Putting Solar Panels Over Canals Makes Sense In India

  • Published on January 29th, 2017

India is one of the most densely populated nations on earth. In fact, its population density is three times greater than neighboring China. India’s expanding economy means that it will need three times as much electrical energy in 2030 as it has available today as the country seeks to meet the needs of the 300 million Indian people who lack access to reliable electricity. Solar panels may provide the answer, but where to put them in a country where land is scarce?

Rooftop solar panels

India has traditionally relied on coal to generate electricity. In fact, today in India, coal is used to supply 75% of the nation’s electricity. The government recognizes that providing access to electricity will help the economy to expand but it also realizes that increasing the number of coal fired generating plants will be detrimental to the environment and the health of the people. It is strongly promoting the use of solar and wind power as well as the burning of biofuels to generate electricity.

But there is a problem. Solar farms need to cover large areas of land, yet open land in India is in scarce supply. What to do? The government has come up with a novel idea that may work. The state of Gujurat has over 50,000 miles of irrigation canals. Why not install solar panels over those canals and along their banks? Doing so would have several advantages. Floating solar farms are already in place in Singapore and Japan.

First, there would be no cost for land acquisition and no people would be dispossessed from the land where they currently live. Second, covering just 30% of the canals in Gujurat would produce 180 gigawatts of power — equivalent to the total output from coal fired plants in Delhi, Rajasthan and Telangana. That also equates to one fifth of the country’s total goal for solar power. If the same solar farms were erected on the land, 90,000 acres would be required.

Third, studies show that solar panels installed over water suffer almost no decrease in efficiency over time, whereas panels installed on the land typically lose about 1% efficiency every year. Being cooled by the water below also increase solar panel efficiency by up to 5%.

But that’s not all. Creating solar power and using it locally can eliminate transmission loses. “Not only do they perform more efficiently (when installed over water), but because we can assume that the generated electricity is utilized in nearby areas, the transmission losses of (normally) 4 per cent and distribution losses of 3 per cent are avoided,” said Sagarkumar Agravat, head of Gujarat Energy Research and Management Institute.

And we’re not done yet. Building solar farms creates much needed jobs, something the Trump administration seems to blissfully unaware of. Building solar farms could add 600,000 jobs to the local economy. Need more? Water is becoming scarce in many parts of the world, especially in India. Solar panels built over irrigation canals would dramatically reduce evaporation, meaning there would be more water available for crops and people.

With so many advantages, it is little wonder the idea of building solar farms that span irrigation canals is gaining an enthusiastic following. And that’s before considering the millions of tons of carbon emissions that will be avoided by choosing solar power over energy from coal. All of this is made possible by the rapid drop in solar panel purchase and installation costs. India expects solar energy will be price competitive with coal power without subsidies and incentives by 2022, but many experts believe that price parity could occur much sooner, perhaps as early as 2018.

For all those reasons, the future of solar power in India is sunny indeed.

Source: India Times

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writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.