Solar power as a viable source of energy dates back to the year 1767 when Swiss scientist, Horace-Benedict de Saussure, invented a “solar oven” of sorts: a box, layered with glass, that could absorb heat energy. Nearly one century later, a 19-year old French scientist by the name of Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic (PV) effect: he noticed that when light hit the intersection of two dissimilar materials, e.g. a semiconductor and a metal, the result was an electric current. Viola – photovoltaic solar energy was born. In 1954, Bell Lab created the first functional solar cell and, by the early 1980’s, PV solar use had become widespread for a variety of consumer applications. (It should be noted: photovoltaic solar, the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity, was and remains the fastest growing solar technology, but another technology, known as “solar thermal” also exists.)
For many years, solar power was used only sporadically because of structural, temporal, and cost constraints – e.g., solar energy required a roof, the sun, and was more expensive than conventional “dirty” sources of energy.
Introducing floating solar plants.
That’s right. Solar power plants that float. Such floating farms are becoming quite popular as cities continuously search for space. As you might imagine, a floating solar array frees up land, which is becoming ever-important for our rapidly growing population. In addition, floating solar farms reduce water evaporation from reservoirs and, because the surface area is cooler than that of a roof array, floating farms reduce the risk of performance atrophy and module degradation, which is sometimes caused from solar panels’ continued exposure to warm temperatures.
CHINA FLIPS THE SWITCH OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST FLOATING SOLAR FACILITY:
The world’s largest floating solar plant, at 40-megawatts, was just completed (built by Sungrow Power Supply Co.) and connected to the local power grid in Huainan, China. The panels are linked to a central inverter and combiner box. The icing on the cake? Ironically, the 40-megawatt facility was built over an old coal-mining region that turned into a lake from heavy rain. Out with the old, in with the new.
Floating solar plants are not novel, but the world has never before seen such a spectacle at this massive scale.
For size context, in March of 2016, England was installing the world’s largest floating solar array, at 6.3 megawatts. England’s solar farm still floats on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir at Walton-on-Thames. This 6.3-megawatt-farm sprawls about eight soccer stadiums and its purpose is to power local water plants in order to provide clean drinking water to the residents of Southeast England. Today, the second largest floating solar farm is about 20 megawatts, also located in China.
China has surpassed even the largest dreams for floating solar farms. The nation, long reliant on coal and the perpetrator of an intense amount of pollution, has turned itself into a true solar leader over the last decade. In fact, China also houses the world’s largest land-based solar facility, a colossal 10-square mile grid known as the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park.
China’s Solar History, In a Nutshell
In 2009, the Chinese government announced production in PV solar power a national priority, subsequently ratifying a number of solar subsidy programs. In just a few short years, China became the world’s largest producer of solar panels. Government subsidies allowed Chinese manufacturers to produce panels at below cost prices and the country began shipping so many panels to the U.S. that many of the panels sat unused in California warehouses until they became obsolete and eventually discarded. This, as one might suspect, had the unfortunate effect of driving solar panel prices to all-time lows, causing many manufacturers globally, even in China, to crash and burn.
China’s newest government plans fostered a dramatic purchasing of panels, establishing dominance in the global solar economy. In 2014, one-third of solar panels produced in China were installed locally. China has increased installations every year since, as shown in the chart below. In the first three months of 2017, the nation’s solar output increased by 80% to a whopping 21.4 billion kilowatt hours.
In 2016, China installed 34 new GW of solar energy, which was more than double the amount of installations in the U.S. and double the GW installed in China the year prior.
China has set forth fantastic energy plans, but challenges certainly exist. The nation’s power sector is crippled with overcapacity and slowing demand. Power generators are experiencing their lowest utilizations since 1978. Still, China’s floating solar facility exists as an example for the rest of the world, as urban planning and renewable energy sources become vital for the health and future of this planet. Progress has been made, and clean energy sources are increasingly making economic sense. Read more: Bloomberg published a bullish article on solar in January of this year, titled: “Solar Could Beat Coal to Become the Cheapest Power on Earth”.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s latest U.S. Energy and Employment Report, in the year 2016 – for the first time ever – the United States employed more people in solar power jobs (374,000 people, or 43% of the sector’s workforce) than in the coal, gas, and oil industries combined (22% of the sector’s workforce).