoir, is also used to power water treatment infrastructure. Thames Water’s PS6m installation of 23,000 panels was briefly the largest in the world when it was constructed seven years ago. Experts predict that we will see more of this in the UK. SEUK CEO Chris Hewett says, “I know that some water companies are looking at feasibility studies in order to see what can be done with a significant number of their reservoirs.”

In urban and city settings, where land is scarce, floating solar can be a great solution. In the capital, there are plans to power London City Airport using a floating array in the Royal Docks.

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4. The Chinese clean energy hub is deploying three tech

Analysts say that while China continues to invest heavily in coal, it is also experiencing a clean energy boom, which could lead to a peak in emissions within the next two years. This green growth is evident in the Dezhou Dingzhuang float array. It is the largest floating array in the world, capable of generating up to 320MW. It’s interesting that it’s integrated into a 100MW turbine farm and a storage facility for batteries to make the most of the power line infrastructure and booster station, which feeds the electricity to the grid.

The title of ‘largest solar array’ won’t last long. Dezhou Dingzhuang will soon be eclipsed by another array that is almost twice as large and under construction in India.

5. Solar farm being built on the sea

Floating solar has been favored in calm, freshwater areas due to the technology available. Michael Walls, professor at Loughborough University and solar expert, says that in places like Singapore where there is very little land available, they are forced to use seawater. The corrosive effect of salt and the choppy sea waves have been a barrier for more widespread deployment of solar farms in the ocean. But that could soon change. The first ‘high-wave’ solar farm to be built on the sea will be at the Hollandse Kust Noord Wind Park off the coast of Netherlands, using a new ‘wave riding’ technology. The array was designed to use the sea “directly as support” like a waterlily resting directly on the surface of the water. It has been tested in storm conditions with swells up to 10 meters.


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