California is poised to embark on an experiment that will cover aqueducts with solar panels, a scheme that, if expanded out, may conserve billions of gallons of otherwise evaporated water while powering millions of homes.
The Turlock Irrigation District’s Project Nexus begins in mid-October, in the midst of Western North America’s worst drought in 1,200 years, and as human-caused climate change exacerbates the drought.
The state-funded $20 million project is set to break ground in two places. One is a 500-foot (152-meter or 0.3-mile) span along a curved section of the canal at Hickman, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) inland from San Francisco. The other is a mile-long (1.6-kilometer-long) straightaway in Ceres.
According to University of California Merced project scientist Brandi McKuin, the research is the first of its sort in the United States and is based on a similar project in the west Indian state of Gujarat. McKuin’s study article from 2021 influenced the Turlock project.
Modern California was developed on 20th-century infrastructure that transports water from the moist north to the desert south, a network that McKuin estimates currently totals 4,000 miles (6,400 km).
Covering such canals with solar panels would reduce evaporation, avoid the use of other land for solar farms, and reduce aquatic weed and algae development, lowering maintenance expenses, according to McKuin.
“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 said to Reuters.
It would also assist California in meeting its renewable energy targets of 50% clean energy output by 2025 and 60% by 2030.
She claims that if all 4,000 miles of canals were covered with solar panels, it could generate 13 gigatonnes of renewable power, which is nearly half of what California needs to reach its carbon-free energy targets.
A gigawatt, or one billion watts, can power 750,000 houses.
McKuin’s analysis also calculated 63 billion gallons (238 million cubic meters) of water savings, enough to supply 2 million people and irrigate 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of agriculture.
Turlock Irrigation District Water & Power, like other utilities across the state, is obligated to increase its renewable energy capacity.
“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,” said Josh Weimer, Turlock Water & Power’s external affairs manager to Reuters.