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How floating solar panels could make make hydroelectric power more reliable

New research into a hybrid solar and hydroelectric system could give new opportunities for sustainable power generation

Floating solar panels combined with hydroelectric power could provide more reliable renewable electricity, according to new research.

Stanislas Merlet, a senior advisor at Norwegian engineering consultancy Multiconsult, is beginning a PhD study into how the two energy sources can work together.

Mr Merlet said: “It is a very exciting project that is right at the cutting-edge of worldwide research into future renewable energy systems.”


Benefits of floating solar panels

Initial estimates from the World Bank suggest the benefit of combining the two renewable energy technologies could produce trillions of watts (terawatts) in additional power.

This would be created as a result of utilising space more efficiently and increasing the reliability of the power supply.

Because solar panels rely on sunlight, and hydroelectric plants require rainwater or melted snow to refresh the water levels in the reservoir, the two energy sources can complement one another.

Floating solar panels
Floating solar panels could double the capacity of hydroelectric power plants (Credit: Multiconsult)

The World Bank’s 2019 report into floating solar panels concluded: “At some large hydropower plants, covering just 3% to 4% of the reservoir with floating solar could double the installed capacity, potentially allowing water resources to be more strategically managed by utilizing the solar output during the day.

“Additionally, combining the dispatch of solar and hydropower could be used to smooth the variability of the solar output, while making better use of existing transmission assets, and this could be particularly beneficial in countries where grids are weak.”

Mr Merlet claimed there is little industry knowledge about building and operating hybrid solar and hydroelectric power plants.

His research will look into the areas of design, operation and optimisation of the combined sustainable energy sources, with a particular focus on emerging renewable energy markets in South-East Asia and Africa.


Global use of solar panels

Solar panels only account for 1.7% of global electricity production, but it is one of the fastest growing sources of renewable energy with its share doubling in the space of three years.

Mr Merlet added: “The cost of solar power equipment has fallen dramatically in recent years.

“As a result, solar power is now one of the world’s cheapest energy sources, capable of competing with conventional technology like coal and gas in many places, while hydropower has the potential to act as a battery for solar power.”

It is hoped that the introduction of floating solar panels will reduce the demand for land that is preventing wider adoption of the renewable electricity source.

Ole-Morten Midtgård, co-supervisor for the research project at Norwegian University of Science and Technology,  in Trondheim, said: “Solar power has the potential to produce a large part of the world’s needs for electricity, but it takes hold of large areas.

“This is controversial in many places, but the ingenuity of using hydropower reservoirs for solar power is that these areas are already occupied.

“Mr Merlet’s research will be very exciting, and will merge green, digital and innovative market solutions.”

Jörgen Hasselström, executive vice-president for energy at Multiconsult, added: “For Multiconsult, it is crucial to be in the front in terms of competences, and this research project is truly innovative and exciting.

“I am very pleased that Stanislas can further develop his knowledge within renewable energy, while Multiconsult receives insight and expertise in a highly future-oriented and sustainable area.”