Is a floating solar energy plant a smart idea?

A pilot is approved for a floating solar plant in India.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

A floating solar plant sounds too good to be true. Granted, these kind of wacky ideas pop up from time-to-time. This one caught my eye. Given all the environmental concerns of building solar plants on land, this particular design of a floating solar plant has some potential to bring power to people living in India.

The Australian solar power company Sunengy Pty Limited is working with the power utility, Tata Power, on a floating solar plant. But the plant isn't exactly going to be randomly floating around in the ocean. It works best behind hydro-electric dams because it can increase the capacity of the plant without taking up extra land.

The technology behind the plant is called Liquid Solar Array, which uses photovoltaic technology and plastic lenses to concentrate the light onto the solar cells. The lenses are computer-controlled, so they can track the sunlight for full efficiency. The whole system is basically a big raft that floats on the water.

Nearly 40 percent of the Indian population doesn't have access to electricity. The inventor of the system, Phil Connor, said in a statement:

“If India uses just one percent of its 30,000 square kilometres of captured water with our system, we can generate power equivalent to 15 large coal-fired power stations.”

Just as long as it's made to resist major storms, the million dollar idea should work. The floating system turns a dam into a large battery and it is apparently cyclone proof, according to the inventor.

However,  projects like this one will likely serve a niche market. Wind farms are noisy, so the off-shore location is preferred. Solar farms don't make noise like wind farms do, so does designing a solar plant to withstand the rough conditions of the water really make sense?

Because of continuous cooling of the cells and the landless requirement, the company claims its off-shore solar plant does make financial sense.

We won't have to wait long to find out. Construction will begin in August.

Even if the floating solar energy plant fails to be an efficient way of generating electricity, one of the many micro-grid ideas will likely play an important role in developing countries.

Recently, when I visited Stanford University, I spoke to Michael McGehee about the implementation of solar technology in developing countries. He made the case for micro-grids taking off, especially in areas where the infrastructure for the power grid is non-existent. I'll post the video this week, so stay tuned.

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