Floating energy: a new era of renewables

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As land becomes increasingly expensive and planning consent for large-scale renewable energy projects is more difficult to acquire, floating renewables projects, especially solar-powered ones, are on the rise worldwide. The global market for ‘floatovoltaics’ – floating solar panel installations – is expected to reach $2.7 billion by 2025.

Although floatovoltaics are not new, floating solar panel projects are now being installed all over the world on a massive scale. In 2016, a floating energy farm was installed on the Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir in Surrey, England. With more than 23,000 solar panels and the size of eight soccer fields, it is the largest floating solar installation in Europe. Coming in at twice that size is the floating solar project currently being installed on the Yamakura Dam reservoir in Japan. Once completed, the project’s more than 50,000 floating solar panels will generate enough electricity to power 5,000 homes.

In 2017, however, the rule book was rewritten when China switched on what is now the world’s largest floating renewable energy plant in the nation’s Anhui province. With a $45 million price tag, the giant installation of 120,000 solar panels covers an area equivalent to over 160 football fields and generates enough energy to power 15,000 homes.

Why floatovoltaics are rising to the top

One of the prime reasons for floatovoltaics’ worldwide popularity is their unique design, which addresses multiple efficiency and planning issues. These floating apparatuses are convenient to install in areas with limited land availability and, due to their small size, can be arrayed in unusual shapes. Additional benefits include reduced water evaporation and algae growth and increased solar cell performance.

“Solar projects operate more efficiently when the panels are cooled,” said Kyle Goehring, Director of JLL’s Clean Energy group. “Installing solar panels on the water can help with cooling, and therefore increase electric productivity,” explained Goehring.

Floating renewable projects extend beyond solar to include wind power as well. Last year the world’s first floating wind farm was built off the coast of Scotland. The project, known as Hywind Scotland, consists of five turbines that float roughly 18 miles off the coast, connected by long cables that carry electricity back to the shore. The floating turbines are held in place by anchors on the seabed, roughly 423 feet below.

Given that traditional offshore turbines typically operate in waters only up to 196 feet deep, the Hywind Scotland project illustrates the increased potential for floating technology.

“Floating technology will open up new opportunities and could ease some of the challenges associated with existing seabed-fixed development sites,” said Dominic Szanto, Director and Head of Offshore Wind, JLL Energy and Infrastructure.

“There are countries with water too deep for conventional offshore wind where floating technology provides significant advantages – such as off the coast of Japan, west coast of the U.S., and the Mediterranean,” Szanto added.

However, Goehring notes that floating renewables projects, whether wind or solar, will be adopted more slowly in the U.S.

“With an abundance of land and increasing locations looking to procure renewable energy, the opportunities for large ground-mounted solar fields are still plentiful in the U.S., unlike the U.K. and Japan,” said Goehring.

An ocean of possibilities

While government backing for renewables remains important for consumer and market confidence, the issues of energy use and decarbonisation remain priority topics within the property market. For real estate, floating energy installations could help to meet the higher energy demands of modern living without taking up scarce land resources.

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