Material Solutions

Right polymers key to wider implementation of floating solar

By Janardhanan Ramanujalu, Vice-President and Regional Head, South Asia and ANZ, SABIC 

As one of the signatories to the Paris Climate Agreement, India has demonstrated its commitment to reducing carbon emissions by one-third by the year 2030. This has increased the focus on sustainable ways of growth as well as renewed the conversation around our existing practices. All of this is being done through concentrated efforts of the government and the industry to increase the use of renewable energy, especially tapping solar energy.

India enjoys a distinct advantage of abundance of sunlight. Leveraging this very advantage, our government has embarked on an ambitious journey of installing 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022. Out of the 175 GW, 100 GW will be contributed by solar power, underlining India’s potential for tapping solar energy. According to The Energy and Resources Institute, India’s reservoirs have 18,000 square km of area with a potential to generate 280 GW of solar power through floating solar photovoltaic (PV) plants. With advancements in the manufacturing sector and optimisation of material costs, India is also achieving one of the lowest investment costs for setting up floating solar projects. All of this is likely to encourage greater participation in the coming times.

Innovative solutions to address challenges

Harnessing solar energy is dependent on the availability of large tracts of land to achieve scale. In a highly populated country like India, land is a scarce and expensive commodity, its being prioritised for agriculture in rural areas and for housing in urban areas.

A resourceful solution to this challenge is to make full use of the abundant lakes and other waterbodies to house solar farms. Not only can floating solar farms occupy otherwise unused space, but they can also be more efficient than solar farms on land. Water helps to keep the panels cool and clean, thereby increasing the energy yield. Floating panels also help in reducing the evaporation of water. In addition, the system is easy to install and dismantle, and is also scalable from low to high power generation while requiring no heavy equipment.

Differentiated material enabling floating solar panels

While floating solar panels offer an advantage over solar plants installed on land, the challenge is to make them not just cost effective but also durable. Pontoons, the hollow units made of polyethylene or reinforced plastics, play a major role in the construction of the floating structure. Solar panels are attached to pontoons that float on water, and these are expected to be used over many years. To ensure durability, the material used for these structures needs to be non-toxic, and resistant to salt water and UV rays. It is also imperative that the structures are able to withstand high temperature variation, from -60 °C to 80 °C.

To increase the durability of these panels, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) is the most suitable material. SABIC has developed different solutions and materials that are well suited for use in the production of these crucial pontoons. These materials have shown high resistance to weathering, in line with international standards. On testing, the results showed the material’s environmental stress cracking resistance (ESCR) to be beyond 3,000 hours, outperforming the industry ESCR requirement of 1,000 hours. Furthermore, the material is highly creep-resistant, which means the parts will not stretch under constant stress and the pontoons will retain their integrity. SABIC has already partnered with customers in India to execute first such large-scale projects by providing advanced raw material.

A sustainable future

Going forward, more floating solar plants are likely to be deployed as India accelerates its renewable energy journey and looks for ways to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, slash carbon emissions and strengthen national climate resilience. Floating solar panels hold the key to cleaner energy and electricity access to people in rural areas, improving their overall quality of life.

The right polymers will be the key to unlocking the potential of floating solar plants and ensuring wider implementation in India. Constant innovation and timely adoption of new solutions and technologies will support India in achieving its solar energy goals and moving towards a more sustainable future.

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