Floating solar represents a significant opportunity for the UK renewables sector. Not only can it overcome the planning challenges of ground mount arrays, floating solar actually makes panels more efficient and can help preserve water.
Many recognise that the industry is in a state of flux, with significant cuts to the feed-in tariff for solar panels, essentially blocking investment in solar power for the residential market until battery storage technology is made commercially viable.
However, there are still significant opportunities for solar power for organisations with high energy consumption. The UK is still in a growth phase, compared with other countries like Germany, Italy and Japan where this has significantly ramped up in recent years.
Because the FIT was really a bonus for large energy users, with the return on investment largely driven by the savings achievable on their high energy costs, investment by businesses in the technology is set to continue. With floating solar panels now also an option this is making solar particularly attractive for those with bodies of water in their property estates, like water utilities companies.
Working with licensed distributor of floating solar materials Floating Solar UK, we recently completed a 3MW floating array - one of Europe’s largest, and only the UK’s second system of this kind - at United Utilities’ Water Treatment Works in Godley, Greater Manchester.
Naturally there are some challenges when it comes to the installation of floating solar. Not only does an installation require panels and wiring to be loaded onto individual pontoons to float on the surface of the water, they are attached in batches with this process used to create the entire array – adding an extra complication to the project.
In addition, working on a reservoir means there are significant on-site considerations to avoid any contamination, which means workers have to be closely monitored throughout the process. In addition working around a large body of water with electrical components means health and safety is a priority and this has to be carefully managed on site.
Despite the apparent challenges, there are benefits to match the additional work. Water acts as a natural coolant for the panels, making them more efficient and leading to higher outputs of electricity for the array. By arranging them on pontoons they are more easily directed towards the sun – again making output levels easier to maintain throughout the day.
The additional benefit for water companies is that solar panels stop sunlight hitting the water. What this means is that water isn’t constantly evaporating from reservoirs. Reports on similar sites have predicted that panel shading can reduce evaporation by up to 70%, in addition also reducing the growth of algae.
As yet, systems of this type are relatively novel in the UK, compared with countries like Japan. However, with the utilities sector keener than ever for a drive toward sustainability, as well as the broader benefits achievable, its prevalence is set to increase.
By going the extra mile and considering floating solar, for those that can, the long term gains can be far greater than ground-mounted or rooftop systems. At a time when the market dynamic is changing, advances like floating solar are actually making the technology as attractive as ever.