Solar Panels Over Water Ways: An Unlikely Duo?

Solar Panels Over Water Ways: An Unlikely Duo?

California is known for battling long periods of drought and water lose. Back in 2015, the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, ordered a 25% reduction in home water use. He also set a goal to get half of the state’s energy from renewable energy sources.

Eight years after this goal was set, the company Solar AquaGrid is finally preparing to break ground on the first solar-covered canal project in the United States. It’s a straight forward idea. All they plan to do is cover water canals with solar panels.

A study by the University of California, Merced estimates that 63 billion gallons of water could be saved by covering California’s 4,000 miles of canals with solar panels. These solar panels could also generate up to 13 gigawatts of power.


The state committed $20 million in public funds to get the project moving. About 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) of canals between 20 and 110 feet wide will be covered with solar panels between 5 and 15 feet off the ground.

The UC Merced team will study impacts ranging from evaporation to water quality, said Brandi McKuin, lead researcher on the study.

Wisdom from Abroad

California isn’t first with this technology. India pioneered it on one of the largest irrigation projects in the world. The Sardar Sarovar dam and canal project brings water to hundreds of thousands of villages in the dry, arid regions of western India’s Gujarat state.

Then-chief minister of Gujarat state, Narendra Modi, now the country’s prime minister, inaugurated it in 2012 with much fanfare. Sun Edison, the engineering firm, promised 19,000 km (11,800 miles) of solar canals. But only a handful of smaller projects have gone up since. The firm filed for bankruptcy.

Moving Forward

Project Nexus may not be alone for long. The Gila River Indian Tribe is receiving funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Act to install solar on their canals in an effort to save water on the Colorado River. And one of Arizona’s largest water and power utilities, the Salt River Project, is studying the technology alongside Arizona State University.

A $25 million provision is being pushed through last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. The push happening in order to fund a pilot project for the Bureau of Reclamation. Project sites for that one is currently being evaluated.


In addition, a group of more than 100 climate advocacy groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace, have now sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Bureau Commissioner Camille Touton urging them “to accelerate the widespread deployment of solar photovoltaic energy systems” above the Bureau’s canals and aqueducts. Covering all 8,000 miles of Bureau-owned canals and aqueducts could “generate over 25 gigawatts of renewable energy — enough to power nearly 20 million homes — and reduce water evaporation by tens of billions of gallons.”

With continued testing and an ever-building momentum, projects like these will be more commonly seen through out the country. If all these researchers can prove their theories correct, it won’t just be energy that will be saved, it will be water.

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