“Solar Canals” Could Provide California with Power, Conserve Water Resources

Image: Chuck Coker/Flickr

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

new study from UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz has found that establishing “solar canals” using California’s 4,000-mile freshwater canal system could provide half of the power capacity needed to meet the state’s decarbonization goals. By laying solar panels over the canal system, the state could produce 13 gigawatts of power, prevent evaporation of water resources, and even replace diesel-powered irrigation. Solar canals have been implemented with great success in countries like India, but this new efficacy study could convince government agencies and utility companies that they could work in the U.S. too.

Why This Matters: One of the largest obstacles to solar power is space. To generate a substantial amount of energy, hundreds of panels must be placed on flat, level ground. In California, solar farms are often found in the desert, but the scale of these farms is threatening precious desert ecosystems. For years, environmentalists have struggled to find the balance between clean energy advocacy and biodiversity in the dialogue surrounding solar farms. But by moving these farms away from wildlife to existing canals, which run through 4,000 miles of the state, experts believe they can prioritize both.

Habitat Loss: A 2015 study found that of the 161 planned or operational solar farms in California, only 10-15% were “compatible” with the surrounding environment and wildlife. The decline of some California bird species has been connected to solar farms; birds mistake the panels for water and crash into them at high speeds. There have also been instances of solar panels reflecting sunlight, heating the surrounding air, and damaging species.

We can safeguard our irreplaceable wildlife…through thoughtful implementation of renewable energy projects,” said Ileene Anderson, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. Researchers hope that solar canals’ can fit that bill, but the impact of such a project on bird species is yet to be evaluated.

Cool Water, Warm Sunlight: California’s water system is one of the largest of its kind and provides drinking water to over 27 million people. But recent studies have shown that nearly two-thirds of the U.S. is experiencing drought, and California is one of the most impacted states

Historically, water-use limits and bans have been instated for residents across the state, and agriculture has suffered due to a lack of irrigation. But researchers say that by shading the canals with solar panels, they can prevent water loss through evaporation, saving 63 billion gallons of water annually. That’s enough to “irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland, or meet the residential water needs of over 2 million people,” according to the report. Aquatic weeds also threaten the function of canals and can bring water to a standstill when overgrown, but researchers found that when shaded by panels and starved of sunlight, weeds grew weaker and water flow improved.

The improvements to the water system don’t stop there. Experts say that the solar power generated by a solar canal project could provide power directly to the canal system’s infrastructure. “I like the idea of making things internally renewable,” said Micheal Kiparsky, the director of the Wheeler Water Institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

As California Governor Gavin Newsom and the Biden-Harris administration move to invest millions in solar power, location and space will become a challenge that developers and experts can’t ignore. The authors of the study hope that solutions like solar canals become the norm to protect and provide precious resources. “In California, we have this mandate to produce renewable energy at scale, but we also have to be careful about taking large parcels of land,” said Brandi McKuin, the lead author of the study. “By being creative about where we put solar panels we can maybe avoid some of these trade-offs.”

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