June 12, 2024

'Float-ovoltaics': How floating solar panels in reservoirs could revolutionise global power

A new study has found that floating solar panels on reservoirs could generate over three times the electricity produced by the entire European Union. While solar panels are a cheap and efficient way to produce electricity, they do require a lot of space. To address this issue, innovative projects have attached solar panels to various structures like car parks and farms. Now, researchers are advocating for floating solar panels on reservoirs.

According to research published in the journal Nature, covering just 30 percent of the world's 115,000 reservoirs with solar panels could produce 9,434 terawatt hours of electricity annually. This figure is more than triple the EU's energy production in 2021, which was 2,785.44 terawatt hours. The University of Cambridge is working on creating 'floating factories' to generate net-zero fuel using an artificial leaf that transforms sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into green fuel. These floating solar systems, known as 'floatovoltaics,' offer a significant potential for energy production while taking up less land space.

Countries aiming to achieve net-zero emissions need to invest heavily in renewable energy. A 2021 study suggested that fully decarbonizing would require between 0.5 and 5 percent of a country's land area for solar panels. However, solar panels occupy about 70 times more land per unit of energy compared to natural gas. This land usage can lead to conflicts with farmers, local authorities, and conservationists. Floating solar panels provide a solution by utilizing stable, unshaded water surfaces like irrigation canals, quarry lakes, or reservoirs.

Since the first floating solar system was installed in 2008, the largest facility, the Dezhou Dingzhuang Floating Solar Farm in China, now covers nearly 600 hectares. Despite their potential, less than one percent of the world’s solar installations are currently floating. The study in Nature highlights that floating solar could make 6,256 communities and cities in 124 countries self-sufficient in energy.

Moreover, floating solar panels can help reduce water loss through evaporation, potentially saving enough water to supply 300 million people per year. This is crucial as the world grapples with climate change and the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The GLOBAL Carbon Project indicates that we have 380 billion tonnes of CO2 left in the global carbon budget to maintain a 50 percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Despite record-high carbon emissions in 2022, investments in renewable energy are increasing. In that year, wind and solar energy produced a fifth of the EU's electricity, marking the first time that clean energy sources outperformed fossil gas in the region.

To learn more about how floating solar panels on reservoirs could generate three times as much electricity as the entire EU, check out this detailed study.