In 2000, a mere 32 percent of the population of Bangladesh had access to electricity, according to the World Bank. Fast forward to 2022, Bangladesh achieved a momentous milestone by bringing 100% of the population under electricity coverage.
Though the numbers looked impressive, recent power cuts have painted a bleak picture by highlighting the country’s energy challenges. The ongoing global supply chain disruptions that stemmed from the Russia-Ukraine war, combined with the devaluation of the Bangladeshi Taka against the US Dollar, led to a dire fuel crisis in the country. In light of the situation, experts have once again raised questions about the country’s electricity sources.
While achieving 100 percent access to electricity is certainly commendable, the country’s over-reliance on non-renewable energy sources such as natural gas, coal, and oil raises concerns. These sources are finite, expensive, and import-dependent — leaving Bangladesh susceptible to global price fluctuations. They are neither environmentally sound, which casts a shadow over the country’s greenhouse gas reduction efforts.
As a result, experts are advocating for cost-effective, self-sufficient, and eco-friendly energy sources for the future. A relatively new yet promising innovation in the renewable solar sector, namely, the floating solar farm, is gaining experts’ attention as a potential solution to the country’s fuel crisis.
What is floating solar?
Floating solar, formally known as a floating photovoltaic system (FPV) or floatovoltaic, is a type of solar panel installation where panels are placed on the surface of water bodies. This approach differs from traditional solar panel installations, as FPV systems can be installed on lakes, reservoirs, dams, and ponds rather than being mounted on roofs or open spaces.
Floating solar farms can generate vast amounts of electricity without using valuable land. A study published in the journal Nature highlights the potential of this technology, noting that covering only 10 percent of the world’s hydropower reservoirs with floating solar panels could produce as much electricity as is currently produced by all the world’s fossil fuel power plants — amounting to approximately 4,000 gigawatts.
The global market for floating solar panels has grown exponentially, with an estimated market size of USD 2.5 billion in 2021. It is projected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.5% from 2022 to 2030, reaching USD 10 billion by 2030, per a report by Precedence Research.
The number of floating solar farms being constructed worldwide is increasing rapidly, with Asia emerging as a particularly popular region for such installations. In 2021, the Asia Pacific region generated 73.27% of the global revenue in the floating solar panels industry. Japan made history by pioneering installing a floating solar power plant in Chiba in 2006. And 15 years later, the world witnessed the launch of the biggest floating solar power farm in Singapore. Comprising 145,000 panels and generating 60 megawatts, this massive farm covers an area equivalent to 45 football pitches and powers five water treatment plants.
China’s Dezhou Dingzhuang project outdid this achievement within three months by unveiling an even more impressive farm that can produce 320 megawatts of electricity — which still holds the title of the world’s biggest floating solar farm. However, this record may soon be broken, too, as India gears up to launch a 600-megawatt-peak floating solar energy plant at the Omkareshwar Dam in Madhya Pradesh.
The largest floating solar project in the United States is located in California, known as the Healdsburg Floating Solar Farm. It comprises 11,600 solar panels and can generate 4.8 megawatts of electricity, enough to fulfill 8 percent of the electricity requirements of Healdsburg.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany and other European countries also started bolstering their efforts to adopt renewable energy sources to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Portugal is home to Europe’s biggest floating solar farm, which floats on the continent’s biggest artificial lake — the Alqueva reservoir. This solar farm comprises 12,000 solar panels and supplies approximately one-third of the power neighboring towns require.
In Bangladesh, slowly but steadily
Bangladesh boasts one of the world’s largest domestic solar power systems, providing electricity to approximately 14 percent of the population. According to Nasrul Hamid, the State Minister for Power, Energy, and Mineral Resources, over 20 million people in rural areas of the country have been brought under electricity coverage through installing over six million solar home systems. This progress aligns with the country’s ongoing efforts to increase the share of renewable energy sources in its overall energy mix.
In 2019, the Power Cell, Bangladesh’s regulatory agency under the Ministry of Power, Energy, and Mineral Resources, proposed a project to The Asian Development Bank (ADB) for a loan to construct a 50-megawatt floating power plant on the Kaptai Hydroelectric Project Lake. Regrettably, ADB declined to fund the project due to its potential negative social and environmental impacts.
Nonetheless, the same year, a local company named Solar EPC Development Ltd. accomplished a significant feat by installing a 10-kilowatt floating solar farm for the first time in Bangladesh at the water treatment site in the Mongla port municipality under the Bagerhat district.
In addition to the floating solar power plant at Mongla port, Bangladesh has several other floating solar projects in the planning stages. Per a 2021 report published in the Financial Express, Solar EPC Development Ltd. Has inked a power purchase agreement with Khulna City Corporation to build a 1.0-megawatt grid-tied floating solar power plant in Shaheed Hadis Park Lake. The same source reported that ADB had identified three suitable locations for installing floating solar farms in Bangladesh that can generate 61-megawatt electricity.
The Barapukuria pit lakes in Dinajpur have been identified as a potential site for hosting a 45.9-megawatt plant, while Jhenidah’s Joydia Baor (lake) and Jashore’s Bukbhara Baor (lake) have been deemed suitable for 9.1-megawatt and 6.0-megawatt plants, respectively. Many local and international companies are already seeking state approval to install floating solar farms in these identified sites.
Solar panels have long been touted as the most practical green solution to energy problems. Then why make them float? The answer lies in the fact that floating solar farms have the potential to solve several of the issues plaguing conventional solar energy.
Conventional solar farms often face criticism for the significant amount of land they occupy. Ground-mounted photovoltaic systems require an average of 200 square feet per megawatt hour of capacity, at least 40-50 times more than coal plants and 90-100 times more than gas plants.
In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, where there is intense competition for land for agriculture and housing, finding suitable space for large-scale solar plants is rather difficult, if not impossible. Hence, the floating solar panel is the answer here.
In addition to providing a solution to land scarcity, floating solar farms also address another challenge associated with conventional solar farms. The efficiency of solar panels decreases when they become too hot, leading to a decrease in voltage and electricity generation. However, the proximity to water in floating solar farms helps the panels operate more efficiently, increasing electricity production by up to 15 percent. This advantage stems from the cooling effect of water on the panels, which helps maintain their temperature and, in turn, their efficiency.
Floating solar panels can be installed at existing power plants also, particularly hydropower plants. They can deploy the existing cables that send electricity to the grid from the hydroelectric plant making the process cost-effective while expanding the capacity of existing power plants in Bangladesh and generating renewable energy.
Despite their immense promise, floating solar farms make up less than 1% of the world’s solar installations. This is partly because the initial setup cost for floating solar farms is 10 to 15 percent higher than that of ground-mounted panels. Making matters worse, the durability of the equipment may be reduced by corrosion, especially in waters with high salt levels, which can increase the cost of maintenance requirements. On top of these, floating solar farms still experience intermittency issues, with energy generation occurring only during sunlight hours.
It is also important to note that installations of floating solar panels on freshwater bodies can potentially disrupt aquatic wildlife and ecosystems by obstructing the sun’s rays and releasing aluminum, copper, and cadmium.
The way forward
Bangladesh has set a lofty target of generating 4190 megawatts of electricity through renewable resources by the end of 2030. Floating solar can play a crucial role in achieving this goal. However, to fully capitalize on its immense potential, there must be an all-out effort to encourage research in this area. Establishing robust policy frameworks is also critical to attracting private and foreign investment to support the development of floating solar farms in Bangladesh.