China Is Now Powered by the World's Largest Floating Solar Power Plant

Interesting Engineering

The largest floating solar power plant in the world is now officially in operation.

Sungrow, the global leading photovoltaic (PV) inverter system supplier, announced the world's largest floating PV power plant is supplying 40MW of power to the grid in Huainan, China.

China Is Now Powered by the World's Largest Floating Solar Power Plant

[Image Source: Sungrow via PR Newswire]

The plant was constructed near a mining area that is constantly flooded due to rainy weather. The depth of the water ranged between 4 to 10 meters in Huainan, a coal-rich city in south Anhui province. The mining which takes place on the land nearby leeches a substantial amount of minerals into the water, making the reservoir valueless. However, the area is now repurposed with the world's largest floating solar power plant. 

"The plant not only makes full use of this area, reducing the demand for lands, but also improves generation due to the cooling effects of the surface," explains a local government professional.

The massive solar plant is offered as a turn-key operation as part of Sungrow's recent developments. The company lowers the cost of installation and reduces assembly times by shipping the solar panels in 20-foot segments. The panels then only need to be connected to the central inverter SG2500-MV.

The panels sit atop a floating container that serves as both a foundation for the panels and a platform for technicians and engineers to walk along. The plant works exactly as a typical solar farm, only that this one floats on water.

The system is specifically designed to work in environments of high humidity and salt spray.

"Introducing cutting-edge technologies to products is what we are always committed to. We continue to offer better products and solutions to customers all over the world," said Professor Renxian Cao, president of Sungrow.

Benefits of Floating Solar Panels

Floating solar panels are a relatively new addition to the field of power generation. The floating plants, however, come with a large array of benefits over traditional systems.

In densely populated areas around the world, a significant portion of the land is used for housing and business. Any other open land is typically used to support farms. Solar farms, however, require large areas of land in close proximity to the area that the electricity is to be transported. Floating solar panels allow plants to be installed in areas that are unsuitable for future development- i.e. on large rivers, lakes, or oceans.

The plants also retain the ability to be placed in closer proximity to cities. With less of a distance for the electricity to travel, less will be lost during transmission. The plants are also easy to work on and do not require significant foundation development. Increasing the size of the plant is also as easy as shipping in a new array of solar panels and connecting them to the floating plant.

In emergency situations, the plants can also be towed around to provide emergency services in areas that are without power for prolonged periods of time- a situation typical of coastal regions. The plants also have the ability to twist and bend allowing the system to ride waves without becoming damaged. However, at the moment it remains unknown how such a facility would fair against the oceans' worst weather.

Though perhaps the largest benefit of the program is the new motion to provide a means of clean technology to power some parts of the world.

China's Growing Pollution Problem

As World Health Organization states, China is the most populated nation in the world. Also, it is no surprise that China’s economy is growing rapidly averaging an annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of 10% over the past two decades. Nonetheless, China’s economic prosperity did not come without a toll.

China Is Now Powered by the World's Largest Floating Solar Power Plant

Smog overcasting Chinese city [Image Source: Erhard Renz via Flickr]

The economic growth has allowed hundreds of millions of people to rise out of poverty. Then again, the rise has put a heavy burden on the ecosystem in which they coexist. Significant problems are occurring more repetitively at an alarming rate. Many people are now left with undrinkable water, contaminated food, and toxic air.

Lately, air pollution, desertification, water shortage, and pollution, as well as smog remain as the most significant problems China faces in the 21st century. Smog levels in China are reaching record highs, far exceeding the recommended levels indicated by WHO. In China, an estimated 1.1 million people a year are killed because of air pollution.

Three years ago, Premier Li Keqiang declared war on air pollution in China at the Communist Party’s annual congress. Since then, Chinese authorities are advising the mass to cut down on emissions. The government is also ensuring factories reduce production or face getting shut down. Also, in March, the national government proclaimed the termination or cancellation of 103 coal-fired power plants.

Leading the Future with Renewables

Despite the challenges China Faces, new systems are being adopted to reduce the pollution disaster. The Chinese government is now overseeing a major overhaul to replace their fossil fueled cars with electric counterparts. However, China’s major project to cut down on pollution problems revolves around renewable energy sources.

As a country facing land scarcity issues with a growing population density, coastal regions in China have very few options when it comes to generating renewable energy. But with a large portion of the land receiving sunshine for a majority of the year, the country has recognized solar energy as the most capable type of renewable energy for its requirements. 

The project is similar to that of the previous record-holder of the world's largest floating solar plant, located at Tengeh Reservoir in Tuas. Though, the plant's predominant purpose was experimentation by exploring the viability of constructing a floating solar plant on top of a body of water.

Water causes problems

The US $11 million floating solar plant pilot project in Singapore is being used to study the performance and cost efficiency of the floating solar systems. The floating system is being equated alongside a 20-kilowatt peak roof-top system that is also located in the vicinity of the Tengeh Reservoir. The trial is also addressing the impact floating solar panels have on the environment that lives beneath. However, a larger challenge still had to be faced.

China Is Now Powered by the World's Largest Floating Solar Power Plant

[Image Source: Anthony via Flickr]

Maintaining solar panels on water raises another challenge- rust. The constant presence of water demands a system that is waterproof. Every cable and electronic component must be made to float and resist any seepage. A power shortage involving the open water could prove to be fatal to all life in the surrounding area.

Although, the water creates an effect that cools the panels down, increasing their efficiency. As water strikes the surface of the water, it causes evaporation. The evaporating water pulls energy from the solar system, effectively cooling it down.

Floating Solar Power Plants

Currently, there are a few floating solar plants around the world. The plants are working and are generating electricity. However, the project's true value will not be known for many years to come.

One of the most important features of a power generation facility is its ability to return on the investment (ROI). Only in recent years were solar panels made sufficient enough for non-commercial use. Before, solar panels were only profitable as large scale systems.

Similarly, to be an effective system, the floating solar plant must be able to pay itself off in its usable life. The cost includes staffing, maintenance, and repairs.

The floating plant must remain functional for many years to return its investment. With the added cost of modifying the panels to withstand water conditions, the panels will take more time to pay off than a traditional farm. To make the same amount of profit, the plant will have to last much longer than traditional systems. However, the question of viability will not be answered until the plant stands the test of time.

Though, the idea remains a fantastic solution. In a world where land is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity, it makes sense to take to the seas for space.

Perhaps, with some more modifications, the floating plant could be made to function as part of a wave or tidal system. Hybridizing the array would compound the means of energy production giving more energy per area.

The technology is currently undergoing full-scale implementation. Floating solar plants offer a unique solution to a complex problem. Although, the viability of such a technique is yet to be proven. Though perhaps with a bit of luck, the future will be lit by the sea.