The Benefits of Floating Solar Farms

March 7, 2023
Floating solar panels on a lake

The southwestern region of the United States is currently facing a severe megadrought that is so intense, it has broken the 1,200-year record. The soil has not been this dry since scientific records began around the year 800. This drought is having a major impact on the country's food supply as the west coast state of California produces over a third of the U.S.'s vegetables and three-quarters of its fruit and nuts. These record-breaking droughts have implications for the country's energy and water supply, as well.

The Potential of Solar Power

Solar power is a strong contender in the renewable energy race. Solar panels, however, do have some drawbacks. For one, they require a finite amount of space, and it's becoming increasingly challenging to find space for them. Rooftop solar is one option, but it's limited by the amount of available building space.

The Innovation of Floating Solar Farms

One solution proposed by researchers from the University of California is to cover irrigation canals with solar panels. This idea has the potential to address both the water and energy crises simultaneously. The implementation of floating photovoltaic panels, or "floatovoltaics," is an innovation in the solar industry that has gained traction. By placing solar panels on open water, the available surface area that was previously squandered is utilized.

How Floating Solar Farms Work

Floatovoltaics operate on a similar principle as land-based solar panels. They capture solar energy and convert it into electricity, which is then sent to the grid. When solar panels are installed over open water, the panels are kept cool, which increases their efficiency. Floatovoltaics are not appropriate for every biome and might need to be supplemented with other sources of renewable energy, depending on their location.

The Advantages of Floating Solar Farms

The advantages of floating solar farms are significant. They use previously unused workspace, and man-made bodies of water like aqueducts, canals, and reservoirs are generally calm, relatively easy to access, and less disruptive to aquatic life. Floating solar farms are particularly advantageous in hot conditions, which are intensifying due to climate change. The cooling effect produced by the panels means efficiency is up to 15% higher than that of classic land-locked solar. Combining hydropower with floating solar is one example. Most hydropower dams have a nearby lake to hold excess water. Floating solar can be installed on these lakes and directly send electricity to the already existing infrastructure at the plant, resulting in more energy production with just a few tweaks.

How Floating Solar Can Help Solve the Water Crisis

Canal-top floatovoltaics, in particular, are especially advantageous under hot conditions, which are intensifying thanks to climate change. Covering a canal in solar panels produces clean energy, saves space, and helps protect the water from evaporation. By covering California's miles of irrigation canals with solar panels, it is estimated that they could save upward of 63 billion gallons of water each year through reduced evaporation. This is equivalent to the residential water needs of about 2 million people or enough to irrigate about 50,000 acres of farmland.

The Future of Floating Solar Farms

California is taking steps to run on carbon-free electricity by 2045. By covering all of California's canals and aqueducts with solar panels, it is estimated they could generate 13 GW of solar energy, which is about half of what is needed to meet its clean energy goals. The state has the world's largest water-conveyance system, where 4,000 miles of irrigation canals distribute water to farmers across the state. This makes it a prime location for the implementation of floating solar farms. In fact, the University of California proposed a solution that could potentially address both the water and energy crises at the same time: covering irrigation canals with solar panels.

The concept of floating solar farms is not new, and it has been implemented successfully in many parts of the world. These farms are usually set up on man-made bodies of water such as canals, reservoirs, and aqueducts. They use previously squandered surface area to generate clean and reliable energy. And as for the placement of floating solar farms, man-made bodies of water like aqueducts, canals, and reservoirs are the ideal locations. This is because they're generally calm, relatively easy to access, and less disruptive to aquatic life.

Floatovoltaics, as they're sometimes called, are a prime example of how solar panels can be used in tandem with their surrounding environment to create a symbiotic relationship. These solar panels are shielded from wind and storms, and they use significantly less water in the shade. In turn, the crops themselves actually keep the panels cooler, which helps them run better. The negative effects on efficiency worsen significantly in areas where temperatures can climb into ranges as high as over 50 C (122 F).

When it comes to the future of floating solar farms, there is a lot to look forward to. Researchers estimate that covering just 10% of the world's hydropower reservoirs with solar panels would create almost 4,000 GW of solar capacity. This is equivalent to the electricity-generation capacity of all the fossil-fuel based plants in the world.

Countries like Brazil and Canada would only need about 5% of their reservoirs covered by panels to meet their solar energy needs. As for the United States, the largest floating solar farm in the country, the Healdsburg Floating Solar Farm, produces 44.8 MW and sits on two ponds that span 15 acres. It provides 8% of Healdsburg's annual electricity requirement and uses double-sided solar panels to catch the overhead sunlight and the rays that reflect back off of the water.

California's ambitious Project Nexus, the first venture of its kind in the states, aims to cover the state's canals in solar panels by the end of 2023. This pilot phase is meant to prove the viability of the concept, and the project now has a $20 million backing in the state's current budget, with construction expected to start this fall. The goal is to install about 8,500 feet of solar panels over three sections of the Turlock Irrigation District's canals, ranging in width from 20 to 100 feet.

Researchers will monitor factors that impact productivity, like the difference between cable suspension and steel truss support mounting and the performance of monofacial versus bifacial solar panel designs. They'll also examine storage solutions to support the local electric grid during outages or cloud cover.

In conclusion, floating solar farms are a promising solution to the challenges faced by the energy industry. With the world's population on the rise, the demand for energy is at an all-time high. Simultaneously, there is a growing need to reduce the carbon footprint of energy production. Floating solar farms can offer the perfect solution to these challenges by providing clean, renewable energy without compromising the environment. The successful implementation of these farms in California and around the world could prove to be the key to a sustainable future.

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