Exclusive Interview: How leveraging Data Analysis techniques are enabling players advance FPV Designs

Floating Photovoltaics (FPV) is a fast-emerging niche application of solar energy. On the face of it, these systems might seem simple to install as all one needs to do place panels on water and somehow float them. However, there are many design iterations that go on in the background to ensure that the maximum output can be squeezed out of the project. Carrying out an early thorough data analysis of the site is one such major task that is of high importance. 

Glint Solar is one such company that is working on delivering high-quality data to its clients. Glint Solar provides floating solar developers with both a site identification tool and pre-feasibility analyses to optimize planning and installation and reduce project risks. Based in Norway, they have created a leading analysis tool for floating solar installations and deliver reliable data using satellite data and machine learning algorithms. We had the pleasure of interviewing Even Kvelland, the Co-Founder COO of Glint Solar to get some insights on the adoption of FPV. 

SE: What are the benefits of floating solar? 

EK: Floating solar offers several benefits compared to land-based solar. By virtue of being placed on a body of water, the installation doesn’t take up precious land. Floating solar has so far grown the most in Asia Pacific, largely as a consequence of the region’s high population. These installations can be advantageous even in less densely populated areas as it does not compete with agriculture land, and does not need deforested lands or contribute to additional environmental damage. Often you can also find suitable water bodies closer to the end user than the ground-based generation assets. Depending on the site and local environment, a floating solar installation may also reduce algae growth which can be problematic on water reservoirs. It may also lead to a reduction in water evaporation, and installation and deployment may be quicker than land-based solar.

SE: How much added yield can FPV actually give as compared to land-based solar?

EK: How much added yield FPV can give broadly depends on two factors: the particular site’s environmental characteristics and the type of floating solution used. In regions where the water stays cold relative to the air temperature, there is the potential for increased yield benefit. Yield models like the one we use in Glint Solar also take the water temperature into effect, which is crucial to truly understand a potential yield increase. As for the specific floating technologies, the closer the panels are to the water surface the bigger the cooling effect is, resulting in a higher yield. While virtually all suppliers of floating solutions boast 5-10% yield increase compared to land-based solar, we believe this may not always be the case. In a back of the envelope kind of way, one can assess the vertical distance between the water surface and the panel among different providers as an indication of how great the potential water-cooling effect might be. 

Fig 1: SWOT illustration of FPV
Fig 1: SWOT illustration of FPV

SE: What is the status of floating solar technology as a commercial product? Can it be deployed in saltwater regions & offshore open sea areas (high waves)?

EK: We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the deployment of floating solar in the past few years. It has moved from a niche to a strong contender to become the so-called third pillar of solar along with utility scale and rooftop solar. It’s still only a fracture of the world’s total installed solar capacity, but it’s growing fast. It took land-based solar 11 years to go from 100MW to 2GW global installed capacity, whereas the same growth took floating solar only 3 years. There are of course many factors playing in here, but the growth is undeniable fast and more and more developers are becoming aware of the immense opportunities with floating solar. Also the technology risk is decreasing as more and more projects are being completed and are gaining some tenure. 

As for saltwater application, we believe this is coming but it has so far been limited to a handful of projects globally. The most obvious application areas are coves and inlets that are protected from the rough sea as well as diesel-powered islands in calm waters. Truly offshore application, for instance in hybridization with offshore wind, may also come in the future, but this is likely further down the road. Solution providers like Moss Maritime with Equinor are working on robust floaters that perhaps could be deployed offshore.

SE: Considering the benefits it can offer when combined with hydropower plants, why is the adoption of this technology slower as compared to land based installations?

EK: If you look at the rate of installment after reaching a total capacity of 100MW, floating solar has moved much faster than ground-mount solar in relative terms. We must not forget that it’s really only in the last 10+ years that conventional (i.e. land-based) solar PV has taken off. By 2008 the global installed PV capacity was less than 14 GW, led by Germany (5.3 GW), Spain (3.4 GW) and Japan (2.1 GW). The US had in 2008 only installed 1.1 GW. These days single projects can be more than 1 GW. A s such, I would not view floating solar as a laggard, but rather a natural extension of a fast-growing and increasingly diversified solar market.

The benefits of hybridizing with hydropower are obvious and this will be a subset of floating solar that in the years to come will grow quickly. Hydropower is in many regions facing social and environmental constraints, making building out new assets difficult. The water body is there, so is much of the electrical infrastructure and perhaps even regulatory approvals. Adding floating solar on top is a no-brainer as you can also expand the offering of ancillary services and hedge against seasonal variations. Yet there are also challenges related to this hybridization, for instance with anchoring and mooring on very deep reservoirs or on those with significant water level fluctuations.       

SE: Referring to the previous question, what are the slowing factors for FPV projects and how is Glint Solar working on tackling these issues

EK: Two things: First, there is still a perceived risk about putting solar panels on water. This will be gone in a few years. But just as the cost is coming down, moving along the so-called experience curve, so is the technical risk. The more projects come online, the lower the (perceived) risk, the higher the adoption rate, in a virtuous cycle. Of course, there have been accidents at floating solar plants which could alter the risk aspect and this is one aspect we’re addressing by providing up to 40 years of geo-spatial data for the particular site so you can make a very informed decision about a particular site’s suitability from an environmental-technical point of view.  

Second, not really a showstopper but a potential bottleneck in building out new floating solar plants is identifying the best suited sites. We have seen that this process often is done in a slow, manual fashion that involves a combination of Google Earth, simple GIS data and local know-how. We thought there must be a better way to find and analyze the best project sites, which is why we created Glint Solar where we scan a large region like a state or province and assess thousands of potential sites to help developers quickly find the ones with the best potential profit margins. We think this is quite revolutionary in the way we go about this.

SE:What kind of data is analyzed and how does this analysis help your customers?

EK: We use a lot of geo-spatial data in identifying the lakes in a given region. We assess factors such as irradiation, wind, temperature, distance to the grid, cadastre in addition to other social, environmental and technical parameters. In essence, we’re tackling a very complex optimization problem: think about the manual task of trying to find 20,000 lakes and running a multi-variable analysis on all of these to identify the best ones. The value to the customers is gaining the edge in sourcing and analyzing the best potential lakes, reducing the risk by front-loading the project with more data and the ability to source projects in a proactive fashion, allowing them to grow and build new projects faster.  

Fig 2: Site Identification process done by Glint Solar
Fig 2: Site Identification process done by Glint Solar

SE: Where do you see the floating solar market growing the most in the coming years?

EK: We’ve seen the vast majority of projects so far in the Asia Pacific. I believe a lot of the growth will still come from this region and in Southeast Asia. For instance, South Korea has an impressive pipeline of projects, including the 2.1 GW Saemangeum project. Moreover, the rest of the world is catching on and we’ll see European and American markets mature in the coming years. The Netherlands is one example of a market that is growing quickly and is estimated by Wood Mackenzie to have more than 300 MW by 2024. Given President Biden’s both ambitious climate goals and massive stimulus packages and general investor appetite, I believe we’ll also see the US market grow from just a handful of small projects today to a large floating solar market. So very exciting times ahead for what we call the floating solar revolution!



Photo: @Solar_Edition


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