California's pilot project tackles drought using solar panels
California is leading the way in the United States with a pilot project aimed at generating solar energy while protecting a scarce resource - water. It isn’t news to hear about the drought plaguing the west, and this project aims to generate renewable energy while reducing the amount of potable water lost to evaporation.
According to the Water Education Foundation, about 60% of all precipitation is evaporated or used by trees and vegetation. The remaining water flows into waterways and becomes available for use in residential and commercial buildings, farming, etc. “California has more irrigated acreage than any other state including dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and canals that deliver water to users across the state.”
The California Department of Water Resources, Turlock Irrigation, SolarAquaGrid, and the University of California, Merced, are partnering on ‘Project Nexus.’ The project aims to see if narrow and widespan canal coverage solar panels can decrease evaporation as well as “create improvements to water quality through reduced vegetative growth, reduce canal maintenance as a result of reduced vegetative growth; and of course, generate renewable electricity,” (Lewis).
It is projected that the resulting annual savings in maintenance costs could equal upwards of $40,000 per mile of canal. With over 4,000 miles of open-delivery canals in California, that’s approximately $16 million dollars in total.
Roger Bales, professor of engineering at UC, Merced, said that their research in 2021 showed that “covering 4,000 miles of California’s canals with solar panels would save more than 65 billion gallons of water annually.” For perspective, that is enough water to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland, or serve the residential needs of over 2 million people.
There is a growing urgency for a global shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Innovations such as Project Nexus rethink how “energy infrastructure can adapt to the challenges of sustainable water management, catastrophic wildfires, and multiday power outages, as well as the growing acceptance of climate change.” The project is expected to break ground in the Fall of 2022 and aims for its completion in 2024.
Renderings of the solar panels above a canal and reservoir.
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Project Nexus marks an important step forward in the world of renewable innovation. This project, if proven successful, paves the way for other states to find similar solutions.
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Bales, Roger. “First solar canal project is a win for water, energy, air and climate in California.” The
Conversation, 22 February 2022, https://theconversation.com/first-solar-canal-project-is-a-win-for-water-energy-air-and-climate-in-california-177433. Accessed 3 March 2022.
Lewis, Michelle. “In a US first, California will pilot solar-panel canopies over canals.” electrek, 1 March
2022, electrek-co.cdn.ampproject.org. Accessed 3 March 2022.
“Project Nexus.” Turlock Irrigation District, 18 February 2022, https://www.tid.org/about-tid/current-
projects/project-nexus/. Accessed 4 March 2022.
Water Education Foundation. “California Water 101.” Water Education Foundation, 21 April 2014,
https://www.watereducation.org/photo-gallery/california-water-101. Accessed 3 March 2022.