California’s renewable future might see solar panels on canals
63 billion gallons of water saved and 13 gigawatts of solar energy seem like a win-win situation, but not everyone is ready to embrace the idea yet.
TURLOCK, California – For Roger Bales, California’s future could be an icon of renewable energy.
In this vision of the future, he sees trips from Sacramento to Los Angeles in an electric car, where you can stop and charge your car with solar energy generated over some of California’s canals.
“I think it’s really cool … I think it can help people, ‘Yeah, that’s the direction we have to go. We have to have an intelligent infrastructure in place, ”said Bales. “So I think this can have a snowball effect on public education and public appreciation for where we can go in terms of a sustainable future for children.”
The key element to this vision is solar panels over California’s 4,000 mile canal systems. It’s not exactly a new idea, but Bales is one of the few who is behind new research on the subject. In particular, his team got involved in a study to find out if it even made sense to do something like this, and for Bales the answer is, economically speaking, “yes”.
The study said that covering California’s canals with solar panels could save up to 63 billion gallons of water, 13 gigawatts of solar energy, and even some savings on maintenance.
For perspective, Bales said that 13 gigawatts of production capacity accounts for about 1/6 of the state’s total electricity generation, and that 63 billion gallons of water is enough to irrigate 50,000 acres of land or support millions of people.
“The 193,000 acres (63 billion gallons) could serve a city of 2 million people the size of the metropolitan area of Sacramento,” said Bales.
In some ways it is a natural harmony between electrical infrastructure and water infrastructure. Solar panels prevent sunlight from hitting the water, which reduces evaporation, and the water cools the solar panels, which makes them more efficient in generating electricity.
Another added bonus is that power is generated over currently disturbed land, which means no farmland or natural land needs to be converted for power generation.
“We have to think sideways. We need to think creatively about how we can build our infrastructure in a smart way. The combination of the electrical infrastructure with the water infrastructure makes a lot of sense, ”said Bales.
Turlock Irrigation District (TID), a water and electricity company for about 100,000 customers, seems to agree, but they’d like to do a little more research before placing solar panels over their canals.
“It’s something we’ve heard or thought about in the concept, but the study and actually seeing the results brought it back to our attention. We are definitely keen to think further, ”said Josh Weimer, external affairs manager at TID.
TID is currently evaluating locations for a solar project in the district, so the study was fairly timely and the idea of using the existing infrastructure is included in the discussion. While the study shares many accomplishments in undertaking such an effort, Weimer said there is still something to learn.
“It seems like a win-win situation, but there are definitely some things that we would like to investigate a little more closely,” said Weimer. “Of course we just want to make sure we don’t limit our ability to maintain and properly secure our channels, but there is potential …”
The district is reviewing concepts and designs for its 250 mile long canals to see where those concepts might work. It is expected that the Board of Directors will be reached by the end of the year.
Bales added that after UC Merced’s study, a site-specific study and demonstrations would be the next step. The evaporation savings are based on canals covered with solar panels in India.
“When talking to some people who are developing the next generation of solar energy that can cover channels, they say they think they can do a lot more (savings) but we need a demonstration project to really evaluate that because their hypothesis is and we need real data, ”he said.
The Modesto irrigation district appears to be one of the districts in this camp.
“MID continues to be an innovative leader in water management and an advocate of renewable energy in a practical and financially prudent way,” said Samantha Wookey, MID spokeswoman, in a statement to ABC10. “The real application of UC Merced’s work is largely unknown and we look forward to carefully analyzing the results of a potential large-scale application in California.”
The potential for water savings and solar power generation come at a time when California is staring at drought problems and a changing climate.
Christopher Hyun, climate researcher with the State Water Board, said climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of drought, decreasing snow cover and drying up the soil, making the state’s water supplies more vulnerable. He added that temperatures in California are expected to rise significantly in the interior of the state where the sewer network is located.
Bales said that covering all of California’s canals could also result in significant water savings at the local level, as the areas struggle with both wet and dry years.
“We need resilience to survive the dry years and then we have to make the most of the water that comes in the wet years. So increasing the groundwater supply every year can be very important,” he said.
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