While Trump performed a piece of first-class alternative facts-stuffed theatre in Washington to announce he retreats the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, industry leaders from around the world discussed the latest innovations in solar technology at the Intersolar Europe summit in Munich last week. It is there that Chinese inverter* manufacturer Sungrow announced exciting plans for a new floating solar farm on a lake in the South of China. With an installed capacity of 140 MegaWatt, it will be the largest floating solar farm in the world, a record currently held by another farm of Sungrow that was opened earlier this year.

Sungrow workers assembling the solar panels on plastic buoys (photo: Adam Dean/The New York Times)

The floating farm will be installed on a lake near the city of Huainan, in the Anhui Province in east-central China. Quite remarkably, the lake sits on top of what once was a coal mine. After years of digging, the tunnels have collapsed, the land subsided, rain has filled the hole, and a lake of mineralised water has formed. The polluted water cannot bear life… so why not do something useful with it?

Installing solar panels on floaters in a lake tackles an important drawback of large solar farms: real estate costs. In countries with high population densities, land is scarce and expensive. No wonder the project draws attention from countries like Japan and other Asian nations.

(photo: Adam Dean/the New York Times)

The panels are mounted on top of plastic buoys that float at the water surface. The panels are connected in strings with cables that lie in the water. All power is collected and conditioned at a central hub, which is also floating, before it is sent to the electricity grid. Now you might be thinking… generating electricity so close to water is asking for problems, right? You are correct, the increased humidity and splashing of the surrounding water asks for additional precautions like secure water-proof panel casings. On the other hand, the water offers several advantages. First of all it has a cooling effect on the panels, increasing their efficiency of power production by 5-10%. Secondly, solar panels need to be cleaned every now and then and the water is now at hand.

Although the project in itself is but a small drop in the vast range of solar projects that are underway all around China, it very much represents an important shift. While the U.S. is rapidly losing its leadership position on clean energy under the Trump administration, China is stepping up its actions to combat pollution and climate change. Two-thirds of all solar panels are produced in China, and many of the plans for new coal power plants are put on hold or suspended. Although 70% of China’s electricity still comes from coal versus 2% from solar, that picture is poised to change soon. Biggest installer of solar panels and wind turbines, the country is now leading the world in clean energy technologies, planning to spend 360 billion USD on clean energy by 2020. Leaders of the chinese communist party are more than happy to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. to take over leadership and sell their solar panels and wind turbines to the rest of the world.

*for my readers who don’t know what an inverter is: simply put, it’s a box full of power electronics that convert the direct current (DC) generated by the solar panels into alternating current (AC) so that it can safely be connected to the electricity grid