The floating solar panels that track the Sun

In the search to find space for large solar arrays, many countries are looking to floating systems. Now the Netherlands is taking this one step further, with water-based arrays that follow the Sun.

On a lake in the Netherlands, a shiny circular island floats, covered in dozens of shimmering solar panels.

But this is no normal solar array, nor even simply one of the many new floating solar farms being installed in lakes, reservoirs and coastal areas across the world. That’s because its panels are doing something none of these other floating solar farms can do: meticulously tracking and following the Sun as it moves across the sky, to catch as many rays as possible.

This glistening installation, named Proteus after the ancient Greek sea god, is among the first to combine floating solar panels with Sun-tracking technology – all in an effort to maximise the amount of clean electricity it can produce.

The island, floating in Oostvoornse Meer, a lake in the south-west Netherlands, is covered in 180 of these moving solar panels, with a total installed capacity of 73 kilowatt of peak power (kWp). It’s a tiny amount in a world rapidly trying to switch to renewable energy, but SolarisFloat, the Portuguese company which built Proteus, believes this small installation could be scaled up to generate large amounts of clean electricity – and, crucially, without taking up valuable land.


Solar revolution

From the Brazilian Amazon to Japan, floating solar panels are experiencing a boom around the world. Floating solar capacity has grown hugely in the past decade, from 70 MWp in 2015 to 1,300MWp in 2020. The market for the technology is expected to grow by 43% a year over the next decade, reaching $24.5bn (£21.7bn) by 2031.

“Floating solar is a rather new [renewable energy] option, but it has huge potential globally,” says Thomas Reindl, deputy chief executive of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (Seris). Covering just 10% of all man-made reservoirs in the world with floating solar would result in an installed capacity of 20 Terawatts (TW) – 20 times more than the global solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity today, according to an analysis by Seris seen by BBC Future Planet.

The rise of floating solar technology is among the latest trends in the revolutionary expansion of solar PV electricity in recent years. Globally, solar PV capacity has increased almost 12-fold in the past decade, from 72GW in 2011 to 843GW in 2021. The technology now accounts for 3.6% of global electricity generation, up from 0.03% in 2006. At the same time, solar arrays have seen an astonishing price drop which has made them the world’s cheapest source of power.

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