March 12, 2011 – Brett Leverett
Current solar farms are considered an environmentally friendly, renewable form of energy, but they commonly face two major problems. These energy systems require vast amounts of space and their cost is high due to cell fabrication methods and maintenance.
In the never ending search for more power, Israel and France have teamed up to offer a new way to capture solar energy; floating solar power plants.
Dubbed AQUASUN, this prototype is scheduled to be completed by September 2011. The tests will take place at Cadarache, in southern France, on a site that is relevant to the French electric grid. The water surface to be used for the installation of the system is taken from a hydro-electric facility in that area.
Over a period of nine months, the system’s performances and productivity will be assessed through seasonal changes and variations in water levels. The researching team believes that after this test period, they will have enough information for their technology to hit the market.
Even leading photovoltaic companies struggle to find the vast areas needed for their solar energy systems. While there are millions of acres of unused land that is suitable for these systems, the problem is finding land that is relevant in location to where the power will be used. This prototype aims to use an untapped surface; water. By creating a floating solar power system, photovoltaic energy can be harnessed from almost anywhere that has sufficient solar energy.
The intended water basins which could host this new style of system are not on the open ocean or in ecologically-sensitive areas. Instead, reservoirs already in use for industrial or agriculture purposes can be utilized without causing a disruption to the natural ecosystem. “It’s a win-win situation,” declares Dr. Kassel, a leading researching on the project, “since there are many water reservoirs with energy, industrial or agricultural uses that are open for energy production use.”
In order to fund this project, the research team had to prove that their floating solar system would also be cost efficient compared to current systems. The first way they accomplished this was by reducing the number of solar cells needed by the addition of a sun energy concentration system. Mirrors will be set up around the cells to help redirect some of the sun’s energy that would otherwise be lost, while maintaining a steady amount of power produced.
The second means for reducing cost is found in the cooling system. Normally, lower efficiency cells are used for solar systems because they do not require a separate cooling source. By incorporating the water on which the solar panels float as a cooling method, this prototype can use silicon solar cells which are cheaper and more efficient. Thus saving money in production cost and gaining money through energy output.
These floating solar systems will not be limited to the amount of power they can produce. It is possible to assemble as many of the 200 kilowatt modules as needed; as they are all identical. The only limiting factor is the amount of surface area available for use in the water basin.
Even with the intention of these floating solar systems to be used on water basins that are not ecologically sensitive, the team worked on reducing the environmental impact of their technology. By making the system permeable, a sufficient amount of oxygen can still reach the water and maintain the life of plants and animals living there. Dr. Kassel adds: “One of the implementation phase’s goals is to closely monitor the possible effects of this new technology on the environment with the help of specialists… a preliminary check shows no detrimental environmental impact on water quality, flora or fauna. Our choices of materials were always made with this concern in mind.”
Photo credit: business.vic.gov