Is the answer to new large-scale renewable energy floating right in front of us?

Climate Energy

Is the answer to new large-scale renewable energy floating right in front of us?

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Floating solar and wind offers more opportunities than fixed renewable energy projects

Part of what hinders the approval of solar and wind projects is where to put them. Farmers and developers want to use their land for agriculture and building. Plus, some say large-scale wind and solar installations are an eyesore. The solution? Floating wind and solar plants.

The concept is simple: attach solar panels onto rafts so they float on water but only where the water is slow-moving, not on the open ocean or shorelines with large waves. For wind, turbines can be attached to platforms that are anchored to the seabed with flexible anchors, chains or steel cables. 

By using floating solar plants in water reservoirs, 6,256 communities and/or cities in 124 countries could generate all their electricity demand, according to a March 13 Nature Sustainability study. The reduced annual evaporation could save roughly enough water each year to fill 40 million Olympic-sized swimming pools in a time when drought due to climate change is a major concern.

London-based Fairfield Market Research reports that more than 35 countries already have an estimated 350 floating solar panels installed. Southeast Asia has roughly two-thirds of the total floating solar panel installations globally, mostly in China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. China and India together account for six of the world’s 10 largest floating solar projects in the various stages of their development. Policy incentives in North America and Europe will spur growth, according to Fairfield Market Research. 

We’re seeing that already — floating solar company Ciel & Terre has built 28 floating solar projects in the U.S. so far. The largest North American floating solar project is an 8.9 MW facility at the Canoe Brook Water Treatment Plant in Millburn, N.J., owned by New Jersey Resources Clean Energy Ventures and operates utility-scale commercial as well as residential solar systems across the Northeast.  

China and India together account for six of the world’s 10 largest floating solar projects

“We hear from our installers that they like it because it’s something different,” Chris Bartle, director of sales and marketing for Ciel & Terre, told PBS. “They get to go out on the water as opposed to on a rooftop. We joke that you need life jackets instead of ladders.” 

Creating floating solar plants is more costly than land solar by about 10-15% and that’s a key reason why governments are getting involved. In Cohoes, N.Y., public officials are preparing to install a floating solar plant that will cost an estimated $6.5 million. The federal government is paying almost half of that through a federal Housing and Urban Development grant. Another $750,000 is covered by the utility National Grid and the city is also looking into New York solar incentives and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to help with costs.

The floating wind sector is already tapping government funding to pay for projects. Recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1373 into law, which purchases massive amounts of power from early-stage projects that might be too big or too risky for other, non-government buyers.

The bill authorizes the California Department of Water Resources, which operates dams and aqueducts across the state, to sign contracts committing to purchase gigawatts’ worth of generation from yet-to-be-built offshore wind farms and then pass the costs on to all Californians. The bill also creates a pathway for state agencies to authorize and contract power purchases from large-scale geothermal power plants, as well as a proposed pumped-hydropower project in Southern California.

The latest plans call for 4,700 MW of offshore floating wind, 2,000 MW of geothermal power plants, and 2,000 MW of long-duration storage resources by 2035 to meet the state’s mandate to slash carbon emissions while maintaining grid reliability. One of the primary kinks to be worked out is that floating wind technology is still in its infancy compared with turbines that are anchored into the seabed.  

At the end of 2022, only 171 MW of floating wind turbines were operational worldwide, a fraction of the 64.3 gigawatts of fixed-bottom offshore wind projects. The largest floating wind project in the world, Equinor’s 94.6-MW project commissioned in August off the coast of Norway, makes up a sliver of California’s 2030 target.

Nonetheless, floating wind is taking off and Washington state has followed in California’s footsteps. In early October it launched an initiative to support companies in the state that want to play a role in the offshore wind energy sector. The nonprofit Washington Maritime Blue is leading the collaboration, which is dubbed Blue Wind. 

“This is truly one of the largest maritime opportunities since the advent of the shipping container,” said Maritime Blue CEO Joshua Berger. And given the need for large-scale renewable energy everywhere in the world, and fast, the opportunity couldn’t come at a better time.

Featured photo: Ciel & Terre floating solar plant in Leimersheim, Germany

Written by

Rebekah Moan

Rebekah Moan is a freelance journalist, editor, content writer and ghostwriter with a focus on science and health.