The fastest way to determine how a floating solar array can support your organization’s goals is by scheduling a site assessment with a floating solar developer. However, if you’re not quite ready to start the conversation with a group like ours, you can still begin to understand your potential benefit if you know where to start.
Determine Your Power Savings
If you have a hunch that your surface water could be working harder for you, the first place to start is your potential energy savings. Services like the EnergySage Solar Calculator, NREL’s PVWatts Calculator, or Google’s Project Sunroof are useful tools that can give you a general idea of how much you can save by replacing your standard utility power supply with solar. These tools bring in data from a range of different sources, such as irradiance data from developer tool Aurora, pricing data from NREL’s Open PV Project, local incentive data from tools like Clean Power Research and DSIRE, and information on selling renewable energy credits (RECs) from groups like SRECTrade. These tools run aggregation models and aren’t exact, but they can help you answer the question, “how much am I overpaying for power?” Even if a calculator is showing that you’ll break even or even pay more for solar, it’s worth continuing this exercise. Solar developers scope projects according to your specific site, so it’s possible a tool missed key details. Generally, unless you live in a district that already has hyper-cheap power and is proactively seeking to hinder distributed solar development, you’re likely to save by switching to solar.
Consider Your Land Value
The next question is to consider the implications of installing a solar array on your surface water, vs. your available land (if any) or your rooftops (if applicable). In the case of rooftops, there can be a number of impediments to successful solar deployment. Maybe you have shade trees around your property, which is a great way to save energy, but reduces solar panel productivity. Open water is typically less shaded, so floating solar is likely to produce more than a rooftop array in that situation. Or, maybe you operate out of old buildings, or historic buildings with ornate roof tiles. Again, floating solar eliminates the need to balance between building aesthetics/health and saving money on your power. As far as ground-mounted solar is concerned, there are several areas to consider. Maybe you simply don’t have enough land to support an array, which is what motivated this water treatment facility in Lake County, CA to adopt floating solar. Maybe your land has another valuable use, such as growing crops. Far Niente Winery in Oakville, CA preserved 1.5 acres of valuable Cabernet vineyard acreage by floating solar panels on an irrigation pond, which is worth about $150k/year in grape production to them—and this is before energy cost savings! Or maybe you live in a place like Yamhill County, OR that’s actually passing laws to prevent valuable farmland from being replaced by ground-mount solar.
Floating solar gets you around any of these hurdles. It’s also important to consider that building on land is expensive from a permitting and compliance standpoint. Changing the designated purpose of a plot of land can require permitting from your county, and that’s before considering compliance with environmental regulations like CEQA and NEPA. Hiring environmental consultants to navigate these frameworks can cost many thousands of dollars, and that’s assuming that the regulation doesn’t prevent a project from happening altogether. Here at Splash we are supporters of environmental regulation and are firmly committed to supporting measures that protect our biosphere—but we also recognize that these policy frameworks aren’t perfect, and we don’t like to see pro-environment policies hinder the transition away from fossil fuels. With floating solar, since you aren’t changing the fundamental purpose of your land or water, you’re installing on already-permitted bodies of water, and you’re minimizing construction and ground disturbances, you greatly reduce the likelihood that a permitting or compliance lift is going to cause problems for your solar project.
Consider Your Water Value
Water is scarce—this might be the understatement of the decade. Water scarcity is having an increasing impact on the futures of countless people in the United States. The entire Southwest U.S. is scrambling to agree on a Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado River Compact, a massive 1922 agreement between seven states impacting millions and millions of people, farmers, businesses, and ecosystems.
The results are already concerning. Pinal County, AZ is turning back to groundwater after losing their Colorado River allotments, and the local population has grown 400% since they relied exclusively on groundwater. This is an overdraft and subsidence crisis just waiting to happen. Even before the renegotiation, severe drought was already placing pressure on the CRC, whose allotments were negotiated based on a period of unusually high precipitation, hanging those reliant on it out to dry during drought years. Anybody who’s driven down I-5 in California this decade remembers the “Congress Created Dust Bowl” signs posted next to fallowed croplands—but conflicts around the Sacramento River Delta are a long conversation for a different series of posts. Outside of the CRC under duress, declining precipitation and increasing global average temperatures are forcing organizations to take water scarcity more seriously. California, for example, designated 14 groundwater basins to be reprioritized under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, leaving vintners in Napa and Sonoma counties rushing to determine the implications of new scrutiny on their groundwater pumps.
