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Cornell researchers test floating solar panels as new source of renewable energy

Cornell researchers installing floating solar planels on pond.
Cornell University
Cornell researchers installing floating solar planels on pond.

A small group of students is installing 378 hand-built floating solar panels on three ponds at the Cornell Experimental Pond Facility. It's a part of a three-year project that will study the ecological impact of a potential new approach to renewable energy — solar panels on water instead of land.

Ecologists and students will be monitoring how the panels affect the pond’s inhabitants, greenhouse gas emissions, and algae growth, says Cornell ecologist Steve Grodsky.

“By affected I mean it could be positive, neutral, or negative. So, we’re not necessarily assuming that there’s going to be one type of effect or another," said Grodsky. "We just want to determine what those effects are, so then moving forward we’d be able to better predict what we might want to look out for, in terms of unintended consequences," such as damage to the environment, or the already limited supply of fresh water.

What makes this work so important, says Grodsky, is that it could also find benefits to moving away from classic, terrestrial solar panels.

“One advantage is that you’re sparing land. You can have a potential increase in efficiency, although it’s about 5% so it’s not major but something there," said Grodsky. "And then there’s possibilities based on simulation studies for reduction in harmful algae blooms or there could be potential for floating solar to contribute to water management in reservoirs."

Earlier this year, Democrats Paul Tonko and Jared Huffman introduced a federal bill pushing for more renewable energy in reservoirs, including floating solar panels. Grodsky says he and his team hope their research will help find ways to accomplish this sustainably.