Floatovoltaics — The rise solar farms on water

When Benedikt Ortmann first encountered the concept of placing solar panels on water to generate power, he was initially skeptical, considering it a risky gimmick.

“The universal understanding is that electricity and water don’t mix,” remarked Ortmann, the head of solar operations at Baywa r.e., a prominent renewable energy developer headquartered in Munich, Europe’s largest such developer.

Back in 2018, when Ortmann introduced his inaugural array of floating panels, Baywa r.e. primarily dealt in conventional ground-mounted solar installations.

Fast forward five years, and the company has transitioned into Europe’s leading provider of floating photovoltaics, commonly referred to as FPVs or “floatovoltaics.”

Although floating solar installations accounted for less than 1% of the global panel installations last year, their usage has expanded by a remarkable 2,000% over the past decade.

These installations are increasingly finding a home on bodies of water such as former coal mines, stone quarries, and hydroelectric lagoons.

One of the driving factors behind this trend is the substantial surge in rooftop solar installations across Europe in the last 20 years, which has created a need for fresh space to accommodate renewable energy systems.

Attempts to erect solar systems in rural areas, however, have faced resistance from farmers and locals opposing the potential disruption to their surroundings.

Matthias Taft, the CEO of Baywa r.e., remarked, “Agriculture still perceives solar panels as a threat that competes for the same land.”

Floatovoltaics offer an elegant solution by repurposing neglected sites, often former sand and gravel pits. These sites are relatively underutilized and easily accessible for installation.

Baywa r.e. has already deployed floating panels with a capacity of generating up to 500 megawatts of energy across Europe and Asia, while also exploring new sites in South America. Their total project pipeline currently stands at 28 gigawatts, expected to triple by 2025.

To address the growing demand for FPVs, European governments, businesses, and utilities are seeking unused industrial areas with available water bodies. Ponds and lakes that have consistent water levels and minimal visitor traffic are prime candidates. Proximity to infrastructure and urban centers is also vital.

The World Bank suggests that by installing floating solar panels on just 10% of artificial lake surfaces, Europe could cover 7% of its annual power consumption. If extrapolated globally, this could result in an electricity generation of 5,211 terawatt hours per year, surpassing the annual consumption of the United States.

Countries like Austria and the Netherlands are leading the way in floating solar installations, with interest growing in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, and the UK.

Austria’s inaugural floating power plant in Grafenwoerth stands as an example of a greener future. Developed collaboratively by Baywa r.e., local utility EVN AG, and municipal authorities, this 24.5-megawatt installation was completed in just two months.

The panels float on water 15 meters deep, surrounded by long grasses, and produce enough energy on sunny days to power 7,500 homes.

In conclusion, while floating solar power’s adoption is rapidly increasing, challenges such as bureaucratic hurdles and environmental assessments persist. Nevertheless, experts predict that by 2025, regulators will become more familiar with the technology, leading to quicker approvals for floating solar installations. As the process becomes more streamlined, it’s expected to be as straightforward as “cut and paste,” enabling faster and easier installations.


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