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Workers install floating solar panels on water. (Photo: Dennis Schroeder / National Renewable Energy Lab)

Floatovoltaics Makes Waves Approaching the Valley

Floating solar systems hold high potential for man-made water bodies — and the Hudson Valley may soon host its first.

by Robert Lawrence
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About 10 miles north of Albany, the small city of Cohoes sits at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, marking where New York’s Hudson Valley region begins expanding southward. Cohoes is also positioned at the beginning of something else that could be big for the state, and for solar energy: floating photovoltaics.

Floating photovoltaic panel systems are being dubbed “floatovoltaics.” (Photo: Shutterstock)

Also known as “floatovoltaics,” the concept of setting up arrays of floating solar panels on the water surface in a reservoir has been gaining traction in Asia and places where open land is scarce. Although this approach is less popular so far in the U.S., it caught the attention of Cohoes city planner Joe Seman-Graves in 2020 when the city was looking for a way to generate its own solar power for municipal use and lower income residents. “We just wanted something that made sense,” he recalls. “How can we go after solar, and own that?” 

The answer to that question was found in a key report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

A 2019 report from the lab estimated that 10% of U.S. electricity could be supplied from floatovoltaic systems installed on a fraction of the 24,000 suitable reservoirs and man-made water bodies in the U.S. That count includes 492 water bodies in the state of New York, one of which is the 10-acre Cohoes Water Filtration Plant reservoir.

Up to 10% of U.S. electricity could be supplied from floatovoltaic systems installed on a fraction of the country’s 24,000 suitable reservoirs and man-made water bodies, the National Renewable Energy Lab estimates. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Pioneering a floatovoltaic path forward

There are at least 12 major floatovoltaic systems currently operating in the U.S., including two of the largest in nearby Sayreville and Canoe Brook, N.J. But none of these are in New York, and all are owned by private energy companies. And so for Cohoes, installing a city-owned and operated floatovoltaic system on their reservoir has required serious trailblazing efforts.

First, the city needed to find a way to raise the funds for the project without much of a blueprint to follow. “We realized that there were no incentives at that time or grants for municipalities to own their own energy infrastructure,” Seman-Graves says. But that changed with help from a $3 million Community Project Funding Grant, allowing leaders to start the engineering and design phase of the estimated $6 million project.

There were also the necessary regulatory hurdles. “We’re the first in the state to get permitted for this kind of project,” Seman-Graves points out. “We just in August got through permitting at the state level — about a two-year process.” That included permits from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health, in addition to state and federal environmental reviews.

To further mitigate environmental or health risks, the city also looked to other floatovoltaic systems already in place. “We have access to overseas data regarding water quality for arrays of this nature,” Seman-Graves says. “And we also possess nearly a decade of data from the Sayreville project.”

There are at least 12 major floatovoltaic systems currently operating in the U.S., including two of the largest in nearby Sayreville and Canoe Brook, N.J. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The benefits of water and shade

Developments in solar power technology have made it a viable alternative to fossil fuels and a key strategy for mitigating the climate crisis. But those benefits are limited by how much solar installations affect natural resources, including land use. Floatovoltaics offer the advantage of using no land with the added bonus that they can often be conveniently plugged into existing power transmission lines when coupled with hydroelectric dams.

Another bonus is that water provides a natural cooling effect for solar panels, and this can increase their power output by up to 22% compared to placement on land, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab report. The panels in turn provide shade to the reservoir that is beneficial in reducing evaporation and algae growth.

Because the covering can also reduce water temperature and oxygen levels, floatovoltaics are likely unsuitable for natural waterbodies. But in reservoirs like the one in Cohoes that aren’t designed to support fish or wildlife, the covering is more ideal, both environmentally and economically. The water treatment facility in Cohoes, for instance, is looking to save up to $150,000 each year on treatment chemicals to curb algae growth in its reservoir, Seman-Graves says, plus the additional costs to later remove those chemicals.

Because the covering can also reduce water temperature and oxygen levels, floatovoltaics are likely unsuitable for natural waterbodies. But in reservoirs that aren’t designed to support fish or wildlife, the covering is more ideal. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Looking ahead to a floatovoltaic future

Evan Rosenlieb, a geospatial data scientist with the renewable energy lab, has studied the rapid growth of floatovoltaic systems in southeast Asia. He says although that region has some differences in geography and regulatory practices, similar growth is likely to occur in the U.S. as the development and manufacturing pieces start coming together. “There’s a lot of developers that are either starting up or existing developers that are getting into the game pretty rapidly here in the last couple of years, so I think that is much less of an issue going forward,” he says. “But just like any other technology, there needs to be a certain threshold of interest.”

As for the city of Cohoes, they plan to start taking construction bids from developers for their floatovoltaic project in late October of 2023. And if things go according to plan, construction will be completed in 6 to 8 weeks during 2024.

Until then, Cohoes will continue to host curious people who have heard about the project from local and national media and want to learn more. Seman-Graves says visitors have so far included educational institutions, private interests, state and federal agencies such as the USDA, government officials at the state and national levels, and even members of British parliament on one occasion.

Floatovoltaic systems don’t require a water tower, but the pre-existing one at the Cohoes, N.Y., reservoir broadcasts a message of civic pride. The city is planning to install a floating solar array on the water below. (Photo: City of Cohoes)

Some of these visitors are interested in following the small city’s trailblazing footsteps, and that possibility seems wide open. A 2023 report published in Nature Sustainability estimated that 6,256 cities in 124 countries could be powered entirely by floatovoltaic systems like the one planned for Cohoes.

And so many are watching what happens in Cohoes, hopeful that the floatovoltaic approach will prove to be an economical and replicable way that solar power can be produced for a municipality with minimal impact on the environment. “Really exciting,” Rosenlieb says about the Cohoes project. “Obviously, great to see that we’re starting to see this stuff roll out.”

Valley residents, developers, and stakeholdes who are interested in finding other smart and innovative ways to make use of solar energy may benefit from Scenic Hudson’s How To Solar Now Toolkit, a user-friendly resource guide to help plan for win-win solar strategies.

Robert Lawrence lives in Montgomery, N.Y., where he works as a science writer and enjoys visiting the many parks of the Hudson Valley with his wife and little boy. He is originally from drier climates and holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Arizona State University.

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

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editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
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