With most countries adding decarbonization and carbon neutrality to their goals for the coming years, people have floated a number of creative ideas to bring more renewable energy sources online. One of these ideas, floating photovoltaic arrays, holds significant promise. These installations provide a number of benefits unique from other forms of energy generation. With floating solar capacity on track to double in 2021, it’s important to understand the benefits of this technology.
Floating photovoltaic arrays, or floatovoltaics, as they are more commonly known, operate using similar principles to other types of solar. They differ mainly by being secured to floats on the surface of the water rather than to rooftops or the ground. Ground-mounted, utility-scale solar requires a large footprint of available land to install, often competing with other developers’ visions. Floating photovoltaic systems offer the same carbon-neutral generation potential as traditional solar installations without the same land demands.
What makes these systems even more exciting for decarbonization is their synergy with other forms of renewable energy. Floatovoltaics can effectively pair with hydroelectric power, floating atop the reservoirs that house the water for the dam. They can also complement offshore wind installations by being floated between the towers. The ability to be deployed in conjunction with other generators allows floating photovoltaics to maximize the energy output of the space required for these other renewable systems, without needing more.
Not only can floatovoltaics fill in the footprints of existing energy sources to generate even more power, they can also mitigate evaporation and improve the efficiency of energy generation. By shielding the surface of reservoirs, the ocean, or other bodies of water from direct sunlight, floating solar panels reduce the temperatures that the water can reach. Doing so reduces evaporation, which allows hydroelectric generators to produce more power. Being atop the water can also help to cool the solar panels themselves, helping them operate more efficiently.
By shading the surface of these bodies of water, floatovoltaics also alleviate the warming effects of climate change. For example, as lake waters warm, they mix less well, preventing the oxygen from the surface from reaching lower levels of the lake. With much of the marine life in these habitats dependent on that oxygen, warmer waters are a bad sign for biodiversity. If floating solar systems are deployed effectively, they can reduce the warming of the water and promote healthier aquatic ecosystems. These systems therefore reduce both the future warming, by reducing carbon emissions, and the effects of present warming, by shading the water’s surface.
As countries around the world edge toward more sustainable energy solutions, floating photovoltaic systems offer environmentally friendly and carbon neutral sources of electricity generation without having to compete for scarce space that can be used for other purposes. Easy integration with other renewable technologies opens the possibility for floatovoltaics to be part of many different renewable portfolios.