California water district fights drought with solar panels

Panels generate renewable energy, shade lessens evaporation

Central Valley California utility, Turlock Irrigation District, has been awarded $20 million grant to install first-in-the-nation network of solar panels over water canals.

The California Department of Water Resources is funding the Project Nexus proof of concept to operationalize the findings from a University of California study, published March, 2021 in Nature Sustainability.

Researchers from UC Merced and Santa Cruz campuses estimated that installation of solar energy panels throughout the Central Valley “could get the state halfway to its goal for climate-safe power.”

In addition to generating 13 gigawatts of clean energy, covering the exposed waterways from the harsh heat would increase water conservation -- or minimize water lost to evaporation. On statewide scale, the estimated water savings could supply the water needs of 2 million people.

Since panels will be suspended over the canals, they are not expected to interfere with operation and maintenance of the water system. The new source of energy could feed into existing transmission lines or energy storage technologies.

Construction is scheduled to begin this fall and conclude in 2024. The pilot project will cover two small segments of canals outside the city of Modesto, generating “enough power for around 100,000 homes.” The water and electric utility trial will gather information about performance of the solar panels as well as installation and maintenance costs.

The intention is to scale the idea at the irrigation district and more importantly, to other areas of the state.

Conceptual rendering of Turlock Irrigation District's Project Nexus in which solar panels cover exposed water canals to generate renewable energy and conserve water lost to evaporation.