These smart new 'solar islands' could keep solar markets booming

Author:
Ilario D'Amato
16 September 2014

LONDON: A new concept for a floating solar plant in Switzerland promises to generate more energy than other systems, an innovation which could keep momentum going in the world's fast-growing solar industry for years to come.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) is booming, leading clean energy records that are being set worldwide: in the period between 2000 and 2011, it was “the fastest?growing renewable power technology worldwide”, according to the International Energy Agency.

And the trend is set to continue, as the report states “under extreme assumptions solar energy could provide up to one-third of the world’s final energy demand after 2060”.

Why solar?

The figures are unequivocal. The amount of solar energy that falls on the earth’s surface in just 40 minutes equals the total annual energy consumption of all the world’s people, says Nature’s chief editor Oliver Morton. That also means that in one day Earth is hit by as much energy as we consume in 27 years.

The graph below, from the study “A fundamental look at energy reserves for the planet” by Perez and Perez, shows the magnitude of these numbers:

Perez solar

Graph: Perez and Perez. Comparing finite and renewable planetary energy reserves (Terawatt-years). Total recoverable reserves are shown for the finite resources. Yearly potential is shown for the renewables. Solar energy is received by emerged continents only, assuming 65% losses by atmosphere and clouds.

The study concludes “logic alone would indicate that the planetary energy future will be solar based”, even if a future challenge is developing the necessary storage technologies and infrastructures. However, authors attest “solar energy is the only quasi-ready-to-deploy resource that is both large enough and acceptable enough to carry the planet for the long haul”.

The opportunities

It’s not only the science that makes the common-sense case for this resource, but also business. The global solar market is set to rise 51% to surpass US$134 billion in annual revenue each year by 2020, according to 2013 research Solar PV Market Forecasts, by Navigant Consultants.

And today, the lion's share of the 6.5 million jobs provided globally by the renewable energy industry is due to solar.

The solar markets stack up record after record. Last year, for the first time ever, more solar photovoltaic capacity was installed worldwide than wind capacity - even if wind’s total capacity is still more than double.

Just in the US, more solar came online in the 18 months before March than in the prior 30 years combined. This was also thanks to the world’s largest fully operational solar PV plant which went online last May in Arizona. 

In Asia too, India is planning “ultra mega solar power projects” totalling 20 gigawatts, which is about 10 times more than the country's current solar capacity.

A space issue

However, not all countries have enough room on their land to deploy large solar plants. One solution could come from cities’ rooftops: the Indian city of Gurgaon is making rooftop solar mandatory, to meet its growing energy demand and tackle pollution. The city of New Delhi too, has introduced a scheme to make residents renewable energy suppliers by utilizing their domestic solar panels.

In Rajasthan, there are also plans to build what will be the world's largest solar plant, covering 30 square miles - an area bigger than Manhattan.

Japan is also experimenting with innovative new technologies to get round a lack of space, recently installing the world’s largest floating solar power plant, a system which is also claimed to be 11% more efficient than its onshore counterpart.

Now a Swiss company called Novaton has gone even further by developing a system of 'solar islands'. These floating airtight platforms support a structure with the solar panels on that not only creates extra space under the structure which allows the water's ecosystem to 'breathe' better, but also boasts an 'azimuth' tracking system that rotates the structure to follow the sun, maximizing exposure to its rays.

novaton

Image courtesy of Novaton Inc.

Novaton claims this system generates at least 27% more energy than other solar technologies. And the islands not only generate electricity, but can also be used for desalination or heat production - and in particular areas where water is a very rare resource, they can also reduce its evaporation.

Solar policy

While solar innovation and growth is accelerating around the world, it is Europe that has led the race so far, in part thanks to Germany. But now more countries are emerging as market leaders, following the huge decline in the price of photovoltaic systems. “The link between price decrease and the unlocking of new markets is the key to market development,” underlines the European Photovoltaic Industry Association in the Global market outlook for photovoltaics 2013-2017.

The cost for deploying solar systems is also set to fall year after year, owing to efficiency improvements, 'economies of scale' and production optimization, according to REthinking Energy 2014 by International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

IRENA

However, IRENA underlines that photovoltaicremains a policy-driven business, where political decisions influence considerably the potential market off-take”.

Next week's Climate Week NYC is a critical opportunity to stimulate such decisions and discuss the potential of solar and other clean tech markets. From September 22-28, it will bring together governments, businesses and civil society in support of a low carbon economy. It is also the collaborative space for all related events in support of the UN Climate Summit, convened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday September 23The two summits will play a central role in helping shape future policies and business opportunities tied to solar and the global renewable sector.

For a full list of Climate Week NYC events, please visit ClimateWeekNYC.org, and follow the conversation on Twitter using #CWNYC.

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By Ilario D'Amato

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