Floating Solar Farms: Clean Energy or Greenwashing?

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A floating solar farm in Singapore (Image Credit: Solar Magazine)

As more people realize the dangers of climate change, companies are clamoring for more clean, efficient energy. Hydroelectric energy gained popularity, but it was soon realized that it can’t sustain the needs of the planet. The most consistent source of energy is the sun, but solar panel farms take up huge amounts of space that some areas can’t afford to give. With that in mind, experts have come up with a creative solution: putting solar panels on water, allowing places with less land or higher land need to effectively produce energy.

                These initially seem like a good idea, saving space on land while helping to save the environment. As the world becomes more climate-conscious, some companies have started preying on environmental anxiety to greenwash products (exaggerate something’s sustainability to mislead and profit off of consumers while creating a responsible public image).

                Floating solar farms consist of a solid platform anchored in place with all the necessary equipment for solar panels on top. These farms are able to produce more energy than their land counterparts because of the cooling effect of the water they’re on top of. The technology for this can be more expensive, but costs are expected to go down as it gains popularity. There is an added risk of damage due to constant exposure to water, but these challenges are also likely to become more manageable as more projects emerge; there’s only about 350 large-scale farms compared to the thousands on land. Another potential drawback is that these are only practical for large-scale energy production, so they wouldn’t be a solution for the 48% of Americans who plan to switch to solar energy in the future.

                Just because these farms are only ideal for massive projects doesn’t mean that the average person can’t benefit from it. The Dezhou Dingzhuang farm in the Shandong province of China is said to provide 98% of the energy for Dezhou’s five million people. East and south Asian countries have pioneered this technology, Indonesia having the largest solar farm in the world and South Korea developing one that would rival it. Floating solar farms have also increased in popularity with some countries in Africa and Europe.

Largest European floating solar farm in Portugal. (Image Credit: World Economic Forum)

                Though they were already starting to catch on, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed more European countries to work with this idea to reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas. Still, building these farms takes a great amount of planning and work. Solar farms cannot be built on fast moving water, the open ocean, or shorelines with large waves. Building on deep bodies of water also poses a challenge.

                That said, investing in these farms could bring amazing things to the world. Putting these farms on just ¼ of the U.S.’s man-made reservoirs could theoretically produce 10% of the country’s needed energy. The farms could serve as lids to the water they exist on, greatly reducing the amount of water lost to evaporation. They’ve also been found to prevent harmful algae from blooming, making water safer for humans and animals while also lowering the cost to treat water for drinking. Outside of this, it is unclear how these farms could affect wildlife.

                The main concern for floating solar farms is the unknown. There are a lot of questions that can’t be answered right now. Luckily, the known benefits far outweigh the assumed risk. It’s easy to worry over what’s out of our control, but the only way to innovate is trial and error. People once felt the same way about what’s now essential technology.  Bringing more attention and support to these projects is just another way to encourage a greener future.

Written by Olivia Marant

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