Solar panels on water canals could generate 13GW of power for California

It's the first solar power project of its kind in the US.
Ameya Paleja
Artist rendering of solar panels on 110-footwide Main CanalTurlock Irrigation Department

The little known Turlock Irrigation District (TID) in California has taken a bold and ambitious step to put solar panels on its open water canals, the first such project in the U.S. Encouraged by a $20 million grant from the state, TID has announced Project Nexus that will trial the concept on two canal segments, to begin with. 

The project is the on-ground realization of a study conducted by researchers at the University of California Merced and University of California Santa Cruz. Published last year, the study used simulations to calculate that California's open canal system could save 63 billion gallons of water every year if it put a lid on top of its canals.

Estimated benefits 

The researchers had suggested putting solar panels would help the canals become a hub of renewable energy as they could potentially produce 13 gigawatts of electricity. This is about a sixth of the energy that the state of California generates, TID said in its press release. 

The solar panels could be installed on top of the canals using suspension cables and the cooling effect of the water running below would also maintain the efficiency of the panels that are known to drop output on very hot days.

The 63 billion gallons of water saved could be used to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or supply drinking water to as many as two million people. Although this might look like a small drop against the nine million acres that are used as farmlands in the state, given the severe drought it has faced in the recent past, this would still be welcome.

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Journey of a thousand miles

To test out the hypothesis, TID has been given a small purse of $20 million for a proof-of-concept. It has brought onboard the researchers from the University of California, the Department of Water Resources to oversee the administration of the project, and SolarAquaGrid, a private firm as developers for Project Nexus.

The project will be trialed at two canal segments, one on the Main Canal and one along Ceres Main Canal, a local media outlet confirmed. Energy storage facilities are also planned to determine their utility in supporting the local grid when power generation is suboptimal.

The project is expected to be complete by 2024 after which the decision to expand it further in the state will be determined. TID Board President Michael Frantz said, "In our 135-year history, we’ve always pursued innovative projects that benefit TID water and power customers. As the first public irrigation district in California, we aren’t afraid to chart a new path with pilot projects that have the potential to meet our water and energy sustainability goals." 

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