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Floating solar farms put Thailand on track for carbon neutrality

In Thailand’s north-eastern region of Ubon Ratchathani, a shimmering network of solar panels stretches across a large reservoir constantly generating green energy. This is the first of 15 planned floating solar farms that aim to put Thailand on track for carbon neutrality by 2050.

With climate deadlines from COP26 fast approaching, nations are turning to some pretty radical solutions to achieve net zero. This definitely qualifies.

In Thailand’s north-eastern region of Ubon Ratchathani, a floating farm of solar panels roughly the size of 70 football fields sprawls across the Sirindhorn reservoir.

In the daytime, its 145,000 photovoltaics convert sunlight to green energy, and throughout the night, hydropower turbines generate power from the gentle flow of water.

This shimmering network is being touted as the ‘world’s largest floating hydro-solar farm’ in existence, and will form the basis of Thailand’s strategy to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

At present, natural gas accounts for nearly two-thirds of all Thailand’s electrical grid, while wind, solar, and hydropower comprise less than 10%. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha wants to drastically alter this balance ‘in any way imaginable’ and plans to construct up to 15 more of these ‘floatovoltaic’ vistas in the coming years.

To call this ambitious would be an understatement, considering building the Sirindhorn array alone took two years of careful assembly and a €32m investment, but its potential to reduce Thailand’s carbon emission toll by 47,000 tons annually has convinced the Energy Policy and Planning Office to push ahead.

In regard to the complete picture – and best case scenario – this authoritative body strives to generate 2,725 megawatts of power from floating solar farms, which would represent a 30% bump on what the nation needs in terms of overall energy output. Impressive, eh?

So, what exactly are the benefits of placing photovoltaics on water anyway, would it not just be better to install them on rooftops?

On the contrary, there are a bunch of engineering benefits that make water ideal relative to land-based installations. As well as being infinitely cheaper space wise, the biggest pro of choosing water is it naturally keeps solar panels at cooler temperatures, leading to better efficiency in producing electricity.

In-fact, tests have shown that fully immersing them in water can lead to an 11% boost in productivity compared to those installed in urban areas.

In terms of the practical drawbacks, maintenance obviously becomes more complicated out on the water. Locations also must be chosen extremely carefully to minimise the potential for tidal forces and weather to damage hardware – as painfully demonstrated by Yamakura dam disaster in 2019.

Some locals neighbouring the Sirindhorn reservoir continue to express frustration at having large areas cordoned off that could otherwise be used for fishing and other livelihood activities, but Thailand’s governor of electricity, Prasertsak Cherngchawano, assured that no more than 0.5% of a reservoir’s surface area will ever be taken up in coming builds.

‘We’ve used only 0.2 to 0.3 per cent of the dam’s surface area. People can make use of lands for agriculture, residency, and other purposes,’ he says.

Whether or not taking the Sirindhorn project nationwide will materialise in a net zero Thailand by 2050 remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain, Prayut Chan-O-Cha certainly isn’t lacking for spirit.