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Solar canals

Tackling water and energy security in arid lands

Project Nexus is a public-private partnership between Solar AquaGrid, Turlock Irrigation District, California Department of Water Resources and the University of California, Merced. This image shows a California solar-covered aqueduct designed to conserve water and generate renewable energy. Artist rendition. Credit: © Solar AquaGrid LLC

In July 2021 researchers from the University of California published a paper in the journal Nature Sustainability that set out the potential benefits of covering all 6,350 km of the state’s irrigation canals with solar panels. The results were so compelling that the state government awarded the team $20 million for a pilot project. Their modelling suggests that, for the state of California, over-canal solar could reduce evaporation losses by 39 ± 12 thousand cubic metres for every kilometre of canal. This is equivalent to over 63 billion gallons of water per annum. The estimated water savings could provide irrigation for over 50,000 acres of farmland or provide water for over 2 million people.

The team estimated that the solar panels on the canal network could generate around 13 gigawatts of energy per year. This is about half of the renewable capacity that California needs in order to meet its 2030 renewable energy goals. Putting solar panels over irrigation canals has been attempted in other parts of the world, but the Californian example is the first time a cost–benefit analysis has been conducted in the USA.

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