How solar power innovation is moving to new spaces

Renewable power is looking to lakes, reservoirs, and landfills to fuel growth

May 08, 2023

The state of California has an ambitious plan for clean energy that would be the first of its kind in the US and builds on a nascent trend for sustainability projects worldwide.

A new state-funded pilot project starting this fall in the San Joaquin Valley will cover irrigation canals and aqueducts with solar panels in an effort to both save water and generate energy.

California isn’t alone in its eagerness to harness the sun as pressure surrounds sustainability efforts. Last year, Fort Bragg, located in North Carolina, installed the largest floating solar panel in the southeast to power one of its Special Forces training sites.

And today, there is a rise in developers and municipalities across the country looking to install solar farms atop capped landfills.

Bryan Thomas, JLL clean energy and infrastructure advisory vice president, says there is a lot of buzz around solar energy.

“Pressure from shareholders and stakeholders around sustainability and the Inflation Reduction Act are two primary drivers,” he says.

To help alleviate some of the cost pressure, the current US administration is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies into clean energy under the Inflation Reduction Act, which increased tax credits and extends the time for these credits. The IRA also includes incentives for incorporating battery storage with solar, which enhances sustainability solutions.

“Space limitations and not wanting to take green space up make other options, such as putting solar panels on garage tops and moving to water and landfills, more appealing,” Thomas says. “Still, cost remains an obstacle.”

The push for solar energy

When former US President Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels atop the White House in response to the 1973 energy crisis, he wasn’t lauded for his clean energy efforts. Carter’s initiative was short-lived after the panels were removed during the next administration.

It wasn’t until President Barrack Obama took office that solar energy was once again used at the White House.

Today concerns about climate change have put energy production from fossil fuels and the carbon gases emitted at the center of public discussions about the environment. And as companies face immense pressure around sustainability efforts, renewable power’s growth is being turbocharged.

“There has been a generational shift in how people view solar panels and clean energy,” Thomas says. “JLL’s clients are asking lots of questions about the viability and benefits of installing solar. And there are a lot of nuances and location-based considerations when answering these questions.”

Today, only a small amount of new solar installations in the US are on water. A study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates the country has more than 24,000 human-made bodies of water that could be used for floating solar development that could produce 10% of the nation’s annual electricity production.

“One of the biggest benefits of floating solar is that it offers an opportunity to host solar projects as land becomes dearer,” Thomas says. “And while floating solar panels have been around for the past decade, the emerging trend of water-bound panels is one to watch.”

According to a recent study in Nature Sustainability, floating solar panels placed on reservoirs worldwide could generate enough energy to power thousands of cities without taking up precious space on land. Countries such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam already use floating solar panels, albeit in a limited capacity.

Breakthroughs in design and application have also made solar installation more adaptable. Innovations such as flexible solar panels that can settle on curved surfaces and more efficient bifacial panels that allow solar absorption on both sides of the panel are two examples.

Making solar feasible

While industry giants such as Target, Walmart, and Prologis are putting their massive rooftops to work with on-site solar panels, companies with smaller footprints ask, ‘Can we do this, too?’

“Smaller firms face challenges due to less financial wherewithal, less space to host panels and lack of economies of scale,” Thomas says. “Having state and local incentives will continue to play a significant role in project financial viability.”

Thomas added that several firms elect to pay a green premium for renewable projects because meeting sustainability goals can be as important or more important than just the project economics.

“State and local incentives drive the market, which often raises questions such as why we see more distributed generation solar projects in places such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Washington DC, than in parts of the Sunbelt where there is more abundant sunshine.” Thomas continues. “But it’s because of incentives and the regulatory environment that impact where deals are getting done.”

For example, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois and Washington, DC, have incentives that make solar development attractive.

“Sustainability goals, technology improvements, governmental incentives and stakeholder pressure will continue to create demand for on-site renewables,” Thomas says. “However, if executing a project was simple, we would simply see more solar panels installed. The challenges center around developing economic projects while navigating the regulatory and utility landscape.”

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