Saving water and generating power in California: Can one project achieve both?

CALIFORNIA (KABC) -- California needs more water and renewable energy, and Solar AquaGrid CEO Jordan Harris is trying to help.

"We need some bold solutions and big solutions," he said.

A big idea is starting with a small stretch of canals in the Turlock Irrigation District, located just south of Modesto.

This fall, groundbreaking will begin on a pilot project to build solar panel canopies over existing canals.

"Our demands are only going up, so we really need to take advantage of these already disturbed spaces, and in the case of these aqueducts and canals, make them work even harder," said Harris.

A study from UC Merced concluded that shading all of the roughly 4,000 miles of California canals with solar panels could save 63 billion gallons of water every year by reducing evaporation, while potentially creating about one sixth of the state's current power capacity.

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Testing that research on a two-mile stretch of canals surrounding a regulating reservoir will also create a blueprint for others to follow.

"We're going to need to create fairly standard designs because you don't want to have to go back to the drawing board every time you go to a new canal," said Dr. Roger Bales, a professor of engineering at UC Merced and co-author of the study. "So we want to develop the templates that can be used in other places."

UC Merced researchers will gather data on how much water is saved and if the solar panels are more effective over water as believed.

Another hope for Turlock Irrigation is the panels will reduce the maintenance cost associated with algae and aquatic weed growth without adversely affect daily operations.

"We need to make sure to provide reliable irrigation water to our growers and that nothing about this system is going to impact our ability to do that," said Josh Weimer, the External Affairs Department Manager of Turlock Irrigation District. "We can scale for miles in either direction and we can really grow this and demonstrate what a utility in the future can look like."

The pilot project should be completed by 2024 and, if successful, what they will learn could then be used in spaces like the Los Angeles River, saving untold amounts of money that would be needed to purchase land for wind or solar energy sources the state demands.

"Just as I put solar on my roof, not in my backyard, let's put it over the canal, not over productive farmland or not over natural land that has some biodiversity value," said Bales.

Weimer is also optimistic.

"Hopefully, this proves it can be done and everybody just starts coming to the table with different varieties of technology and techniques to do it and hopefully, it's kind of an expansion in this space," he said.

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