Wed, Nov 07, 2018 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Floating panels buoy clean energy

Thomson Reuters Foundation, LONDON

When the worst floods in a century swept through India’s southern Kerala state in August, they killed more than 480 people and left behind more than US$5 billion in damage.

However, one thing survived unscathed: India’s first floating solar panels on one of the nation’s largest water reservoirs.

As India grapples with wilder weather, surging demand for power and a goal to nearly quintuple the use of solar energy in just four years, “we are very much excited about floating solar,” said Shailesh Mishra, director of power systems at the government-run Solar Energy Corp of India.

India is planning large-scale installations of the technology on hydropower reservoirs and other water bodies in Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand states, and in the Lakshadweep Islands, he said.

“The cost is coming almost to the same level as ground solar, and then it will go [forward] very fast,” he said.

As countries move to swiftly scale up solar power to meet growing demand for energy and to try to curb climate change, floating solar panels — installed on reservoirs or along coastal areas — are fast gaining popularity, particularly in Asia, experts say.

The panels — now in place from China to the Maldives to Britain — get around some of the biggest problems facing traditional solar farms, particularly a lack of available land, World Bank senior energy specialist Oliver Knight said.

“The water body is already there; you don’t need to go out and find it,” he said in a telephone interview.

Siting solar arrays on water — most cover up to 10 percent of a reservoir — can also cut evaporation, a significant benefit in water-short places, Knight said.

Pakistan’s new government, for instance, is talking about using floating solar panels on water reservoirs near Karachi and Hyderabad to provide much-needed power and to curb water losses as climate change brings hotter temperatures and more evaporation, he said.

Solar arrays on hydropower dams also can take advantage of existing power transmission lines, and excess solar can be used to pump water, effectively storing it as hydropower potential.

China has the most of the 1.1 gigawatts (GW) of floating solar generating capacity now installed, according to the World Bank.

However, the technology’s potential is much bigger — about 400GW, or about as much generating capacity as all the solar photovoltaic panels installed in the world through last year, the bank said.

“If you covered 1 percent of man-made water bodies, you’re already looking at 400 gigawatts,” Knight said. “That’s very significant.”

Growing use of the technology has raised fears that it could block sun into reservoirs, affecting wildlife and ecosystems, or that electrical systems might not stand up to a watery environment — particularly in salty coastal waters.

However, backers say that while environmental concerns need to be better studied, the relatively small amount of surface area covered by the panels — at least at the moment — does not appear to create significant problems.

“People worried what will happen to fish, to water quality,” Mishra said. “Now all that attention has gone.”

What might be more challenging is keeping panels working — and free of colonizing sea creatures — in corrosively salty coastal installations, which account for a relatively small percentage of total projects so far, said Thomas Reindl of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore.

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