Photo: Clipdealer

The poten­tial for float­ing solar mod­ules in Africa

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.

Advan­tages

  • 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.

Dis­ad­van­tages

  • 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.