Floating solar gaining popularity as unconventional US energy source

By Grace van Deelen

For the small, working-class community of Cohoes, New York, climate change and costly energy prices are posing increasing concerns, just as they are for cities and towns across the country.

Now, Cohoes, just 10 miles north of the state’s capital city of Albany, is poised to take an unconventional step toward addressing those concerns by constructing what experts say is the first – or one of the first – municipally-owned and operated floating solar installations in the United States.

The town plans to install a 3.2-megawatt floating array of solar panels on its 10-acre municipal water reservoir; construction is due to start later this year.

“We have almost no buildable land [within Cohoes],” said Theresa Bourgeois, the town’s director of operations. “But we really wanted to figure out how we could do this within the city.” Floating solar became the obvious solution, she said.

Cohoes projects the floating solar installation will generate enough energy to power the entire town of roughly 17,000 people. In all, the project will cost the city about $6 million, and the town is hoping that new provisions in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act will provide some funding.

Adaptation growing
Japan has about 80% of the world’s floating solar capacity, and other countries in Asia and the Middle East have also been quick to adopt floating solar, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Floating solar is far less common in the US, but adaptation appears to be on the rise. Before 2016, only two projects had been installed, but the number grew to over 20 by the end of 2020, according to NREL. The largest projects are concentrated in California and Florida.

A 2019 study by NREL found that if floating solar were installed on just 27% of suitable man-made water bodies, the resulting energy could make up 10% of the nation’s energy production.