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Floating solar panels could power entire countries

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Floating solar panels, or floating photovoltaic (FPV) systems, are not just an innovative technology but a potential powerhouse that could meet the total electricity demands of some countries, according to a recent study.

Researchers from Bangor University, Lancaster University, and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology embarked on a global evaluation to determine the capabilities of these low-carbon solar arrays.

The team analyzed climate data across nearly 68,000 lakes and reservoirs worldwide, focusing on those within 10 kilometers of population centers, outside protected areas, and free from extreme drought or freeze conditions.

The researchers found that even by covering just 10% of these water bodies’ surfaces, FPV systems could generate approximately 1302 terawatt hours annually – enough to quadruple the United Kingdom’s yearly electricity usage.

What are floating solar panels?

Floating solar panels are solar power installations mounted on buoyant platforms that float on the surface of water bodies such as lakes, reservoirs, and ponds.

Unlike traditional land-based solar panels, FPV systems utilize the underused surface of water bodies, which can be particularly beneficial in regions where land is scarce or expensive.

These panels function similarly to conventional solar panels, converting sunlight into electricity. However, the unique aspect of FPVs is their placement on water. This positioning offers several advantages.

The cooling effect of the water helps increase the efficiency of the solar panels, as solar cells operate more efficiently at lower temperatures. Additionally, placing panels on water bodies reduces the need for land, freeing up valuable space for agriculture or other purposes.

Advantages of floating solar panels

One significant benefit of FPV systems is their dual utility: generating power while conserving land for other purposes.

Additionally, the cooling effect of water increases the efficiency of the solar panels compared to their land-based counterparts.

Environmental benefits also accompany this technology. By covering the surface of lakes, FPVs can reduce water evaporation and decrease the likelihood of algal blooms by blocking sunlight and restricting nutrient mixing.

However, the overarching environmental impact remains under review, with researchers calling for more comprehensive studies to ensure these systems do not disrupt aquatic ecosystems adversely.

A global solution with local benefits

Dr. Iestyn Woolway, the study’s lead author, emphasized the clear benefits in energy generation that FPV offers.

“We still don’t know exactly how floating panels might affect the ecosystem within a natural lake, in different conditions and locations. But the potential gain in energy generation from FPV is clear, so we need to put that research in place so this technology can be safely adopted,” he stated.

In terms of practical application, the study revealed that nations such as Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda could fully satisfy their electricity needs through FPV.

Other countries like Bolivia and Tonga could nearly meet their demand, with FPV potentially supplying 87% and 92% of their needs, respectively.

In total, many nations, particularly those in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Central Asia, could source between 40% to 70% of their annual electricity from floating solar panels.

Even in less sunny locales like Finland and Denmark, FPVs could contribute to 17% and 7% of the electricity demands, respectively.

Strategic deployment of floating solar panels

Professor Alona Armstrong, co-author of the study, highlighted the strategic importance of FPV deployment. “Our work shows there is much potential for FPV around the world. But deployments need to be strategic, considering the consequences for energy security, nature, and society, as well as Net Zero objectives,” she explained.

Currently, the UK has a modest footprint in the FPV market, with the largest installation being a 6.3MW floating solar farm near London.

Despite this, the potential for expansion is significant, provided future installations are guided by thoughtful consideration of environmental and societal impacts.

Floating solar technology presents a promising frontier in renewable energy. By leveraging underutilized water bodies, countries have the opportunity to significantly boost their renewable energy output while addressing environmental concerns.

The continued research and strategic deployment of the innovative FPVs could play a crucial role in shaping a sustainable, low-carbon future.

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