Could floating solar panels be the energy source of the future? That’s what one team of researchers was determined to find out. As it turns out, floating solar panels covering portions of water reservoirs could provide enough energy to power thousands of cities around the world, according to a new study.
The study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, found that local floating solar panels could theoretically provide enough energy to meet electricity demands of 6,256 cities in 124 countries.
Today, floating solar panels are far less common than land-based solar farms. In fact, as of 2020, floating solar panels produced less than 1% of the electricity produced by land-based solar farms, as reported by The Verge.
But they have great potential in helping communities, from small towns to even larger metropolises, meet their energy needs with sustainable sources of power. Communities would need to place floating solar panels, sometimes called floatovoltaics, over only about 30% of the water in 114,555 identified water reservoirs. The study authors determined that reservoirs larger than 0.01 square kilometers could be considered for solar development, as smaller water reservoirs are more vulnerable to drying up over time.
Using climate data, the reservoir analyses and power generation modeling, the team determined that floating solar panels could fully meet electricity demands for thousands of towns and cities, if energy storage development increased alongside floating solar power development.
Smaller communities with fewer than 50,000 people showed the most promise in fully meeting their electricity needs with floatovoltaics. But about 15% of the 1,045 larger cities with a population of over 1 million would still theoretically be able to meet electricity demand through this method, according to the study.
Floating solar photovoltaic development could have another benefit as well: conserving water. Because the solar panels would cover around 30% of the water reservoirs, the researchers estimated these panels would reduce evaporation by about 106 cubic kilometers of water each year, an amount of water equivalent to the annual water consumption of around 300 million people.
The researchers noted that while floatovoltaic development is promising, more long-term research is necessary to fully evaluate its potential impacts. While floating solar panels could minimize water evaporation, they could also reduce oxygen and water quality as well as sunlight reaching the water, impacting aquatic life. The study authors raised concern that aquatic life could also be harmed by the cables of floating devices and electromagnetic fields generated from the cables. One proposed solution in the study was to focus on installing the solar panels on artificial reservoirs more than natural water reservoirs.
Still, with more research, floatovoltaic development could help meet increasing energy demands around the world with minimal environmental impact.
“Owing to the cost-effectiveness of accessing electricity generated on nearby reservoirs, many cities can potentially build clean, resilient and affordable power to bolster energy resources to reduce reliance on regional and national grids once energy storage system technology improves,” the study concluded.