10/02/2016 8:04 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Floating Solar Panel System Changes The Energy Game For Communities Affected By Drought

Infratech / Fairfax media

An Australian startup will soon export its groundbreaking floating solar technology to the U.S., helping to improve the water quality and reduce water evaporation in a severely drought-affected Californian town.

It will be the second large-scale floating solar plant built by Sydney-based company, Infratech Industries, which successfully installed and trialled phase one of a four-phase system at a water treatment plant in Jamestown in South Australia.

Infratech CEO Rajesh Nellore said the system at Jamestown, which went live last year, generated up to 57 percent more energy than a rooftop solar system and also helped to improve water quality and reduce evaporation while restricting algal blooms.

He said phase one of the project, which would eventually cover five basins, was now self-sufficient.

How it works

“The panels are lying on the water body and they attract the sun, but they can use the water to cool themselves down,” Nellore said.

“What happens with land-based solar or rooftop solar is that when it gets very hot, it starts to lose efficiency -- it produces less power -- it’s contrary to what we might think. We would think that when it’s hot it would produce more power, but it’s actually producing less.

“So if you can use a water body to cool the panels down, so they don’t lose efficiency, they’re at a constant efficiency level, which is an advantage over land-based.

“In Australia, this was the first floating solar plant.”

A rapid expansion

The Jamestown system has been so successful that Infratech has already expanded operations, and landed a contract to build and export an even larger system to the drought-affected town of Holtville in Southern California.

The soon-to-be-built one megawatt floating solar system, which will be modular, will consist of 276 rafts, 3576 panels and 12 treatment pumps, and will generate an estimated 20 percent more power than a fixed land-based system.

It will also power the town’s new water treatment facility, save water from evaporation and reduce the local authority’s reliance on fossil fuels and treatment chemicals.

“We are in a pre-construction phase right now -- it is being built as a modular kit and much larger than what we built in Jamestown,” Nellore said.

“It’s about three times bigger -- it’s a megawatt project essentially. Sometime in the next three to five months, it should be operational.”

The Jamestown floating solar project generates 57 percent more energy than a land-based system.

Holtville Council member David Bradshaw said the system would enable Holtville to save viable farming land while reducing its reliance on fossil fuels.

“Our decision to use Infratech’s floating solar system means we are not losing valuable farmland to massive solar farms; we can use three existing ponds and save our soil for increasing our capacity to produce crops,” he said.

Bradshaw said the panels would also stop water loss from evaporation.

“We’re in the desert, and we lose more than 1.5m of water a year to evaporation while typically only receiving around 7.6cm of rain annually,” he said.

“Also, our main source of water, the Colorado River via the Hoover Dam, is currently in drought.”

As the floating solar system is on water, it can also withstand seismic activity prevalent in the southern Californian region.

Alternatives to land solar

While floating solar systems do exist elsewhere in the world, Nellore, who has a background in the automotive industry and headed up Peugeot and Citroen’s Indian operations, said he and business partner Felicia Whiting came up with the concept of the self-cooled panels while looking into options for traditional land-based solar.

“We wanted to have something that brings more benefits and is decentralised, rather than a very centralised structure,” he said.

“When you look at farmers and land-based solar, most of the farmers are busy selling off their land to developers, so we came up with this, with our partners -- a solution that allows solar to be deployed on water bodies, so you don’t use valuable land.

“It brings multiple benefits -- in this cost-driven world that we live in, unless you offer more than one benefit no one is really interested. So, we are offering not only power on site, but also giving the water evaporation savings and water remediation possibilities -- so, when you offer multiple benefits, people at least want to listen to you, and take that leap of faith and do something different.”

Infratech CEO Rajesh Nellore.

Super-sized energy efficiency

Nellore said the Jamestown system offered more efficiency than land-based solar.

“The efficiency is more, it’s about 57 percent more on average, because it’s got tracking -- the panels can follow the sun, it’s got cooling so is more efficient, and it’s also got concentrating systems (mirrors) to redirect light back on the panels -- it’s a mixture of those three that help you achieve higher efficiency,” Nellore said.

Whiting said the water savings were also significant.

"For a one megawatt plant, that's about 70,000 kilolitres a year,” she said.

“That's a big saving and it's also a revenue for any host water utility to save that water and on-sell it."

There is also the potential for similar systems to be employed by remote or rural communities to ease their reliance on grid, or non-renewable, generator power.

Nelore said some of the benefits of being based in Australia were our strict building codes -- if you can get it past our building regulations, it can pretty much pass inspection anywhere -- as well as our harsh, sun-drenched climate.

Networking provides knowledge

Nellore said Infratech was staffed by only two employees -- himself and Whiting -- but they worked with revolving teams of specialists to develop, build and install the systems since the launch in 2012.

“We work as a network organisation -- we do have a number of other companies that work together with us,” he said.

“This is a rapidly changing field -- no matter how many people we employ, we won’t be up-to-date with these changes in technology. It’s better to have a network organisation with other leading players that can work together with you and help you generate newer, better products.”

The Jamestown project in South Australia.

What it costs

While estimates put the cost of the completed Jamestown floating solar plant at $12m, Nellore said that figure was “relative”.

“This is a highly customised system, it’s not standard,” he said.

“Costs depends on customisation, but we are comparable to land-based solar.

“In the US, there was a water utility that spent $36m buying rubber balls to put on the reservoir to prevent water evaporation,” he said.

“These systems could save on water evaporation and produce power at the same time. But $36m is what people in drought-affected areas are willing to pay for water savings.

“Even countries like Australia don’t place a value on the water savings, and unfortunately, when you build energy, you cannot offer it at a higher cost than what you pay for black (energy).

“While the word 'renewable' and the ideas around it all look very good, people don’t want to pay a premium. It’s a question of being able to get the cost down to the cost levels of black power.”

Projects need backing

Nellore said for systems such as Jamestown to work, a local body was needed to champion the cause.

“That system was about 2.5 years in research and development,” he said.

“The council there is in a remote area, and they had a need -- they were paying high power costs, and for us, it was an investment as people want to see how things work first.

“It’s just phase one, but it satisfies the water treatment plant requirements behind the meter. With these projects the community need to buy into them.

“You need a community champion, like the council, explaining the benefits of these projects. it gives everyone the same rate of power, rich or poor.”