California Announces Solar Water Canal Project

Project Nexus is a pilot project to build a solar panel canopy over a section of existing water canals in the Turlock Irrigation District, operate and study how water plus energy can meet California’s needs for climate resilience.

You’ve probably heard of “floating photovoltaics,” but the Nexus project takes a different approach — installing solar panels on water channels. The concept stems from a 2021 study by the University of California, Merced and UC Santa Cruz, which found that there are many advantages to installing solar panels on open water channels .

The study shows that covering approximately 4,000 miles of California’s public water delivery system infrastructure with solar panels could generate 13 GW of electricity annually, equivalent to about one-sixth of the state’s current installed capacity, and is a key step in achieving the state’s current capacity by 2030. Half of the projected additional capacity required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% annually.

“Solar water canals are an example of the energy-water nexus that show multiple sustainability benefits. Using water canals to build solar infrastructure can generate renewable electricity while saving water and avoiding devoting large tracts of land to solar projects development,” said study lead author Brandi L. McKuin, Ph.D.

Turlock Irrigation District (TID) is partnering with the Department of Water Resources (DWR), Solar AquaGrid and UC Merced on this $20 million project funded by the state of California. Construction on the Nexus project is scheduled to begin this fall and is expected to be completed at multiple locations throughout the TID service area by 2024. The project will include an energy storage component to examine how energy storage can support the local grid when solar power generation is suboptimal due to cloud cover.

The founders of Solar AquaGrid LLC recognized that there had not been any exploration of covering water canals to control evaporation in California. And Europe and India are already doing this – European countries plant trees on canals to provide shade, and India has solar panels on canals. So they initiated research and formed a unique public-private-academic partnership to advance the California solar water canal project proposal. The company commissioned the research from Merced University through the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and UC Water.

Jordan Harris, CEO of Solar AquaGrid, said, “Research and common sense tell us that in times of increased drought, evaporation should be controlled. Our preliminary research shows that installing solar panels on open water channels can be compared to ground-mounted solar systems. Significant water, energy and cost savings can be achieved, including increased efficiency due to exponential shading/cooling effects. Now is our chance to test this conclusion.”


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