Floating solar power: A sustainable energy solution for Africa

Floating solar. Credit: Politecnico di Milano

A groundbreaking study published in Nature Energy has revealed that floating solar panels on Africa’s large reservoirs could potentially meet the same electricity needs as all planned hydropower dams on the continent.

These floating photovoltaic systems (FPVs) are not only cost-effective but also minimize environmental and social issues associated with large dam projects.

The research, conducted by a team of scientists using sophisticated energy planning tools, examined the entire African energy landscape.

They found that floating solar technology could generate between 20% and 100% of the electricity expected from the new dams planned across Africa.

This makes FPVs an appealing alternative for meeting future energy demands sustainably.

Wyatt Arnold, the study’s lead author, highlighted that floating solar has become as affordable as traditional land-based solar installations.

By adopting FPVs, Africa could avoid the environmental damage and community displacement often caused by constructing new dams.

The team focused on the Zambezi river basin as a detailed case study. They proposed that instead of investing heavily in new dams, funds could be better utilized by enhancing existing reservoirs with floating solar panels.

This strategy would not only reduce the variability of electricity supply—which can fluctuate greatly with hydroelectric power due to seasonal changes—but also provide a more reliable energy source in the face of potential long-term droughts exacerbated by climate change.

Professor Andrea Castelletti stated that floating solar could help African countries achieve a more stable and dependable energy supply.

Unlike damming rivers, which can harm river ecosystems and local communities, FPVs are less invasive and do not interfere significantly with water bodies.

The study underscores the necessity of integrated resource planning, which considers the combined effects of energy projects on the environment, agriculture, and regional economies, especially in areas shared by multiple countries.

Advanced models used in the study helped highlight the benefits of combining different types of energy generation to meet various goals effectively.

Professor Matteo Giuliani emphasized that while floating solar systems could affect reservoir-based activities like fishing or recreation, these impacts are minor compared to the potential environmental and social disruptions caused by new dams.

He also pointed out that ongoing improvements in FPV technology and careful planning are essential for maximizing the benefits of this renewable energy source.

In conclusion, floating solar panels offer a promising, less disruptive path for generating power in Africa, aligning with sustainable development goals while reducing dependency on environmentally harmful hydropower projects.