Floating powerhouses: ideal solar farms for the world

"By mid-century, about a billion people in these countries will rely mostly on solar energy, which is causing the fastest energy change in history"
Amal Jos Chacko
A floating solar farm.jpg
A floating solar farm.


Vast arrays of solar panels floating on the tranquil waters near the Equator could revolutionize the energy landscape for densely populated nations in Southeast Asia and West Africa. 

Recent research published in the peer-reviewed journal Solar has revealed that these offshore solar arrays have the potential to generate an astonishing 35,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of solar energy annually in Indonesia alone, a figure comparable to the current global electricity production of 30,000 TWh per year.

Contrary to the common perception of tumultuous oceans and violent high seas, regions along the Equator enjoy relative calmness, making them ideal candidates for harnessing this immense solar potential

Even more promising is that the required engineering structures to shield these floating solar panels from any mild disturbances would be relatively inexpensive. The research highlights the Indonesian archipelago and the equatorial region of West Africa near Nigeria as ideal hotspots for offshore solar installations.

Solar-Powered Transition by 2050

With the world moving towards decarbonization and electrification, solar and wind energy are set to play pivotal roles in this transformative journey, according to researchers Andrew Blakers and David Silalahi of the Australian National University, in The Conversation

Solar power is scalable, with just 70 square kilometers of solar panels capable of meeting the energy demands of a million people in a zero-carbon economy. While this works well in many countries, a few nations like Nigeria and Indonesia face space constraints due to their dense populations.

However, the solution for them is floating right in front of them – and quite literally. 

These equatorial nations can tap into the virtually limitless energy potential of their calm seas, where traditional solar energy harvesting isn’t feasible due to limited land and poor wind conditions. 

Floating solar panels can also be positioned on inland lakes and reservoirs, a rapidly growing trend with significant potential. The findings from another recent research identify regions untouched by powerful waves or winds for the past four decades: areas that could potentially generate a whopping one million TWh of energy annually.

Floating powerhouses: ideal solar farms for the world
A figure displaying Wind QGIS output.

Indonesia and the future of offshore Solar

Indonesia stands at the forefront of this solar odyssey, grappling with a growing population and a need for clean energy. 

The country’s vast maritime area offers a prime opportunity for floating solar panels, utilizing approximately 140,000 square kilometers of calm waters untouched by significant waves or winds in the past four decades.

While the offshore floating solar industry is still in its infancy, it holds tremendous promise. Companies are working diligently to engineer defenses against storms, but the equatorial regions enjoy a natural advantage with benign maritime environments requiring less robust and expensive defenses. 

Despite challenges such as salt corrosion, marine fouling, and environmental concerns, the trajectory of offshore floating solar seems bright. This sustainable energy source is poised to play a significant role in the energy mix of countries blessed with calm equatorial waters. 

By the midpoint of this century, over a billion people in these regions could predominantly rely on solar energy, propelling the world's fastest transition to clean energy in our history.

Study Abstract

In this paper, we analyse 40 years of maximum wind speed and wave height data to identify potential sites for solar photovoltaic (PV) systems floating on seas and oceans. Maximum hourly wave height and wind speed data were segregated into 5 distinct categories. These categorisations were then combined at the nearest wind speed and wave height grid point for each sea location, generating a comprehensive wind–wave map via a geographic information system (GIS) visualisation. We find that regions around the equator are generally calm, i.e., free from strong winds and large waves. The most favourable locations are around the Indonesian archipelago, and the Gulf of Guinea on the west coast of tropical Africa. Our analysis indicates the huge potential of floating solar PV systems in calm tropical maritime regions, capable of generating about one million terawatt-hours per year in regions that rarely experience waves larger than 6 m or winds stronger than 15 m/s. This study furthers our understanding of alternative renewable energy options, emphasizing the promising potential of offshore floating solar PV systems in the global energy transition.

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