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How could floating solar help island nations decarbonize their power systems?


27 Aug. 2020 by Zsolt Szalay


Largely dependent on imported diesel for their electricity generation, most island nations have a carbon-intensive power system and excessive electricity prices. Apart from contributing to climate change, the high cost of electricity generated this way hinders the islands’ economic development. Although the deployment of renewable energy (RE) technologies offers a great opportunity for creating cost-effective and carbon-free power systems, the scarcity of land and the unique ecosystem of islands restrict the development of land-based RE projects. However, islands have plenty of available water surface around them, and this is where floating solar photovoltaic (FPV) systems come into play. Compared to the FPV systems on freshwater basins, marine FPV installations present some additional challenges, but the immense amount of potential that can be unlocked by the technology in this environment is worth the endeavor. This is exactly what Seychelles does in order to try and achieve its RE targets and build a sustainable, low-carbon future.

To get a better understanding of how Seychelles has developed the world’s first utility-scale marine FPV project, which also happens to be the country’s first independent power producer (IPP) project, Solarplaza reached out to Fiona Wilson, Senior Regional Manager at the Clinton Climate Initiative – an initiative of the Clinton Foundation – for her take on the challenges and benefits of this first-of-its-kind FPV project.

The power system of remote islands

The modern energy transition of island nations is an interesting topic for many reasons. Their isolation from the mainland means a higher dependency on their domestic electricity generation than the highly interconnected states in continental power systems. Islands that are not connected to the power system of other states require high capacity reserves in order to be able to meet peak demand even if some of their power generation facilities become non-operational. In addition, most of the islands’ power generation is based on oil derivatives (especially diesel) that is imported, costly, finite, and has a high carbon footprint.

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Opportunities and challenges of RE development on islands

On the positive side, the high cost of diesel-fueled power generation makes RE generation a financially favorable option especially on islands with abundant RE resources. Furthermore, small islands have relatively small-scale power systems. If they are successfully transformed into sustainable energy systems, they could serve as good examples for the large carbon-intensive nations. Their small-scale power systems also make them excellent locations for the installation and evaluation of new innovative power generation technologies.

Although the advantages of the RE transition on islands, and the threat of (is)land loss as a result of sea-level rise should bring about immediate action, the decarbonization of the islands’ power systems is not materializing at an appropriate speed. To identify the causes that hinder the swift transition, there has been a number of studies initiated on small islands all around the globe. Researchers of the subject highlight social, political, technical and environmental issues as possible reasons for the limited utilization of domestic energy resources. Some of the frequently quoted reasons are the lack of clear policies and regulations for private investments in the power sector, the limited land availability as well as the lack of capacity for the governments to develop new renewable power generation systems.

Therefore, in order to try and advance RE deployment on the geographically isolated islands, several organizations and institutions have set up initiatives and programs. The main goal of these initiatives is to accelerate the transition of island power systems from the currently polluting, costly and finite systems into safe, cheap and independent ones that can reshape the economy of islands.

By combining the leadership of island nations with the support of these organizations and innovative RE solutions like FPV, the prospect of decarbonizing the power systems of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and other land-constrained nations turns from a far-fetched dream to reality.

Case study - Seychelles FPV project

Seychelles serves as a good case for the demonstration of the importance and success of marine FPV installations in island nations. In fact, this is the only remote island nation that has already started developing a utility-scale marine FPV project. Apart from the unique challenges of marine FPV projects posed by the extreme environmental conditions (e.g. combined wind and waves, tides), the saline water and marine air, the common challenges of RE development on islands are also present here.

Seychelles currently has an expensive and carbon-intensive power system. While it is blessed with high solar energy potential, it has very limited land available for ground-mounted solar PV development. In addition, as a SIDS nation, it can also leverage the support offered by international organizations in planning, designing, and implementing innovative projects for such a complex power transition.

 

The Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) has supported the island’s transition to renewable energy since 2013. After two years of successful collaboration with the government of Seychelles across different content areas, CCI was invited to support the government in increasing the country’s RE mix through the development of the world’s first utility-scale marine FPV project. As a result, the 4 MW project became the first marine FPV project of CCI’s Islands Energy Program. Founded in 2012, the Islands Energy Program aims to advance bankable and sustainable RE and energy efficiency projects on islands.

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After a comprehensive investigation, the project location was decided to be in Providence Lagoon on the island of Mahe, the largest and most populous island of Seychelles. The selected location offers several benefits. First, the lagoon is man-made with relatively low marine life, and therefore, the impact of the project on biodiversity was considered limited. Second, the lagoon is somewhat sheltered from the more extreme environmental conditions of the open waters, which minimizes some of the challenges marine FPV installations face. Furthermore, the lagoon is located in an industrial area with grid connection availability in the vicinity of the project area.

