Google unveiled an ambitious plan eight years ago to build a wind energy project in the Atlantic Ocean running all the way from New York to Virginia. That massive "underwater spine" has been slow to progress, but Google is moving ahead with its first water-based renewable energy project — it is just a little smaller in scale: Solar panels atop a series of fishing ponds in Taiwan. The deal marks Google's entry into the Asian renewable energy market.
Google, a subsidiary of Alphabet, recently became the first company to make a purchase under the 2017 Taiwan Electricity Act, which allows non-utility companies to purchase renewable energy. For the 10-megawatt solar array in Tainan City, Taiwan, Google will install poles, with solar panels at the top of them, above fishing ponds.
The idea of building solar projects sited on water — known as floating photovoltaics, or "flotovoltaics" — is becoming more popular.
Last year China built the world's largest floating solar farm on a lake that used to be a coal mine, one of several flooded mine sites in China used for solar projects. It includes 166,000 solar panels and has a capacity of 40 megawatts, which can power 15,000 homes. The World Economic Forum reported that China is expected to add 40 percent of the world's new solar panels by 2020. Japan is the world leader in floating photovoltaic installations, with more than 60 projects built since its first in 2007.
Google's fishing pond project may differ from many water-based solar efforts that use structures like pontoons to float the solar panels directly on the water. While it is possible to float solar panels directly on the surface of fish farms — it has been done on projects overseas — the Google project development team has not yet decided how the solar panels will be situated above the water, according to a company spokeswoman. She would only share a link to a Taiwanese site which included several examples of water-based designs the project could ultimately take. Google is currently focused on poles that would have solar panels hoisted on top of them, a concept known as a "canopy" system.
Shade has been presented as a key benefit of floating photovoltaics as the panels blocking of sunlight reduces evaporation from key reservoirs. In Google's case, the project design could result in improvement in fishing yields because elevated panels provide optimal room for fish while also providing them with shade. That finding was based on an experiment conducted by the Fisheries Research Institute (COA) unit of the Taiwan Council of Agriculture.
Floating solar projects also have logistical advantages. They can be placed near existing electricity transmission infrastructure at hydropower sites, and close to demand centers.