A rendering shows what the California Aqueduct would look like covered with solar panels as it flows through Stanislaus County.(Solar AquaGrid LLC)

Solar Panels on California’s Canals Could Save Water & Help Fight Climate Change

Apr 22, 2021 at 6:00am

Sammy Roth, LA Times

I was initially skeptical when I read about a new study from researchers at UC Merced, finding that covering thousands of miles of California’s largest canals with solar panels could generate huge amounts of clean energy at a reasonable cost, while saving lots of water by reducing evaporation. Published in the journal Nature Sustainability, the study concluded that the “net present value” of canal-spanning solar systems could be as much as 50% higher than solar farms on nearby land.

Don’t get me wrong — at an intuitive level, it makes perfect sense. Install photovoltaic panels atop canals, and avoid the land-use battles over habitat protection and rural community character that are a growing roadblock for the solar industry. Save water in a drought-prone state that can use every last drop. Maybe even improve air quality in the notoriously smoggy Central Valley by using the newly installed clean energy infrastructure, paired with batteries, to replace diesel-powered irrigation pumps.

Karla Nemeth, who’s led the water department since she was appointed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018, tweeted back at me with a different message, telling me her agency is “all ears” and “glad this is getting another look.” Lo and behold, I discovered the statement in the Modesto Bee article had been replaced with a new, more positive comment from the water department, saying the agency is “committed to exploring all opportunities to embrace renewable energy to reduce our carbon footprint.”

She told me the State Water Project — a 700-mile system of aqueducts, reservoirs and pumping plants that mostly moves water from the state’s wetter northern reaches to its drier south, and which is California’s single largest electricity user — has a goal of 75% climate-friendly power by 2030. That’s up from 65% currently, much of it hydropower generated at the agency’s dams.

She also said last August’s rolling blackouts highlighted the close connections between California’s energy and water systems, and the need for canal operators to think creatively about how those two systems can work together.

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