When Wilson was asked about the biggest challenges regarding the feasibility of the project, she underlined the high tidal fluctuations of the lagoon and the salinity of the water. Regarding the tidal fluctuations, it is a challenge because during the highest tides the water level variation can exceed 2 meters, but also because the water can completely disappear from the lagoon. In this case, the floats have to sit on the seabed in a position that does not affect the operation of the project. As it was already mentioned, the salinity of the water is a challenge in every marine FPV installation. The main problem here is that, in the absence of long-term data, the impact of corrosion throughout the lifetime of the project is difficult to predict.

However, she also highlighted the uncertainties around the impact of climate change on this and other projects around the globe.

Regarding the resilience of the project, questions emerge about the development of climate change. For any project, implemented anywhere in the world, climate change is going to be a risk because we cannot always rely on historical weather data to project weather events

Nevertheless, the project is on track to become a showcase for other land-constrained SIDS. It will demonstrate that marine FPV technology is a viable and cost-effective option. Upon completion, the project will also prove to lenders, off-takers and developers that the technology is not as risky as it might have seemed in recent years.

Although the temporary travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the implementation of the project, it has reached another milestone in June, when the Seychelles Energy Commission (SEC) issued the Notice of Effective Award (NOEA) to Qair, the winner of the tender for the project. The SEC’s press release highlights that the winning bid of Qair was 9.5 ¢ per kWh, which is significantly cheaper than the current cost of electricity generated from the burning of diesel. It also states that the 25 year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) is scheduled to be signed in the upcoming months.

Once the project is connected to the grid, the total solar capacity of Seychelles will more than double from 3.5 MW solar installed until the end of 2019, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). However, the country does not want to stop here. Although the nation’s official target for the share of renewables in their power mix is realistic and attainable (5% in 2020 and 15% in 2030), the government of Seychelles is eager to reach RE penetrations that are higher than the ones confirmed in policy.

The government of the small archipelagic nation envisions a future in which this successful project is replicated at a larger scale. The country has a large number of lagoons, where the environmental conditions might be similar to that of the selected location for the first project.

All in all, this marine FPV project has the potential to demonstrate the power of innovation and it is likely that it will have a potential impact on future RE projects in SIDS and other land-constrained nations around the globe. As Wilson put it:

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The success of this project is a sign that these projects can be done anywhere in the world and that marine FPV is not just a fancy pilot project that you might have in high income states. It is a technology that is valuable and really feasible in emerging markets, the countries that need this technology the most.

If you want to know more about marine FPV, the opportunities for further growth and optimization of FPV, and other interesting topics regarding the technology, join the International Floating Solar Conference 2020, taking place in the Taets Art and Event Park in Amsterdam, November 4.


Sources

Blechinger, P., Cader, C., Bertheau, P., Huyskens, H., Seguin, R. & Breyer, C. (2016). Global analysis of the techno-economic potential of renewable energy hybrid systems on small islands. Energy Policy, 98, 674-687.

Clinton Foundation (2019) Floating solar energy project in the Seychelles moves forward. Retrieved from
https://www.clintonfoundation.org/press-releases/floating-solar-energy-project-seychelles-moves-forward

Clinton Foundation (2020) Clinton Climate Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.clintonfoundation.org/our-work/clinton-climate-initiative Clinton Foundation (2020) Islands Energy Program. Retrieved from
https://www.clintonfoundation.org/our-work/clinton-climate-initiative/programs/islands-energy-program

Cross, S., Padfield, D., Ant-Wuorinen, R., King, P. & Syri, S. (2017). Benchmarking island power systems: Results, challenges, and solutions for long term sustainability. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 80, 1269-1291.

Renewables Now (2020) Floating solar project schedule in Seychelles hit by COVID-19 - report. Retrieved from
https://renewablesnow.com/news/floating-solar-project-schedule-in-seychelles-hit-by-covid-19-report-704565/

Rocky Mountain Institute (2020) Projects. Retrieved from
https://rmi.org/our-work/global-energy-transitions/islands-energy-program/islands-energy-program-projects/

Seychelles Energy Commission (2020) Press release - 4MW floating solar field project in Providence Lagoon, Seychelles moving forward with project award.

Smart Energy International (2020) Seychelles to build world’s largest salt-water floating solar plant. Retrieved from
https://www.smart-energy.com/renewable-energy/seychelles-to-build-worlds-largest-salt-water-floating-solar-plant/