Imagine dozens of solar panels floating on the surface of the ocean near the Equator, providing a passive source of effectively unlimited solar energy. This vision is not so far from reality- new research shows that potential offshore solar energy production in Indonesia alone could generate about 35,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of solar energy a year, similar to current global electricity production (30,000TWh per year).
According to Techxplore, about 70 square km of solar panels can provide all the energy requirements of a million people in a zero-carbon economy, and can be placed on rooftops, integrated with agricultural areas, or floated on water bodies. But countries with high population densities like Nigeria and Indonesia have limited space for solar energy harvesting, so an emerging solution is floating ocean solar panels.
A recently released paper called “Global Atlas of Marine Floating Solar PV Potential” details ocean regions that hadn’t experienced large waves or strong winds over the past 40 years, so floating solar panels in such regions won’t require strong and expensive engineering defenses. Regions that don’t experience waves over 6 meters or winds stronger than 15m per second could generate up to one million TWh per year- about five times more annual energy than is needed for a fully decarbonized global economy comfortably supporting 10 billion people.
The research concluded that the most fitting regions for floating solar panels are within 5–12 degrees of latitude of the Equator, mainly in and around the Indonesian archipelago and in the Gulf of Guinea near Nigeria. What these regions have in common is low potential for wind generation, high population density, rapid growth, and substantial intact ecosystems that should not be cleared for solar farms.
Although this plan sounds bulletproof, it does have some downsides. The offshore floating solar industry is still in its infancy and does have downsides compared with onshore panels, including salt corrosion and marine fouling. Shallow seas are preferred for anchoring the panels to the seabed, and careful attention must be paid to minimizing damage to the marine environment and fishing. Furthermore, global warming might also change wind and wave patterns, rendering the research useless.
Still, the researchers believe that offshore floating panels are the future of energy, and hope that by mid-century, about a billion people in the neighboring countries will rely mostly on solar energy, which is causing the fastest energy change in history.