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Chasing the sun: Dutch floating solar farm tracks sun’s rays to absorb more energy

Solaris Float - Protevs Island
Solaris Float - Protevs Island   -   Copyright  Solaris Float
By Joshua Askew

An innovative floating solar farm in the Netherlands is soaking up the rays.

Proteus, developed by the Portuguese company Solaris Float, is a circular island of solar panels that bobs on top of water, generating renewable energy.

The prototype power source can be installed on lakes, reservoirs and in coastal areas, potentially solving many issues plaguing solar technology.

Floating solar farms have been on the scene since 2008. 

But Proteus does something none of its competitors can do.

Its solar panels can meticulously track the sun as it passes through the sky, maximising energy yield.

Earlier this year, the slick, silver installation was selected as a finalist for the European Inventor Award.

What are floating solar farms capable of?

Named after a Greek sea god who predicts the future, Proteus is a 38-metre-wide circular solar farm, fitted with 180 double-sided panels.

It sits on the Oostvoornse Meer, a lake in the southwest Netherlands.

Solaris Float
Solaris FloatSolaris Float

On sunny days, the island can produce around 73 kilowatts of power. 

But, thanks to its two-axis solar panels and unique sun-chasing technology, it can generate 40 per cent more energy than non-moving panels on land.

Other benefits of the design are that water cooling improves power generation, plus it avoids taking up precious land, ideal for small densely populated places like the Netherlands and Japan.

Conventional solar farms are often criticised for the amount of land they occupy.

One study from Leiden University in the Netherlands estimated that solar farms need around 40-50 times the area of coal plants, and 90-100 times the land needed by gas providers.

Placing solar panels on water can help address these space issues, alongside concerns by conservationists that building solar and wind farms on land threatens habitats.

What are the challenges of developing floating solar farms?

But floating solar farms do face some obstacles.

The environment they’re in is crucial. Especially if installed on corrosive salt water, they need to be more durable compared to their land-based counterparts.

This can increase production and installation costs, alongside needing maintenance.

Solaris Float
It chases the sun like a flowerSolaris Float

Thermoplastic materials developed by Proteus prevent early ageing and keep the impact of weather at bay, say its developers.

Floating solar farms also need to be installed in areas with weaker tides and better weather, confining their roll out to certain areas.

Again researchers are continuing to develop the technology, improving its resilience and efficiency year on year.

Where else are there floating solar farms?

Still, the potential of floating solar is great.

In a good location and normal conditions, seven Proteus islands covering an area of 15,000m2 could generate up to 2GW a year, enough to power 1.5 million homes.

From Japan to the United States, technology is booming in all corners of the world.

In a first-of-kind report, the World Bank found that floating solar had grown exponentially.

At the end of 2014, total global installed capacity stood at 10 megawatts (MW). That figure had grown more than 100-fold, to 1.1 GW, as of September 2018. 

One particularly promising area, according to the World Bank, is Asia, where interest in the technology is growing rapidly.

This growth trajectory looks set to continue.

The World Bank report put the potential energy generation of floating solar at 400 GW a year, even under “conservative” assumptions.

One GW is enough to power 750,000 US homes, meaning this tech could provide energy for hundreds of millions of people.

Despite its “challenges, floating solar offers significant opportunities for the global expansion of solar energy capacity,” concludes the World Bank in a statement.