Science and industry join hands to investigate environmental challenges of floating solar at sea | Marine@Ugent

Science and industry join hands to investigate environmental challenges of floating solar at sea

The growing need for the local production of renewable energy and an acceleration of the energy transition, combined with land scarcity, is leading policymakers, industry and scientists to increasingly focus on offshore sites. To date, renewable energy production at sea mainly involves wind farms. Belgium developed into one of the international frontrunners in this field.

Meanwhile, more attention is being paid to emerging opportunities to generate solar power at sea as well. The complementarity of wind and solar technology has been confirmed all over the world. As authorities increasingly promote multi-use of marine space, and the offshore grid infrastructure shows good potential for combined use, the integration of offshore floating solar installations in current and future offshore wind sites presents an opportunity to produce large volumes of additional renewable energy. However, both the technology and the knowledge on environmental impacts of floating solar are still in their infancy.


Environmental challenges

In the project EcoMPV (Eco-designing Marine Photovoltaic Installations), scientists and industrial partners work together to deepen the knowledge about environmental challenges related to offshore floating photovoltaic (PV) installations, aiming at technical solutions to mitigate undesired consequences and maximise beneficial impacts.

Knowledge gaps will be addressed about (1) altered underwater light field, hydrodynamics, pelagic biogeochemistry and primary production, (2) the artificial habitat provision for colonising fauna and fish, and (3) effects on carbon fluxes and sequestration. Furthermore, advice for eco-designing offshore PV installations, paving the way to its environmental licensing, will be formulated.

Preparing for the first floating PV installations

On 24 May, 28 May and 28 June 2023, scientists from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) installed three experimental ‘littoral modules’ at the edge of the Mermaid offshore wind farm in the operational Belgian offshore energy zone. These floating modules are equipped with settlement plates in various materials, to study the colonisation potential for marine fauna and the habitat provisioning of artificial floating structures, including offshore floating PV systems.

The modules were designed and developed by Jan De Nul Group in collaboration with RBINS, with support of the EMBRC Belgium (European Marine Biological Resource Centre). The installation was carried out on board the RV Belgica and the Zeetijger, and they will remain in the water for around 1.5 year. The modules will be monitored at regular intervals to follow up the colonization process.

The location for the experimental tests has been chosen to be as similar as possible to the Princess Elisabeth Zone (PEZ), which is designated as a new zone for offshore renewable energy production in the Belgian Marine Spatial Plan 2020-2026. Although the focus of the PEZ remains mainly on offshore wind, seeking combination with floating solar panels seems promising.

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Minister for the North Sea: “With EcoMPV, important steps are being taken to also correctly assess the environmental impact of floating solar panels. This is important. The potential of floating solar panels is estimated to be high. If we want to use them later on a commercial scale, it is necessary to also take into account their effects on the marine environment in order to avoid or mitigate them as much as possible. With this, Belgium once again shows that economy and ecology go hand in hand."


Installation of an experimental 'littoral module' at the edge of the Mermaid offshore wind farm on 24 May 2023 with the RV Belgica. (© RBINS/MARECO)

About EcoMPV

EcoMPV is financed by the Energy Transition Fund of the FPS Economy, AD Energy, started in November 2022 and will run for three years. The project is coordinated by the research team ‘Marine Ecology and Management’ of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), with Ghent University as a scientific partner and Tractebel, Jan De Nul Group and DEME Group as industrial partners.


The objectives of EcoMPV are the following:

  • Increase the knowledge on the effects of floating PV structures on hydrodynamics and phytoplankton productivity;
  • Investigate the habitat provision by floating structures to marine life, including colonising fauna and attraction by fish;
  • Describe effects of colonising fauna (fouling) of floating structures on the surrounding sediments, including the burial and sequestration (storage) of carbon in sediments;
  • Provide input on the Nature-inclusive design of floating PV systems, based on the results of the previous objectives, as to ensure the environmental sustainability of these systems.



Cover picture: Artist impression of SeaVolt’s design for offshore floating solar energy