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Panels afloat – an introduction to Sri Lanka’s first ever floating solar panels

An introduction to Sri Lanka’s first ever floating solar panels


By Chenelle Fernando 

If you find yourself reading this, it comes with no surprise that you (and I) live in a world spearheaded by scientific and technological breakthrough. New-found discoveries have proven time and time again that mankind boasts potential, one that even our ancestors might have believed incomprehensible.

Taking a step back to explore our local context, one may only experience an overwhelming sense of relief, for our pool of talented intellectuals that stand second to none.

It would be correct to state that the recent installation of Sri Lanka’s first-ever solar panel plant attests to the above.

The plant was declared open on 24 January by the Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Trine Jøranli Eskedal, at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Jaffna. The plant which was a result of collaboration between the University of Jaffna and Western Norwegian University, since 2017, was supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Colombo.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch on the intricacies of this initiative is Professor Ravirajan from the department of physics and a co-ordinator attached to the University of Jaffna.

Initiation

It all began with the Capacity Building establishment of a Research Consortium, a project initiated in partnership with the Norwegian High Commission and the University of Jaffna. A student-centred grant afforded by the Western Norwegian University to provide international exposure to local university students. Apart from this, awareness programmes were also conducted throughout the island on “clear energy technologies”. “Our concept is promoting clear energy technologies in Sri Lanka,” indicated Prof. Ravirajan.

Additionally, the project also focuses on three programmes; a high-level programme, a PhD or research degree, low-level training for Advanced Level students, and the embassy programme which is a one year master’s degree programme for science graduates. “This programme is also very popular and we have extended the deadline for registration,” commented Prof. Ravirajan whilst explaining further.

The availability of the above programmes is made possible following the joint partnership between the Engineering and Technological Faculties of the University of Jaffna. It stems to broaden the knowledge of engineering and science graduates for the purpose of presenting a large workforce with aims of further promoting its activity.

The panels were donated and set afloat by a Norwegian company named Current Solar AS following discussions between both local and international negotiators, including Prof. Ravirajan. The company, as we were told, is responsible for the installation of the panels at Kilinochchi.

Why afloat?

Rooftop solar panels; the ones set up on roofs are the most common solar panel designs, and the type most of us have probably witnessed. The widespread nature of such models is attributed to the unwillingness of its users to utilise land area. Absence of shade on rooftops additionally enhances performance of these solar panels. On the downside, the rooftop setting makes it susceptible to heat and harmful temperatures. “The supporting temperature is 30 degrees room temperature. But when you have them on the roof exposed to the sunlight temperatures increase up to around 60 degrees,” explained Prof. Ravirajan. High temperatures prove to be unfavourable for solar panels as they may indicate a drop in efficiency. On the contrary, floating solar panels that lie atop a water surface lathers as a cooling agent for the panels. “Temperatures are lower so performance will be better.” Researchers hope though that this initiative will help study the suitability factor of the panels to the Sri Lankan environment.

Rooftop solar panels are installed for the purpose of saving land surface. Prof. Ravirajan indicated to us that the same could be achieved through floating solar panels as well. “This is around 42 kW, but if you want more you might need a fairly large surface area.”

To those interested in the type of solar panels used, we were told they’re ordinary panels with a different design, one which accommodates it by staying afloat.

The location of its installation as we learnt plays a pivotal role. Installed in Kilinochchi, the panels are located in the dry zone of the country, which makes an ideal location. High temperatures and low rainfall accounts for this model to perform excellently. “It’s easier for us to avoid water vapour.”

What next?

With the installation of the panels, one may ponder as to what happens next. For one, the team of researchers of the University of Jaffna would continue carrying out extensive research on the adaptive nature of the panels. “We are doing social work also, so it is a good opportunity for our young staff to carry out a comparative study,” explained Prof. Ravirajan. When inquired about the students’ involvement and contribution to the study, he asserted that students would be involved in the documentation of measurements. “There are so many parameters they can take such as temperature, wind speed, and angle.” The panels are due to be transported to the supplier in Norway with the aim of carrying out special measurements. “So we have ample amount of data to promote this technology,” concluded Prof. Ravirajan.

Sri Lanka lies at quite the strategic position, and this we have boasted for centuries, commencing from trade activities during the ancient period. This was exactly what Prof. Ravirajan harped on when explaining the advantages of Sri Lanka’s strategic location. Comparing with nations across the globe, he said that: “Sri Lanka is at a strategic place where we can actually promote the business to other parts of the world. We can bring down smaller modules and make panels and sell them.”

Being a developing nation, it would only make sense to delve into an initiative of such magnitude if it is capable of accommodating local businesses and vendors. We were delighted to discover that the same was carried out with the installation of the panels. Sustaining the panels and keeping them afloat are large S-Lon pipes. The pipes which were sourced locally also had contributed towards the creation of the design. “They were really happy to contribute and locally we are able to make this structure. We just need to make this structure in the same manner people design structures of boats. We sent over the requirements and they even delivered the product to us within a matter of three days.” Talk about efficiency! Having heard that even local industries stand a chance at joining hands to champion this initiative has quite certainly left an everlasting impression on us. “We want to show this works, and that it has benefits for the public,” concluded Prof. Ravirajan.