Growing levels of government support and investor appetite will help drive almost 10GW of new floating solar deployment by 2025, said Fitch Solutions in a bullish forecast for the fast-emerging renewable technology.

While Asia dominates the current project pipeline, the Fitch analysts see utility-scale growth that spans markets including Brazil, the US, Tunisia and France as deployment on reservoirs and lakes gathers momentum.

“Within our key projects database, there are 16 floating solar projects, totalling more than 11GW of additional solar capacity, that are either in the planning stages or under construction,” said a new report.

Fitch said the falling costs for floating solar projects in many of the world’s largest PV markets, a number of successful pilot projects in several regions, and a growing understanding of its benefits are leading to a growing interest in use of the technology, with utility-scale installations set to take off globally over the next few years.

Fitch’s database underscores Asia’s domination of the technology’s project pipeline, with the region accounting for 14 of the 16 projects.

“The region also includes the largest project, [South Korea’s] 2.1GW Saemangeum floating solar power plant, that is under development in the Saemangeum tidal flats [on the coast of the Yellow Sea].

“This growth is also supported by the early adoption of the technology, favourable policies and government support. This includes attractive feed-in tariffs specifically designed for floating solar in several of the regions markets.”

Fitch said many markets in Asia have coastal regions or large water bodies – such as the Mekong – which could be utilised to grow their solar capacity, amid land constraints for ground-mounted solar installations. In particular, it highlights China, South Korea, India, Thailand and Vietnam as “key outperformers” in floating solar over the coming decade.

China, as one of the pioneers into floating solar, remains the largest market for such installations, said Fitch.

In April Hangzhou Fengling Electricity Science Technology completed the second phase of its 320MW Cixi floating solar plant, making it the world’s largest at present.

This follows the commercial operation of several large-scale floating solar farms across China over the past year, including a 260MW plant by CGN New Energy Holdings at a Dangtu fishery, and a 150MW facility in Anhui.

“While Vietnam has seen a sudden shift towards auctions for ground-mounted solar, which could turn away some investors with a lower risk appetite, it continues to retain an attractive rate of 7.69 cents/kWh for floating solar plants,” the report added.

“Vietnam’s government has also decided to pilot their first two solar auctions for floating solar – the first will have a generation capacity of 50MW-100MW and is planned to be held by the end of 2020, and a second round with a capacity of 300MW will be held in 2021.”

Estimates put current floating solar deployment at around 3GW globally.

Huge potential

Floating PV has been hailed for its huge potential in the next wave of energy transition, with the ability to capitalise on unused water surfaces to produce renewable power in countries where land may be scarce.

Technical advisory group DNV GL, which earlier this year set up a cross-sector initiative to develop best practice for the sector, has cited estimates that human-made inland waters alone have the potential support up to 4TW of new power capacity globally.

Among floating PV’s benefits, Fitch highlights water coverage “as the placement of solar panels on water is beneficial for water reservoirs – used for purposes such a drinking water or hydropower – as the coverage provided by the panels can reduce the amount of water evaporation and in some cases even limit algae growth”.

Other benefits include its co-location with hydropower facilities, land use and reduced installation times.

A study last month by the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) said that wiring in floating solar arrays to existing hydropower reservoirs around the world could change the face of the global energy system by meeting nearly 50% of total electricity demand.

The researchers estimated that as much as 7.6TW of power could be produced from water-top PV. This works out to about 10,600TWh of potential annual generation – even before output from the hydro plants – compared to worldwide electricity consumption which, according to International Energy Agency 2018 figures cited by NREL, was just over 22,300TWh.

This year Recharge has also tracked the rapid expansion in activity in so-called ‘high-wave’ floating solar that aims to take modules out to sea, highlighted by a tie-up between offshore energy heavyweights Equinor and Saipem to work on a concept for nearshore PV installations.