What’s Not To Love About Floating Solar Farms? (#CleanTechnica Interview)

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A new floating solar farm in Albania crossed the CleanTechnica radar last month, and going by the comment thread it appears that not everyone in the whole entire world thinks that waterborne solar panels are such a great idea. On the other hand, the skeptics are being overruled by some heavy hitters in the renewable energy industry.

floating solar Albania renewable energy

Floating solar plus hydropower

Among those in the latter category is Christian Rynning-Tønnesen, CEO of Norway’s Statkraft. He sat down with CleanTechnica last week to provide his insights on renewable energy in general and floating solar in particular.

First, a bit of context. Statkraft bills itself as Europe’s largest producer of renewable energy, primarily through its hydropower assets.

Okay, so much for context. During the interview Rynning-Tønnesen described a scenario in which 50% to 66% of electricity production globally will come from renewables within the next 20 years.

Statkraft foresees solar taking the biggest share, followed by wind and hydropower in that order. According to that scenario hydropower comes in last, but floating solar gives hydro-centric companies like Statkraft a hand in the first place position as well.

“Solar by day and hydro by night can all be done in one plant, at a large scale,” Rynning-Tønnesen explained.

Water Beats Land

Floating solar panels can get a conversion efficiency boost, thanks to the cooling effect of the water upon which they rest. There are  some technological challenges, but on the other hand there isn’t much need to invest in site prep when there is no ground to prep.

Rynning-Tønnesen also pointed out several other benefits at play in the Albania project:

Since we are using the surface of the reservoir there is no conflict with land area. It is quite convenient to use the same power lines and some of the electrical equipment, and we already have people on the site.

One criticism of floating solar is the cost compared to conventional ground or roof-mounted installations. According to Rynning-Tønnesen, the cost of the Albania project is about double the typical market rate.

However, he noted that the project is a first generation, first of its kind thing. He pointed to the downward spiral in conventional solar costs as an indication that floating solar can become competitive — without subsidies — within a few years.

With floating solar, do we still need nukes?

For the record, Statkraft’s floating solar installation is now under way at the Banja hydropower plant not too far from the capital city of Tirana, in Cërrik Municipality in Elbasan County.

And, this is where things get interesting. Albania is almost entirely dependent on hydropower for electricity. That’s nice as far as clean power goes, but hydropower is subject to management issues as the impacts of climate change build up. The addition of floating solar panels to hydro plants could provide for more 24/7stability, as Rynning-Tønnesen noted.

In that context, consider that the Banja (aka Banjë) plant is practically brand new, having opened in 2016 as a project of Statkraft’s Albanian wing, Devoll Hydropower. It is the first of a series of hydropower stations under the umbrella of the Devoll River.

When Banja’s sister plant, Moglicë, opens later this year the two facilities will have a total capacity of 256 megawatts. They will also increase Albania’s total energy production by an impressive 17% (or 20%, depending on who’s counting).

That’s not including new clean megawatts from the floating solar project, which developer Ocean Sun puts at 2 megawatts.

That sounds like pretty small potatoes, but consider it a demo project. If all goes well, Albania’s hydro reservoirs could be blooming with solar panels.

A third hydropower plant could also be in the works on the Devoll River, depending on how it goes with the first two.

All this is by way of saying that Albania does not appears to be on track for building its long-coveted nuclear power plant.

Albania has been eyeballing nuclear power since at least 2007, though neighboring Montenegro is not so keen on the idea of locating it at Durrës on the Adriatic Sea.

That’s in line with Statkraft’s forecast. Rynning-Tønnesen told CleanTechnica that globally “we will see a massive change from coal and natural gas to renewables and natural gas,” which does not leave much wiggle room for nuclear energy.

Floating Solar In The USA

Meanwhile, over here in the USA the Department of Energy has caught floating solar fever. That makes sense considering the vast hydropower resources at play in the US, along with thousands of reservoirs and artificial ponds use in agriculture and elsewere.

Last month our friends over at Utility Dive took a deep dive (natch!) into the topic and points out some of the obstacles and opportunities under the title, “Floating solar offers unique bargains — U.S. utilities are missing out.

Attracting investors to “floatovoltaics” in the US is one of those challenges. That is partly due to the absence of a data platform to assess performance over time. Nevertheless, Utility Dive totes up 100 projects in commercial operation globally over the past 10 years for a combined capacity of 1.1 GW.

So far, most new installations have occurred in China, but here in the US it appears the logjam could be on the verge of busting wide open. A new 4.4 MW floating solar project at a water utility in New Jersey is ten times bigger than the next largest one in the US and it has already sparked interest in up-scaled projects in at least five other states.

Other projects in California and Florida also highlight the advantages of floating solar in states with high land costs combined with high water resources.

Among the opportunities, as Utility Dive points out, is that many utilities have “free” access to man-made bodies of water, which they already own.

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Image: via Ocean Sun.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3150 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey