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A sustainable stride towards a renewable future

Mariyam Malsa
23 October 2019, MVT 09:45
Aerial view of the floating solar panel system at LUX* South Ari Atoll. PHOTO: SWIMSOL MALDIVES
Mariyam Malsa
23 October 2019, MVT 09:45

LUX* South Ari Atoll’s installation of a 12-platform floating solar system off its shore marked an undeniable milestone for renewable energy, not just for Maldives but across the world.

The project, brought to fruition via collaboration with Austrian-Maldivian firm Swimsol, is globally acknowledged as the largest floating solar system at sea.

The ambitious marine project goes hand-in-hand with the five star resort’s rooftop solar panels, boosting overall capacity by 40 percent to 678-kilowatt peak. Overall, Swimsol’s state-of-the-art-technology sufficiently powers all of LUX*’s 193 private villas during peak sunshine hours and saves over 260,000 litres of diesel per year.

In addition to fulfilling a commendable pledge to minimise carbon dioxide emissions, the undertaking allows LUX* to enjoy reductions in energy costs. Despite previously depending on five generators to satisfy demand, increased capacity from the solar platforms, combined with greater efficiency following upgrades to the powerhouse, enables the resort to cover energy needs using as few as two generators, on sunny days.

An IPTV system enabling live time tracking of solar output conveys the value of renewably produced energy to LUX*’s visitors and staff. With its own dedicated channel on the resort's network, guests can access a multitude of succinctly presented statistics with the click of a button from the comfort of their private villas.

Jointly developed by the IT teams of Swimsol and the resort, the IPTV system is intended to present information that is both educational and engaging. It provides an overview of the project in addition to revealing current solar production and the manner in which this energy is utilized along with daily and weekly comparisons. Kilowatt per hour is translated to more relatable terms by measuring them in terms of how many electric buggy rides, laundry cycles or lights can be powered using the energy.

Designed for Maldivian waters

It took Swimsol over four years of dedicated research, in cooperation with the Vienna University of Technology and the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, to launch the aptly named ‘SolarSea’ technology.

Designed to withstand rough conditions at sea and crafted from marine-grade materials, SolarSea was only installed following thorough surveys of wave action and other natural aspects over an extended period of time.

Aesthetic and environmental considerations were also factored in when the system was installed in a comparatively inconspicuous, shallow area in the island's lagoon away from both direct view and the reef.

A photograph taken during the installation process of the solar panels. PHOTO: SWIMSOL MALDIVES

The current model was specifically designed for shallow depth, requiring a minimum depth of 1 metre. Despite supporting 1.7 tonnes each, the platforms are crafted to resist waves of considerable strength, and steadily float on the surface.

“From an engineering point of view, it is quite difficult to have only one metre of manoeuvring and still withstand 1-metre waves”, said Swimsol’s Head of Sales and Marketing Thomas Siebenbrunner.

Nevertheless, the shallow placement also permits shorter cable lengths. Six cables link the platforms to connection boxes installed on the beach which are in turn joined to inverters located near the resort’s powerhouse.

Proximity is an added bonus for Swimsol technicians who can simply swim out to the location for maintenance work. While regular monitoring must be conducted to ensure that the mooring grid and shackles are securely in place, it is undeniably more convenient not having to depend on vessels to reach the site.

Solar energy produced is funnelled to the closest consumer. For instance, rooftop panels on top of East Market, one of LUX*’s restaurants, directly power the establishment.

A harmonious bridge between technology and nature

Special care was taken to ensure that the project did not harm marine life. The platforms are located in LUX*’s lagoon over a sandy area dotted with seagrass beds located at a safe distance from the coral reef.

The installation process itself commenced on land, with the assembled platforms being transferred to the water with the aid of a towboat. Once in the allocated position, Swimsol’s team manually moored it into place with minimal machinery.

“So far we have not seen any negative effects on the seagrass'', stated Swimsol’s Environmental Consultant Verena Wiesbauer.

She assured that enough light permeated through the panels to the seafloor to sustain the seagrass and that all life forms observed prior to deploying still existed.

Verena went on to reveal that barnacles, anemones and nudibranchs had established themselves on submerged sections of the platforms following the appearance of algae, the latter of which is known to grow on any structure placed in the water.

A nudibranch found at the underwater section of the floating solar panels. PHOTO: SWIMSOL MALDIVES

The marine biologist described the systems as similar to fish aggregating devices, serving as a home for invertebrates and juvenile fish. Species spotted till date include cuttlefish, damselfish and blennies, pompanos, jackfish, unicorn fish, stingrays, yellowmargin triggerfish and flutemouths.LUX* expressed optimistic that the coral larvae that use the platforms to grow into adult colonies could potentially be replanted elsewhere on the ocean floor.

Although coral growth is yet to be seen, Verena expressed hopes of new lifeforms taking root following coral spawning events in March or April of the upcoming year.

Overall, considering the manner flora and fauna interact with the SolarSea platforms, the project is likely to rake in long term benefits.

Sustainable hopes and dreams

Over the years, Swimsol has secured a position as the global leader in marine offshore photovoltaics as well as becoming the largest solar energy provider in Maldives.

Starting from its initial project in Addu, featuring the installation of solar panels on a school rooftop to the installation of the first marine solar system at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru in 2014, Swimsol has extended great efforts to cater to the unique energy demands of Maldives as a small island nation.

Swimsol team standing in front of the solar panels prior to installation. PHOTO: SWIMSOL MALDIVES

Despite incredible achievements, neither Swimsol nor its local partners such as LUX* intend to simply leave it at that.

While concrete plans have yet to be set down, discussions are underway to increase LUX*’s solar power capacity to 3 megawatts (3000 kilowatt) which exceeds total energy demand and would enable the resort to run on renewable energy for an average of 8 hours per day.

Presently however, the company’s local subsidiary Swimsol Maldives is preparing to make installations at three more resorts and expand two existing systems.

In tandem with their specialized approach, the company’s marketing head also revealed that the company wished to encourage locals to join Swimsol Maldives, which currently has 12 permanent employees. Reflecting on the wide spectrum of opportunities available owing to the management of both marine systems and rooftop panels, Verena stated that ambitious and motivated individuals could learn a lot from working with Swimsol Maldives.

Speaking of long term visions, Swimsol’s Maldives' Managing Director Hussain Simad revealed an ambitious aim, that is to extend solar power beyond resorts and “enable every island to run purely on solar energy”. The company intends to use its unique marine technology to make their goals feasible by overcoming space limitations.

If these ambitious dreams are realized, Maldives and other similar small island nations are set to reap extensive benefits.

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