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Floating Solar Panels Could Power Entire Countries

While promising, further research into floating photovoltaics is needed

by Bangor University
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The study, by researchers from Bangor and Lancaster Universities and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, aimed to calculate the global potential for deploying low-carbon floating solar arrays. The researchers calculated the daily electrical output for floating photovoltaics (FPV) on nearly 68,000 lakes and reservoirs around the world, using available climate data for each location.

The researchers’ calculations included lakes and reservoirs where floating solar technology is most likely to be installed. They were no more than 10km from a population centre, not in a protected area, didn’t dry up and didn’t freeze for more than six months each year. The researchers calculated output based on FPV covering just 10 percent of their surface area, up to a maximum of 30 km2.

While output fluctuated depending on altitude, latitude and season, the potential annual electricity generation from FPV on these lakes was 1302 terawatt hours (TWh), around four times the total annual electricity demand of the UK.

The findings were published June 4, 2024 in Nature Water.

FPV have a number of additional advantages over land-based solar installations: they free up land for other uses and they keeps panels cooler, making them more efficient.

There is some evidence for other environmental benefits, including reducing water loss through evaporation, by sheltering the lake surface from the sun and wind; and reducing algal blooms by limiting light and preventing nutrient circulation. However, the researchers warn that further research is needed on the overall environmental impact of FPV. They suggest that decisions to deploy FPV should consider the intended function of water bodies and how they are used, as well as the potential ecological impact.

When the figures were considered country-by-country, five nations could meet their entire electricity needs from FPV, including Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Others, such as Bolivia and Tonga, would come very close, respectively meeting 87 percent and 92 percent of electricity demand.

Many countries, mainly from Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Central Asia, could meet between 40 percent and 70 percent of their annual electricity demand through FPV. In Europe, Finland could meet 17 percent of its electricity demand from FPV and Denmark, 7 percent.

The UK could produce 2.7 TWh of electricity each year from FPV, the researchers found. While this is just under 1 percent of overall electricity demand, it would provide electricity for around one million homes, based on the current Ofgem estimate of average electricity usage per household of 2,700 kWh.

There are currently very few FPV installations in the UK, with the largest a 6.3MW floating solar farm on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir, near London.

Dr Woolway said: “Even with the criteria we set to create a realistic scenario for deployment of FPV, there are benefits across the board, mainly in lower income countries with high levels of sunshine, but also in Northern European countries as well. The criteria we chose were based on obvious exclusions, such as lakes in protected areas, but also on what might reduce the cost and risks of deployment.”

Co-author Professor Alona Armstrong of Lancaster University said: “Our work shows there is much potential for FPV around the world. But deployments need to be strategic, considering the consequences for energy security, nature and society, as well as Net Zero.”

The research is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.

-Note: This news release was originally published on the University of Bangor website. As it has been republished, it may deviate from our style guide.