For anyone with an interest in renewable energy, it’s hard to miss the rising interest in floating solar over the last couple of months. Tenders, project announcements, and newly delivered plants pop-up on a weekly, if not daily basis. Last week’s World Bank Market Report stated that we’ve reached 1.3 GWp capacity.
Solarplaza’s Top 200 floating solar plants shows that China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are leading the pack, however, with many projects under development in countries like India, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, the Netherlands, France, and the United States, deployment is accelerating globally.
In order to better understand this sudden spur of floating solar, I contacted my good friend and innovation expert at Solarplaza, Thomas Boersma. Solarplaza is a knowledge and networking platform, organizing over 20 solar events per year globally from San Francisco to Sydney. With their workforce of 40 people working full time on trends in the solar market, an online community of over 60,000 solar professionals and annually over 6,000 conference participants, they have eyes and ears in every market, positioning themselves perfectly to help me understand this industry better.
Where Sun Meets Water
So, I took the opportunity to pick Thomas’ brain, starting off with the question of why floating solar is so hot all of a sudden?
“What I think is key to the recent rise of floating solar, is the huge potential it holds combined with the actual simplicity of the innovation. If you look it at in a very sober way, the actual innovations are not that special. In terms of product innovation, putting panels on floaters is a pretty incremental product innovation and the same goes for the process innovations.
“The CAPEX (Costs of construction) is, for now at least, slightly higher and the OPEX (operational costs) and is not that different from a normal ground mounted project so the bankability is something that can be figured out. Besides that, both EPC (installation) and O&M (maintenance) for floating solar plants are not rocket science; small adjustments to existing operations are enough to provide services in this field. Aside from that, you’re placing something in a pretty well-developed ecosystem.
“Unlike other high-potential innovations, such as for example E-mobility, where the need for an underlying charging infrastructure and a complete reshuffling of the supply chain require very costly and time-consuming infrastructural and value chain innovations, or even better, unlike blockchain, where a need for a complete paradigm-shift, slow down the adoption of innovation, you’re now looking at a ready-to-use product for a seemingly limitless market.
“But if you look at the potential you’re tapping into? That’s huge, there you are talking terawatt-scale. The World Bank’s Where Sun Meets Water Report most conservative estimates show that covering 10% of all suitable inland water bodies would add-up to over 4 TW peak capacity. To put that into perspective, that is about ten times as much as there was globally deployed solar in 2017.”
That sounds promising, but the market is just starting, so let’s take a step back. What’s next for floating solar?
“First of all, I would say we owe a big thank you to companies such as Isigenere and Ciel & Terre for pioneering in this field. These kinds of companies identified an opportunity and took a huge risk to develop the very first systems. Now that it has proven to be feasible, both technically as well as economically, we see the giants such as Sungrow and Baywa stepping into the game with their own systems. This will only accelerate the market. The track-records and the accountability of such companies will attract much more capital to the market. In terms of project development, I therefore only expect faster growth.
“In terms of innovation I think you can expect two trends: costs-optimization and performance-optimization. That sounds pretty obvious, as every product strives to be as good as possible for the lowest price, but for floating these are two different developments.
“For your regular inland water body without special requirements, cost-optimization will be the main trend. A big chunk of the costs for example comes from the floaters. Not the product itself, but the high volume makes the transport a surprisingly high cost item. Therefore, one of the main focus areas to decrease costs is optimizing the design to reduce the volume of these floaters, while remaining reliable and floatable.
“This is one of the main drivers for economic feasibility on standard inland waters. However, as you can imagine, water bodies come in all sorts and kinds. Many of them come with characteristics that allow, or even demand, for specific systems. Oddly shaped waterbodies, for example, don’t allow for large-scale rectangular solar plants. Instead, multiple round sun-tracking could be a more viable solution, as sun-tracking for floating systems is way easier and efficient than for ground mounted systems. In warm climates, without a lot of wind and thus less waves, putting panels as close as possible on the water, maximizes the yield-enhancing cooling effect of the water on the panels.
“Water Bodies on hydro-electric dams, on the other hand, are often large, open and elevated, resulting in windy and wavy water. This requires some costly adjustments of the systems; however, the dam’s storage facility, that allows to buffer hourly, daily and seasonal variability in irradiance conditions, compensates that in the business case. These kinds of situations open up niche-opportunities for new-entrants and smaller players.”
OK, it seems to be an interesting and rapidly expanding market. However, experience shows that these kinds of markets have to overcome many challenges. What do you expect to be the biggest challenges?
“In an emerging market such as this one, I think one thing is key: trust. Trust in the systems, trust in partners and trust by society.
“Starting with that last one; we now see that in the Netherlands all kinds of stakeholders, even members of the Dutch Parliament are forming an opinion on floating solar. What is the environmental impact on the water body? What will it do to birds? Will it be at expense of recreational and other functionalities of the waters? These kinds of questions need to be addressed and answered clearly, in order to avoid uneducated and sentimental discussions on this topic.
“The second form of trust, in partners, is important in order to accelerate the market. Especially in the earlier mentioned niche-markets you’ll see a lot of new market entrants. These companies need to prove themselves to be reliable and trustworthy, both financially as well as in other dealings, to accelerate partnerships and investment. This will also enhance knowledge sharing in the market and prevent endless piloting and reinventing of the wheel over and over again.
“And last but not least, we’ll need trust in the actual systems. Solar systems often come with 25 years of warranty, however, there’s not a single floating solar plant that has proven to stay afloat for such a period of time yet. There are a lot of reliable parties on the market at the moment, but in a market with a potential this big, it is inevitable that cheap copycats will arise and push and cross the boundaries of reliability. A couple of news-items on multi-million-dollar projects sinking to the bottom of a lake could nullify all built trust and completely stall this market.”
To get a full understanding of all these market developments, an update on all these innovations, and especially to have market players meet in person to build this much-needed trust in the market, Solarplaza is hosting a Global Floating Solar Conference in September in Amsterdam, addressing all of this with experts from all over the world.