[#WeFACE] Solar panels over water provide hints to how green projects can thrive in S. Korea

Over 2.75 trillion liters of water behind the Chungju Dam in North Chungcheong Province, dozens of solar panels are designed to generate electricity.

While it may seem strange to some why these solar panels are above water in contrast to other, more conventional places, the idea is one of many projects South Korea is relying on to generate renewable electricity as promised to the international community.

The country has announced that it will be carbon neutral by 2050, with an increased focus on renewable energy sources and avoidance of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. The increased use of solar panels, some of which are on the water, was one of the projects under this initiative.

Solar panels over reservoirs show potential

According to the Korea Water Resources Development Corporation, also known as K-Water, floating solar panels installed over 37,000 square feet of water above the reservoir in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, can generate 4,031 megawatt hours per year.

These solar panels will be installed across three separate areas within the reservoir and by December 2017, $ 8.4 billion had been invested to complete them. The project started with an agreement signed in 2016 between the provincial government, the municipal government of Jecheon and K-water.

“Floating solar panels are easy to install with basic structural features so there is no need to damage forests or start major construction projects,” said Oh Bong-keun, an official with K-water’s floating photovoltaic business team, as he showed reporters around the panels on March 17th.

“Solar panels can also generate more electricity over water because their efficiency in generating electricity drops below high temperatures.”

The solar panels have also generated cash profits, Oh said. According to K-water, the three clusters of solar panels on Chungju Dam have generated more than 600 million won a year since they were installed.

The panels made money by donating the electricity they generate to the state-owned Korea Electric Power Corp. have sold, the exact amount of the annual income depends on the electricity price in a certain period of time.

More floating solar panels will follow

With the potential that these solar modules have shown in Jecheon, the Ministry of the Environment and K-water want to complete solar module projects worth 45.4 megawatts in addition to three other dams and install five more solar module clusters by 2023.

K-Water officials stated that there are no environmental concerns with these projects as the projects already installed are made of biodegradable materials and do not cause water pollution. They said local residents who were concerned about pollution welcomed the projects for such reasons.

“All of these buoys installed under the panels are environmentally friendly and I can assure you that they have not caused pollution problems since they were installed,” said Oh.

Four environmental analyzes carried out by the Korea Environment Institute from 2011 to 2019 showed that the floating panels did not affect the quality of the water and its ecosystem, K-water said. The materials used for the project strictly adhered to the safety standards for drinking water.

And for a floating solar panel project at the Hapcheon Dam in South Gyeongsang Province, K-water said it will attract investment from nearby residents with a promised return on investment. The project should motivate people to actively participate in environmentally friendly energy projects.

As part of the 83.5 billion won project to generate 54,249 megawatt hours per year on 468,000 square meters of water, K-water plans to collect 5 billion won from local residents for a 20-year investment.

The water authority plans to open a special purpose venture to carry out the investment and generate a return of 4 to 10 percent. The call for investors is expected to start in September before construction begins in December.

“Floating solar panels have been safely built and managed with no major environmental concerns through extensive audits,” said Kim Dong-jin, director general of the water resources policy bureau at the Ministry of the Environment.

“We plan to add further technological advances to this project out of concern for environmental safety and regulatory improvements.”

Intelligent safety management for dams

In addition to installing more floating solar panels, South Korea has invested heavily in using advanced technologies to ensure safety and extend the life expectancy of dams across the country, some of which are capable of generating electricity from hydropower.

From 2020 to 2025, the government has promised to spend 106.1 billion won on running drones, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and smart sensors to use fewer staff and perform preventive maintenance on 37 dams under the direction of the Ministry of the Environment .

Some of the initiatives were already under way at Chungju Dam when The Korea Herald visited the site on March 17th. A system has been developed that allows drones to be automatically sent across the sky and underwater to monitor water levels and detect damage to the structure.

Programming drones for specific routes can prevent human injury, according to dam officials, while image-based analytics are more accurate. Smart sensing networks also enable real-time monitoring of dams and nearby facilities, while artificial intelligence provides real-time predictive analysis.

The project finally envisages that dams exist in Korea and operated under a uniform network in order to prevent natural disasters through efficient data transmission.

By Ko Jun-tae ([email protected])

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