Sep 22nd 2021

Financial PerspectivesIndustries

Floating New Ideas About Solar Panels

Innovative and efficient solar panels that float are becoming increasingly common in California and around the globe.

Sep 22nd 2021

In the heart of California’s wine country, a huge expanse of nearly 5,000 solar panels powers the Town of Windsor’s water treatment facility. The solar array produces 1.8 megawatts of electricity, which meets 90 percent of the facility’s power needs. Along with producing clean power, the solar panels enable Windsor to control its energy costs more efficiently, providing a 30 percent energy savings over previous systems.

This success story isn’t an isolated instance: These types of solar projects are becoming more common all over California. Right next door to Windsor, in the neighboring town of Healdsburg, a similar floating array that claims to be the largest in the US was completed in March 2021. The two floating installations are among some 770 solar power plants operating in the state, with a combined installed capacity of about 13,989 megawatts.

Solar power around the country is forecast to soar, with solar photovoltaic expected to grow 25-fold by 2050, according to risk management consultancy DNV. The industry’s growth is largely the result of concerns over the climate crisis fueled by fossil fuel usage. California in particular has felt the repercussions of climate change acutely over the past several years. In response, cities, towns, and municipalities are embracing alternative energy to power residents’ homes, businesses, and public spaces.

Projects like these floating solar farms in California show that when sustainably minded public entities join forces with innovators in the private sector, they’re able to effectively reduce carbon emissions.

Teaming Up with a Solar Innovator

To bring the Windsor project to life, the town joined forces with Ciel & Terre, a solar innovator headquartered in France that’s rapidly expanding globally. Ciel & Terre’s floating design keeps the solar array cool so that it generates more power than a land-based system. The company’s projects have LEGO-like configurations, which are easy to assemble and expand. They’re also resilient enough to withstand wind, rain, and snow.

Solar farms typically require large expanses of land, which can be a barrier in locales where land is limited, such as Japan, or expensive, such as California’s agricultural regions. But Ciel & Terre’s solar arrays provide a sustainable solution for geographies close to large bodies of water.

“Municipal water districts, utilities, and farming operations—even wineries—want to adopt solar without having to use valuable land,” says Bertrand Colin, Chief Operating Officer of Ciel & Terre USA, Inc.

The company has a presence in 30 countries. To date, energy from its 230 floating solar farms has delivered more than 575 Megawatt peak (MWp) of PV capacity to floating solar farms around the world, and the company has plans to grow this number to 1,190 MWp by the end of next year. Moving forward, Colin anticipates that there will be more interest in California projects because of the state’s goal of only carbon-free electricity by 2045.

Future Moves to Lower Greenhouse Gases

The Town of Windsor has taken action to lower its greenhouse gas emissions through environmentally conscious development, promoting electric vehicle use and energy efficiency, and harnessing renewable energy to power buildings and facilities. Other California towns, facing a sense of urgency highlighted by increasingly volatile weather patterns, uncontrollable wildfires, and severe droughts, are taking similarly ambitious environmental actions.

In Windsor, the shift to solar has helped the town meet its sustainability goals: As it turns out, the water treatment plant accounted for nearly 40 percent of the town’s greenhouse gas emissions before installation of the new system. And along with the benefits of renewable energy and smart land use, the innovative floating installation promotes the pond’s ecosystem biology by limiting evaporation, controlling algae growth, and reducing pond bank erosion by keeping water movement to a minimum.

Ciel & Terre has big goals for expansion—and laying the groundwork for future successes like the Windsor installation. Colin says the company hopes to supply three gigawatts of power from floating solar farms by 2023 (one gigawatt is equivalent to 3 million solar panels, which is enough electricity to power a midsize city). The critical success factors for scaling Ciel & Terre’s innovation include partners with global reach, shared values, and market specific expertise, as well as patience when breaking into new markets.

These plans for growth come at an apt time. Around the world, global renewable energy capacity is projected to grow by 50 percent between 2019 and 2024, according to the International Energy Agency. Globally, renewable energy is increasing capacity, as additions jumped 45% in 2020 to almost 280 gigawatts, which is the highest annual increase since 1999. This progress is in part fueled by solar—the US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy expects that more than one in seven US homes will have rooftop solar PV installed by 2030.

The climate crisis is becoming a higher priority as countries, states, and towns have less time to meet goals to eliminate greenhouse gases. There’s more interest in technological innovations to reduce carbon emissions and help with energy transitions to solve multiple problems at once. Solar power is one innovation that provides an affordable source for renewable energy, with the added benefit of efficient land use. As renewable energy sources evolve, the possibilities are bright.

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