How to Reduce the Plastic Pollution of Floating Solar Systems?

How to Reduce the Plastic Pollution of Floating Solar Systems?

The benefits of floating solar solutions may reach 10 billion US dollars by 2030. How to reduce the plastic pollution?

Since the first solar power plant was built in the 1960s, solar panels have become a common sight in mountainous areas, deserts, and even rooftops. However, a new type of solar power plant has emerged on large water surfaces in the past decade.

These facilities are called floating solar systems, which are 10% to 15% more expensive than traditional power systems, but they have many advantages. They do not occupy any land. Their efficiency has increased by 16% because water helps them stay cool. Moreover, when installed on hydroelectric dams, they help limit evaporation and save more water for hydroelectric power generation.

Nevertheless, they still have an undisclosed secret: the panels are installed on thousands of floating modules (floating bodies) made of pure plastic.

This is not the case for a new floating solar system currently under construction and installation in Alqueva, southern Portugal. In the past, floating power plants worked like onshore solar power plants, but these solar modules were not installed on metal frames, but on hollow plastic floating bodies fixed to the bottom of lakes, dams, or reservoirs.

Usually, the floating bodies of these floating solar systems are made of pure plastic and require the use of natural gas or crude oil to produce. However, these solar modules are installed on thousands of floating bodies made of recycled plastic and cork in Alkwa. This composite material was developed by Amorim, a cork processing group that uses cork composites as thermal isolators for NASA aircraft. In Alkwa, it reduced the carbon emissions of the power plant by 30%.

In 2021, the global floating solar energy benefits are worth 2.5 billion US dollars. It is expected to exceed $10 billion by 2030. In 2020 alone, more than 300 floating solar power plants were built, all using pure HDPE plastic, which can be found in milk cans, detergents, and shampoo bottles. HDPE is very durable, lightweight, and difficult to absorb moisture. All of them make the perfect choice for materials that have been floating on water for decades. Yes, it can be recycled. However, the research shows that recycling cannot solve the problem of plastic pollution.

It is in this situation that the Alkwa project emerged. The floating solar power plant was developed by EDP, a Portuguese electricity company, which also built Portugal's first floating wind farm. The Alkwa project will be officially put into operation by the end of June, and EDP estimates that it will generate sufficient energy to supply 30% of households in the region, approximately 1,500 households. 12,000 solar panels cover an area equivalent to four football fields, making it the largest floating solar power plant on a dam in Europe.

All these solar modules are located on a floating new module, connected to each other like a puzzle. Like other floating power plants, these modules have a design life of at least 30 years. However, unlike other power plants, when they need to be replaced, natural gas or oil will not be used to produce new modules (provided, of course, they are replaced by another set of cork and recycled plastic).

According to Miguel Patena, director of the EDP Group responsible for solar power plants, this is the first time this material has been used in such applications. The exact formula is still a secret at present.

Considering that the United States has just started building the country's largest floating solar power plant in New Jersey, a more sustainable alternative to plastic floating debris cannot be introduced in the short term.