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August 24, 2023

Floating solar platforms are green energy’s next big thing

Solar farms at sea may be clean energy’s next breakthrough.

In the news

Will the cruise to net zero take the world over the bounding main? Some believe it will; right now, in the Yellow Sea, a key experiment is underway in which arrays of floating solar panels are torture-tested to see how they stand up against the elements. When and if such panels can be sufficiently ruggedized, experts believe, offshore solar will become a significant piece of the renewable energy puzzle.

The trial is being performed by State Power Investment Corp., a major Chinese renewable-power outfit, and Norwegian firm Ocean Sun AS. The idea is to exploit the earth’s 139 million square miles (361 million square kilometers) of ocean to help land-constrained regions transition away from fossil fuels. Interest is especially high in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, where it’s impractical or impossible to devote enough land to solar panels—because the acreage simply doesn’t exist or is too rugged.

The potential scale of successful offshore solar is awe-inspiring. Shandong alone, China’s second most populous province, plans to add 42 gigawatts of floating panels eventually—more than the current capacity in all of Norway. Japan, the Netherlands and Malaysia, among others, are also testing the technology.

And those tests are not slam-dunks. Waves, rain and continuous salt spray place enormous demands on the panels. Moreover, their effects on the marine environment are largely unknown. Another test, this one by a Belgian consortium dubbed SeaVolt, is just beginning, with the goal of learning more about the impact of these factors on floating solar platforms.

If these challenges can be overcome, offshore solar’s advantages (including the built-in cooling that increases panels’ performance and the potential for combination with wind power) make for nearly unlimited potential.

The Cognizant take

According to Jan Konietzko, Manager, Sustainability Advisory at Cognizant, the opportunities presented by offshore solar arrays are compelling for one obvious reason: surface area. “It could be a major factor anywhere you have space constraints,” he says, noting the Netherlands as one example.

But the challenges are as clear as the potential. Consider the North Atlantic—it’s about as harsh an environment for high-tech equipment as you can imagine, no matter how well that gear is ruggedized. “Salt, wind, waves,” Konietzko says. “There are just so many problems.” He notes that even land-installed solar panels face more maintainability and reliability issues than most people realize; some number of them crack during mere transport.

However, the same digital solutions that help utilities maintain field equipment could help with offshore solar. Visual inspection via drones and wear data gathered through sensors and intelligently analyzed are two examples noted by Konietzko.

The other major holdup that warrants investigation is the impact large-scale solar arrays may have on ocean life. At present, the impact is simply unknown, though experiments to gauge it are ongoing. It certainly stands to reason that reducing available sunlight will affect undersea life.

“We need to, and can, better understand the ocean through data,” Konietzko notes. He points to a collaboration between Cognizant and Tidal that aims to do just that. Tidal offers data-driven insights to companies and industries that rely on oceans. Monitoring data could be used to “understand the impact that solar PV panels on the water surface have on the life underneath,” he says.

With renewable energy becoming a more and more important factor in sustainability, it certainly makes sense to leverage as much of the earth’s surface as is feasible.

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