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    The First Floating Solar Power Labs Will Be Built in a Swiss Lake by the End of the Year

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    We've got giant desert solar plants, rooftop installations galore, and concentrated solar systems that melt salt to store power--but our solar doesn't do a whole lot of floating yet. In August, it will.

    Two Swiss companies just partnered to sponsor the most the most futuristic science project of the year thus far: floating, solar-powered labs designed to study "the effectiveness of concentrated solar power on water." By year's end, the world will have its first three buoyed solar islands.

    The labs will be launched off the shore of the Swiss lake Neuchâtel in August, and the project sounds intriguing indeed. PV Tech has the specs:

    • Each floating laboratory is 25 meters in diameter and will carry 100 PV panels.
    • Each panel will be back-to-back on a 45° incline.
    • The islands can rotate 220° in the direction of the sun tracking it throughout the day.
    • Their location on the water lowers its resistance, therefore increasing its effectiveness.

    Each will be connected to the grid on the mainland, and anchored to the lakebed by cables connected to concrete blocks. The solar islands are expected to remain intact for a quarter of a century. 

    It all seems a bit far-fetched, but the idea has actually been stewing for over five years now. Floating solar was first pushed in 2007 by Thomas Hinderling, a Swiss researcher who, at the time, was the CEO of the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique. Then, his vision looked like this: 

    Hinderling explained his vision to Wired after his proposal first attracted $5 million in funding from the United Arab Emirates, which had just recently begun its push to fund clean energy technologies:

    Hinderling estimates that an island a mere mile across could generate 190 megawatts of power with a breakeven price point of $0.15 a kilowatt hour, or about twice current electricity prices in the United States.

    The islands will consist of a plastic membrane loaded up with solar concentrating mirrors floating above the water. The mirrors are used to heat liquid to turn it into steam, which drives a turbine that generates energy … the entire platform can be turned to align with the sun, generating maximum efficiency without a complicated tracking system.

    Here's the concept vid Hinderling's company promoted, set to the Tangerine Dreamy kind of music middle-aged folk inevitably deem futuristic:

    Who knows? Maybe it was the smooth tunes that eventually sold the U.A.E. on the whole unlikely debacle. More likely it was because the U.A.E., a tiny desert nation with immense oil wealth but limited property space, was interested in the notion of getting more of its power from solar without using up prime real estate. The nation still gets a lot of its electricity from the inefficient and pollution-heavy means of burning oil, and is keen on both switching to cleaner sources and becoming a leader in the cleantech sector by the time it depletes its fossil-fueled wealth.

    French newscasters Nuovo did an interesting piece on the U.A.E.'s involvement in kickstarting the floating solar labs, but, alas, it's largely in French.

    Renewable energy specialists remained skeptical well into 2008, but Hinderling and co. pushed on, successfully completing a prototype outside of Abu Dhabi in 2009.

    Here's the prototype undergoing a rotation test:

    Satisfied that the technology is up to snuff, Hinderling pushed the project into the next phase. Now, his solar lab company is called Nolaris--Hinderling left CSEM in 2010 to become CEO there-- and it has attracted $108 million in investment from Viteos SA, a Swiss energy company. That's enough to construct three islands and the infrastructure needed to route power back to the mainland. Once built, each island will boast a capacity of 33 kilowatts.

    Naysaying critics are probably still going to call the project infeasible, unlikely. But at this juncture, with climate change creeping up and breathing down our necks, we need more experiments like this, not less. For chrissake, let's spin solar on giant cones, let's build it into winding treelike formations, and yeah, why not, let's push it out to sea in thermal circles.