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The Though Kitchen - Dedicated to Stirring the Pot

Good Idea? Bad Idea?

Posted by Alex | November 20th, 2008 | Filed under Uncategorized

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I’m a big supporter of creative ideas for reducing our dependence on fossil fuel and producing renewable energy. So I was intrigued when, over the summer, our friends at Inhabitat drew attention to some out-of-the-box thinking that identified an as-yet untapped area on which to deploy solar panels: rivers and streams.

First, they covered ZM Architecture’s award-winning proposal to generate solar power in Glasgow, Scotland, by floating “Solar Lily Pads” on the Clyde River. Calling the idea “a stunning example of biomimicry,” they praised the idea as “perfectly natural, and makes good sense when you consider that the intrinsic design of the lily pad is all about maximizing access to the sun’s rays.”

Less than a month later, Inhabitat highlighted the $4.5 million floating solar array of Far Niente, a California winery. Not wanting to sacrifice any of the arable land on which they grew their grapes, Far Niente mounted their panels on pontoons, and floated them on the winery’s irrigation pond.

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I read these posts with interest, but also with conflicting emotions. Technical and implementation difficulties aside, is this really a good idea? Solar’s good, but do we want to start covering over our rivers with panels? We need clean energy, but what about the people who recreate on the water, the rowers and paddlers? Covering ponds with panels is good for irrigation (it slows evaporation) but what’s the impact on wildlife?

I started feeling like the label of biomimicry was being used to install an ugly power generator in a place where it didn’t belong. After all, isn’t a hydroelectric dam just a beaver dam writ large? But at the same time, it’s hard to argue with Far Niente spinning their electric meter backwards while producing great wine. (Though some might think it ironic that they also boast a beautiful classic car collection). And for whatever reason I don’t have a problem with wind turbines, which in many ways reflect the same issues, just up in the air.

So what do you think? Are “Floatovoltaics” an innovative and beautiful idea for producing power? Or are they an ugly and inefficient blight on natural environment? Do you feel the same way about wind turbines? And what role should our personal perceptions of what’s beautiful or not inform our renewable energy policies? Hit us with your thoughts in the comment thread below.

8 Responses to “Good Idea? Bad Idea?”

  • November 23, 2008 at 9:58 am | carolita says

    I like it. As long as they don’t over do it, I think it’s fine. The waterways are artificially bare, so why not add the “lily pads” to provide a little cover?
    I don’t mind wind turbines placed well, either. I know some think they’re ugly, but when you look at them you should be seeing a mechanism that is working with the environment rather than an eyesore. Knowing what it is makes it prettier for me, somehow.

    When are they going to start using old clothes that nobody wants for fuel? That’s my question! And when are clothes going to be made that can be replaced in part when they start showing wear? Why not provide new sleeves? Modular clothing would be cool. It would bring back the old days when people used to repair things instead of throwing them away.

  • November 23, 2008 at 2:27 pm | judy b. says

    I think we have to realize that we are at a place and time where we don’t have a lot of options. Beauty and comfort are now luxuries lost to decades of fiscally cheap but environmentally expensive living. Thirty or 40 years ago we might have talked about balancing energy efficiency with eco beauty, but right now we have to do all we can to repair the planet – as much as that is even possible. And I think the floating lily pads are actually pretty.

  • November 24, 2008 at 1:53 am | Ian H. says

    it’s a good idea if used in places where fish, rowers, and paddlers aren’t prevalent to begin with: in city rivers, for example.

  • November 29, 2008 at 6:40 pm | Carl B says

    The precautionary principle might be put to good use here. Has there been any study on effects to rooted vegetation and the benthic community? What about effects on water temperature in smaller bodies of water? Ian H makes a good point, but it seems to me like most cities have plenty of useless roof tops that we should fill up with solar panels before we start throwing them up on water.

  • December 2, 2008 at 11:11 am | James Bishop says

    On a global level we have harmed the planet and now need to figure out was to either fix or mitigate the damage before it is too late. Moreover, governments and organizations need to create protocols and enforce the same so that we begin to change our habits. One example of such efforts is the Kyoto Protocol, which is a document which sets forth a plan to reduce four green house gases. However, the Protocol will only be successful if countries decide to participate and unfortunately the United States is not one of the countries ratifying the Protocol. Hopefully, the next Administration will be different and place a greater emphasis on the environment.

    Please have a look at my blog and find out more about the International Environment Council I and a few others starting.

  • December 15, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Scott Lansing says

    From the image in the post, the idea looks cool and innovative, but is there any chance that the silicon used to produce the photovoltaic panels can seep out of the device and into the water? Would this damage plant and wildlife in the vicinity of such a leak?

    This reminds my of the buoys used to create wave energy; great idea, probably not harmful to surrounding wildlife because we already have buoys, but is an increase in the number of these flotation devices receding the shoreline? The plankton that grows on the bottoms of these buoys may attract fish, eventually diverting a preexisting food chain by elevating the depths at which predators search for food. Birds may also be distracted, fly into the devices, and drown.

    While posting all of these “what ifs” puts a downer on the quest for alternative energy practices, it is important to consider every outcome imaginable so we can avoid new/additional environmental concern. I honestly think floating solar panels, buoys and wind turbines take up a great deal of space, but it’s worth it, and we have the space to make the change. Besides, they look better than clumping power lines and towers you see in neighborhoods, parks and city centers.

  • January 13, 2009 at 11:23 am | Lo says

    While the ideas seem very similar on the surface, there’s enough difference that I approve of one and not the other. The environmental concerns listed by others, as well as the abundance of roof space for solar panels makes the Scotland project seem risky. There’s an unknown environmental risk, and if there’s a readily available alternative, why bother?

    At the winery, on the other hand, there is no other available space – thus the choice for floating panels. The water used is not a natural stream, but a man-made irrigation system on land the winery owns. While there is undoubtedly some wildlife living there as well, it’s not key habitat for an existing ecosystem and therefore while the risk is the same, the “stakes” are lower, if you will.

    Both projects are at least attempting to address large unsolved problems, which is admirable in any case!

  • May 22, 2009 at 9:00 pm | Domestic Solar Power says

    Domestic Solar Power…

    I would like to subscribe to this blog – Microgeneration at Hattix. How to go about doing it?…

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