Throughout Africa, one of the most important forms of energy is hydropower. Floating solar panels can boost the output of existing hydropower plants and provide electricity for many more residents. During dry periods, the floating solar panels would make up for the lost energy from the hydroelectric plants. The opposite is also true: during the rainy season, when persistent cloud cover reduces solar power potential, the hydropower plant would compensate for this.
Electricity in Africa
African countries have the lowest rate of access to electricity in the world. Many people still live without electricity and their power supply can be unstable.
As the population in Africa grows, the need for electricity will become even greater. Only slightly more than 10% of hydropower capacity is currently being used. This means that almost 90 % more electricity could be generated through the addition of hydropower plants alone.
Building more hydropower plants would be very costly, so retrofitting existing plants with solar panels is more feasible. The infrastructure is already in place, so it would just be a matter of installing floating solar panels over the water used for hydropower.
Adding solar panels to existing hydropower plants
Rising temperatures and low rainfall due to climate change have led to African countries having less and less energy available. In the future, even less energy is expected if nothing is done to increase electricity generation. This is why the idea of equipping hydroelectric power plants with solar modules is so interesting. Even if only 1% of the existing dams were equipped with floating solar modules, the plants could significantly increase their capacity.
Also, adding solar panels would decrease evaporation, which means more water would be available to generate electricity at power plants. Water and electricity are crucial for any country, as they are essential for the economy, health and security.
The combination of solar energy and hydropower would be an intelligent solution to the problem. Both are renewable resources and produce little to no greenhouse gas emissions.
Floating solar panels have more advantages than traditional land-based solar panels. Of course, African countries have land available for solar farms, but in the hotter months there could be overheating. The water would provide a cooling effect, and the modules would in turn help prevent or at least mitigate algae growth on the water.
Advantages and disadvantages of floating solar systems
The use of floating solar panels would bring benefits to African countries, but a few things are still holding researchers back from taking that step.
- One of the main advantages of floating solar systems is that the modules do not take up any space on land. This gives more opportunities for onshore activities, and since the dams are already built, no work would be needed on the ground to add the modules.
- Although solar panels work in extreme heat, they are even more powerful when they are allowed to cool down. The water under the floating solar panels helps to cool them, which increases their performance.
- Although the solar panels could curb algae growth, there is still concern that algae could overgrow and damage the panels. Furthermore, it is not known whether the modules could harm aquatic life or not.
- The cost of installing the solar panels may also still be high, which is a disadvantage.
The future of Africa’s energy
After extensive research, scientists and researchers believe that there is great potential for floating solar systems in Africa. Solar energy and hydropower are great ways to generate electricity because they are renewable, and combining them could provide Africa with more energy than ever before.
More on this topic: Floating solar: what you need to know
Jane Marsh works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co.