California Plans To Add Solar Panels Over Irrigation Canals

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California has 4,000 miles of irrigation canals that distribute water to farmers in the Golden State. If all of them were covered with solar panels, they could produce 13 gigawatts of renewable energy — roughly half of what California needs to meet its clean energy goals.

Covering all of them might be far in the future, but the way to start something new is to begin. That’s exactly what the Project Nexus pilot program of Turlock Water & Power intends to do. The $20 million project will install solar panels over canals in two locations. One is a 500-foot span along a curved portion of the canal in the town of Hickman, about 100 miles east of San Francisco. The other is a mile long straightaway in nearby Ceres.

The pilot project is based on a similar project in the west Indian state of Gujarat and is the first of its kind in the United States, Brandi McKuin, a project scientist at the University of California Merced, tells Reuters. The Turlock project was inspired by a research paper McKuin published in 2021. The project would avoid siting solar systems on farm land and could reduce aquatic weed and algae growth, saving on maintenance costs, McKuin says.

solar panels
Conceptual rendering of spanning the 25-foot wide TID canal. Image credit: Turlock Water & Power

“It’s really exciting to test our hypothesis and the paper we published. We’ll have an opportunity to really understand if those benefits pencil out in the real world,” McKuin tells Reuters.  It would also help California meet its renewable energy goal of achieving 50% clean energy generation by 2025 and 60% by 2030. Her research also calculates water savings of 63 billion gallons, enough to supply 2 million people and irrigate 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of cropland.

The name Project Nexus refers to the new understanding by utility companies about the symbiotic relationship between water management and energy management. The water in the canals has the potential to cool the solar panels, increasing their efficiency. The panels, in turn, will provide shade and wind protection over the water, reducing evaporation and also leading to a reduction in aquatic growth improving water quality.

“If this is something that works on these first two miles of Project Nexus that we’re doing, there’s the potential that this could scale to multiple locations,” says Josh Weimer, Turlock Water & Power’s external affairs manager.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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