Central Valley water canals to be covered with solar in experimental pilot project

SAN FRANCISCO -- They crisscross the Central Valley, driving one of the most productive food-producing economies in the world. But soon, irrigation canals and aqueducts could help power thousands of California homes and businesses as well, thanks to an experimental project launched by the Turlock Irrigation District to cover them with solar.

"Yeah, I mean, at the most basic level, we are studying how do you span canals that go from 20 feet to 110 feet, and put solar over the top of them," explained Josh Weimer with the district.

In other words, turning sun-drenched canals, into solar power producers. Project partner, Solar AquaGrid, designed the panels to act as canopies shading the canals from the sun. Once they're suspended in place, the test-grids are expected to generate about 5-megawatts of renewable energy.

However, CEO Jordan Harris believes they may also help protect the precious water from the effects of climate change, and losses from evaporation.

"My inspiration came after looking at these open canals driving from San Francisco to L.A., I've spent a lot of my life in France, where the canals are tree-lined and shaded protected from sun and wind. And that's when I got to thinking about it,' Harris said. "And I thought, after years and years of drought, that surely there must be something we can do to put a lid on evaporation."

And compared to existing solar farms, backers believe there are major economic advantages as well. That's because many of the canals are on publically owned land or right-of-way, and often run close to pumping stations and existing electrical grids, potentially making it easier to distribute the power to the surrounding community.

"So we're excited. And we think that this makes a lot of sense, because we are an irrigation provider, but we're also the electric utility," Weimer said. "And so we have both functions that this project potentially will benefit right on the same canal bank, where our water runs, we run our electrical infrastructure right there."

He says the Turlock project is believed to be 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 study the canopy concept. He believes the benefits could be scaled up, without affecting open space, or taking farmland out of production, potentially placing solar canopies over the massive aqueducts carrying water from Northern to Southern California.

"If we covered all 4,000 miles or so canals in the state, our estimate, our hypothesis going in, is that we would save about 65 million gallons, a billion gallons of water annually," Bales said. "Which is enough to serve a couple million people's residential needs."

All while producing clean energy for local power grids. The pilot project is expected to be launched for roughly $20 million. It's receiving support from the California Department of Water Resources with state funding.
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