Could California’s sun-drenched waterways become solar power generators?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — They criss-cross the Central Valley, driving one of the most productive food-producing economies in the world. But soon, irrigation canals and aqueducts could also help power thousands of California homes and businesses, thanks to an experimental project launched by the Turlock Irrigation District to blanket them with solar power.

“Yeah, I mean, at the most basic level, we’re looking at how to span channels that range from 20 feet to 110 feet and put solar power on top of them,” explained Josh Weimer of the district.

In other words, transforming channels flooded with sunlight into producers of solar energy. Project partner Solar AquaGrid designed the panels to act as canopies protecting the channels from the sun. When suspended, the test networks are expected to generate approximately 5 megawatts of renewable energy. But CEO Jordan Harris thinks they can also help protect precious water from the effects of climate change and loss through evaporation.

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“My inspiration came after watching these open canals leading from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I spent much of my life in France, where the canals are tree lined and shaded, protected from the sun and wind. And that’s when I started to think And I thought, after years and years of drought, surely there must be something we can do to put a stop to evaporation,” says Harris.

And compared to existing solar farms, funders believe there are also major economic benefits. Indeed, many canals are on public land or rights-of-way and often pass close to existing pumping stations and power grids, potentially facilitating the distribution of electricity to the surrounding community.

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“So we’re excited. And we think that makes a lot of sense, because we’re an irrigation provider, but we’re also the electric utility. And so we have the two functions that this project will potentially benefit on the same bank of the canal, where our water flows, we manage our electrical infrastructure there,” Weimer explains.

He says the Turlock project is considered the first of its kind in the country, but may not be the last.

Engineering professor Roger Bales, Ph.D., and his colleagues at UC Merced helped investigate the canopy concept. He thinks the benefits could be increased, without affecting open space or taking farmland out of production, by potentially placing solar canopies on the massive aqueducts carrying water from northern to southern California.

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“If we covered the approximately 4,000 miles of canals in the state, our estimate, our assumption is that we would save about 65 million gallons per billion gallons of water per year, which is enough to meet the residential needs of a few million people,” says Professor Bales.

While producing clean energy for local power grids. The pilot project is expected to launch for around $20 million. It is supported by the California Department of Water Resources with state funding.

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