We could write a book on drought and groundwater—a beloved professor from one of our team member’s alma maters has written dozens—but the obvious point here is that water is becoming more scarce in our country. One of the strongest benefits of floating solar power is the shade it provides to surface water, and the reduced evaporation as a result. In arid climates, farmers lose up to 40% of their available water to evaporation. While many farmers have resisted more efficient irrigation measures due to concerns about losing water rights under the Beneficial Use Doctrine and similar frameworks, concern is rapidly shifting from gaming the “use it or lose it” clause to making sure there’s simply enough water at all. Farmers who adopt floating solar can reduce that evaporation considerably, protecting them from that dreaded day when they find out their federal or state water deliveries have been reduced or eliminated for the season.
Public water agencies stand to benefit from the reduced evaporation as well. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power famously deployed millions of black plastic “shade balls” across their reservoirs to address drought and water quality, and they were generally deemed effective. If covering surface water to prevent evaporation is a priority for the largest municipal water utility in the country, anybody else facing water scarcity ought to take note. Serendipitously, LADWP recently approved a pilot for an 11 MW floating solar array on their Van Norman Reservoir in Granada Hills, CA. Modeling evaporation as a function of shaded surface area can be challenging (see p.23 of this study, also from our team member’s alma mater), but if your organization thinks in terms of “cost per acre-foot,” you should be factoring in evaporation reduction while analyzing the potential benefits of floating solar.
Consider Your Water Quality
If water quality is an issue for you, whether due to energy-intensive wastewater treatment requirements, or the constant battle against proliferation of harmful algal blooms (HABs), floating solar can also have a positive impact on your operations. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but study after study validates that shading surface water helps mitigate algae growth. More studies have validated this phenomenon as applied to wineries in California and South Africa. We’ll get deeper into the science in a different series, but in a nutshell, floating solar shades the surface of a water body—where algae proliferates the fastest and the water is warmest—reducing algal blooms and giving a fighting chance to other organisms deeper in the water.
Beyond providing shade, floating solar arrays can serve as a platform for other mitigation tactics proven effective at reducing HABs, including aeration and ultrasonic irradiation. HABs can be devastating to water quality in ponds subject to heavy nitrate and phosphate runoff, and if your organization fights HABs—whether it’s harming irrigation water quality or hurting tourism revenue—you should consider the benefits of reduced HABs while evaluating the potential impact a floating solar array could have on your organization.
Consider Your Brand
Do you operate a winery with customers that value your commitment to sustainability? Are you a city councilmember whose constituents are concerned about drought and climate change? Does your organization educate students about sustainable resource management? Floating solar can offer a surprising benefit here as well. The United States is desperately lagging behind the EMEA and Asia-Pacific regions when it comes to floating solar development; it’s why we founded this firm in the first place. As a result, floating solar projects in our country are new and noteworthy.
Practically every floating solar project receives strong local news coverage, as well as stories in industry publications like PV Magazine and CleanTechnica. If you were to adopt a floating solar system for any of the previous reasons discussed here, you’re likely to get a publicity boost showing your stakeholders that your organization is leading the nation in sustainable resource management at the energy+water nexus. How valuable would that type of coverage be to your organization?
Consider Local Incentives
Federal, state and local governments, as well as utilities themselves, are offering a range of different incentives to help reduce the cost of your floating solar investment. The federal Investment Tax Credit and special depreciation allowances offer massive cost savings to solar project owners. You’re also likely to find plenty of local incentives from your state, city, county, or utility if you know where to look. Sometimes these incentives make the difference between a project penciling or not—and sometimes they provided an additional bonus to a project that was already going to be worth your time.
If it’s a lot to take in, don’t worry—we can help walk you through the analysis with a low-pressure and consultative site assessment. Our goal is to maximize access to affordable solar power, and delivering successful projects to our customers is a top priority (transparently, we also want that brand value boost to complement positive case studies). However you decide to start your evaluation, remember that energy cost savings are just the tip of the iceberg for the ways floating solar can benefit your organization. Ready to start your solar project? If your organization has non-recreational surface water on site and you want to find out how much you’ll save with a floating solar system, visit our website or give us a call today at (800) 445-2565.