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Engineers reveal genius 'floating' solar panels that could provide power for billions of people: '[They] will be sorely needed'

Though solar energy is more popular than ever, it can be tricky to find open space for solar panels.

Floating solar panels

Photo Credit: ICEDS ANU

Though solar energy is more popular than ever, it can be tricky to find open space for solar panels. In a recent paper, engineering professors at the Australian National University present a creative solution: Instead of building solar panels on land, they suggest placing floating solar panels in calm equatorial waters.

The researchers noted that waters surrounding Indonesia and equatorial west Africa rarely see waves higher than 20 feet or experience winds stronger than 50 feet per second (about 34 miles per hour). Because these waters are relatively calm, floating solar panels in these areas wouldn't require costly defenses against storms, Electrek reported.

If implemented, the authors calculate floating solar panels in equatorial waters could generate up to 1 million terawatt-hours per year. For reference, "that's about five times more annual energy than is needed for a fully decarbonized global economy supporting 10 billion affluent people," the researchers wrote for The Conversation.

In the waters surrounding Indonesia alone, there are "about 140,000 square kilometers [about 54,054 square miles] of seascape that has not experienced waves larger than 4 meters [about 13 feet] — nor winds stronger than 10 meters per second [about 22 miles per hour] — in the past 40 years," the team said.

The proposal requires a number of considerations. As global temperatures rise, wind and wave patterns are changing, possibly eventually disrupting the calm waters at the equator. 

Developers would also have to be mindful of nearby marine life. 

"Solar panels for land-based installation are made mostly of silicon and aluminum, but since aluminum would break down quickly in the marine environment, there would have to be specialized panels designed to operate there," one person pointed out in the comment section of an Electrek article. "We wouldn't want these panels to become ocean pollution like fishing/aquaculture debris."

Nonetheless, if even a fraction of the waters identified by the paper are used for solar energy, it could generate an incredible amount of sustainable electricity.

"Every reservoir in the world should have floating solar to do two things — produce power and reduce evaporation which will be sorely needed as temperatures continue to rise," another commenter said.

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