Last week a solar power company based in Australia announced plans to build the world’s first heart-shaped solar field in New Caledonia, a French island in the South Pacific that currently gets most of its energy from coal, oil, and gas. The “heart shape” of Conergy’s forthcoming solar installation was inspired by the neighboring topography of “Coeur de Voh”, or “Heart of Voh”, an area of wild mangrove vegetation that has naturally taken the shape of a heart. Like the local landscape that inspired it, the heart-shaped solar array will be viewable by air. The panels that comprise the project will produce enough energy to power 750 homes on the island, according to Conergy, saving an estimated two million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its expected 25-year lifetime. In advance of the project, which will be completed next year, National Geographic spoke with David McCallum, managing director of Conergy Australia.
Where is New Caledonia and what makes it a good location for this project?
New Caledonia is located about 1,200 kilometers [745 miles] east of Australia within the Pacific Islands. It is part of France’s oversea territories. The solar site is located in the northern community of Pouembout, on Grand Terre, New Caledonia’s largest island, where 7,888 German-made Conergy PowerPlus panels will generate enough electricity to supply 750 homes. The solar project is designed to feed directly to the island electricity grid and to introduce solar as a generation capacity supply for the benefit of the island community. The location is ideally suited as it receives a greater amount of solar irradiation than some parts of Australia, which is widely known to be one of the sunniest countries in the world.
Are there any island conditions—like a potential for tropical storms or extreme humidity—that will cause the heart-shaped project in New Caledonia to require specific maintenance? (Different from say, a similar project in Australia?)
Yes. Because [New Caledonia] is in a cyclonic, high wind region, the mounting system and solar modules are required to meet the highest criteria of wind resistance. To this end, the Conergy mounting system being installed and the Conergy PowerPlus solar modules are tested to comply with Category 5 cyclonic conditions, as tested by James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. Once fully installed, the maintenance of the project will require no more than generic operation and maintenance services, because the structural foundations of the components utilized are already tested to withstand local environment conditions.
Why the heart shape? Beyond the Coeur de Voh link, was there any other reason why Conergy felt it made sense to do this?
As mentioned, the design was inspired by the local natural landmark, and because solar is renewable energy, the client (TIEA Energie, a subsidiary of local beverage company Froico SA) wished to make a statement that the solar project was friendly to the environment and a benefit to the island community. It also stands out and makes a statement that solar is loved by many and that new technologies need to be embraced for future generations.
Does shape affect a solar array’s efficiency?
No, not at all. [This statement was echoed by Pauls Stradins, a principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory who studies photovoltaics: “The shape of the PV field should have no effect on its performance, unless dictated by relief and landscape considerations, as well as wiring connections. It is the cumulative amount of sunlight and absence of shading, as well as correct angular orientation of the panels that matters.”]
McCallum didn’t mention any other aesthetically designed solar arrays in the works, but said Conergy is always willing to meet specific requirements depending on the project.
This interview was edited and condensed.