Roughly 150km south of Shanghai a gigantic civil engineering experiment is underway that’s causing international ripples in more ways than one. Potentially capable of providing 50% of the world’s ongoing energy needs, the clean and green technology being trialed in China’s Hangzhou Fenagling Electricity Science Technology solar park will also provide employment and nutritious food for locals.
So what are the main benefits of floating solar? How likely is it to be rolled out worldwide as a meaningful solution to the energy crisis? Join us today as we take to the water for a voyage into the world’s largest floating solar farm. As our civilization starts to meaningfully grapple with the essential transition over to cleaner energy sources, lots of ambitious solutions are proposed.
From colossal offshore wind farms, to vast hydroelectric energy plants One newish idea is so obvious it almost seems a bit ridiculous. Solar panels are clean, efficient and improving all the time, but they need a large footprint, taking up land near population centers that could otherwise be used for housing or agriculture.
But a few big projects around the world have realized that an ideal place to stash big solar arrays is on the water, especially adjacent to existing hydropower plants. Experts report as many as 10GW of new floating solar farms will come on stream by the middle of this decade. One advantage of putting them on bodies of water already used on existing hydropower is lower transmission costs.
If the infrastructure to transmit energy to the grid is already on site, that’s obviously a big plus. But it’s even cleverer than that.
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Hydro and solar energy plants are both seasonal – naturally during a dry season, solar is better, but during a wet season, Hydro is more productive. So together, on the whole, they can help even each other out during their respective lean times. It’s kind of a no brainer.
Not only will the water cool the solar panels, which happens to make them work more efficiently, but the placement of panels can actually help maintain those all-important water levels at the reservoir. How? Coverage by the panels naturally reduces the amount of water that evaporates, which is obviously a pretty big deal in drought-prone parts of the world.
They could also limit algae growth, and offer useful shelter to fish and other water life. So where’s the world’s biggest floating solar farm? Covering some 300 hectares across the Change and Zhouxiang reservoirs in Citi, Zhejiang province, China, the Hangzhou Fenagling Electricity Science Technology solar farm presently holds the title. Built in two phases – a 300GWH section completed in 2017, that alone powers some 100,000 homes, and a later 120MW tranche opened a little over a year ago costing about $100m – employs some pretty innovative technology.
Not least the inverters – kit designed to convert the variable direct current output of photovoltaic panels into a useful alternating current to be fed into the electrical grid and in turn to your home. Inverters here need to be designed to cope with wet and sometimes choppy conditions. In the case of the giant Hangzhou Fenagling plant, Chinese inverter maker Shenzhen Kester Science and Technology provided its catchfly named GSL2500C-MV and GSL1250 sealed inverters for the job.
Collectively, the two-phase project now generates some 352 million KWH, which should generate about $45million dollars a year in revenue. Moreover, the giant complex – which required the building of two new 110-kV booster stations by the state-owned Grid Corp of China, and nearly nine miles of cables – is actually helping the local economy and marine environment. How? The solar panels are spread across the reservoir with enough gaps that light can penetrate and support a healthy subaquatic ecosystem.
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This means fish can live and thrive, with the added bonus that the panels serve as artificial islands that shield fish from natural predators like birds. Locals can also navigate along carefully laid out channels and, when the fish have reached sufficient size, to reel them in for the local and national consumer market.
Economic analyses of the set up have estimated the value to the local fishing community in terms of income could reach as high as $5 million, each and every year. Overall, with the income from power brought into the equation, it’s believed the plant’s eye-watering $260 million dollar cost will be recouped in as little a s seven to eight years.
If the technology can be shown to work reliably – and so far it is – this could be a huge game changer in energy generation around the world. A US government study, for instance, has demonstrated that if similar schemes were rolled out across American man-made bodies of water the nation could generate 10% of its national energy needs. And that’s without expanding onto natural waterways or the oceans.
Worldwide, it’s believed as much as 10,6000 TWh could be generated annually by waterborne photovoltaic – that just means solar – panels. According to 2018 figures by the International Energy Agency, world-wide energy consumption is just over twice that, at 22,300 TWh. And worldwide a number of projects are looking to exploit early encouraging results demonstrated by floating solar technology.
In the Netherlands, a project called Zon-op-Zee – which literally translates to ‘The sun in the sea’ – has shown that a promising 17kw array can be scaled up in a modular fashion, and crucially absorb unpleasant buffering by the local unpredictable and perennially stormy conditions.
Set to eclipse the Hangzhou Fenagling reservoir project covered earlier in this video, a gargantuan 2.1 GW floating solar plant is currently being assembled by the South Korean government near the Saemangeum tidal flats, on the coast of the Yellow Sea. Many times larger than its closest rival, the Korean solar project will cost more than half a billion dollars and come attached to a new startup cluster that, it’s hoped, will spur on the next generation of big-thinking green energy initiatives.