Extensive arrays of solar panels, situated on serene seas near the Equator, have the potential to supply virtually boundless solar energy to densely populated areas in Southeast Asia and West Africa.
New research from Australian National University (ANU) indicates that offshore solar in Indonesia alone could generate approximately 35,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of solar energy annually. This is equivalent to the current global electricity production of 30,000 TWh per year.
Some equatorial regions experience relatively calm weather. This enables cost-effective engineering structures to protect offshore floating solar panels.
ANU’s detailed global heat maps highlight that the Indonesian archipelago and equatorial West Africa, particularly near Nigeria, offer the greatest potential for floating equatorial solar panels.
By the middle of the century, solar and wind energy will dominate the decarbonized and electrified global economy.
In a zero-carbon scenario, 70 square kilometers of solar panels can fulfill the energy needs of a million people, regardless of their geographical location. The solar panels can be located on rooftops, in arid regions, integrated with agriculture, or even floating on water bodies.
However, densely populated countries like Nigeria and Indonesia face challenges due to limited available space for solar energy harvesting. They also have poor wind capacity due to their tropical “doldrum” latitudes.
Fortunately, these countries can tap into effectively unlimited energy from solar panels positioned on calm equatorial seas. Floating solar panels can also be installed on inland lakes and reservoirs.
ANU’s recent study explored global ocean regions with minimal wave activity and weak wind patterns over the past four decades. The study revealed that floating solar panels can be deployed in such regions without the need for costly and robust engineering defenses.
Regions with wave heights under 6 meters and wind speeds below 15 meters per second have the potential to generate up to one million TWh annually. This amount of energy is enough to support 50 billion affluent individuals.
ANU has identified the most suitable areas for floating solar panels. They’re clustered within a range of 5 to 12 degrees latitude from the Equator. These regions are mainly located in and around the Indonesian archipelago and the Gulf of Guinea near Nigeria.
These areas have low potential for wind power generation. They also have high population density, rapid growth in both population and energy consumption, and significant intact ecosystems that should not be cleared for solar farms. Equatorial regions are rarely affected by hurricanes.
Offshore solar panels have certain drawbacks compared to onshore panels, such as susceptibility to salt corrosion and marine fouling. It’s preferable to anchor the panels in shallow seas. Special attention must be given to minimizing environmental damage and protecting fishing activities. Additionally, climate change may alter wind and wave patterns.
However, despite these challenges, ANU believes that offshore floating panels will play a major role in the energy mix of countries with access to calm equatorial seas.