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Integrating environmental understanding into freshwater floatovoltaic deployment using an effects hierarchy and decision trees

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Article number114055
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>20/11/2020
<mark>Journal</mark>Environmental Research Letters
Issue number11
Volume15
Number of pages14
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English

Abstract

In an era of looming land scarcity and environmental degradation, the development of low carbon energy systems without adverse impacts on land and land-based resources is a global challenge. 'Floatovoltaic' energy systems—comprising floating photovoltaic (PV) panels over water—are an appealing source of low carbon energy as they spare land for other uses and attain greater electricity outputs compared to land-based systems. However, to date little is understood of the impacts of floatovoltaics on the hosting water body. Anticipating changes to water body processes, properties and services owing to floatovoltaic deployment represents a critical knowledge gap that may result in poor societal choices and water body governance. Here, we developed a theoretically-derived hierarchical effects framework for the assessment of floatovoltaic impacts on freshwater water bodies, emphasising ecological interactions. We describe how the presence of floatovoltaic systems may dramatically alter the air-water interface, with subsequent implications for surface meteorology, air-water fluxes and physical, chemical and biological properties of the recipient water body. We apply knowledge from this framework to delineate three response typologies - 'magnitude', those for which the direction and magnitude of effect can be predicted; 'direction', those for which only the direction of effect can be predicted; and 'uncertain', those for which the response cannot be predicted - characterised by the relative importance of levels in the effects hierarchy. Illustrative decision trees are developed for an example water body response within each typology, specifically, evaporative water loss, cyanobacterial biomass, and phosphorus release from bed sediments, and implications for ecosystem services, including climate regulation, are discussed. Finally, the potential to use the new understanding of likely ecosystem perturbations to direct floatovoltaic design innovations and identify future research priorities is outlined, showcasing how inter-sectoral collaboration and environmental science can inform and optimize this low carbon, land-sparing renewable energy for ecosystem gains.