Andreas Späth

Solar power floats

2016-07-04 12:40

Andreas Wilson-Späth

For my money, technologies are at their best if they are simple, easily accessible, environmentally sustainable and affordable. If, in addition, they offer solutions to more than one problem at a time, so much the better.


One kind of technology that fits the bill on all of these counts and which is growing in popularity around the world is the idea of generating electricity from photovoltaic solar panels floating on water. What’s more, it appears to be a perfect fit for South African conditions and needs.


While it tends to be cheaper to mount solar panels on dry land, putting them on water comes with several very attractive benefits. Not only do ‘floatovoltaic’ systems produce low-carbon renewable energy, they can also help with an increasingly vexing problem on a warming planet: evaporation from the reservoirs that supply us with water for drinking, sanitation and farming.


Parking rafts of solar panels on sections of our dams would reduce the large amounts of water that simply dissipates into thin air every year, while at the same time helping to control damaging algal blooms without the need to use toxic chemicals. Some experts estimate that in hot regions, floating solar farms could cut evaporation from dams by as much as 90%.


The installations would only occupy previously ‘unused’ space without putting undue pressure on natural ecosystems or competing for land required for other uses, including agriculture. One particularly innovative type of location is on municipal wastewater treatment basins.


As an added bonus, photovoltaic panels that float on water outperform their counterparts mounted on the ground or rooftops. The former may be over 50% more effective at turning sunlight into electricity because the body of water on which they drift provides excellent cooling and a steady temperature, allowing the panels to work at greater efficiency as well as extending their lifespan.


The technology only requires relatively minor adjustments to land-based solar panel arrays and is already being used successfully in a number of countries, including France, Italy, India and Korea.


Brazil’s Balbina hydroelectric dam only operates at a much reduced power capacity these days, but now there are plans to install a huge 300 megawatt floating solar farm on its waters, while in California’s Sonora County, a new 12.5 megawatt plant is expected to come online this year, supplying enough electricity for some 3000 local households.


In the UK, the largest floating solar power plant is currently under construction on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir at Walton-on-Thames on the outskirts of London. A similar one is being built near Manchester.


The global leaders in floatovoltaic electricity generation are the Japanese. Two large installations near Kato city are already fully operational. A much larger power station on the Yamakura dam near Tokyo is slated for completion in early 2018. Covering an area of around 180,000 square metres, its more than 50,000 solar panels are expected to provide enough electricity for nearly 5000 homes.


All in all, this approach to producing electricity seems to be a perfect fit for a country like South Africa with plenty of sunshine and a need to lower the amount of water we lose to evaporation from our dams and reservoirs.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.



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