Solar panels above the canals? California’s Turlock Irrigation District takes a chance

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Conceptual rendering of solar panels spanning the 110ft wide TID main channel

The Turlock Irrigation District (TID) has announced Project Nexus, a pilot project to construct solar panel canopies over part of the existing TID canals to operate and research a truly innovative water-power nexus project, to multiple benefits, which can support California’s push for water and climate resilience. It would be the first attempt to develop canal-based solar panels in the United States.

Project Nexus, a public-private-academic partnership between TID; the Department of Water Resources (DWR); Solar AquaGrid; and the University of California, Merced, will assess:

  • reduced water evaporation resulting from midday shade and wind attenuation;
  • improved water quality through reduced vegetative growth;
  • reduced canal maintenance due to reduced vegetative growth; and
  • production of renewable electricity.

The hope is that Project Nexus can contribute to a more water-resistant future for California.

“There will always be reasons to say ‘no’ to projects like this, but as California’s first public irrigation district, we’re not afraid to chart a new course with pilot projects that can help. achieve our water and energy sustainability goals,” said Michael Frantz, Chairman of the Board of TID.

Groundbreaking for the Nexus project is scheduled for this fall, with project completion expected in 2024 at multiple locations within TID service territory in California’s Central Valley.

Project details

The project will use existing TID infrastructure on already disturbed land to keep costs low and efficiency high while supporting the region’s sustainable agricultural tradition. Additionally, energy storage will be installed to investigate how storage facilities can support the local power grid when solar generation is sub-optimal due to cloud cover. The $20 million project is funded by the State of California. DWR will oversee project administration, provide technical assistance and serve as a research partner.

The Nexus project is seen as a model that can be replicated elsewhere in the state to help California meet its water and energy goals. The inspiration for Project Nexus comes from the concept presented in a recent study from the University of California, published last March in the journal Natural durability.

The UC study showed that covering all of California’s roughly 4,000 miles of canals could show a savings of 63 billion gallons of water per year, comparable to the amount needed to irrigate 50,000 acres of agricultural land or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people. . According to the study, the 13 GW of solar energy that the solar panels would generate each year would equal about one-sixth of the state’s current installed capacity.

“The Solar AquaGrid model provides a combined and integrated response to address our water-energy nexus,” said Professor Roger Bales of UC Merced. “This helps address California’s underlying vulnerabilities while meeting state and federal commitments to generate renewable energy, preserve natural lands, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change mitigation.”

Turlock Irrigation District has retained Bay Area Solar development company AquaGrid as project developers and program managers for TID and Project Nexus. The two agencies have been collaborating since the start of the project. Solar AquaGrid originated the project after commissioning the UC Merced study in 2015 and facilitated collaboration between different parties to complete the Nexus project.

“Research and common sense tell us that at a time of intensifying drought, it’s time to put the brakes on evaporation,” said Jordan Harris, CEO of Solar AquaGrid. “We are thrilled to partner with Turlock Irrigation District, DWR and UC Merced to develop this first nationwide pilot project and bring needed innovation to the Central Valley. Our initial study found that mounting solar panels on open channels can result in significant water, energy, and cost savings over ground-mounted solar systems, including increased efficiency resulting from a shading/exponential cooling. Now is the time to put that learning to the test.

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