Floating PV: The third alternative to traditional solar

Written October 7th, 2016 by
Categories: Opinion, Renewable Energy

BERNARD PROUVOST, CIEL ET TERRE. The floating PV market is emerging within the solar energy market as an alternative to traditional PV systems.

Floating solar refers to solutions installed on water to produce solar energy in the same manner as ground mounted or rooftop systems. Nevertheless, it is important to differentiate between floating PV and floating PV offshore.

The former concerns installations on inland compounded and unused bodies of water, e.g. water ponds, lakes, reservoirs owned by industries, water utility companies or agriculture companies. While the latter indicates installations on seas and oceans that vary enormously in characteristics, e.g. salt water, strong currents, complicated anchoring system, etc. The topic focused here is only on floating PV solutions.

With floating solar, we have additional benefits in comparison to ground and roof mounted systems:

  • Preserve valuable lands for other uses such as agricultural industries can convert dead spaces into profitable areas while generating electricity.
  • Reduce water evaporation by covering a significant surface area of the body of water, and limit algae growth to avoid risk of eutrophication.
  • Generate more energy due to the natural cooling effect that PV panels need in order to produce efficiently.
  • Respect to environment with recyclable drinking water compliant materials with no harm to wildlife that inhabit nearby.
  • Ensure long-term performance and positive investment for the future as current demand for solar continues to rise in popularity throughout the world.

On land as on water, assembly of the floating solar systems is simple. The different solutions have their own operating method, but each are composed of floats, an attachment system to fix the panels on the floats and wrenches for assembling the floats together. Thus ensures a safe way for operation and maintenance activity.

The Future of Floating Solar

For solar installations, all we need is sun. But to implement floating solar installations, we need sun and water. Many US states are rich in sunny environments with lots of water intensive industries. This combination can generate solar energy and turn a facility into a more profitable area, while improving water quality and saving land for other uses.

In fact, floating solar is best fit for market applications in energy and water intensive industries, such as water treatment plants and reclamation facilities, wineries and dairy farms, that cannot afford to waste water and land resources. In some cases, industries that use large quantities of water as part of their plant cooling process, like old quarries and mining pits, leaves large bodies of water surfaces after material extraction. Other notable market applications that fit for floating solar PV include agricultural companies, hydro dams and hybrid systems.

Solar theoretically is implantable anywhere the sun shines. So places like Asia, Africa and South America are the best fit solely due to their geographic advantage and longer duration of sunlight. Although ideal, financial conditions and political agendas must also be considered. For instance, floating PV is already implemented in the UK due to favorable political context with an attractive purchase rate for electricity.

Today, floating solar has been accepted in many countries including: Japan, China, India, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, USA, Brazil, UK, Italy, Israel and Netherlands. In the US, California is the targeted state for floating arrays as the state is already engaged in the energy transition, with a law aimed to gain a standard of 33 percent of electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

Projections of Solar in the Future

The solar market still has a lot of room for growth and development to continue to increase electricity produced by solar as it is not yet competitive to fossil fuels. However, the solar industry has consistently been able to lower the cost of solar panels, since the PV capacity is important, dropping also the cost of the electricity generated by solar energy. This could be directly explained by federal tax incentives.

The market is dependent on two important qualifiers: a favorable location with sufficient sunlight, and federal tax subsidies. Thus, solar PV technologies need to maintain high standards to prove their efficiency and continue the progression to compete with other renewables. As the world moves to change its energy infrastructure, the solar industry is useful everywhere it can be applied to contribute to a real energy mix.

Currently, 227 GW of solar PV power plants has been installed throughout the world, with 50 GW produced during 2015. Floating solar as a niche market represents only a thin percentage, but the potential is growing and current forecasts include 1 GW produced per year. This will continue to increase due to its benefits making it a true alternative to traditional PV systems.

The future of solar PV remains bright, with subsidies enabled to develop a large installed capacity with cheap panel prices and electricity costs, and soon to be competitive without a subsidy. The proof comes in the numbers, with 160 billion dollars already spent dedicated to solar installations, a convincing figure of the promise for new emerging solar alternatives!

Contributor Bernard Prouvost is Founder & Chairman of Ciel et Terre International in Lille, France.

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