‘Limitless’ energy: Floating solar panels near the equator could power the world

Vast arrays of solar panels floating on calm seas near the Equator could provide effectively unlimited solar energy to densely populated countries in Southeast Asia and West Africa.

Our new research shows offshore solar in Indonesia alone could generate about 35,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of solar energy a year, which is similar to current global electricity production (30,000TWh per year).

And while most of the world’s oceans experience storms, some regions at the Equator are relatively still and peaceful. So relatively inexpensive engineering structures could suffice to protect offshore floating solar panels.

Our high-resolution global heat maps show the Indonesian archipelago and equatorial West Africa near Nigeria have the greatest potential for offshore floating solar arrays.

A heatmap showing the best locations for floating solar panels, away from tropical storm tracks
Heatmap for offshore floating solar panels. Red areas are best, followed by yellow, green and dark blue. The grey lines show tropical storm tracks. Author-supplied, using OpenStreetMap base, CC BY-ND

Solar power rules by mid-century

On current trends, the global economy will be largely decarbonized and electrified by 2050, supported by vast amounts of solar and wind energy.

About 70 square kilometers of solar panels can provide all the energy requirements of a million affluent people in a zero-carbon economy. The panels can be placed on rooftops, in arid areas, colocated with agriculture, or floated on water bodies.

But countries with high population densities, such as Nigeria and Indonesia, will have limited space for solar energy harvesting.

Their tropical location in the so-called “doldrum” latitudes also means wind resources are poor. Fortunately, these countries – and their neighbors – can harvest effectively unlimited energy from solar panels floating on calm equatorial seas.

Floating solar panels can also be placed on inland lakes and reservoirs. Inland floating solar has large potential and is already growing rapidly.

Our recently released paper surveys the global oceans to find regions that didn’t experience large waves or strong winds over the past 40 years. Floating solar panels in such regions do not require strong and expensive engineering defenses.

Regions that don’t experience waves larger than 6 meters nor winds stronger than 15m per second could generate up to one million TWh per year. That’s about five times more annual energy than is needed for a fully decarbonized global economy supporting 10 billion affluent people.

Most of the good sites are close to the Equator, in and around Indonesia and equatorial west Africa. These are regions of high population growth and high environmental values. Marine floating solar panels could help resolve land use conflict.

Indonesia has vast solar energy potential

Indonesia is a densely populated country, particularly on the islands of Java, Bali and Sumatra. By mid-century, Indonesia’s population may exceed 315 million people.

Fortunately, Indonesia has vast solar energy potential and also vast pumped hydro energy storage potential to store the solar energy overnight.

About 25,000 square km of solar panels would be required to support an affluent Indonesia after full decarbonization of the economy using solar power.

Indonesia has the option of floating vast numbers of solar panels on its calm inland seas. The region has about 140,000 square km of seascape that has not experienced waves larger than 4m – nor winds stronger than 10m per second – in the past 40 years.

Indonesia’s maritime area of 6.4 million square km is 200 times larger than required if Indonesia’s entire future energy needs were met from offshore floating solar panels.

A heatmap showing the best locations for floating solar panels, away from tropical storm tracks
Heatmap for offshore floating solar panels in Indonesia. Red areas are best, followed by yellow, green and dark blue. The grey lines show tropical storm tracks. Author-supplied, using OpenStreetMap base, CC BY-ND

The future for offshore floating solar

Most of the global seascape experiences waves larger than 10m and winds stronger than 20m per second. Several companies are working to develop engineering defenses so offshore floating panels can tolerate storms. In contrast, benign maritime environments along the equator require much less robust and expensive defenses.

We have found the most suitable regions cluster within 5–12 degrees of latitude of the Equator, principally in and around the Indonesian archipelago and in the Gulf of Guinea near Nigeria. These regions have low potential for wind generation, high population density, rapid growth (in both population and energy consumption) and substantial intact ecosystems that should not be cleared for solar farms. Tropical storms rarely impact equatorial regions.

The offshore floating solar industry is in its infancy. Offshore solar panels do have downsides compared with onshore panels, including salt corrosion and marine fouling. Shallow seas are preferred for anchoring the panels to the seabed. And careful attention must be paid to minimizing damage to the marine environment and fishing. Global warming may also alter wind and wave patterns. Despite these challenges, we believe offshore floating panels will provide a large component of the energy mix for countries with access to calm equatorial seas. By mid-century, about a billion people in these countries will rely mostly on solar energy, which is causing the fastest energy change in history.

Article written by Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University and David Firnando Silalahi, Phd Candidate, School of Engineering, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You might also be interested in:

YouTube video

Follow on Google News

About the Author

The Conversation

The Conversation is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of academic experts for the public. The Conversation’s team of 21 editors works with researchers to help them explain their work clearly and without jargon.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer


  1. Please show a picture or short video clip of ‘only 6 meter seas’ for context on how calm that is and the relative ease for a mega structure to withstand those intermittent conditions for 20+ years.

  2. Apparently green energy pundits who love to scream about fossil fuels killing coral reefs don’t GAF about the destruction of shallow ocean water-loving corals and all the other sea creatures once these floating panels shut out all light from overhead.

    The hypocrisy is deafening.

  3. How exactly is the energy supposed to be transported from there to the opposite ends of the world?

  4. I’d like to see the remnants of those solar arrays after the first tropical storm makes things a little wavy don’t ‘ch know

Comments are closed.