Solar-Hydro Can Generate 40% of the World’s Electricity

A floating photovoltaic array on a water retention pond at a water facility in Walden, Colo.

A floating photovoltaic array on a water retention pond in Walden, Colo. Credit: Flickr/US DoE

A new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which is part of the US Department of Energy (DoE), highlights the linking of floating solar panels with hydropower, which could generate around 40% of the world’s electricity.

The team suggests that if floating solar panels are deployed on the 379,000+ reservoirs world-wide, the resulting hybrid systems could produce anywhere from 16% to 40% of the world’s electricity. The NREL stated in a press release that linking floating solar panels to bodies of water that are home to hydropower stations could generate around 7.6 terawatts of potential power per year that too from the solar PV systems alone. The output is equivalent to 10,600 terawatt-hours of electricity annually.

Moreover, by turning to solar production during dry seasons, hydropower operators could conserve more of their impounded water, according to the NREL team. The study  highlighted that transmission lines could work around a second, intermittent source of electricity, which could bring them nearer to their total capacity. Under the technical concept, solar power could be used for energy storage purposes by pumping water into upper reservoirs for later use. Furthermore, the team found that virtual agreements that link solar panels at a separate site to hydro production could also be used with similar results.

At places such as the Southwest, floating panel arrays might reduce evaporation at reservoirs, according to Nathan Lee, the lead author of the study. Lee, however, acknowledged that the 40% projection was optimistic. The sentiment reiterates that of a few other researchers who suggest the number should be closer to 16% than 40%.

The study found that the largest slice of the world’s technical potential would come from North America. Floating solar arrays are getting established in the United States, however, they’ve only been paired with hydropower at a single site in Portugal.

Recently, Duke Energy Corp. revealed its plans for one of the country’s largest projects. The project to the tune of a $36 million system will be launched at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

In the United States, researchers are still trying to examine floating solar’s potential. John Sherwin, program director at the University of Central Florida’s Solar Energy Center stated that how the panels respond to the stress of being on the water would be crucial to understanding the reliability and performance of these types of installations.

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