Innovation in renewable energy: floating solar arrays

Kevin Lynn has been with Social Enterprise Associates since February and graduated from Willamette University with a degree in Politics. He lives in Portland, OR. He can be reached via

An innovative approach
This simple addition to traditional solar technology adds extensive value. Solar panels rotate, following the sun throughout the day and use the water upon which they are placed to cool the circuits, keeping equipment at peak operating potential. Some equipment is designed to shade the water, reducing evaporation and limiting algae growth, while others can dive under the water in bad weather conditions.

Typically, traditional solar installations are placed on sunny, open land often distant from end users and potentially in conflict with agricultural use. Bodies of still, fresh water, like reservoirs and retention ponds, are generally closer to populations needing energy. Anything floating on top of them will be less obtrusive, and drastically reduce transmission costs.

Who's working on it?
Numerous firms have begun showcasing their ideas on this topic. In 2007, the U.S. company SPG Solar installed the world's first floating solar array (which they termed "Floatovoltaics") on a winery's irrigation pond , generating nearly 900 kW; more than covering the winery's energy needs.

"Floatovoltaics" at a Napa Valley winery

Other companies, such as the Australian HydroSun and the Italian SIT, have features to rotate and follow the sun. HydroSun uses modular panels to easily scale to any size body of water. SIT uses mirrors to concentrate sun's rays onto the panels, avoiding traditional overheating problems by using the water to cool the circuits.

SIT's unique design

The Australian based Sunengy company uses more expensive Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV) technology but recoup costs by avoiding the added expense of wind-resistant structures. Sunengy's technology uses the water as both coolant and shelter from high winds (see visual explanation here).

Sunengy's CPV panels plunge underwater in harsh conditions

Despite slight differences, the companies achieves the same result: more efficient solar energy generation closer to communities that need it.

Potential benefits
Benefits from this technology extends beyond lowering prohibitive cost of solar installations.

Sunengy recently signed a contract to build a pilot plant with Tata Power, India's largest power company. They estimate if India covered one percent of its 30,000 square kilometers of captured water with solar panels, the country could generate enough power to match 15 large scale coal plants.

SIT estimates if sun-drenched Italy covered 10% of reservoirs and artificial lakes, it would generate a gigawatt of power at peak times.

With every dam comes a reservoir, and with every body of captured water comes the potential to generate even more power, additionally serving as the backup for large hydroelectric systems. An unobtrusive design on uncontested real estate lends itself well to popular adoption.

As people attempt to manage competing resources with foresight and prudence, the elegant efficiency of floating solar panels is an attractive and thoughtful solution to many of the issues that solar energy installations face.

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