Solar Takes to the Water

 In photo voltaic solar panels, solar panels, utility

Only months ago, California was in the throes of the worst drought in 1,200 years and emergency measures were being taken to supplement municipal water supplies all over the state. Our own Lake Cachuma dipped to 7.5% capacity during this time and Santa Barbara purchased and stored water at outside facilities in case it dipped further. And then it rained. And suddenly Californians slipped back into their routines and forgot to turn off the faucet while brushing—metaphorically speaking. The drought is “over,” just like last time.

America has progressively developed cultural amnesia about a vast number of things and our environment is pretty high on that list. During times of feast, we need to remember the times of famine and prepare. California will have another drought, it’s just a matter of time.

One major unresolved problem with water reservoirs like Lake Cachuma is evaporation and during droughts it becomes a plague. Over the last several years, a creative application of solar panels can help keep more water in reservoirs and bring more energy to surrounding communities. Aptly coined “floatovoltaics,” the technology improves the efficiency of the solar panels by keeping them cool and reduces water evaporation from the body of water it covers. A little internet sleuthing returned a myriad of articles about the success of pilot projects and plans for mega generators across the planet.

Floating solar power plants look and sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but they are already at work in Japan, the UK, Brazil, the US, and Australia. The Brazilian Balbina and Sobradinho HHP solar arrays were specifically implemented to not only produce energy but also to reduce evaporation to alleviate strain on the water supply in the drought stricken region. The floating solar arrays utilize the existing infrastructure from the hydroelectric dam to get the power from the solar arrays to the community. It’s an excellent use of available resources to help resolve two local needs.

Floatovoltaics can be a viable solution to our increasing needs and decreasing supplies for energy and water. The argument against implementing a floating solar array on a reservoir such as Lake Cachuma would be in favor of lake recreation activities and the ecological environment below the arrays.

To address the former, I return to my original thought that we have to start looking past the tips of our noses. Is the risk of losing a marginal amount of revenue from lake recreation greater than the risk of total loss of a municipal water resource during a drought? And a floating solar array would theoretically only cover a portion of the water surface which allows for a recreational area as well as an area for energy production.

The latter argument against a floatovolatic array is a little more challenging because my sleuthing didn’t return any published research being done on the environmental impacts of such installations. Anecdotal information from the developers cites “little impact” on marine life and others indicate that the shading will reduce blue-green algae blooms which can be toxic to marine life. While I didn’t find any researched based information on environmental impact, it seems hard to imagine that solar panels floating above the water would have a greater impact than fuel and emissions from boat engines. More research may need to be done on the impact to marine life with shading from solar panels.

Several local groups including the Community Environmental Council and the World Business Organization are working toward powering Santa Barbara County with 100% renewable energy. Floatovoltaics should be considered as a viable component to our energy future with the added benefit of protecting our water resources during the next drought.

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