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The sea’s the limit for solar

Land-scarce coastal cities such as Singapore may soon be looking to the sea for their solar energy supply.

Global technology consulting and certification firm DNV unveiled a new floating solar array concept at the recent Singapore International Energy Week with an invitation to companies to develop the idea.

Called SUNdy, the concept consists of floating islands – each containing 4,200 solar panels that together generate 2 megawatts (MW) of power – connected into a network capable of providing at least 50 MW of electricity for about 30,000 people.

The solar islands, which are about the size of a football stadium, would come with flexible solar panels that are prewired to minimize installation. DNV designers used a spider web design to create a flexible but strong platform that could withstand ocean movement and send electricity to shore through underwater cables.

Off-shore solar is not appropriate for every location – it is best in calm waters of between 20 to 100 metres within five miles of the shore – but it would be good for many densely populated Southeast Asian cities near the coast, said DNV KEMA’s global director of renewable energy services Kevin Smith at the unveiling.

DNV KEMA is a DNV subsidiary covering energy and sustainability-related industries.

SUNdy would also be useful as a disaster relief tool because it could be installed quickly, added Mr Smith.

He noted that DNV chose thin film solar technology – as opposed to the more widely used rigid crystalline solar panels - for the project for its flexibility and because of expected cost reductions.

Thin film solar is cheaper to produce than crystalline solar, but is still less efficient despite recent improvements.

The entire project installed at current prices would cost about US$4.40 per watt, but could go down to $2.50 to $3 per watt based on solar industry predictions, said Mr Smith.

Managing director of DNV’s Clean Technology Centre in Singapore, Dr Sanjay Kuttan, told Eco-Business on the sidelines of the event that they were assembling a business coalition to develop the concept.

The firm already has expressions of interest from solar farm developers and infrastructure companies, although DNV could not yet divulge names, he added.

By keeping the technology openly sourced – meaning no intellectual property (IP) rights are associated with it – DNV hopes to avoid “wasting time on lawyers” and create a prototype in as little as 12 to 18 months, said Dr Kuttan. He explained that participating companies would sign an agreement, under which investors could own the IP at a later stage if they chose.

The idea of floating solar arrays is not new.

Singapore’s Economic Development Board announced last year that it would build an S$11 million 2MW system on one of its fresh water reservoirs. And other inland projects have been installed in reservoirs and industrial holding ponds in places like the United States and France.

For marine applications, last year United Kingdom-based inventor Phil Pauley launched his idea for a floating hybrid solar-wave technology – called Marine Solar Cells – that captures energy from both ocean movement and the sun.

However, coming up with the concept for off-shore solar innovations is only the first step, said DNV’s Dr Kuttan.

“We are issuing an invitation to the industry to get this idea to reality,” he added.

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