Fighting California’s drought with solar panels

Turlock Irrigation District (TID) in California is about to launch an experiment, called Project Nexus, to cover California’s canals and aqueducts with solar panels.

In a conversation with LetMeBreathe, Josh Weimer, External Affairs Manager, TID says, “Project Nexus is really the proof of concept for an academic research paper that was initiated by two individuals from a company called Solar Aqua Grid. So they went around to a couple of universities, found interested parties at UC Merced. The results of their study that came out last year said – If we covered all the water canals, there would be potential water savings through a reduction in evaporation by approximately 63 billion gallons of water. And then there would also be 13 gigawatts of renewable energy created by putting all these solar panels above the canals.”

The idea is instead of placing arrays of photovoltaic panels on land that could be used for other purposes, those panels will instead be installed over lengths of existing irrigation canals. As an added bonus, it is believed that the cooling effect of the water will help keep the panels from overheating, allowing them to operate more efficiently. 

“We have 4,000 miles throughout California, there is a lot of evaporation that takes place and so the idea of capping these canals, in theory, would lead to a reduction in evaporation and once you scale up to thousands of miles that number starts to potentially become large,” Weimer notes.

Speaking about the challenges on the way, Weimer says, “The first hiccup is timeline and unfortunately, now because of supply chain issues and so many other issues that are facing everywhere around the world, we are now anticipating ground breaking in early 2023. One of the main hurdles and one of the main reasons why water agencies have been reluctant to do this type of project is the unknown. The unknown in terms of what it’s going to do to your maintenance ability for the canal system and just not sure what that overall benefit would be.”

The project could address Western North America’s worst drought in 1,200 years. “This isn’t necessarily a new concept, a lot of people have talked about it, it’s been done in a pilot in India. This is just a creative solution to a problem that we all have to address,” Weimer concludes.

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