By Rashad Rolle
Tribune Staff Reporter
AS countries around the world wean themselves off fossil fuels, one increasingly popular alternative catches the eye: floating solar panels.
Fastened in place on top of the water by a network of plastic rafts, the innovative system functions just like land-based solar systems, but with water as its base.
In the past decade, as the price of solar panels has declined, the system has been popping up in Asia, Australia, Europe, South America, North America and Africa––everywhere but the Caribbean.
The reason is simple: land is a scare resource. Solar panels are restricted in their ability to convert sunlight into electricity so many of them are needed and countries find it challenging locating enough land to create utility-scale solar farms.
It’s a problem the Bahamas knows well.
PowerSecure, Bahamas Power & Light’s former manager, ruled out constructing a $140m solar farm on New Providence, not least, it said, because of difficulty finding 155 acres of land on which to build the farm.
Last year, Works Minister Desmond Bannister told The Tribune: “One of the issues with solar in New Providence is that it simply takes up large areas of land.”
Facing similar problems, countries around the world have found their solution in the water.
Japan created a floating solar system that produces 13MW of electricity.
Australia opened a 100kW floating solar plant this year and plans to increase its size five-fold.
Last year India opened a floating solar plant capable of producing 500kWp of electricity.
The Godley Reservoir in Greater Manchester, United Kingdom, has 12,000 panels, generating 2.76Wh of energy per year to power a local water treatment plant.
The world’s largest floating solar plant is located in China––a 40MW marvel that opened last year.
Floating solar panels don’t just solve land scarcity problems. Experts say they are naturally cooled by wind and water as well. And in the absence of trees and dust, they require minimal maintenance.
One floating solar plant in South Korea has a production efficiency that is 22 percent higher than a comparable ground-mounted plant. Why? Because it is easier to rotate and has unobstructed exposure to sunlight.
As everyone knows, if there are two resources the Bahamas is in plentiful supply of, they are sun and water.
Could floating solar panels solve this country’s energy woes? Perhaps it could––but probably not in the near future. Almost all of the world’s floating solar farms are located inshore in lakes and reservoirs. Floating solar panels on the open sea––the only feasible option in the Bahamas––poses unique threats, experts say, because of changing water levels, stronger winds, wave action, corrosive salt water and the possible growth of marine organisms like barnacles on floats.
It is also unclear what effect floating solar systems could have on marine ecosystems, an important issue for a country whose sea is among its most treasured resources.
These problem, however, have not looked insurmountable to a Dutch company which recently unveiled a $1.5m project to create the world’s first floating energy platform at sea.
The Netherlands, which is one of the few countries to push sustainable solutions, will host the farm in its coastal waters.
A nine-member consortium, headed up by Oceans of Energy, a Netherlands company that creates floating offshore systems for clean energy generation, will develop the system.
It will be backed by government funding via the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy’s Netherlands Enterprise Agency over the next three years.
Called the Project Solar-at-Sea, a feasibility study will be undertaken with around 30 square metes of solar panels in the North Sea Farm. The aim, by 2021, is to have 2,500 square metres of solar panels in place.
Allaard van Hoeken, founder and CEO of Oceans of Energy, said solar farms were prevalent in lakes and inshore water bodies, but none had been sourced at sea due to wave and wind concerns.
He added the project should be a success as it was being built on the competencies of the consortia project partners and on the expertise of the Dutch offshore industry.
The consortia comprise energy sector companies: Oceans of Energy, TNO, TAQA, TKI Urban Energy, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency and ECN.
Utrecht University will conduct sustainability research, while the Maritime Research Institute of the Netherlands will carry out independent research for the Dutch government.
Utrecht University solar power expert Wilfried van Sark said the impact of wave energy on the solar panels would be one of the many issues to be analysed.
Mr Van Hoeken said the project would help create “a lasting impact worldwide” as the majority of the global population lives close to coastal regions.
In addition to the Dutch, Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HBD) signed on to a research project this year with a landscaping firm to study the development of a floating solar system for coastal marine conditions. The study will examine whether the system can withstand the harsh environmental conditions of the sea, according to Singapore news reports.
A similar study began six years ago in the sunny archipelago of Malta, a country whose population and Gross Domestic Product mirrors that of the Bahamas.
That $260,000 project, spearheaded by the Malta Council for Science and Technology research and innovation, is nearing its final stages.
If Malta can do it, what is stopping the Bahamas from positioning itself at the forefront of research into open sea floating solar panels?
The country has little to lose: According to the Inter-American Development Bank, the Bahamas is the worst in the Caribbean for renewable energy penetration.
“The Bahamas ranks lowest in the region for renewable energy penetration, suffers from a high fuel import bill, high and volatile electricity prices, as well as large and financially challenged utility, Bahamas Power and Light, which experiences frequent power outages and elevated system losses,” the IDB report, released this year, said.
The Bahamas’ National Energy Policy, released in 2014, called for the Bahamas to produce 30 percent of its energy from sustainable sources by 2030. But speaking to Tribune Business last month, Phillip Holdom, president of Alternative Power Supply, said the country is “nowhere close” to achieving that rate.
The country’s energy policy revolves around the development of liquefied natural gas, a “clean” fossil fuel that emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when burnt but still attracts the ire of environmentalists. In April, Sam Duncombe, the president of reEarth, called the adoption of LNG as the country’s main power source a “huge regressive step,” questioning why the government has not pursued solar energy instead.
“ReEarth spent six years fighting the AES pipeline that would have taken natural gas from a re-gasification facility on Ocean Cay to Florida, so that we wouldn’t become basically Florida’s gas station,” she said. “All of the safety concerns are still there.You are now talking about putting an LNG plant right next to Mount Pleasant, Adelaide, Albany and Lyford Cay. All of those communities are in potential danger. We have so many issues to deal with in this country that to go back and rehash stuff we have already dealt with is so backward and so discouraging.”