Energy Transition

How floating solar panels could transform the energy landscape in countries around the equator

Floating solar panels can be placed on calm equatorial seas, where they can generate effectively unlimited solar energy.

Floating solar panels can be placed on calm equatorial seas, where they can generate effectively unlimited solar energy. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Blakers
Professor of Engineering, Australian National University
David Firnando Silalahi
Phd Candidate, School of Engineering, Australian National University
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Energy Transition?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Energy Transition is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Energy Transition

  • Floating solar panels can be placed on calm equatorial seas, where they can generate effectively unlimited solar energy.
  • This could provide a sustainable source of energy for densely populated countries in Southeast Asia and West Africa.
  • Floating solar panels are less expensive to install than traditional solar panels, and they can also help to reduce water evaporation.
  • They could also be used to help improve water quality by reducing evaporation and shading algae blooms.

Vast arrays of solar panels floating on calm seas near the Equator could provide effectively unlimited solar energy to densely populated countries in Southeast Asia and West Africa.

Our new research shows offshore solar in Indonesia alone could generate about 35,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of solar energy a year, which is similar to current global electricity production (30,000TWh per year).

And while most of the world’s oceans experience storms, some regions at the Equator are relatively still and peaceful. So relatively inexpensive engineering structures could suffice to protect offshore floating solar panels.

Our high-resolution global heat maps show the Indonesian archipelago and equatorial West Africa near Nigeria have the greatest potential for offshore floating solar arrays.

Heatmap for offshore floating solar panels. Red areas are best, followed by yellow, green and dark blue. The grey lines show tropical storm tracks.
Heatmap for offshore floating solar panels. Red areas are best, followed by yellow, green and dark blue. The grey lines show tropical storm tracks. Image: Author-supplied, using OpenStreetMap base, CC BY-ND

Solar power rules by mid-century

On current trends, the global economy will be largely decarbonised and electrified by 2050, supported by vast amounts of solar and wind energy.

About 70 square kilometres of solar panels can provide all the energy requirements of a million affluent people in a zero-carbon economy. The panels can be placed on rooftops, in arid areas, colocated with agriculture, or floated on water bodies.

But countries with high population densities, such as Nigeria and Indonesia, will have limited space for solar energy harvesting.

Discover

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Their tropical location in the so-called “doldrum” latitudes also means wind resources are poor. Fortunately, these countries – and their neighbours – can harvest effectively unlimited energy from solar panels floating on calm equatorial seas.

Floating solar panels can also be placed on inland lakes and reservoirs. Inland floating solar has large potential and is already growing rapidly.

Our recently released paper surveys the global oceans to find regions that didn’t experience large waves or strong winds over the past 40 years. Floating solar panels in such regions do not require strong and expensive engineering defences.

Regions that don’t experience waves larger than 6 metres nor winds stronger than 15m per second could generate up to one million TWh per year. That’s about five times more annual energy than is needed for a fully decarbonised global economy supporting 10 billion affluent people.

Most of the good sites are close to the Equator, in and around Indonesia and equatorial west Africa. These are regions of high population growth and high environmental values. Marine floating solar panels could help resolve land use conflict.

Have you read?

Indonesia has vast solar energy potential

Indonesia is a densely populated country, particularly on the islands of Java, Bali and Sumatra. By mid-century, Indonesia’s population may exceed 315 million people.

Fortunately, Indonesia has vast solar energy potential and also vast pumped hydro energy storage potential to store the solar energy overnight.

About 25,000 square km of solar panels would be required to support an affluent Indonesia after full decarbonisation of the economy using solar power.

Indonesia has the option of floating vast numbers of solar panels on its calm inland seas. The region has about 140,000 square km of seascape that has not experienced waves larger than 4m – nor winds stronger than 10m per second – in the past 40 years.

Indonesia’s maritime area of 6.4 million square km is 200 times larger than required if Indonesia’s entire future energy needs were met from offshore floating solar panels.

Heatmap for offshore floating solar panels in Indonesia. Red areas are best, followed by yellow, green and dark blue. The grey lines show tropical storm tracks.
Heatmap for offshore floating solar panels in Indonesia. Red areas are best, followed by yellow, green and dark blue. The grey lines show tropical storm tracks. Image: Author-supplied, using OpenStreetMap base, CC BY-ND

The future for offshore floating solar

Most of the global seascape experiences waves larger than 10m and winds stronger than 20m per second. Several companies are working to develop engineering defences so offshore floating panels can tolerate storms. In contrast, benign maritime environments along the equator require much less robust and expensive defences.

We have found the most suitable regions cluster within 5–12 degrees of latitude of the Equator, principally in and around the Indonesian archipelago and in the Gulf of Guinea near Nigeria. These regions have low potential for wind generation, high population density, rapid growth (in both population and energy consumption) and substantial intact ecosystems that should not be cleared for solar farms. Tropical storms rarely impact equatorial regions.

The offshore floating solar industry is in its infancy. Offshore solar panels do have downsides compared with onshore panels, including salt corrosion and marine fouling. Shallow seas are preferred for anchoring the panels to the seabed. And careful attention must be paid to minimising damage to the marine environment and fishing. Global warming may also alter wind and wave patterns.

Despite these challenges, we believe offshore floating panels will provide a large component of the energy mix for countries with access to calm equatorial seas. By mid-century, about a billion people in these countries will rely mostly on solar energy, which is causing the fastest energy change in history.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Energy TransitionSustainable Development
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Nuclear fusion in the headlines: The science behind the energy technology explained

Kate Whiting and Simon Torkington

February 22, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum