One of solar energy’s biggest ongoing challenge is where to put solar arrays to reap the best and most efficient benefits. Historically, it’s been easier and cheaper to base solar arrays on land. Rooftops are popular for residential and commercial buildings. Large flat areas like deserts or fields work well, too. But, limiting solar installations to only being built on land may be changing.
A relatively new idea has been floated that just might change how the field of solar energy operates: putting solar panels on water. As a handful of companies become experts in this technology—playfully termed floatovoltaics—water-based solar power plants may be the future.
Why Floating Solar Works So Well
The idea is striking in its simplicity: many places that are scarce on flat, open, unoccupied, unused land—think California, Hawaii, the East Coast—have plenty of freshwater bodies that could host floating solar arrays. Putting solar panels on water—especially human made bodies of water—keeps them off more ecologically sensitive or agriculturally important land.
Energy managers are first looking to artificial bodies of water not valued for their scenery: wastewater ponds, retention ponds, and reservoirs. In such water areas, the environmental impact of solar panels is much lower than it would be on a terrestrial ecosystem. The shade created by the solar panels can also help slow evaporation and keep algae growth in check—both important considerations in treatment plants and reservoirs.
As a bonus, solar panels may just work better on the water, too. One potential pitfall of collecting and concentrating solar energy is the risk of overheating. Water-based solar panels stay cooler and may thus break down less. Additionally, for land-based solar plants, dust covering the panels’ surface decreases efficiency. Floating solar panel systems can be designed to use the water around them to self-clean, which maintains peak efficiency.
Floating Solar in Action
Floating solar arrays are popping up across the United States and the world. Small projects, including a winery in California and a storm water reservoir in Orlando, are already seeing encouraging early results. Several large projects are already under construction in California. Potentially even the California Aqueduct, the enormous system that transports water to Southern California, may be covered in solar panels.
An ambitious project in Portugal is pairing hydroelectric power with floating solar power by putting solar panels on a dam’s reservoir. The system is entirely integrated—the power from the solar panels feeds seamlessly into that generated by hydropower.
This spring, the world’s largest floating solar farm went live in China, right on top of the site of an old coal mine. That site’s bright future is literally rising from the old technology of the past.
Such innovative, integrative solutions like these floating solar installations are exciting examples of a greener, clean energy future. Now that’s a bright idea we can get behind.
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